Back in my college days, some friends and I decided to spend our Spring Break doing volunteer work. It was cheaper than a beach week, and with the group we gathered, it promised to be just as much fun. When we landed at a small Baptist church in Yuma, Ariz., the elders took one look at our group and put us to work cleaning and organizing. During the last few days, they sent us into nearby neighborhoods to visit with folks and invite them to the church. It is hard to recall those dozens of doors and curbside conversations, but I will never forget the last house we visited.
A middle-aged woman answered our knock and opened the door in a huff. When I asked her if she attended church anywhere, she seemed to take offense. Pointing to the recliner in her living room, she said, “I do not need a church! I sit in that chair on Sundays and hear a TV preacher. That is all the church I need.” And with that, she slammed the door.
I was speechless — not because she was rude, but because I did not have a good reply. She was not rejecting my faith. Even though her claim to faith was rough around the edges, she clearly felt she had made sufficient room in her life for God. What she was rejecting was the idea that she needed to get out of her recliner and make her way to a place and a people called “church.”
As I walked down her driveway, I remember thinking the woman was on to something. What would it be like to keep faith in God without all the fuss of church? No more schedule interruptions on the weekend, just find a convenient time to listen to a sermon and play some faith-filled tunes. You could get that done on a morning commute! No need for church clothes, offering plates, boring announcements or jammed parking lots. No need to bother with people I do not know, or even worse, church people I do not like. The idea grew on me. Maybe I should join her living room church!
Sadly, that woman was not alone in her thinking. Pollsters have seen a clear pattern emerging over the last decade. Americans, long known for their piety, are fleeing organized religion in increasing numbers. The vast majority still believe in God, but the segment that rejects any kind of religious affiliation has risen from six percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014. Among millennials, the figure is a whopping 35 percent. The numbers are loud and clear. “Church,” as we know it, is just not as important to people as it used to be.
Sometimes, I think back to that closed door in Yuma and wonder what, if given another chance, I might say to that woman. I think I would start with, “I get it.” Church can be a headache, and, at times, a heartache. To be honest, even though I have certainly grown in faith and character over the years, I still have plenty of days where I stumble and fall miserably short of what I believe and know is best. I am still sanding off sharp edges of my personality and trying to soften my hardheadedness, but I would not have come nearly this far without the church. And by church, I do not mean a physical building, but the people who have cared for me despite my shortcomings — the people modeling a better way to live.
The truth is, we do not need to go to church to find a “spiritual life.” It turns out, we already have one. James Emery White writes, “We do not need to get a spiritual life. We have a life that is meant to be lived spiritually.” What he means is the things that matter most in our lives are indeed spiritual. When I think of what is most important to me and what I am trying to become, this rings true. My heart is hungry for freedom, love, joy and purpose. I thirst to connect with something or someone bigger than I am. All these things are spiritual values. I have a spiritual life whether I go to church or not. One bit of time-tested wisdom puts it this way: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flows the springs of life.” Translation: the most important things in life are spiritual, so give them the highest priority. Could it be, one of the most important questions we ask and answer is “how am I caring for the spiritual life I already have?”
I believe that is a big part of what church is all about. In church, we help one another nurture and deepen our “life springs.” Luckily, we have wonderful churches in Frisco to help us do just that. There are numerous churches where we find people who care for us and fulfill the needs of our community and world … people who coach us on how to do life better.
I was chatting with a young couple one Saturday evening after our service. Their beautiful one-year-old daughter was propped between them, mindlessly eating CheeriosTM by the handful. It made me think how important it was to watch little ones carefully because they are apt to put all kinds of things in their mouths and try to swallow them. Spiritual kids do that too … swallow all kinds of ideas about themselves, the world and God — ideas that can be toxic and destructive to themselves and others. When the church is working right, we find ourselves surrounded by loving, trustworthy people who provide a dependable, healthy diet for the heart and soul.
The church also provides the spiritual coaching we need to bring about good in this world. I am eternally grateful for the models of faith I find in church — people managing tough circumstances while maintaining their joy … people who live for more than themselves … people who share acquired wisdom gained from years of deep, soulful living. When it comes to developing our children’s raw abilities, we spare no expense on academic tutors and athletic coaches. Even though very few will ever make a career of sports, we want our kids to have every advantage and opportunity to realize their full potential. How much greater is the need for spiritual development?
I think the band Switchfoot is onto something when they sing, “Somewhere we live inside. We want more than this world has to offer; more than the wars of our fathers. We were meant to live for so much more.” I am convinced the church, even with its beautiful human imperfections, helps us live for much more.
As we celebrate 15 years of caring and growing in Frisco, at St. Philip’s, we are grateful to be a part of such a wonderful community of churches and faithful people. We are constantly striving to be one of those places where God’s love and life is experienced and shared. I did not get to tell that woman in Ariz. these things. I hope someone did, but I am glad I have told you. See you at church.
Reverend Greg Methvin is a priest and Rector at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church.