July 6, 2021
Letter to the Editor
Bill Leonard recently wrote about Samuel S. Hill Jr., who in 1960 wrote: “The heart of the matter is that the ministry of the churches is ever more irrelevant to persons in the new society.” And Leonard added: “Sobering words, increasingly self-evident in the empty pews of 2021.”
I would add two things: First, there are still old-time, regular churchgoers who go out of tradition, habit and in many ways find real value in their church membership and attendance. We make friends, find service opportunities and enjoy study and discussion classes that speak to our lives and needs. Second, many, if not most, non-churchgoers just don’t feel or see the need for all that. If we could but get them into church once and show them what’s there for them, they might give it a try — or at least a closer look.
My Methodist church is very active in community service, with perhaps a dozen areas of outreach and service. We take “prayer shawls” to hospital patients; we support teachers in local elementary schools with supplies, luncheons and tutors. We fund several local agencies that deal with homelessness and poverty. Much of this is paid for by our “Rise Fund,” which depends on extra giving by members.
Now, if we get someone into a Sunday school class, we’d best not be discussing Moses, Noah, Leviticus or Revelation with all that arcane, essentially irrelevant material. Nor the journeys of Paul as a missionary or old Jewish customs about life and religion. No, better a study of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount with values for living today and forever; a discussion of a contemporary, immediate issue in the news and the Christian response to it; personal testimony from older and younger members as to how church affects their lives.
I had a student whose volunteer assignment was visiting individuals in a care center. He ended up playing checkers with an old guy once a week and thought his work of little meaning — until the old guy died and he was the only person at his funeral. There’s just no way to measure the impact of such an experience or to do more to make church work relevant to today.
“We don’t need churches that major in judgment, division and hatred.”
Churches can do what individuals alone cannot do. Who can arrange a weekly study group for gay adults in Dallas? Or a divorce recovery program or an AA meeting place? Well, my church can. I’ve taught the class for 35 gay men with nowhere else to be. I couldn’t fit them into my living room, but the church took them in.
We don’t need churches that major in judgment, division and hatred. We need (and have) churches that always speak of love, unity and mutual respect and welcome all to everything the church has to offer. We need churches to move away from arcane theological arguments and speculative sermons on Revelation and talk about life today — our society and how we can serve it. We need to greet people at the front door and ask what they want today and them take them to it. We need to follow up with a phone call, perhaps a visit to show them we are serious about them and their needs.
I once visited a huge Baptist church for a dinner of parents of deaf children. After dinner, we gathered in the sanctuary and the senior pastor (who looked a lot like Moses) came out and welcomed us and invited us to church Sunday. He said, “This is a big place and if you get lost, ask one of those deacons with a badge. We have a lot here for people, and if we don’t have what you need, tell us and we’ll get it for you.” Whoever heard that anywhere at any gathering? That’s “real church” for you.
Paul Magee, Dallas