At a recent Easter service at an evangelical Lutheran church in Ohio, I noticed many aspects of the experience that did not revolve around belief. Art and abstract paintings by local artists hung on walls. People might go to church to share their art and admire the beauty-making of neighbors. The church can be a place for artists, not necessarily only for believers.
Among the paintings, a coffee bar stood with tables, chairs, and plush couches as comfortable as a college library or neighborhood bistro. Yet unlike college or a cafe, the coffee and tea – as well as the invitation to sit and relax – were free; no purchase or tuition required. People might go to church to enjoy coffee and the relaxed atmosphere of people-watching without being expected to pay to participate in the buzz of humanity. The idea that you are welcome not because you paid but because you are a human being is one of the simplest yet most meaningful reasons a person might attend church.
The idea that you are welcome not because you paid but because you are a human being is one of the simplest yet most meaningful reasons a person might attend church.
An idea of belonging not because one believes, paid, or earned anything is to me one of the church’s most radical and quiet corrections of merit-based ideologies such as capitalism. This realization hit home for me after Easter communion. I had said “thank you” to the pastor after he gave me the wafer and grape juice, symbols of what some call Jesus’s devotion to his flock. Later I learned from the bulletin that when the pastor gives you these sacraments, you do not say “thank you.” Instead, you say “Amen.” Why? By receiving tokens of love, you do not thank a person, in this case, the pastor, because it is your birthright, not human charity, to receive sacred love and belonging.
Not thanking someone in return for a kindness can sound rude in a capitalist economy of transaction in which we live. You give me this (love), and I’ll give you that (thank you). Expectations of thank-you have at bottom a pleasing of the ego, what a friend of mine has called the immature self within us that runs on shame, blame, and fame. By not expecting thanks, the pastor models giving something precious without expecting a pat on the ego in return. By not giving thanks, the parishioner practices accepting belonging as their birthright. You are loved not for what you do, say, or give back, but by virtue of your presence, by being in this world, whoever and however you are. No decorum, no ego, no “thank you.” Just love. Amen.
You are loved not for what you do, say, or give back, but by virtue of your presence, by being in this world, whoever and however you are.
Church is dysfunctional. Parishioners butt heads about how to run Sunday School class and whether to write pronouns in official church correspondence, whether to marry gay couples, whether to clap after the choir sings. It’s easy to castigate churches as hypocritical: on one hand, they generally preach love. On the other hand, this love can at times seem reserved for those who think along a straight and narrow – and to some people – suffocating path.
But isn’t every human endeavor dysfunctional? I am a teacher in the public schools, and my classes can be a mess, not because I am a bad teacher, but because everyone in the room is human. Some students are on TikTok; a few are skipping class. I’m not blameless either. Halfway through class I realize I should’ve included another step in the lesson because students are not getting it. Maybe if I had left the gym earlier to revise my lesson instead of squeezing in that fourth set of squats – and stopping at that coffee shop on my way to school – my lesson would’ve worked. Every teacher, school board, and administration constantly devise a new-and-improved way to learn and teach to fix the former, broken way. The fact that education ceaselessly ditches old paradigms and introduces new ones means cutting-edge methods are as imperfect as the paradigms they replaced. This dysfunction is not a fault of any teacher or student; it is a function of being human. Where there are human beings, things will not work all the time for everyone.
Church is dysfunctional...But isn’t every human endeavor dysfunctional?
It is the same with the church. The church is broken not because of some underlying, hypocritical flaw in the institution that, when corrected, would magically transform everyone’s experience into hearts and butterflies. The church is broken because – like a classroom, Capitol Hill, the Ohio State Buckeyes, one’s own psyche – it is comprised of human beings. Even when human beings try their hardest – whether teachers, football players, Christians – the experience will neither be perfect nor solve the world’s problems. Someone will feel excluded. Someone will be on TikTok. Someone will stop for coffee. Someone will make a careless mistake. Someone will blame others or themselves.
Part 2 of Can We Gather? In this article, Genevieve addresses shame.
Genevieve take's a pilgrimage of churches and tackles the question, can we gather without harming one another?