It’s Not About You: finding slow church in a quickie culture

church bank

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.

Goodbye

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.

Vintage gumball machine

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.

No Sale

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.

sulky angry child

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.

Orange alarm clock 3d. Icon. Isolated on white background

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.

Angry boy screaming, demanding something

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.

Demand less.

Relax more.

And know that together, we are preparing to change the world.

Because we’re not making transactions.

We are making commitments.

Amen.

j

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a $aving sort of grace (thoughts on shame and stewardship)

I love this post from UU Robin Bartlett Barraza, about how her family finds God and grace at a UCC church on Sunday afternoons.  Robin’s words evoke the loving embrace of community, a welcome extended not just to herself, but to her children–one of whom is (gasp!) a two-year-old.

How well I know the perils.  And how poignantly I appreciate the gift of welcoming love that my church has given my own family.  This is embodied by the people who talk with my five year old like he’s the adult conversationalist that he thinks he is.  It’s shown by the woman who smiles and laughs when Si, my younger, nitrate-addicted son, approaches eating as performance art–Cave Man Ingests Hot Dog.  It’s taking the time to give Ren the warning he needs to successfully transition between activities in RE.  It’s understanding that Si’s middle name should be Houdini, and taking steps to keep him safe where safety is not a high priority on his own list.  It’s welcoming our family of four with love and joy, even knowing that all of the above is part of the package.

These actions speak louder than mere words of welcome ever could.  And conversely, there are no words that could overcome the sense of not belonging we might have felt were church exclusive to children on their best behavior.  Yet the message, once again, is come as you are; you are welcome here.

I have known, deep in my soul, that this kind of welcome is critical.  As a parent of rambunctious children in a society where the unspoken expectation is constant control,* it is so easy to feel that we are failing where our children prove to be simply, irrepressibly themselves.  I recently read Dr. Brené Brown’s I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), and I now suspect that what we parents sometimes feel in public spaces–and in the mental space between societal expectations and family realities–is shame.  This shame, and the mental and physical paralysis it evokes, can make it hard to even enter a space like church.  It’s hard to walk in the door the first time, and it’s impossible to return for a second visit but for perfection–or grace.  We give that grace through our welcome and our ongoing love, through our third principle commitment to open our arms to people where they are.

I could say more about parental shame and congregational welcome, but for now I’ll leave that to others.  I actually want to talk about another area in which the welcome of radical hospitality and the specter of shame are both at issue: our approach to congregational stewardship.

Money Tree (crassula) growing from a pile of coins.

According to Dr. Brown, we are vulnerable to shame anywhere there’s a gap between an ideal identity–the way we’d like others to perceive us around an issue–and an unwanted identity–the way we fear others may perceive us.  When shame arises, our physiological and emotional responses combine to create a kind of paralysis (with a heavy dose of psychological pain to boot).  This may seem overstated, or, where we acknowledge that it does happen, like an embarrassing overreaction.  It’s important to realize, then, that in our highly relational, wired-for-connection brains, an affront to our standing within social groups is processed the same way a physical threat might be.  Rational thought shuts down, the amygdala takes over, and we make instinctive choices between survival strategies (these are commonly referred to as the “fight or flight responses”).

In short, the pain of shame, and the underlying threat to our relational value, are likely to cause us to react rather than respond.  Our reactions may depend on the situation, but they generally involve moving against, moving toward, or moving away from, the person we are encountering as a shaming stimulus.  Moving against often involves anger, and our own use of shame to attempt to put the person in her place.  A person moving toward makes conciliatory gestures, hoping to be recognized as “same” rather than “other” by the person he’s feeling shamed by.  Finally, moving away from implicates the flight response; if you’ve ever responded to a disagreement by “freezing out” the party with whom you disagree, you may tend toward the “moving away” response.  (Personally, I’m more of a fighter than a flighter; the point of these distinctions, however, is that they are three unique, but equally unhelpful, responses to feeling shamed.)

drooping bud

These reactions can mask underlying feelings and motivations until they are hidden even from ourselves.  Unfortunately, they can also cause tremendous damage to our relationships.  Brown, however, argues that while shame will remain part of our daily lives regardless of the inner work we do, as humans we have the ability to develop “shame resilience.”  This set of strategies, and the self-awareness that underpins them, can allow us to free ourselves from the paralysis of a shaming experience, and to be intentional in our responses to it.

So what does all this have to do with stewardship?  Let’s explore that further; I’ll use my own ideal images around money and church as a starting point.  I want to be a contributor, to pull my weight, to be aware and considerate of those who cannot contribute at this time.  I also want to appear comfortable talking about money–and all of the above without exposing any vulnerabilities that I or my family may have around this issue.  In the area of unwanted identities, I don’t want to be clueless.  I don’t want to be a shirker of responsibilities.  I don’t want to be someone who doesn’t prioritize financial matters appropriately.  And I don’t want to be less fortunate.

