I spent my lunchtime today, here in the vicinity of the church, down at the township cemetery with Gertie -- she spun around the empty section and then down the quiet country cul-de-sac while I walked among the gravestones.
This cemetery actually has two sections separated by a farmstead; both are on sandy, rough, botanically challenged hillsides. It reminded me of the rural cemetery on the opposite end of the county where many of my relatives are buried, and that back in the pioneer days our ancestors didn't waste green, fertile land on the dead.
Some of the gravestones are very, very old, with surnames that no longer reflect the names on neighborhood mailboxes or our church rolls. One small stone next to a man's larger obelisk, both dated in the late 1800's, simply reads, "[So-and-So's] Wife"; the poor woman lost her name along with her life. A sinister-looking flat cement crypt whose lid is just askew enough to be creepy contains...well, I don't know; there's no corresponding headstone. A tiny headstone in the relatively newer section of the cemetery memorializes a two-year-old, whose death date corresponds with the scourge of the Spanish flu. Newer graves are festooned with whirligigs, flags, windchimes and other currently popular funereal effluvia; one display included a weathered knit watchcap that I'm sure held a good story.
As I walked up and down the hillside, getting to know the relations of many of our church members, I thought about our last lay ministry meeting. Our pastor, who just got back from a cross-country motorcycle adventure, recounted how, almost the moment he walked through the door of his home, he was awash in waves of local pain and suffering that had seemed to wait for his return to develop. There was a the tragic death of a young father who'd been battling chronic disease. A local family had lost their trailer home to creditors and had been reduced to living in tents. Terrible family secrets, buried for decades in the victims' minds, were finally coming to light, creating anguish and tension and side-taking among relatives. A neighorhood resident suffered an acute, mysterious medical event and was now in intensive care in a regional hospital as doctors tried to sort out her condition. More stories of the people immediately around us.
As our pastor noted, this was actually "situation normal" in our neighborhood; we lay ministers had simply enjoyed a short respite during our watch. But the more interesting thing to me was, as he shared his pastoral-care concerns with us, that most of these events that were marshalling the care and attention of our church were going on among people with a minimal, if any, formal connection to us. And in at least one case, it was one unchurched person, whose life had been previously touched by our congregation, that referred another unchurched person to us. "They can help."
Our pastor says that he wants to gradually move people out of the mindset that "church" is a one-hour event that happens on Sunday mornings and holidays; that "church," that Christ's body in the world, is happening all the time when we serve as Christ for one another. In this way, Christ will come alive for the people in our neighborhood, whether they're members of our congregation or not.
This struck me -- me, the one who is constantly questioning what I perceive as the highly conventional, non-visonary goals of our Evangelism Committee -- as something that I needed to hear.
I would love to strengthen our presence in our neighborhood -- not by somehow wheedling warm bodies into seats on Sunday mornings, but by helping people where they need help, without questions or strings or games or emotionally finagling them into some type of formal commitment to our congregation. What would happen if more of us in our congregation took that goal to heart?