According to a 2010 Gallup poll in 2010, 32 percent of people in the state of Connecticut attend church weekly or nearly every week. The numbers look similar for the rest of New England. In our small Connecticut town, about 60 people show up to church on a typical Sunday, representing close to 2 % of our population. Our other local churches aren’t filling their pews either.
It would be easy for us to join our neighbors and spend those precious Sunday morning hours differently. We could stay in our pajamas and read the paper while the kids watched cartoons. We could take a family hike. We could (and sometimes do) say yes to the birthday parties and soccer games. We could go out for brunch. And we could avoid the ordinary but difficult task of keeping our three wrigglers still and attentive for their thirty-minute stint in the sanctuary.
Most Sunday mornings involve a low level of irritation. Penny, age 8, opens the hymnal and starts reading the words to herself during prayers. William, age 6, lies down on the pew’s red cushion to color, feet behind him in the air. Marilee, age 3, slides off my lap and starts pulling things out of my pocketbook. I try to keep my whispering admonitions calm. I try to pay attention to the Scripture reading, the prayer of confession, the expressions of praise and thanksgiving from the choir. I am often relieved when our kids scamper out of the service to Sunday school, and I am often relieved when we head out the sanctuary doors to a more restful afternoon as a family.
And on those afternoons, I sometimes think it would be easy to abandon church not only for the sake of convenience, but even to abandon church for the sake of spirituality. We take a walk in the woods, and Marilee points out the color of a leaf and asks me if I remember when the angels were singing outside her window. William points to the lichen on a rock and says, “Mom, I think that’s part of the decomposer group. Like a mushroom.” Penny holds my hand and says, “Tell me a story.” The irritation has disappeared. We connect to one another, to the world around us, and it feels easy and peaceful and nice.
And yet we return to our somewhat harrowing Sunday mornings, week after week after week. We go to church because we believe in Jesus, and one way we express that belief is through worship and confession. But we could worship and confess on our own without asking our children to behave themselves. We also go to church because we believe that God is known through the diversity of the people around us—old and young, able-bodied and walking with a cane, rich and poor and in the economic middle, brown skin and white skin and every other color too. We know God better through that diversity of divine expression. And because God is a God of love, of giving and receiving, we know God more fully when we do not only receive, but when we also are asked to give of ourselves. Church asks more of us than our hike in the woods. In time, I believe it gives more to us also.
I know that many people have experienced rejection from the church, and many others feel as though the last thing they can bring to a sanctuary on a Sunday morning is neediness and vulnerability. But because we are one of the only young families in our church, every time we go, we depend upon the grace of the other people around us. They don’t just tolerate our wrigglers, they routinely give thanks, publicly, for these children of ours who could easily be seen as disruptive agents of chaos in an otherwise orderly service. These men and women model God’s grace to us.
I can only hope my children remember our neediness, and the warm welcome we receive when they are older. I cannot predict what my children will believe as they grow up. I know that sitting in the pews cannot guarantee their faithfulness or even their intellectual assent to the creeds of Christianity. But one thing I can predict is that my children will encounter hardship. Their hearts will be broken. Someone they love will die. They will suffer taunts and disappointments and illness. They will experience failure and rejection. My hope and prayer is that at those times, they will remember a place where they were always welcome, a place where the net of God’s faithfulness will catch them as they fall.