Do you approach church primarily as a place to give or a place to get?
Recently I had to send a street person packing. He is someone we have helped any number of times. He is even someone who has worshipped with us from time to time. He’s bright and has a lot to give but it got to the point where he simply looked at the church as place where he could get something. Granted, what he needs are basic things that every human deserves to have – food, shelter, clothing. When he had gone too far and violated our boundaries by hiding in the building, making himself at home in the kitchen, and passing out in a closet with his crack pipe, I had a talk with him and told him he couldn’t come back here anymore. He said, “But this is a church and you’re supposed to help people.” “That’s right,” I told him, “this is a church not a shelter. A church is a place where you give not just get. All you care about is what you can get.”
By now I am a grizzled veteran with street people. Like any priest or anyone who takes faith seriously, I want to help others and make a difference in their lives, especially those who are poor and left out by society. St. John’s does a lot of helping, actually. There may not be another church in town that helps the poor more than we do. Last year, the clergy of St. John’s disbursed over $25,000 in direct aid for food, shelter, and clothing through our discretionary funds. Stop by the office almost any day and you’ll watch me have a conversation with some street person that I know by name. We help a lot of people and our rule is that everyone is to be treated with respect and honor. But there are limits to what we can offer and more times than we can say yes we have to say no.
One of the things I have learned over the years is that street people are just like you and me. They are not less intelligent or less valuable. They deserve just as much as I do. Some are tragically mentally ill. Some do not know how to make it in our society. Some have just fallen through the cracks. Most of us, if our income were stopped and we had no family support, would end up on the streets. But most of us have support that street people do not have. If you think you’ve made it in life on your own, you’re sadly mistaken.
Another way that street people and you and I are alike is that we tend to approach the church as a place to meet our needs. We might not expect it to pay our bills but we look at worship as a way for us to be fed and nourished spiritually. We come to church to get a lift and encouragement so that we can handle life better. We look at church as something we need in our lives. When we come to church, we expect something positive to happen and are more than a little disappointed when our needs are not met. If the sermon isn’t quite what we wanted or the hymns weren’t the ones that move us, we are let down because we want so much from our church and our worship experience.
Mostly, it is good that we look to church to give us what we need. The Church represents God to us and church is where we think about meeting God, asking God for help, and receiving that help. Don’t stop doing that. The Church is here to help us.
But how often do we realize that the act of worship is a gift we are giving to the community and to God. In our awareness of how much we need God, we typically see ourselves as vessels that need filling. When’s the last time you thought of your presence in worship as something that delighted God, something that God craves? When’s the last time you thought about your presence in worship as a gift to others? When you see certain people at worship, aren’t your spirits lifted? Can you recognize that others might be looking at you with the same excitement? Imagine if we all decided on the same Sunday not to attend. Each of us is integral to worship and worship is our primary offering to the community and to God.
Is your church something you approach as a place to give or only a place to get? Our participation in the life of the parish is something we do to please God and to help others in their faith journey.
“Walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5.2)
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.