Offer these prayers each day this week. They have both been set to music, so feel free to sing along:
I am weak but Thou art strong; Jesus, keep me from all wrong;
Thro’ this world of toil and snares,
When my feeble life is o’er, Time for me will be no more; Guide me gently, safely o’er
Day by day, day by day, O, dear Lord, three things I pray:
The prayer of
Finding the center
Monday, August 13, 2018
Just a closer walk with thee
Last week, my attention was directed to a Pew Research report, dated August 1. It explored why Americans do or don’t go to religious services. It’s timely material for any of us in mainline denominations who note dramatic decline in membership. Gatherings of clergy often brim with anxiety about these trends, without a clear understanding of how to respond. Over the years, my own response has involved streamlining services, trying to be more contemporary, working on extravagant welcome, providing free parking, serving really good coffee. I wish I’d known about this research.
The Pew research report put it this way. More than any other reason, people say that they attend religious services in order to get closer to God. A majority report that when they attend services, they do indeed experience that greater closeness.
I want to hold that report along side another bit of research, a Gallup poll published last April, which asked what people wanted when they came to church. A quote from that report: “What was the top reason people gave for why they attended worship? Music? Volunteer opportunities? Nope. The top response was sermons. “Sermons or talks that teach you more about scripture” and “Sermons or lectures that help you connect religion to your own life” were nearly tied at 76% and 75% respectively.” People want to grow in their relationship with God. Duh.
I’ve participated in church services, indeed I’ve presided at church services that made me feel closer to God. I will also confess that I’ve participated in and presided at services that I suspect made God feel more distant, for me and others. Sometimes we just bore people.
So think this week about what it might mean to be closer to God. What does that look like? When in your life have you made movement towards that closer relationship with God? What caused that to happen? Was church part of that experience?
I don’t have the street cred of Pew Research, but here’s my own anecdotal reporting after talking with a lot of Episcopalians. The most common answer that I get for what drew people closer to God was some experience of suffering or crisis. In those times, people turned to the community for support and guidance, peace and prayers, teaching of ancient wisdom.
Ironically, when I ask what caused God to feel more distant, I could get the same answer. Suffering or crisis. I served in Manhattan in 2001. We noted an uptick in attendance after 9/11, a sign that people were looking to get closer to the Holy One in the midst of things beyond understanding. As parish priest, aware of who showed up on Sundays, I also noticed a number of people who stopped coming to church because their loss felt too great.
To move closer to God means to know God better. It’s about relationship. When the church is living into its vocation, doing what it is called to do, being what it is called to be, it provides pathways for this kind of spiritual growth, this kind of connection. The church can also get in the way. I’m personally wrestling right now with the ways that church leaders (including yours truly) fall short, leaders who disappoint, leaders who get in the way of spiritual growth.
So perhaps in spite of the foibles of clergy (again, yours truly included), we are called to focus on what helps people grow closer to God. Take this week to imagine what that might be for you. Ask God to show you what a next step might look like. Then dare to take that step.
Here are links to the two research reports cited in this column:
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.