My big brother died suddenly of a heart attack at age 47. He and I lived 500 miles apart; in opposite directions of our hometown, Johnstown, PA, where most of our family still lived. I’d been living in western Ohio and Dan had been living in Coatesville, PA for more than two decades. My brother was divorced but, it was important to his 18 year old son that his dad’s funeral service take place in Coatesville.
Like so many young people, my brother fought with our parents about attending church as a teenager (a difficult situation for a preacher’s family!). As a young adult, Dan left the church. But, as is often the case, he returned to the church when he and his wife began a family. After their divorce, church became even more important to my brother. When we spoke on the phone it was clear that church had become his family away from home. He took mission trips with the congregation, attended bible study, served as a deacon. But the “church program” I think he cherished most was their church’s motorcycle group. On many summer Sundays they brought a sandwich and change of clothes with them to worship. After church, they changed, ate their lunch, then got on their motorcycles and headed out to spend the afternoon weaving down those eastern PA roads. Their day would conclude at someone’s home who would grill and they would eat and fellowship together well into the evening.
The day of my brother’s funeral, the church was packed and his motorcycle was parked out front. The pastor entered the pulpit with Dan’s helmet in his hand. Members of the congregation were invited to share memories of my brother. That time of sharing was the most wonderful gift that congregation could have given our family. The stories they told – many funny, some deeply moving – made clear how much they loved my brother. I was being introduced to a whole new dimension of his identity. They spoke of the richness of his faith. It was all a balm to our souls.
I once had a friend who didn’t like to attend church and was fond of saying he could talk to God just as well on Sunday mornings from the comfort of his own home. No debate there. But church is so much more than “me and Jesus.” Church is really about us and Jesus; Church is about family, the family you choose.
This Sunday, August 23, my church will have a Fall Kick-Off and Outreach Sunday (http://www.trinitylafayette.org/). I’ve encouraged church members to invite a friend to join them for worship. We Methodists aren’t very good at inviting people to worship. The average United Methodist invites someone to worship once every 38 years! (statistic taken from the book “Get Their Name” by Bob Farr, Doug Anderson and Kay Kotan, published by Abingdon). I would guess other mainline Protestants and Catholics have pretty similar stats.
And I wonder why…
Sure, many of us have had negative experiences with churches; painful experiences. But is that a reason to avoid them altogether? I once had a painful, negative experience with a dentist. He loaded me so full of Novacaine I thought I’d be blubbering until my next birthday. It felt like every inch of my checks and gums had been pricked by a syringe. It was horrible. So, I found a new dentist.
I feel badly for people who self-identify as Christians, yet do not have a church family. The love, the encouragement, and the fellowship we share with a church family are priceless. Stories like my brother’s are not unique. I’ve heard them many times over the years. When we invite someone to our church, we are offering them a gift. Shane Claiborne is fond of saying that the best things in life are meant to be shared. So why aren’t we sharing church with people?
With this blog I want to put out a challenge…
- If you attend church and it’s been a blessing to you, don’t keep it to yourself. Share the blessing by inviting a friend to attend church with you.
- If you’ve tried church and it was a bad experience, don’t give up. Try again.
- If all you’ve ever known about church is showing up for an hour of worship, don’t stop there. Dive deeper into the life of your church so it can become your family and not just a building you enter once a week. Trust me; it’ll be worth it.