In the early days of the United Church, people came to believe in God through Sunday school missions, evangelistic meetings, church literature, educational segments offered in public schools and church-run camps. The new believer then chose to affiliate with a church as the outward sign of an inward turning to God.
I can still remember a woman telling me how she longed to go to church but didn’t dare because she couldn’t quit smoking and her addiction would have raised doubts about her true transformation and suitability for membership. If you’ve ever heard the line about “all those hypocrites in the church,” it hearkens back to those days when a certain uprightness was associated with churchiness. And there were always some who turned up on Sunday who couldn’t pass public muster.
The world has changed and so has the church. Whether the United Church embodies laxness, love or lassitude is a matter of debate, but our mellowness allows lots of space for spiritual seekers to ask questions, try aspects of faith on for size and allow God the time and space needed to renovate, restore and replenish a full-fledged child of God.
The brilliance of the early Christian church, which may also be the brilliance of the United Church, was the knowledge that faith is a journey that must begin somewhere else, that God does not condemn the broken or exclude the sinner. God does not demand outward compliance until there has been a profound inner change of heart and soul and spirit. And such a transformation requires that the saints and sinners, the wheat and weeds, the pedigreed and not-yet-agreed must live, eat and worship side by side.
The early church managed this with a long catechumenate, a process in which it was assumed that authentic learning and practice of faith would take a very long time.
There is no church in Canada from which it is easier to lead people to faith in Jesus Christ than The United Church of Canada. Really! It is a learned skill, and our people excel wherever we recall that faith is always ignited by an invitation from a host. It is embarrassingly unsophisticated: “God is Love.” “Jesus changes things.” “Holy Spirit come.” “Would you like me to pray for you now?”
What could be simpler? In many of our buildings, people still assemble themselves with virtually no encouragement. Their hunger for God is so persistent the preacher/teacher/pastor need not be a spiritual genius, just able to water the seed that God has planted and walk the way of Jesus.
I was teaching an introduction to Christianity session assisted by some longtime members and certifiable saints of the church. One of the group participants had a four-letter vocabulary that would have made George Carlin blush. After a meeting, the question was raised whether Mr. Pottymouth should be reminded that he was attending a church function and to watch his language. “No,” said a United Church saint. “The man is speaking the same dialect he hears every day at work. How can we force him to change his outer self when we are asking God to create in him a new heart?” God must have broken through, because his verbiage and demeanour changed from that day forward.
When religious people skate around the rink like referees, we forget that our task is to pick ourselves and others off the ice and learn to glide through life with an amazing grace. Amazing grace. That’s catchy. Someone should shine a spotlight on the amazing grace of God in the United Church. Maybe write a song or something.
Keep it free!
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