How to Case a Church, Part I: Sunday Morning

2007 September 16
by Rev. Patrick ONeill

A Sermon By Rev. Dr. Patrick T. O’Neill
Delivered at First Unitarian Congregation Society of Brooklyn, NY
Sunday September 16, 2007


READING:  ”To Find the Missing Part” by Rev. Ralph Helverson 

 ”We go to church in expectancy, to find the missing part, to relate to what we can never explain, to live with unanswerable questions.

 We go to church because we are looking for something of life’s fulfillment, a fleeting sense that we wish to make life whole, to find the point of our existence, what the great religions have called God.

 We go to church because we’re looking for fellowship, a community where we think of helping one another rather than exploiting one another.

 We go to church seeking composure to face a world of confusion with its many problems, and predicaments to be faced over and over in life, calling for courage and decision.

 We go to church to find the strength to go the second mile, to offer forgiveness, to make amends, to find the good with the evil, the healing beyond the hurt, to rise again after we have fallen.

 We go to church to find anew the vision of what life may be…..”

 It happens that this week falls during the observance in Jewish tradition of the Days of Awe, the high holy days of Judaism, commemorating the eternal religious themes of the Opening of the heavenly Book of Life, the inward accounting of every soul for one’s relationship to others and to the Eternal; the deep reverencing of human obligations before God.

Yamim Noraim is the Hebrew name for the “Days of Awe,” the ten days between Rosh ha-Shanah (the first day of the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  These are the most sacred days in the Jewish calendar.  For Jews, these ten days are the time of Teshuvah, the time of re-turning one’s consciousness and one’s orientation toward God and toward one’s truest self.

Yamim Noraim.  Awesome days.  A yearly time to contemplate one’s past, to wonder about the future, and to pray that we will still be here a year hence, to do the same thing all over again.  Jewish theologian Arthur Green calls these days, “the Jew’s annual confrontation with mortality, a time to pinch oneself and say, ‘Thank God I’m still alive!’”  (see Green’s Forward in Days of Awe, edited by S.Y. Agnon, Shocken Books, New York, 1965.)

Some two centuries ago the Hasidic Rabbi Judah Leib wrote that “the human heart is a tablet on which God writes.  Each of us has the word Life engraved in our hearts by God’s own hand.  Over the course of the year, that engraving comes to be covered with grit.  Our sins, our shortcomings, the very pace at which we live, all conspire to blot out that word Life that still lies written deep within our hearts. 

“So, on Rosh ha-Shanah,” the Rabbi continues, “we ask God to write that word — Life L’Chaim– once again, and to seal it up on Yom Kippur, so that the sensation of being truly alive may not depart from us through the entire year.”  (Days of Awe, p.xi)  Good practice for us all, indeed.

In Unitarian Universalism, we hold that religious truth and wisdom are the heritage of many religious traditions around the world and down through the ages.  It is our tendency to suggest that this tired and conflicted world of ours has had quite enough of all the  theologies that divide and separate us one from another, believers from non-believers, the saved from the unsaved, this tradition versus that tradition.  Where have all these “theologies of separation” brought us?  Unitarian Universalism makes bold to suggest that perhaps the world would be better served – and better healed, better inspired, better blessed – by the conscious effort to live instead by an intentional “heresy of connection,” a credo of inclusion, that seeks to hold up and celebrate the Good, the True, and Beautiful and the Best in all religions.

We well realize that this kind of “theology of Connection” is not an approach you will find in very many houses of worship this morning, either in our culture as a whole, or here in our own city.  But this is the theology that has been the hallmark of this proud pulpit for 175 years now, and we believe it is a religious approach that more and more people in our time are thirsting for and searching for.

Do you know that if this Sunday is like any typical Sunday in the United States, more than 80 million people will take themselves out to church this morning?  And of those 80 million folks going to church today, a fair percentage of them (about 1 in 5) are visiting a new congregation for only the first or second time.  They’ve moved to a new town, or they’ve decided to try a new congregation, or they’re exploring a new faith for themselves for whatever reasons.  

And wouldn’t it be interesting if we could poll all those religious explorers this afternoon and find out just what they experienced in their new congregations today?  Wouldn’t it be interesting to learn what they found, what they learned, what inspired them, moved them, turned them on, turned them off, what made them want to come back next week, what made them want to flee forever from the congregations they visited?

Clergy are always worrying about this kind of thing, but we’re not the only ones apparently.  There was a rather damning article a few years back published by a woman who decided to rate various churches on her own scale.  She visited 18 churches of various denominations on successive Sundays to find out what they were really like.  She always sat near the front, she walked slowly around after the service, she smiled and acted friendly, she dressed neatly.  She spoke to someone.  She stayed for coffee.  This is the rating scale she used:

She gave 10 points for a smile from a fellow worshipper

10 points for an actual greeting 

100 points for an exchange of names 

200 points for an invitation to stay for coffee 

200 points for an invitation to return 

1000 points for an introduction to another person 

1000 points for an introduction to the minister 

Based on this scale, 11 of the 18 churches she visited earned – would you believe it? – fewer than 100 points.  Five of the 18 churches received less than 20 points! (Remember, you get 10 points just for a single smile!)  She concluded: the churches principles may be relevant, the music most inspirational, the sermon uplifting, but contact with you is the most important factor of all in making visitors feel welcome at church.

