This week, I've been in conversation with many clergy people, both in person and via the internet. There seems to have been a theme running through many of these conversations:
"Where were the people last Sunday?"
This is often quickly followed by the next hand-wringing question:
"What can we do to get people to come to church?"
Now, never mind that last Sunday was Mother's Day, and, in Tallahassee, at least, it was a beautiful sunny day, and most moms in this day and age want to get an extra hour of sleep rather than schlep children to church. But the fact that women who are married with children didn't come out in droves to church is cause to bring back the tired topic of, "Why are people not going to church?"
There are lots of books out there to help priests and pastors figure out how to fill their pews. I see articles posted on listserves with ideas and helpful hints, or what one chuch has done in its local context to draw all kinds of people into the sanctuary. But, usually, the articles are just more hand-wringing. For those who draw a paycheck from the church, I imagine this all-consuming topic is based upon the fear that if people stop coming to church on Sunday, then, perhaps, it's a sign that their job is becoming obsolete. And nobody wants to face the prosepect of losing a job in this economy.
Again, I'm reminded of how amazing it is that I have encountered this conversation in so many places during this week where we are, in the church calendar, suspended between the jaw-dropping moment of Christ's ascension to be seated at the right-hand of God, and the mighty fiery wind of the grand entry of the Holy Spirit blowing into our lives to keep us on our toes for next half of the year. They call these next several weeks "Ordinary Season." (I'm still wondering what's so "ordinary" if you are tuned in and paying attention to what's going on around you.) Anyway, here we are in this in-between time, and everyone seems to be spinning in circles about "the numbers." Did the collect not talk about "Do not leave us comfortless..."? How quickly we are thrown into a tizzy because a bunch of women of child-bearing age didn't show up to church!
So many of these discussions I see as totally fruitless and pointless and ignoring the fact that there were people in church who may, or may not, be mothers. And my attitude, as one not dependent on the church giving me an income, is, "Was God blessed and praised? Did the people who were there hear the Good News and did they taste and see that God is good?" If the answer to those two questions is, "Yes," then there is no reason to keep chasing the imaginary tail of where were all the missing moms. Furthermore, if we're so concerned with knowing why people don't come to church on any particular Sunday, shouldn't we be looking to see what their needs are rather than assuming that we, the Church, know what's good for them and it's us? Not only is that an arrogant attitude; it's the product of an ego-driven approach to spirituality. The ego will want the individual to believe that somehow, he or she has "the answer" for other people instead of listening to the other people and meeting them where they are, not where we think they ought to be.
All of this comes to the point of what I see as the big deal this Pentecost. We need the Holy Spirit to blow its fire into our world and consume our egos and our fears. Quit looking for gimmicks to get people to come through the door as if some human-based endeavor is going to make someone want to come listen to platitudes that have nothing to do with their every day lives. All the re-imagining and re-engineering and cure-all books out there mean nothing if those who are preaching and receiving the Word still believe that they somehow are responsible for God's working God's purpose out. The one and only job, as I see it, for a priest at the Sunday service is to do the work of being the maitre d'; the chef, who is the host of the meal, will provide the food for thought, and the inner change in the heart of the individual.
I know for me, I feel myself preparing to enter into the furnace as the Spirit continues its work of forging and forming and shaping me for the next steps in this journey. The Alchemist has been pounding out the rough edges, and is in the process of adding some new contours to this work-in-progress that is me. Just as the leadership of the churches needs to let go of the ego and allow the flames of Pentecost to burn up their fears, so, too, must I surrender to trusting that the fire will refine me, but not destroy me. Burn, baby, burn.