Church is other people, a worshiping community. The worship, or praise of God, does not take place only when people gather on Sunday morning, but when they gather to paint the house of an elderly shut-in, when they visit someone in the hospital or console the bereaved, when the Sunday-school kids sing Christmas carols at the nursing home. If a church has life, its "programs" are not just activity, but worship. And this is helpful, because if the Sunday-morning service falls flat, it is the other forms of worship that sustain this life. When formal worship seems less than worshipful—and it often does—if I am bored by the sheer weight of verbiage in Presbyterian worship—and I often am—I have only to look around at the other people in the pews to remind myself that we are engaged in something important, something that transcends our feeble attempts at worship, let alone my crankiness.

During the six years I lived in Manhattan following college, I was surrounded by churches but rarely went into one. But after I moved to my grandparents' small town, I began attending my grandmother's church in much the same way that I had begun inhabiting her kitchen. At first, it was an exercise in nostalgia; the place itself seemed only partly mine. And when I finally joined the church, I could pretend that I wasn't doing it for me so much as for the pastors, a clergy couple who had become good friends.

Like so many clergy in the western Plains during the mid-1980s, they had been blindsided by the onset of an extreme economic downturn. Small-town people don't like to face trouble head-on; we tend to shove unpleasantness under the rug. While this seems to make it easier for us to get along, it does not work well as a form of conflict management, ...

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