A priest and performer considers religion, the arts, and the often thin space between sacred and secular, church and culture, pulpit and pew.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Wayside Inn

At a recent diocesan event, our bishop asked us to consider what it would mean to our congregations for our churches to function as “wayside inns”. I interpreted this question as asking how we, as Christians, allow and plan for the fact that our communities might feed a person’s needs – spiritual or otherwise - on an occasional or even one-time basis, without any expectation of further involvement or participation. This is an especially pertinent question in this age of ongoing anxiety about decreasing attendance and diminished membership in more traditional churches.

I listened to the table conversation around me regarding that question, and it became clear that the majority of people either didn’t interpret the question as I had, or were not up to going down that path of possibility. “My church is the place I go to get recharged so I can live the Christian life all week,” or some variation of that, was the answer I heard most frequently. That’s how a church becomes a wayside inn for its own members. No harm in that; we need that weekly worship to equip ourselves to do God’s work in the world. And most of us have no problem helping those who are totally outside the scope of our congregational life – foreign missions, soup kitchens and the like. But what about those who brush up against the community, receive something, and seldom if ever return?
A little thing got me thinking about this last week. As I walked around the circular drive from the church office to the rectory where I live, I noticed a car parked in the curve of the driveway. Approaching the car, and wanting to make sure that nothing was amiss, I noticed the engine was running but no one was in the driver’s seat. Then I saw a woman in the back seat. I waved; she waved back. The windows were tinted so it wasn’t until I got very close that I noticed she was breastfeeding a baby. A little embarrassed, I apologized and made sure she was OK. She asked if she needed to leave and I assured her she was fine where she was. Then I went on home to eat lunch.
The congregation I serve is friendly, warm, reasonably outgoing, and offers engaging, accessible liturgy; still, we have trouble attracting visitors and when we do, taking that next step of “turning them into” members. But we do have a fair share of people who stay for a brief time and then move on – geographically in some cases, but often because church in general, or perhaps our particular tradition or parish, ultimately just doesn’t speak to them. But I can tell they’ve received something when they’re here, and I do my best to keep in touch with them if I can and they are willing. That’s my concept of the “wayside inn”. If only we could embrace the notion that we haven’t failed if we don’t “keep” everybody.
A little thing, that woman and her baby. I have no idea if she has a church, or if she has any religious leanings at all. It doesn’t matter. But I do like to think she’ll remember our parish campus as a wayside inn where, for a short while on a mild winter day, she could stop to nurture her little one in (nearly uninterrupted) peace.

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