I have returned to the Methodist Sunday school with new eyes. Now it is so obvious to me what the institution wreaks up its members that it’s more sad than funny.
This month is our classes turn to usher as well as be greeters for the worship services. Let’s talk about just those two things for a moment.
Ushering is mostly done by the guys who come and wear suits and ties, although it’s not a strictly enforced dress code. The captain of the usher guard comes to our class bearing two magnetic tags with the word “usher” on them, and we pass it around until each one is claimed. They Usher captain might as well be the angel of death as everyone hates it when he shows up at our door. But everyone must do their bit, right?
Ushers basically hand out bulletins, shake hands, take a count and collect money. They also pass out the newcomer cards to anyone who is visiting for the first time. During communion, they help usher people to the front pew-by-pew. If someone needs special assistance such as someone in a wheelchair or with crutches, they’ll assist and if someone needs a hearing device,ushers hand them out. Basically, ushers are a part of the production process of the morning service. My point here is that they serve pretty much the same purpose as ushers in a movie or Broadway theater thus making Sunday morning worship more of an entertainment venue than God’s house. How many of your houses require an usher? When most of you have a party, when someone knocks at the door, you say, “C’mon in! It’s open!” And what is worship, except a party where God is the Guest of honor? When you have a party at your house, do have guys with suits who count heads and collect money from all the guest? Do you have the suited gentlemen escort guests to the kitchen for a bite of bread or a rice wafer and a thimble full of grape juice?
There is nothing intimate about having ushers at a party. For a big formal feast, you might have caterers who serve the meal and serve the function somewhat. But again, this type of state dinner party would hardly be described as intimate or involving relationships.
If ushers are akin to temple guards, what exactly are greeters? Talk about the Wal-Mart-ization of the church! And yet, you will be hard pressed to find a church of any size that does not have them. Nowadays, they also wear shiny tags identifying their role. They often stand next to the ushers, and will be around every door, so no one enters without being greeted warmly. At Saddleback East, it is a virtual greeter gauntlet, with almost a dozen of these folks milling around the main entrance. And you want to know something?
I’ve managed to walk in the building without any of them saying a word to me on more than one occasion. Granted, I take it as a bit of a personal challenge to see if I can do it, but it isn’t all that difficult. They are all talking to each other or people they already know…their friends with whom they already have a relationship! That’s the stupid thing about having greeters; it tries to institutionalize and foist something on people that is unnatural and artificial and probably causes cancer.
At the Methodist church, we didn’t have greeters for the longest time. Then someone heard a complaint from someone else about how the church didn’t seem very friendly. All the sudden, the greeter program was hatched to meet the need to make our church seem friendly. Sunday school classes were assigned to provide 10 or so greeter for 10 minutes before and after each of the two services. Which means they got to Sunday school late and had to leave early. It was and is a royal pain. I did it one time, and chose the least-used entrance and still felt dumb. “Hi, welcome to church mart! Would you like a buggy?”
Some people are naturally gifted with warm, inviting personalities. Others of us have personalities that take some warming up to get used to. Those gifted folks should be out there if they want. But the answer is not to create some program that artificially simulates relationships where none truly exist. That is simply perpetuating a lie.
If people seem unfriendly, perhaps looking into that is called for. Could it be that folks are overburdened with programs? Or perhaps they are stuck trying to keep their mask on straight so no one can really know who they are? Or perhaps, the institutionalized church has gotten so busy trying to put butts in pews/chairs and making the budget that the plight of actual, real people has been lost. The hustle and bustle of putting on a perfect program/service every week is no small thing. Everyone has to do their part, right?
Since coming out, and taking a hard look at the institution, I find I’m a lot more interested in the people I’m with. I’m more interested in why they are there and what they’ve brought with them.
During Sunday school, the topic was Mother’s Day and we all shared memories and thoughts of what we learned about from our mothers. Once the discussion gets going it often gets real good and real interesting. And then, as often happens, one of the women brought up an issue she had with a relationship where honesty caused the relationship to fail. The woman felt so bad that she resented her own honesty that seemed to caused the loss of this close relationship. But she couldn’t NOT be honest. And then we started working through this issue that was obviously important to this woman and….
Oops! Time to go to worship! Our time is over!
This has happened SO many times. Someone brings an issue and obviously needs some prayer, support, hugs, input or just to be listened to, but that bloody service calls and puts an end to it. And that is SO wrong! This is just one way the institutional church puts obstacles in the way of real relationships. I’m sure Jesus would rather the lost or broken sheep was tended to, rather than join the bleating mass of the flock. But there is this perpetual obligation that is placed on the people who belong into a service for the sake of the institution rather than to the real people who make up the real and true Church.
On the way out, I spoke to a woman who had to leave Sunday school early in order to change the candles the acolytes light as well as stand by a table with some commemorative plate that some had ordered to make sure they were distributed. I like this young woman because she has a real heart for God. But she has such a good heart she’s now all stressed about candles and plates and other assorted crap responsibilities that have been unloaded upon her.
There’s no shortage of absurdities that one can find in any large institution, and churches are especially rich. They are so busy carrying on their own things that they lose sight of the Church, which is all believers regardless of color or affiliation. Until we have deeper and more authentic relationships with each other, there can be no unity and no authenticity to the worship and fellowship experience.