Some twenty-five years ago, my old mentor in ministry, Dr. Peter Raible at University Unitarian Church in Seattle where I was ordained, wrote an underground guidebook for UU ministers called, “How to Case a Church.”  Over time it became something of an in-house classic, but it was originally written specifically to help UU ministers in their job search.  

It gives suggestions on how to assess a healthy church institution, how to interview with pulpit search committees, what to look for in reading a church budget sheet, very technical and practical things mostly, written from a professional minister’s point of view.

I’ve often thought, though, that a similar guide on “How To Case a Church” would be very helpful for non-professional church people who are genuinely in search of a church of their own.  I don’t mean a technical guide – though that would be helpful for Board members and committee Chairs to understand.  But I mean rather a kind of Primer of sorts, to help people read what’s really going on when they visit a new church, what to look for, how to read the signs, or the warning signs and caveats that might assist them in finding just the right kind of church.  This morning I offer you Part I of my Primer: What to look for when you visit a church on Sunday morning.

Because let’s face it, it’s hard to walk in cold to a church where you’ve never been before, where you don’t know anyone.  You don’t really know what you’re going to find, you don’t know the protocols or the customs or the traditions of the place.  You don’t even know how to dress for the occasion: is this a formal, coat-and-tie kind of place, or a come-as-you-are kind of church, or something in between?

First of all, unless you have a lot more chutzpah and ego-strength than most, probably your first visit to any new church will tend to be a quick-in/quick-out reconnaissance mission.  You’re probably not planning to stay for coffee after the service.  You’ll probably dress moderately, you’ll look for a seat somewhere not too far from a door, preferably on the end of a row, to allow for a fast exit if necessary.  The last thing you want to experience in a strange church is feeling like you are captive!

Well, let’s say that for whatever combination of reasons known only to yourself, that this is the Sunday morning you decided to check out a new church.  And so you show up at, say, First Unitarian in Brooklyn, for the first time.  You found us on the internet after you noticed our really cool  new banner going by on Pierrepont Street.  Looked safe enough from the outside, the sermon title was intriguing, so you’ve come to give it a shot.

Maybe you’re new in town and you’re looking for a religious community to replace the one you left behind in Wisconsin.  Or maybe the Lutheran faith you grew up in and attended for years out there in Oshkosh no longer feels authentic and honest as an expression of what you currently believe in or value at this time in your life.  Maybe for reasons you don’t totally understand yourself, you’ve changed over the years, you’ve grown in some new directions, taken some unexpected pathways, become somewhat different from that person you used to be who felt comfortable in another kind of church.

Maybe you haven’t been to church or temple for years, except for your nephew’s wedding last spring, or the occasional funeral for a friend – because religion just hasn’t felt like a priority or a pressing need for you, or church just hasn’t appealed to you, or you’ve never really felt like a very “religious” person most of the time.  You work a lot of hours every week, (who doesn’t in this city?) and Sunday’s a nice day to sleep in, read the NY Times, and retreat from the world a little bit.

But this morning you decided on the spur of the moment to take yourself to church.  You’ve flirted with the idea for a few weeks, but today’s the day.  Maybe this time in your life is for joy and celebration.  Maybe it’s a time of new beginnings in your life.  Or maybe this is a hard time in your life, and you’ve been carrying a hidden pain or sorrow or a sadness, and for some reason, in response to that, you were drawn to church today.

And so you here, not knowing this group of people, not knowing this minister, not knowing what you would find here exactly, except that you harbor a small hope, a trust that church is a place where you can bring your feelings and your concerns and your private hurts, where you can hopefully regain some sense of wholeness and balance again, some sense of grounding that will carry you through the week to come.  Some sense of connection with other people, with the Sacred, with the Holy, with the Gracious center of life.

It’s a lot to ask of a one-hour investment, but that’s what you hope to get out of this Sunday morning expedition to a new church.  Some time in this hour, perhaps in a moment of prayer, or a moment of inspiration from the spoken word or the beauty of the music or in the shared raising of our voices in a hymn with others – or just in a quiet moment of sitting amidst these good folks, maybe you lit a candle, maybe you said a quiet prayer while no one was looking – you hope to be affected by this experience, you hope to be touched, lifted, brightened, centered.

You probably grew up with the notion that church is where people come to find God, and if you are like most people in our time the God that you grew up with seems an ever-more-distant and ever-more-mysterious concept here in the 21st century.  The great irony and mystery may be that the God of the 21st century can only be understood when the theological certainties and iron-bound dogmas of the past give way to entirely new insight.  We may discover that the God who is sought after in every church and temple is, as Alice Walker puts it,  the God we bring with us and share with everyone else, in our hearts, in our souls, in our aspirations.

In any event, the tendency in casing a church for the first time is naturally enough to notice the externals – the architecture, the liturgy of the service, the aesthetics, the preacher, the style of community modeled there.  These things are important insofar as they add to or detract from the quality of the experience there.

