The first time I attended Sunday worship at a Unitarian Universalist congregation was, I believe, in 1997. My partner and I went one time, for Easter Sunday I think, and nothing particularly special happened. I don’t recall being turned OFF in any meaningful way, but neither did I feel compelled to return. In hindsight, I know we weren’t really looking to join a church at that time.
We returned to the same congregation in 2004. Again, nothing particularly special happened. I remember that the worship service was fairly strained; the interim minister was clearly exhausted (the sermon featured a vivid metaphorical image of the minister drowning), and the congregation was worn out from not having had a settled minister in a couple of years.
Still, this time we were hungry for community, and there seemed enough possibility in what we saw for us to come back a few months later, when the congregation called their new settled minister. We joined the church soon thereafter.
The only significant difference between 1997 and 2004 was our hunger and readiness to join a church community.
I reflect on this experience a lot when we have first time visitors at church (which means I reflect on this almost every Sunday). Although our congregations work hard to be as friendly and welcoming as possible, many first time visitors never return. We Unitarian Universalists gnash our teeth over this.
And don’t get me wrong: I know we can do more and better to be welcoming to first time visitors. My partner has an astonishing assortment of stories of his treatment as a “visitor” to churches where I am the guest preacher. For every warm and welcoming greeting at the church entrance, there seems to be someone else waiting inside to tell him he’s sitting in the wrong spot. He’s even been chastised in the parking lot for his driving. Welcome!
But here’s the thing: being in community is messy. If you are going to really become part of a church community, you are eventually going to find that there’s one person who can’t remember your name no matter how many times you introduce yourself, or that there’s a fussy person who snaps at you for walking through the kitchen during coffee hour, or there’s a grim usher who won’t let you sit down until after the opening hymn, never before. (I was a church member for years, and long-time congregants would still ask me, “Are you new here?”)
If these things are going to turn you completely off, well then…maybe you’re not quite ready for community. Because it takes some forgiveness to be in community. It takes some good humor, and some love.
The blessing is that forgiveness, good humor, and love are yours to receive as well. One day you will find yourself at church, insisting on having your way about the compost or the water fountain or the newsletter (whatever it is that you have become passionate about). And assuming your behavior is not too outlandish and disruptive to the community, you will find yourself held in friendship and affection while you rant and rave and everyone tries to calm you down and get you to see that there are other viewpoints and opinions to take into account.
To me, this messiness is the gift of community. We are, of course, striving to be our best selves together: loving, compassionate, accepting of each other. But we’re going to miss the mark, not just some of the time, but a LOT of the time. Church isn’t the place to come pretend to be perfect together. Church is the place to bring our authentic, imperfect selves; our struggling selves; our passionate, weirdo selves.
The result is that our congregations are filled with messy, imperfect, passionate, struggling weirdos. So are, I suspect, the congregations of all other faith traditions. It is no wonder that making one’s way into such a group can be difficult. And it’s no wonder that even people who have been congregants for years and years sometimes leave the church. It’s hard to be in community. It’s hard to compromise. It’s hard to live with imperfection and its many disappointments.
I don’t claim to understand the strange alchemy of events and people that combine to bring congregations together. I don’t claim to understand the strange alchemy of events and personal impulse that brought me to church in 1997, and then again in 2004. All I do know is that my life has been changed, utterly transformed in almost every way imaginable, by joining a church and entering with whole heart into the messiness of community. I believe this would be true even if I weren’t entering the ministry. And it’s my hope for people that are searching that they too may find what I have found.