Reflections: Coming to church should never be a waste of time

It was a comment that I shall never forget. I was in a cabinet meeting, and one of the district superintendents was reporting on a recent meeting with a congregation’s pastor-parish relations committee. The congregation was to receive a new pastor and this was a meeting to assess the congregation’s needs and its current identified mission and goals. What would be the gifts and skills needed in a new pastor?

Bishop Woodie W. White

As the district superintendent neared the end of his report, he turned to me and said that he had a specific message to me given by a longtime member of the church who was also a highly regarded member of the committee. This was the message: “Tell the bishop, we do not need a really great preacher at our little church—but after the worship service, I don’t want to feel like I wasted my time.”

For those who sit in the pews of United Methodist churches, that is not too much to expect. They want to feel that at the very least their efforts to be in worship that morning were not a waste of time. Of course, most pastors would say their congregation deserves more, much more.

The entire worship experience should be one that has, in a sense, brought the worshipper uniquely into the presence of God in a fellowship of believers who enhance that moment with singing and the reciting of prayers, and by their presence. The pastor’s role is utterly important as he or she seeks to answer the time-honored question, “Is there a Word from the Lord?”Over the years, as a bishop, mine has been a dual place in worship, and I have been more frequently in the pew than in the pulpit. It has made me more mindful of the pew when I stand in the pulpit, and more mindful of the pulpit when I sit in the pew.

When I sit in the pew, I come with expectation. Some Sundays, I arrive at church with an overwhelming sense of burden and grief. Or I know that I have become too comfortable in my faith and need to be challenged and inspired. In every instance, I want to somehow sense that I have been uniquely in a God place and moment.

As a result, on those occasions when I step into the pulpit, I find that I am mindful of all those needs and feelings I have shared with other worshippers in the pew. And I am also aware of the awesome privilege and responsibility of the preacher. Just imagine it: Your pastor and mine must step into the pulpit Sunday after Sunday and engage in this holy task called preaching. It is not easy!

But most pastors come to that task eager to tell the Story. And every person in the pew is equally eager to hear it. The style of preaching is not nearly as important as its substance and the evidence that both the preacher and those who receive the message have taken this holy moment seriously.

Preaching is serious business. It cannot be the occasion for pastoral entertainment or theological calisthenics. Clichés are just that—clichés. Rather, the preacher has an opportunity to make a difference in the life of each listener. And believe me, someone in the pew is waiting to hear the Word from the Lord just so they can make it through the rest of that day or the next week. Some of them may even be trying to decide if life is worth living at all.

Yes, I agree with the parishioner who sent me that message some 25 years ago. No one—neither preacher no worshipper—should leave the sanctuary feeling that their time was wasted!

Retired Bishop White is the denomination’s Endorsing Agent for Chaplain Ministries and bishop-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, in Atlanta.

Steve Horn

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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