As the Tour has made its way around the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee, we’ve been received into parish halls of all shapes and sizes. Parish halls in Episcopal congregations are the communal gathering spaces where the daily life of a congregation is lived. If the worship space is the formal living room of a church building, the parish hall is the family room. In these rooms around (mostly) folding tables, sitting on (mostly) standard issue metal folding chairs, we’ve heard the stories of parish life that weave relationships into the bonds of love we Christians hold as a standard for what it means to “be church” (instead of simply “going to church”).
Over and over again, we’ve heard people in the parishes we’ve visited refer to their particular parish as “a family”. When I press the metaphor and ask, “How is your parish like a family?” The stories people tell in response are full of personal anecdotes describing the myriad ways congregations have helped when a fellow parishioner was in need. Congregation members arrive with food or some piece of medical equipment. Congregation members drop whatever is going on in their daily lives to take a fellow parishioner to a medical appointment. Congregation members reach out with a phone call that always seems to come “at just the right time” when a fellow parishioner is feeling lonely or isolated.
In a world where we are more connected than ever — smart phones, Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, text messages and all the rest — what seems to draw congregations together always comes down to spending time (that most precious of commodities!) with each other. Relationships cannot be rushed. We cannot manufacture friendships — they are gifts of God. But congregations can be places where people spend enough time together so that space is created for casual acquaintances to grow into the deep bonds of fellowship — the sort of fellowship that isn’t forced, but fellowship that flows easily between the “blessed company of all faithful people”. As this fellowship grows through the years, people who were once strangers to each other now begin to act like (or in some cases act better than!) sisters and brothers.
Relationships can’t be quantified. We can’t measure them in books of statistics. Relationships can’t be “monetized” either. In short, parochial life isn’t about budgets and buildings as ends in themselves. Budgets and buildings are tools to serve congregations, not the other way around. We often say “the Church is not the building, it’s the people”. Over the past two weeks, I’ve seen the Church in the tear-filled eyes of people sharing their stories. I’ve heard the Church in the laughter around plates full of food. I’ve felt the Church as people have shook my hand and patted my back.
There are plenty of statistics to tell us all the ways the mainline Christian denominations are “declining”. The folks we’re visiting aren’t oblivious to their particular local challenges. But these plucky Episcopalians aren’t going to forget the reasons they gather in the first place — to worship their God, to share in the Holy Food and Drink of the Eucharist, to chat over a cup of coffee and to roll up their sleeves, get to work for the Kingdom and love each other come what may.
I woke up this morning with the words of one of my favorite hymns playing in my head. The hymn epitomizes what I’ve witnessed all over this Diocese. I pray that whatever happens to these congregations in their futures, they never forget that, first and foremost, they are communities that live out Jesus’ life and ministry — they are communities that care.
I come with joy to meet my Lord,
forgiven, loved, and free,
in awe and wonder to recall
his life laid down for me.
I come with Christians far and near
to find, as all are fed,
the new community of love
in Christ’s communion bread.
As Christ breaks bread and bids us share,
each proud division ends.
That love that made us makes us one,
and strangers now are friends.
And thus with joy we meet our Lord.
His presence, always near,
is in such friendship better known:
we see and praise him here.
Together met, together bound,
we’ll go our different ways,
and as his people in the world,
we’ll live and speak his praise.