As I’ve been preparing for our upcoming Heritage Sunday (April 9, 2017), I’ve also been thinking about what it means to be a member of something, whether that is an organization, a club, a family or a church community.
Most of us can say that we are now or at least have been a member of a family. What did that mean? When I was growing up, it meant that there were people close to you who cared about you, who tried to supply you with support and guidance, who showed their love either by gestures (hugs and kisses) or by packing you a nice lunch to take to school or by making sure you had opportunities for growth by joining the Boy Scouts or the local YMCA.
It also meant that there was someone to hold you accountable—to let you know when you were going astray (or already had gone!)—someone who made sure that there were reasonable consequences for actions that were unskillful or morally questionable. You were a member of a family simply by being born into it. In the case of my brother and sisters and myself, we understood that we had to accept the good with the bad, that love was genuine, but behaviors were not always predictable, that home life provided some security along with expectations, and that life outside the home was less secure, but provided more excitement. I expect that many of us had similar experiences.
Most of us joined organizations of one kind or another as we grew up: the 4-H Club, the school band, the football team, the history club, the model railroad club, the Glee Club, the chess team, book groups. Each group had its own rules and its distinctive culture. Sometimes, we found the organization enjoyable and encouraging; other times, we withdrew when we understood for one reason or another, it was “not for us.” There were always rules of one kind or another; if the rules helped provide a worthwhile experience, they did not feel confining; if they felt restrictive, we either worked with others to change them or we moved on to things that seemed a better fit for our personalities.
A church is like a family in some ways; it’s like a social or community group in other ways. If it’s a “good fit,” it’s because the structures seem reasonable, the experiences provide both comfort and challenge; and a solid community is provided for our unending search for meaning. Not everyone has experienced a warm and supporting family life, so I tend to shy away from the term “church family.” At the same time, “institution” seems too clinical a term for the culture we hope to form. “Church community” tends to be my default term.
What does it mean to be a member of a church, especially a church that is “non-creedal”? I hope that it means that you feel wanted and cared for. I hope that it means that you feel supported and guided in your plan for a life of purpose that is meaningful to you. And I hope that it means that you feel challenged—challenged to grow, to be more accepting, more patient, more helpful, more useful, more courageous, more human.
As churches grow, they often find their mission changes over time. The mission of our church feels timeless to me. We says that we seek to be a caring community. We encourage one another to grow spiritually. We challenge ourselves to work to actively change and improve our society and to respect and preserve the natural world of which we are a part. I sometimes hear objections to this: that there are plenty of non-profits whose mission it is to improve the society or to safeguard our environment. Though this may be true, there are few institutions dedicated to each and every aspect of our mission statement. Unstated, but implied—we do what we do as a community, a spiritual community, a faith-filled religious community.
So, what does it mean to be a member of this church? It means that our mission resonates with something within you. It means that you have a place. It means that you are counted on to contribute to the work of the church. You want a more caring community, so you volunteer to do things as simple as setting up for coffee hour and washing dishes on a Sunday morning; or that you challenge yourself through spiritual development. Several of us will be reading Man’s Search for Meaning in April—why not join us? It means that you respond to the call when the church supports an initiative in response to a critical need for fairness in our society—you make your presence known at the twice-monthly meetings of the city commission, for instance.
On April 9, we will celebrate Heritage Day. During all the days we are church members, we build the community we desire. We create the heritage that will be passed on to those who follow us. We follow and we lead. We are Unitarian Universalists. This is church.
See you in church,