The Girl in the Red Dress

Anyone who takes the time to read this column has some sense about what it means ‘to be church’.

It doesn’t matter what your denominational lineage, somewhere along the line you learned what it means to be a part of a faith community. One of the fundamentals is that you pitch in. If you’re not in charge of Word and Sacrament, maybe that means making a casserole for a funeral, or fixing a leaking faucet or singing in the choir or giving money because you know the bills have to be paid. But, somewhere you learned — probably from parents or grandparents — it takes a village to be a church.

Currently, I am a mission developer but we, as a congregation, are moving head-long into a new title: New Ministry. That means, we’ll become a real church with by-laws and grumpy people who think we should do things ‘this way’ and all the joys, worries and woes of congregational life. Please don’t think we’ve been playing at church up to this point. We weren’t like a couple of 12-yr olds who were put in charge of the house for a couple of hours and pretended we were grown-ups by microwaving pizza rolls. No, when it came to the big things like worship and pastoral ministry we put our hearts and long days into good preaching, teaching, worship and pastoral care. Now, the big difference is we have lawyers involved. It’s a bit like Pinocchio becoming a real boy except we don’t make wishes on stars; we have to fill out a lot of paperwork.

Yet, paperwork is hardly the biggest obstacle. The biggest obstacle is how to teach people to be church for one another. For example, I have to tell people to offer a seat to strangers or remind them that our church isn’t funded by Warren Buffett. When we do surveys, even informally after church, people get all excited about classes or bible studies but when we offer them, only a few people attend. It’s disheartening. My colleague, Mark Stenberg, refers to this as “the girl in the red dress” syndrome because he saw a young woman in a red dress at the mall, who, in front of four people and 300 empty chairs was singing her heart out like she was the best show in town. 

Based not only on anecdotal stories but also on denominational statistics, I’m convinced this “biggest obstacle” isn’t unique to mission starts or new ministries. It feels bigger than one preacher, one designation, one church, one denomination. Thousands of books have been written on teaching people to be church and after reading (several), I haven’t discovered one foundational answer.

Maybe it’s a latent idealism in me (you’d think it would have long shriveled to a husk of its former self after 20 years in ministry) but I’m still convinced that people long for genuine relationships, real community, and the story of Jesus Christ and how his life, death, and resurrection is for them. They show up at church because there is something about this Easter message, foolish and ridiculous and contrary to all logic, that compels people to faith. Sometimes they make a mess of the story; it becomes rigid and moralistic or perhaps squishy and sentimental yet below all of their cock-eyed theologies lays a hope in a God who is in their corner, a God who brings healing, forgives sin, and, somehow, raises the dead.

Karl Barth wrote that people have one question as they enter the church doors, one question as they straighten their skirts or tug at the pantyhose or fish for a tissue in their coat pocket. There is one question people have about this story of God in Christ and it is embedded in a deep longing that haunts them their entire lives: is it true? Is it true, this God who entered this world in Christ, hardly anything, a child in a wooden cradle, ashes to ashes, light unto light? Is it true, this God now embodied, incarnate? Is it true, this cross, where God and wood and darkness entwined and hope bubbled up unimpeded forever? Is it true, that all this was intended for me? Is it true that even now, Christ, his body, worn away by the penances of our love, still asks us to bring him what seems to us to be scraps? We can hardly comprehend how this question will return: as a gift, for us, for all we have gathered is string and barley, fish with gray bones, our sins and failures and our pride, our inability to be.

In one last, surprising eternal note of this grace, we find that the biggest obstacle is that we learn by dying and in dying, we are forever caught in this new truth. Yes, we still must teach one another to be church for one another, but now, it might not be taught by parents or grandparents. Now, it might be a brother or sister who teaches us. It’s all still family. Together, we fumble along, we set up folding chairs, we wear red, we sing with our whole being, and we confess this ridiculous truth that the story into which we died really is the best show in town.