My husband and I fumbled toward regular church attendance like awkward teenagers might feel their way to third base. We were shy and shamefaced, almost desperate to connect with the larger something we’d heard through the grapevine that we might find here. But we wanted to find that something without attracting attention or admitting ignorance, and certainly without rearranging anything else in our lives. And so, on certain Sundays, we tended to fall into the event, crashing through the doors late, without planning or ceremony, and often still arranging errant pieces of clothing.
Other weeks we didn’t make it at all; we’re not exclusive, you know? We have lives. You understand. Also, we had very little stamina for a long and slow build up. Give us what we want, now, so we can get out of here.
And yet eventually, we became one with that community anyway. They were just so . . . loving. But the blending, on our end, was mostly incidental and accidental—because our focus, of course, was on meeting our own needs.
And the weeks and months passed. And sometimes: we felt satisfied.
Mostly, though, we didn’t. Something is missing, we began to whisper to each other.
And since we knew that something wasn’t in us, then the problem, clearly, lay with the church.
Something was wrong with this congregation. It’s you, church. It has to be you.
And so, we did the rational thing:
We prepared to leave.
We attended even less, checked out emotionally, and pulled back on our financial contributions. We talked about alternatives, and began, slowly, to scope them out. Neighboring cities? Neighboring denominations?
Somewhere, there has to be a match for us. A soul mate. A congregation that’s going to understand us, and put our needs first.
And yes, while the breakup felt inevitable, we admit we did feel a tiny bit resentful. We tried hard, you see. A restaurant that provided unsatisfying service might not even earn a second visit, but you, church—
You’ve provided partial satisfaction and incomplete joy for years and we kept giving you another chance. I mean, if anything, you owe us.
We travel a lot as a family, and during this time, going to church in the cities we visited became a guilty pleasure. Each congregation visited was a fling before the final separation—walking in to those new spaces was unfamiliar, sometimes a bit uncomfortable—and also, exhilarating. The world was full of so many possibilities, many with features we only dreamed of back home.
Which is how we found ourselves in a spare white chapel in St. Louis. The minister, herself a visitor to the congregation, paused in the liturgy to raise a hand heavenward, then sweep it from side to side, insisting that the assembled congregation take note of the many still-standing visitors gathered at the back of the chapel, scoot away from the aisles to make space, and then raise their hands, fingers extended to indicate how many seats for newcomers they had adjacent.
See? We thought. You can do these things better.
Thus accommodated, we settled into our seats and awaited our portion of self-satisfaction.
And received, instead, a smack upside the head. Figuratively, of course.
Because the Rev. Margret O’Neall was there to speak to us about consumer culture, and what it looks like when we bring it to church.
We are steeped in something that is the very antithesis of an authentic religious experience. It is invisible, and it is everywhere—as seamless a part of our daily lives as the air we breathe.
That something is consumerism. In fact, we might even go so far as to call consumerism a national religion (establishment clause notwithstanding) in this 21st century moment—and we carry its sacred expectations right into our faith communities.
And friends: it doesn’t work well.
I hope that in the course of your own religious life there are at least a few sermons that you gratefully carry—the feelings, the moment of awakening—for years after hearing them.
This was one for my family; the moment when we realized that we weren’t satisfied because we cannot consume community. That we were unsure where else to turn because we can’t purchase wisdom and depth. And that we need the flawed, frustrating collective because as humans, we are not wired to individually find our way to gratitude, love, or healing.
And yet, if we’re not self-reflective about our intentions in our communities of faith, we are likely to approach our churches like satisfaction vending machines. And in so doing, we deny ourselves and our communities the opportunity for real change.
The thing is, transformation doesn’t always feel good. Sharing time, space, and resources often isn’t a warm and fuzzy experience in the immediate moment. Further, growth is hard, and maturity is demanding, and our dreams are expensive—and in ways that exact costs from each of us.
In consumer culture, when things get tough, we learn the lesson; we don’t buy that experience anymore. We simply vote with our dollars and with our feet. Society says that’s the rational response, and mostly, it works ok.
But it doesn’t work in our faith communities.
We are used to being handed things in exchange for payment. So how should we be when we are instead in a place that focuses not on serving us, but on seeing us?
Friends, we need to give more, come always, and ask less. And then—amazingly, countintuitively—then things get magical.
My people, what is happening—what is on offer in the smorgasboard of plenty of your local church—is nothing short of transformation. You will be nourished. You will be changed. And eventually, you will grow, and in ways that will add richness and depth to your life, even as you help to add those qualities for many others.
But, get this: like the watched pot that never boils, this alchemy cannot happen while your focus is on YOU. On what YOU need. On what YOU get.
So what might an alternative look like?
Let’s consider one example at issue as our churches work to expand Sunday morning programming, that we might do more than merely scratch the surface: our time investment on the Sabbath.
A quick in-and-out Sunday experience may be our goal . . . but why? And what happens if we take a deep breath and lean in to experience Sunday, at least the mornings, as a time FOR church? As a day in which church is not standing between you and your lawn, but a covenantal gathering standing for something larger, and of which we are gratefully a part?
I have many friends active in the LDS church, and recently, one of them posted on Facebook about having had “2-hour church” that day—a rare event due to severe weather. Usually, you see, they stay longer. Of this particular event, my friend shared, “I’m a fan, but it did feel like a waste of mascara.”
I laughed . . . and then I thought about us. By which I mean the Unitarian Universalists I know and love, and also quite a few others of us who hail from the mainline Christian tradition.
I thought about our tendency to literally watch the minutes tick by anytime we’re approaching the one-hour mark in a worship service. And about our sense that, “It was too long” is meaningful feedback for a minister—or for ourselves—in reference to a worship service that took 15 hours to create, and which lasted for one hour and five minutes.
Friends, we think two-hour church is a waste not of mascara, but of our morning.
Why is that?
Because we are so unbelievably overscheduled that adding even one more hour will tip the balance of quality of life for the worse?
Because we can be certain that we will get nothing of consequence out of the worship or religious education being offered during a second hour?
Or is it, perhaps, because we believe both of the above propositions because of a third thing: because in our minds we have walked not through the door of a church, but a vending machine. Church is a spot for a quick hit, one we can attend without breaking stride in the rest of the weekend.
And thus, we’re here for this food and that sermon and this nursery and that group but not this other stuff. Don’t make us touch these things. Don’t ask us to sit through them, or think about them, and heavens, no, we’re not going to pay for them.
GIVE US WHAT WE WANT, OR WE’LL GO SOMEWHERE THAT WILL.
Here’s the thing. You can approach church that way. Also, parenting—I read an essay recently from a mother and father who, before the birth of their son, signed a contract with one another dividing up nights and duties and days off, treating their child like a job. (Unsurprisingly, that approach turned out not to be great for their child or their marriage.) But my people, the satisfaction you seek will not be yours. Not at church, not on the “give me what I pay for” path.
When we begin our church journey convinced that we don’t have enough of what we need, and proceed by trying to stake a claim to whatever that is, and then by grabbing as much as we can, we are indeed indulging in worship.
We are worshiping scarcity.
And that falls right in line with that dominant culture, the water in which we swim.
As long as this is as close as we get to sacrificial spiritual practice, our church life is a waste . . . and not of mascara. It is a waste of potential. A squandering of days. A sacrifice of life-force.
Do you want your faith to be something more than a fashion statement?
Then your church needs to be more than a vending machine.
And so I invite you, as a spiritual practice, to try a different way on Sundays.
Show up. Breathe. Be.
And know that together, we are preparing to change the world.
Because we’re not making transactions.
We are making commitments.