There are others, however, who miss aspects of congregational life for different reasons than work. For a growing portion of the population, accessibility as a result of health and/or age has been or is becoming a hurdle. For some, a single accident or diagnosis can mean the unexpected difference between regularly attending worship and hoping against hope to make it out even once within the year. As older individuals become homebound or confined to assisted living facilities and hospitals—unable to drive on their own, or without someone else to help transport them—those former experiences and relationships they had in and through the church can feel lost or abandoned. I see and hear this in visits with homebound parishioners who desperately long to rejoin the congregation they call home, but know that with each passing day that hope becomes less of a possibility. Alongside these, there is another group whose absence from the life of the church comes with less personal physical boundaries and more judicial and emotional barriers. Though I don’t remember experiencing it until high school, more and more I see the painful scars that many families bear from divorce and/or split custody. Weekly, I talk with parishioners—young and old—and those outside of the church in the community who are themselves products of such devastating circumstances, along with others currently going through such painful and damaging situations. Children of split families and divorces, generally, find themselves spending every other weekend (if not some other type of arrangement) with their other parent, in a different place. This also means when a parent gets (limited) time with their child, attending worship or other congregational activities is not always the immediate thought—I can’t blame anyone who feels that way, I’d likely feel the same way too. The limits for these two groups—one accessibility, the other familial and judicial—are real and mean that congregational life, if it happens for these persons, must take on a different-than-conventional shape.
These three (growing) hindrances to “traditional” participation in congregational life are real and painstaking for a majority of those within and beyond the faith. As we come face-to-face with these and other situations that prevent regular participation in the church, we ought to keep in mind Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-6) and work diligently to reconsider and practice new, additional ways to reach out, welcome, and be the church with and for those whose lives don’t fit so comfortably and perhaps, themselves, don’t feel worthy to share in the community of the Crucified and Risen Christ. If and when we give the impression that it’s “Sunday’s (and Wednesday’s) Only”, we not only perpetuate what is felt by those unable to participate in traditional church patterns, but we also fail to be the body of Christ in meeting people in the reality of their lives as the Crucified One daily meets us in the good, the bad, and the ugly. The life of faith, and ministry for that matter, does not mean us keeping a rigid form for which the “faithful” hold to and the “unfaithful” miss. If we are to embody Jesus in both our words and actions and serve to be Christ for one another, we must be honest about our communities and understanding towards the various contexts of those around us—always eager to search for means to incorporate the lost sheep. In doing so, the focus is transformed from being on time and place to people and life-situations. The Holy Spirit, we confess, gathers us together to be the church for the world. This work of the Spirit is not restricted to 8:30am and/or 10:30am Sunday mornings (or at a particular time on Wednesday’s either), nor is it bound to a certain sacred space marked by a steeple, crosses, or pews. It happens—God’s Spirit brings us altogether as one in Christ—at all times, in all places: morning, noon, and night, at home, in the parking lot of your job, and even at the Mexican food restaurant over margaritas and enchiladas (just saying). When we open ourselves up to see and appreciate this gift of God, we begin to live, worship, and serve together more freely and faithfully—resembling more fully the people of God.
Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7) is about the great joy and promise surrounding how God lovingly searches, retrieves, and rejoins the one who was lost to the rest of the fold—because the saving of every single sinner is more important than the maintaining of the greater whole of saints (mind you, we each and altogether are “simultaneously saint and sinner”). The parable is a beautiful reminder that we are never able to drift away from the body of Christ—no matter what—that God is always there, eagerly seeking us out as beloved, cherished, and most precious. Each of us is the lost sheep found; and yet, we are called to open our eyes and ears to see and hear others for whom God also diligently searches after until they are found and brought back into the “little flock.” We need to daily be reminded of the promise, hope, and joy this short parable offers us. What if, however, (not to take away from this message) we were to read this parable in light of those who are unable to participate in the “routine” patterns of congregational life? Not that their circumstances make them lost, but might their separatedness from the church make them feel lost? What might it look like to reach out, meet with, and tend to those who feel like they are beyond the fold—unable to live in the fullness of the congregation?
