The adult education class I’m teaching this summer with church member Mark Schumacher has been especially enjoyable. I love teaching classes at church, but
something about this particular class has me especially revved up and ready to go each week.
One reason of course is Mark. He’s someone I met early on because he was a member of the search committee that brought me to Fort Lauderdale, but we had never taught a class together before. So far as I know, he has no teaching background and no degree in education, but he’s a natural. He knows how to draw out the quieter members of the class – and how to respond firmly to the more talkative members (you know who you are). He’s presenting what is sometimes very difficult material in a way that just about everyone can grasp and respond to.
But the most important reason I’m enjoying myself so much is the subject matter of our class. We’re teaching from Diane Butler Bass’ newest book, Christianity after Religion.
The first few chapters of the book, to be honest about it, are sad. In painful detail Butler Bass describes the decline of the American church over the last 20 years. I was surprised that our class members kept coming back, because the news is not good. People are leaving the American church in droves. At first it was the liberal Protestant churches that were seeing declines, but now the declines are noticeable across the board, Catholic and evangelical Protestant churches too.
Midway through the book, however, Butler Bass makes the case that something good and encouraging might actually be happening. While many people are saying no to church as it has been, they seem to be searching as never before for authentic faith. In other words, they are rejecting religion in favor of something less institutional, less rules-based, less dogmatic, less building-centered, less hierarchical.
In the chapter Mark and I taught last week about Christian practice – how to live out the Christian faith – both of us were struck by a story Butler Bass tells about her own church experience. A few years ago, a church member invited her to join the “altar guild,” a group of people who prepare the communion elements each week for the Lord’s Supper.
According to Butler Bass’ description, the church member said to her, “I’ve been doing it for thirty-five years, and I’m really tired. It is time for someone else to do it instead.”
Not surprisingly, Butler Bass turned down this invitation. Then, later, she wondered “what might have happened” if the woman had asked the question in a different way.
What if, Butler Bass wondered, she had described her habit of waking each Sunday before dawn, arriving to a darkened sanctuary, unlocking the drawers where the linens and silver are kept, and carefully getting them out for use. What if the woman had said, “I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to set the table for Jesus and his friends.”
Butler Bass says that her answer would have been, “Sign me up.”
I actually wept when I read those words.
The difference between the two approaches could not be more stark. The first invitation was an appeal to duty or obligation, nothing all that appealing. But the second invitation would have asked Butler Bass to consider the deeply spiritual aspect of the work, an invitation to participate in the mystery of God.
When I read this story, I thought of all the times I’ve said to church members who had been nominated to be an elder, “Well, it’s only one meeting a month,” when I could have said something like, “As an elder we get to practice life in the kingdom of God.”
Church members who serve on committees and boards and who attend to the institutional life of the church sometimes forget the deeper meaning of what they do. And pastors sometimes forget to name that deeper meaning.
And so it’s time we talked more about that, all of us, because people are surprisingly hungry to hear it – and feel it.