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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The church as portal

There is story being carried by the secular press about a Roman Catholic priest in Milwaukee who has begun an “experiment,” he says, to increase attendance at Mass.

Parents who have their children enrolled as students in the parish school must sign an agreement to attend seven out of ten church services or be “fined” 10% of their total tuition for their absence. If the covenant is kept, there is a 10% reduction in tuition as a reward.

The reporter said that a recent survey reveals that 40% of those who do not attend church on a regular basis report the reason for this is that the church service was “irrelevant” to the rest of their lives. Another 15% said they found the service “boring.”

As I listened to this middle-aged, kind-looking cleric, speaking confidently and calmly from the front pew of the church, he gently added that his real concern is to influence a new generation of Roman Catholics, the children of these adult members, about the importance of weekly church attendance. The camera then panned to an elderly member of the church who laughed and said, “When we were kids, we were told that if we didn’t go to weekly mass, we were going straight to hell. I think this is a great improvement.”

The report ended with the note that the good Father has made allowances for summer vacation: the church bulletin of the church they visited may be brought in as evidence of attendance.

Okay, everybody, you can take a deep breath. I’m not going to repeat that kind of experiment at St. Paul's.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t share the good Father’s concern.

To be honest, I don’t know another priest or ordained minister in almost every religious denomination – Christian, Jew and Muslim – who hasn’t spent some part of their summer vacation scratching their head and asking, “Well, attendance hasn’t been that bad, but how can I make it even better? What incentive will entice even more people to attend? How can I make the service/sermon/music more relevant to the increasing complex realities of life in the third millennium and yet retain the timeless inspirational beauty and heritage of our religious tradition?”

To be honest, I, too, am deeply concerned about influencing a new generation of Christians, the children of our adult members, about the importance of weekly church attendance.

Let me explain. I’m really not interested in securing the next generation of church members because I want the church to continue to exist – although, that is important to me as well. To use a metaphor from computer technology, I have come to see what we do together in Sunday worship as a “portal” of sorts.

For those few of you who don’t use a computer in this way, a portal is just what you think it might be – it’s an entrance or a gateway. In cyberspace, this means that you begin on one website. From there, you then are able to click on a link to another website. Once there, you can click on another link which becomes yet another portal into more information and other realities. Once you are at a portal in cyberspace, you have unlimited access on what has been referred to as “the information super highway” – the contents of which are only a mouse click away.

I’d like to think that church is a portal of another sort – one that leads to the portal of community. From there, you can link or “click” with other members, who become for you (and you for them) other portals into more information and other realities.

Once you are at a portal into the realities of the community of Christ – both pragmatic and spiritual – the relationships you have with others in community will lead you to places of service – mission/outreach and ministry – which places you on a path toward reconciliation with ourselves, each other and God – what our Catechism reminds us is the mission of the church.

And all of it – each and every one of us – is a portal into the deepest and most mysterious reality of all: God as we know God, inspired by the Holy Spirit and incarnate in Christ Jesus. ff

I don’t know a better incentive to make the effort to come to church each Sunday. No one here is going to fine you if you don’t attend seven out of ten times. Neither is anyone going to give you a financial incentive to lead by example for your children.

Author Elizabeth Gilbert, in her enormously popular book, ‘Eat, Pray, Love,’ puts it this way, “Life’s metaphors are God’s instructions.

As we begin this new program year 2007 – 2008, I urge you to consider this image of the portal. How are you a doorway for others? How are others an entrance that leads you into a deeper awareness of God’s presence in your life? How is the church a gateway into the path of reconciliation and renewal, that we might all find our way back to Eden?

See you in church!


Bill said...

I think it’s a sad statement that they resort to coercion to get people to attend. It’s even more sad that some feel it’s a good idea. Something is drastically wrong. People come to church to love and worship God. When they don’t come it’s usually because something is driving them away. In my case it was church policies on certain issues. That was my reason but I’m sure that other people have their own. Many times when you tell people that they have to do something (otherwise it’s a sin) they dig their heels in and refuse. Whatever the reason, the trick is to make people want to come, not force them against their will. Maybe a policy of “we love you” is not such a bad thing. Maybe saying “ Please come as you are. You are welcome at the altar and we don’t care about your politics or sexual preferences. Just come because we love you.” But then, I was ever the romantic.

Liz+ said...

The most recent "reason" I have heard for not coming to Sunday services is that the front of the church is not clean enough and the grounds are messy. Neither is true, but as this particular person clearly stated, the rector's standards are obviously quite low.

That was definitely a new one for me.