Friday, March 19, 2010

Community Service

I grew up in a small church. There just weren’t a lot of Lutherans in suburban New York. There were about six kids in my Sunday School class and it was generally a two- or three-grade span in each class. We had one pastor and one Sunday worship service. There was a lot of work to be done and not a whole lot of people, so everyone pitched in on a regular basis and I watched my parents direct and teach Sunday School and Bible studies, serve on Council and committees, organize local and national service opportunities, serve as assisting ministers, preach when the pastor was on vacation, and sing in the choir, among other activities too numerous to remember. This was the place my faith was formed.

Moving to the Minneapolis area in 1996 was quite the culture shock. Even the smaller church of which my husband and I initially became members had about 1,500 people on the rolls. It was sort of exhilarating to be part of something so… teeming is the only word I can come up with. There were two choirs and a small singing group, lots of Sunday School kids, two pastors and an unbelievable organist. For a few years I directed Christmas programs, served on committees, participated in musical theater, and did many of the things I had seen my own parents do when I was growing up. What surprised me was that despite the congregation being literally 10 times larger than that of my childhood, there really weren’t many more people actively involved in service to the congregation and the community. There were still only a handful of families who consistently attended and participated in worship and education opportunities, who attended every event and who stepped up to help out when needed.

About three years ago, I found another tiny Lutheran church a bit closer to home. For whatever demographic and societal reasons, Calvary Lutheran in Edina is as small, if not smaller, than my home church in New York. In sharp contrast to the proliferating mega-churches of all denominations in the Twin Cities, Calvary feels like a community to me. We all know each other. We all participate together. I don’t worry about where my son, who has Asperger Syndrome and ADHD, has gotten to—people know him and love him for who he is and help keep him from getting into too much trouble. I love watching my daughter participate in music and art and especially drama, where she excels. My husband has had opportunities to play his guitar, attends the monthly “men’s breakfast” group and willingly substitute teaches in Sunday School. My parents are members, too, continuing in their lifelong commitment to and passion for their church community.

There are times when it’s frustrating to belong to a church this small. Sure, it would be nice to have a dozen or so more families with children to bolster the Sunday School rolls. I think sometimes people are afraid to become part of a small congregation because they want to remain anonymous. They want to drop in for worship and disappear afterward. And they don’t want anyone to ask them to help with anything—schedules are simply too overcrowded as it is and they would feel terribly guilty if they had to say “no.” I get that. I do. But I’ve learned in recent years that simply showing up is of enormous value in a worship community. A family serves its congregation simply by lending its voice and its presence to the experience of corporate worship. A person who is struggling serves her fellow members by allowing them to be of service to her. Whether you feel inclined to offer more of your time and energy to the workings of the community is always up to you. I have found that when I am ready to serve, the opportunities are provided.

I know that lots of people are leaving the church because they don’t feel like they “get anything out of it.” I’ve learned that you get just as much out of it as you put in.