Oh, different churches and religious communities branching off from the Judeo-Christian tradition have created their own styles and varieties of liturgy and observance, to be sure.  Within a mile of here, on any given Sunday you can find the full spectrum of worship styles, from highly sacramental Catholic worship, to emotional spirit-driven fundamentalist gospel evangelism, to traditional mainstream high church Protestant worship, to our own structured, but intentionally simple UU variety of worship.  The ways in which these little religious communities gather may differ greatly, in style and in content.  But in this culture, there are many things that are similar for all these various groups.

The word worship, itself, may be loaded for you or not, depending on your own personal history with the word.  But it’s worth noting that the word itself is derived from the old English word meaning, “worth-ship.”  It means to “ascribe worth” to something, or even to shape things of worth.  Worship, then, is “the deliberate shaping, ordering, or holding up of the things of worth.”  One authority puts it,

“Worship is the touching of certain human needs — the need to give praise, to express gratitude, to acknowledge our own shortcomings, to experience healing and forgiveness, to feel connected with the church community, experience something of the transcendent….. The goal of worship is to help us declare, celebrate, and rejoice in those things we hold to be of worth.” (See, “Common Worship – Why and How?”  A Paper by the UUA Commission on Common Worship, 1980.)  

Our own Unitarian Universalist style of Sunday worship is directly descended from early American Puritan churches in New England.  That movement was set on “purifying” the church of England’s style of sacramental hierarchical liturgy. 

The architecture of Unitarian Universalist church buildings around the country run the gamut, from the New England Meeting Houses on town Greens where American Unitarianism was born in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s which conspicuous for their starkness and plainness, and their clear glass windows, to this magnificient neo-gothic landmark church of ours erected in 1844, with these priceless Tiffany windows added some fifty years later.  Like most Unitarian Universalist pulpits albeit a bit higher than most, ours is moved to the front and center displacing the traditional altar table of sacramental church traditions, reflecting the custom of a preaching-centered “theology of the word”  typical of UU worship experience.  But while we respect and honor the Sacred Scriptures of many traditions, our preaching is neither centered nor restricted to any single form of Scripture.  Our preachers speak to us from a Free Pulpit, and what they preach is ever subject to the judgment of the informed minds and feeling hearts in our pews.  We expect of our preachers that they always strive to speak truth in love from our pulpits, and we accept that at various times such truthful preaching may give comfort to the afflicted even as it may afflict the comfortable.

The clergy in this tradition tend to wear academic robes, denoting our formal training in theology, not priestly robes of liturgy.   

Our Sunday services themselves tend to follow some variation of the traditional Protestant “hymn sandwich” as we called it in theological school.  We enter, we sing, we light a ceremonial chalice which has over the past fifty years become a cherished universal symbol in UU churches everywhere.  

We have candles of Joy and Concern, an opportunity meant to enable members to be held in the care of the congregation through good times and in moments of personal struggle.  

Our services also usually include inspirational words of meditation, prayer, and a reading (not restricted to a Scripture reading, as in mainstream churches) but perhaps a poem or other piece meant to lead in to the sermon by the minister.  And because we are a self-sustaining church, we also pass the collection plate, with a new custom of dividing our collection with different local charities and non-profit agencies that work to make a better world.  And usually we close with music and wish each other peace for the week to come.

Those are the externals of our gathering on a Sunday morning.  That’s what you’ll see and can expect when you come here.  This beautiful building in which we gather is our inheritance from the generations of far-seeing faithful who precede us in these pews and in this pulpit.  

There are larger congregations than ours in the neighborhood, some with more resources, some with bigger programs, slicker organization.  But as churches go, let me tell you, you will be hard pressed to find a faith community anywhere that is as lovingly serious about its principles, as thoughtfully inclusive in its tolerance, or as joyfully bonded in its caring community as this fellowship of ours seeks to be.  Oh, we fail at these high ideals from time to time, make no mistake.  But we call each other back to them when we need to.  More important than any externals are the Purposes and Principles that undergird everything we do here.  “Church is where we are revealed,” wrote Barbara Ascher, “What we prize and what we fear.”  

It’s important to remember that on any given week we each come to church with different needs, at different times in our lives.  You may come in joy this morning, but you sit side by side with someone who comes in sadness or in grief or in sorrow and isolation.  A well designed worship service will have a word or a moment for each of our needs, will help us acknowledge and understand our lives in fuller context, join us in spirit with the caring circle of community.  We think people can discern the differences between appropriate reverence and overblown piety, between the kind of preaching that represses and reproves and preaching that liberates. 

There is no more important function for a church but to bring us together in this spirit for this one hour every week.  What happens during this hour is the engine that gives direction and power to everything else that happens in this church. I’ll leave for another sermon the central place that children and their religious education play in the central mission of this church. That important and defining work deserves close consideration of its own.

If you’re a first or second-time visitor here today, I welcome you.  My name is Patrick O’Neill, and I hope you’ll come say hello during coffee. And that you’re encouraged to come back next week. And in case you’re keeping score, I just earned us 1,400 points.

I hope all this has given you something to think about while you’re doing the dishes this week.

Be sociable, please share!

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