I, personally, believe that for many of us, meeting those in these areas—amidst their difficulties and hindrances in participating in congregational life—can be difficult until we listen, see, and experience the same or similar such problems for ourselves. Empathy—placing oneself in another’s shoes to share in their thoughts, feelings, and experiences—helps us become more open and prone to find new ways in incorporating others around whatever impediments that are present. In honestly acknowledging our own lostness and how God searches for and finds us, can we begin to see how God goes and searches for others as well—calling us to do the same for those unable to join the assembly in whatever way. I, myself, have worked jobs in the recent past which conflicted with attending Sunday worship. Many times, there was no choice—when I was scheduled for the day, my job depended upon it. Likewise, five years ago when I broke my ankle and was homebound, the only way I made it out for anything—church-related or otherwise—was by the kindness and care of my wife and her family. It’s not so important for us to understand the details of why others cannot always participate in congregational life, as much as being respectful to their hindrances and offering to help work through or adjust to them as a means of attending to these individuals as Christ for them. So, what are some ways we can reimagine congregational life to reach out, meet with, and tend to those who feel like the lost sheep? First and foremost, listening. We need to listen to one another—truly hearing others explain not only what the problem is that is preventing them from sharing in congregational life, but hearing these individuals talk about what their faith means to them, how the absence of participation in church affects them, and allowing them to offer their own brainstorming about how we as the church can make changes for others. Listening, from there, leads to care and comfort. When we truly listen to others, we are then more able and apt to begin comforting them in their pain of being removed from the assembly. Next, we need to help encourage others (especially those within the “traditional” thoughts and patterns of church) to see congregational life beyond just the Sunday morning worship—to include over coffee at home, during karaoke-hour at the assisted living facility, during mealtime, amidst mutual consolation and conversation in the hospital room, in the combine on a cool November afternoon, etc. The possibilities are endless. And once we demonstrate an openness to time and place beyond the Sunday sanctuary—listening to truly hear those who feel lost or abandoned—we can tend to one another, as the Spirit sends us forth, in means of grace: sharing in meals with one another, offering the gifts of Holy Communion, singing songs together in praise and thanksgiving, reading and discussing Scripture, confiding in and bearing each other’s burdens as individual confession and forgiveness, praying together, offering physical signs of love such as a handshake or embrace.
This is a long blog post (my apologies for that), but it’s a topic I find myself coming back to again and again in my service and leadership. The church for too long has made certain assumptions defining congregational life—stringent on what is “required” or “expected” while overlooking or disregarding the unique contexts of its people. Coming face-to-face with those outside or beyond such traditional definitions of congregational life—people who pain at their separation from the routines of the church, who desperately long to share in them alongside others—I can’t help but feel compelled to call us to pause and reconsider how we can better serve to be the church FOR ALL PEOPLE. Jesus, the Crucified and Risen One, daily meets us in our lostness—leaving all else behind in order to retrieve and rejoin us to the rest of the fold. You and I, we each, have been sought after, found, and are held as beloved. As the body of Christ, we are called to do the same for others—reimagining church so as to find new, additional ways to incorporate others who otherwise are and feel removed from congregational life. In listening, redefining sacred space and time, and tending to one another in grace, we can begin to work through the hindrances before others and resemble more fully the people of God. Think of someone you know who, for whatever reason, is removed from congregational life. How might you reach out, listen, and be Christ for them? How can you—empowered by the Holy Spirit—help them feel incorporated in the life of the church? Make it a point to go and tend to (at least) one person who feels lost or abandoned, let them know they are not alone—that you are with them, that the rest of the congregation is with them, that God in Christ is with them. Might we, each and altogether, reimagine congregational life so as to include all those missing out. In thinking and working towards this, we serve more faithfully as the body of Christ and resemble more fully the people of God.