In looking over this list, I doubt it’s extremely different from anyone else’s.  Depending on the amount of work we have personally done around this issue, though, and the culture of our individual churches, and our own specific financial circumstances and stressors, it may be difficult to talk openly about these issues without experiencing shame.  In fact, it may be a challenge just to be present while someone else deals with these issues.  I discovered this on a personal level just the other day.

I was preparing to lead a meeting when our minister and another congregant began to talk about their missed connection for their annual pledge conversation.  Quickly, the pair concluded that the best time to talk was right there, right then.  Thus, our minister–her name is Jill—filled out her pledge form there at the table—in front of God and everybody, as it were.  I was taken aback, but planned to politely pretend not to notice.  As it turned out, though, not noticing was not really an option.

Rather than doing the expected thing—no, the decent thing—and finishing the task as discreetly as possible, Jill took the opportunity to think aloud.  She shared the percentage of her salary she wanted to contribute, her intention to pledge at the level that would qualify for this year’s matching incentive, and her rationale for having the conversation publicly.  I asked Jill about that exchange before beginning to write this post; she confirmed that the structure and content of the public conversation was intentional.  Our minister is actively choosing to use and model the strategies that might allow us to have honest congregational conversations about money.

During this conversation, I used some strategies of my own.  Shaming strategies, to be precise.  I used them to communicate discomfort, to place the blame for that feeling with someone else, and to attempt to relegate both the conversation and my feelings about it to some other space.

Just let me know when we're done talking about this . . .

Just let me know when we’re done talking about this . . .

A key component of shame resilience is compassion–the ability to extend grace to others and to ourselves.  In that spirit, I will share with you that I think my reaction was understandable: I had never seen a conversation like this take place, I had done very little work around my own discomfort with money, and the multiple boundaries and power differentials inherent in the group, and in the conversation, only compounded my unease.  In my anxiety–rooted, I now see, in shame, which I wanted to be on someone else’s plate and not my own–I laughed, teased, and then disconnected from the conversation, waiting for it to be over.  In short, I employed the “moving against” strategy–YOU are not normal; YOU are doing something wrong–followed by “moving away from”–disengaging to prevent the conversation from affecting me.

Understanding this doesn’t change my desire to do things differently next time; in fact, it’s the only thing that might make intentional action possible.  In the meantime, we, like churches everywhere, are in the midst of a much larger conversation, one that has the potential to be empowering, transformative, bold, missional . . . and extremely uncomfortable.  That conversation is the one we have each year at the whole-church level, and even denominationally, around stewardship.

What does this larger conversation look like in our churches . . . and how could it look?  Where is shame involved?  (Because it is, friends.  It is.)  And how do we offer grace in the stewardship context–to our fellow congregants, to our finance committees and our governing boards, to our ministers  . . . to ourselves?  How do we extend the same welcome to all, and simultaneously acknowledge the reality that 1. it costs money to do what we do, and 2. that money is going to come from each of us unequally?

Perhaps it is a falsehood even to try to separate money and church; what we give and what we ask for are inextricably connected.  In American culture, we use money to value one another, which blinds us to reality–and we refuse at the same time to acknowledge the cost of things, which also blinds us to reality.  If money is simultaneously a gilded idol and the elephant in the room, it’s understandably confusing, perhaps nowhere more than within our sacred spaces, to talk about it openly.  And so, again, shame comes into play.  And in helping to frame the conversation, in choosing how we respond to it, we contribute to a culture of shame . . . or we help to lift it.

As with so many other things at church, I have mixed feelings about my own role.  Would I be willing to give a three-minute testimonial about what church–this church, my church–means in my life?  Absolutely.  And if I hear a whisper of “$ell it, girl!” in the request, does that change anything?  To wield my words with honesty, do I need to know–and do my listeners need to know–whether the directive was speak from your heart, or $peak from your heart?

Looking at more concrete questions, do we need to know, as someone recently posed in a congregational discussion of stewardship, what percentage of our members are non-pledgers?  We are also aware that a very small handful of families (and disclosure: mine isn’t one of them) are currently financially supporting much, much more than their “fair share”–do we need to know who those families are?  Do I need to know how my minister makes her pledging decision for the year?  Does she need to know how I reach my own decision?

I don’t know.  What I do know is that we have big dreams–the kind that cost.  What I also know is that there is a great potential for shame inherent in every facet of this discussion . . . and that we must balance that with grace and compassion if we want to maintain church as a safe space.  This is true for our members, for our first-time visitors . . .  and for the family who’s afraid to come to church between March and May because it’s been a very difficult year and they’re afraid to say the words–to admit that this year, they just can’t.

As always, I’d love to hear your take.

j

*You perhaps question this. As an undergrad I studied abroad in Sweden; the differences in outlook are beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say, Swedish children make my sons seem sedate.  And despite the society having been structured with them in mind; despite being permitted to run amok on planes and trains, in IKEA, in the public squares, Swedish children grow up to be some of the most kind, considerate and well-mannered adults I have ever met.  In spending time with these children, and in this other society, I gained some perspective about our own–we are not, myself included, so removed as we may think from the “seen and not heard” vision of childhood.