What is the Purpose for Church?

It is an important question. For if the church has no purpose, then why would we gather on Sunday morning? Unlike other faiths, where non-attendance is considered a sin, Unitarian Universalists, do not have such a creed. So, for these other faiths, attending church is in a way to avoid committing at least one sin, and is easily averted.

There are some Unitarian Universalist congregations where Sunday morning offers a nice program. Several years ago there was one congregation that invited me to speak.  The service was not a religious service but a program of a chamber quartet performance.  The words I offered were considered the intermission for the quartet. There were no hymnals for congregational singing. There were no prayers or meditations, no recognition of a community of people, there was no children’s time, just a program of Sunday morning music and some words offered.  Very nice, very relaxing but in my mind not congruent with the purpose of church.

What is the purpose of church?  For the congregation that loved their chamber music, the purpose of their church was to offer a morning where one could relax with some nice music and have coffee afterwards.

There is a story told about Rev. William Ellery Channing, known in our Unitarian history as the author of the defining sermon “Unitarian Christianity.”  One Sunday morning, he was crossing the Boston Common on his way to church when he saw one of his parishioners walking towards him.  They greeted one another, and Rev. Channing asked the parishioner where they were going since church was about to start within the half hour.  The parishioner said, I know what you are going to say about the topic being offered so I am going to do something of more importance.  That was the last Sunday in which Rev. Channing offered a title and a blurb on his Sunday morning message.

If the reason for attending church is only for the sake of hearing an interesting topic or lecture, then I think that is a poor purpose for church.  There are other venues, especially in a university town, that can meet that important need.

Yes, I hope the words and meditations I offer are encouraging and perhaps even challenging, but my words or thoughts should not be the primary draw here. I have no desire to be a celebrity pastor like Joel Osteen or TD Jakes, or Norman Vincent Peale. These people speak eloquently from the pulpit their doctrinal beliefs and thousands of people flock to them for the chance to hear an inspiring message or make them feel good about themselves.

And if a person stays away from church because they think they know what is going to be said in the pulpit and therefore wants to do something of more importance, I believe they are missing the point of church.  I have shared in the past that before I became a Unitarian Universalist, I lived in an intentional Christian community. We met, not only to pray together, but also to minister to one another.  If we were not there, we could not minister to others nor be ministered to. If we were not there we were not living up to our individual calling. I still carry this purpose in Unitarian Universalism, though how we minister to one another might be, no, I guarantee, is vastly different from the Christian community in style and scope.  We each have something to offer to one another here in this place.  It may be to offer a listening ear to someone who has not had anyone listen to them all week long.  It might be to offer a hug to someone who has not received any human touch this past week.  It may be to offer a joke or two and allow belly laughs to occur which releases endorphins to make us feel good and reduces pain.

Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal and not a doctrinal faith.  We covenant with one another to uphold and encourage one another to pursue a set of aspirational principles.  The inherent worth and dignity of every person. Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.  Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.  A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.  The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

These are difficult aspirations to uphold.  We are going to fall short in the fulfillment of them in our daily lives but it is important, and given our current national environment, vital for us to come together to encourage one another to not lose heart in holding these aspirations as possible for our lives, for our congregation, for our community, and for our nation.

We need one another in these days of intense pain being inflicted upon women, LGBTQ, immigrants, and people of color by our own government.  Our current national administration is stripping our civil rights away and we need the strength to resist the rollbacks of rights and protections.  These cold-hearted inhumane rollbacks of protections are causing great pain in our families, in our neighborhoods, and in our communities.

But these are not the only pain people in our congregations are facing. We have people grieving the loss of family members. We have people grieving the loss of employment. We have people who are struggling in their marriage. We have people who are lonely, people who suffer traumas from childhood or from military service. We have people who are struggling with all sorts of infirmaries, both short term and chronic. We cannot minister to one another if we do not attend our main service a week.  Each of us has a role to minister to one another and it need not be a conscious effort to do so.  Sometimes it is the willingness to listen to one another that is all that is needed that offers a balm of healing and comfort. And each of you have the unique gift of yourself that may be just the thing that someone else needs to hear or see.  But if you are not here, because you think you know what the speaker is going to say that you have heard it all, then that person who is needing to hear that encouraging word that only you can give, will leave here empty-handed.

Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow   …    Number 1021 join me in singing…

The purpose of church is not the elements of the worship service.  The liturgy, the music, the hymn singing, the words shared from the pulpit.  These are only elements to a much greater purpose, which is to minister to one another in a community of relationships. And in this place, there is a covenant, a promise that each member here says when they sign the membership book, that they will participate in the life of the congregation.  At every membership recognition service, I recite these words to our  members [1]:

You are here this morning because you have chosen to be in a relationship with these people and with this religious institution.  “I can take care of myself” has been replaced by “We can and will take care of each other.”  Your membership also tells the world that you believe in and support the need for the free religious voice amidst the religious pluralism of our country and our world. “We need not think alike to love alike” said Francis David in 16th century Hungary.  This is the basis by which our individual searches for truth and meaning are encouraged within this loving and supportive community.  Becoming a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation is your opportunity to find inherent worth, affirmation, appreciation of diversity and respect for commitment.  It is also a path to salvation, understood not as entry into another world at death, but rather as the recognition that wholeness, health and loving relationship are available to each of us right here and now, within this life and this world.  

Members of the congregation then renew their pledge to walk together in the ways of truth and affection, as best we know them now or may learn them in days to come, that we and our children may be fulfilled, and that we may speak to the world, in words and in action, of peace and good will.

These are not idle words.  They are a promise to one another.  A promise and a calling.  A calling to strive to be supportive of one another, to listen from the heart, to respond from the heart.

The purpose of the church, as we have declared it to be in our covenant is one that is sorely needed in our world today.  If we build on this covenant here with one another, by meeting weekly as we are able, then as our relationships grow we gain the confidence and the skills to take our faith, our principles that we seek to uphold here into our daily lives as a beacon of hope for all to see. We will begin to find ourselves ministering to others, friends and strangers alike, because that is who we are as a people.  People who are moving on the side of love.  And that is the purpose of church.  Blessed Be.

[1] Adapted from Alice Blair Wesley lectures found in Our Covenant: The 2000-01 Minns Lectures

Sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation on 10 September 2017(c) by Rev. Fred L Hammond

Published in: on September 13, 2017 at 2:04 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: , , , ,