A Pastoral Message from Christ Church
This past week while I was getting soft serve ice cream at a local dairy stand in Stillwater, I started up a conversation with a married couple and their dog. All three were enjoying ice cream. The couple were in their early 60s, with children and grandchildren who live in the area. They were friendly and curious about why my license plates are from Virginia. I told them I recently became a farm-owner in Stillwater and that I am looking forward to years to come of weekend and summer visits while I teach at the Episcopal Seminary in Virginia.
What brought me such joy was hearing about their love of this area. They are Catholic but have tried multiple Catholic Churches over the years and have never really felt at home because some of their personal convictions don’t line up with Catholic doctrines. Now that their children are on their own, they admitted to no longer attending church. They called themselves “spiritual but not very religious.”
Those of us who do research at seminaries know from polling that many people in this same demographic (empty-nesters, married and unmarried people over fifty) are attending church less and less. COVID did not create this trend; it has existed since the 1960s, with more and more people over the decades finding other ways to spend their Sundays than in religious community and worship. It is very common for good people to call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” According to Gallup polling, there are more ‘spiritual but not religious’ people in the country under 50 years old than there are ‘religious’ people.
But back to the soft serve couple. They eventually talked about Christ Church in Newton. They named so many members of our Church here with fondness and respect and love. They told me about the ministries, the volunteering, and the social events at church. They shared with me stories of how members of this church have loved them, done favors for them or their children over the years, helped them through grief, accompanied them on trips and prayed for them in times of need. They spoke of Christ Church as a spiritual pillar in this community and, in their own lives.
Jesus told his followers: “The world will know you are my followers if you love one another.” It was obvious that this couple has been loved well by many members of Christ Church. There is no greater evangelism than love. All the words and the sermons and the emails we could send can never be as powerful as the love we show the world. There is a classic phrase from the Quakers: Let your life speak. Clearly, I met two people who have been loved and, therefore, transformed by Christ Church. Your lives have spoken love.
In the Anglican Tradition and the Episocopal Church, we believe in the notion of ‘a parish.’ A ‘parish’ is not just the building: it is also the geographic boundaries of the building’s ministry, established by Bishops and Vestries when churches are founded. This makes us different than other Protestant denominations. Presbyterians or Baptists are called ‘gathered churches.’ They believe that God gathers believers into a church to love one another and to love the world by reaching out from the church. The point is to ‘gather’ people in a community into the church.
We are different. We believe that God calls people to establish church buildings for worship and learning and sacramental life and music. But our parish bounds are geographic, not based on belief. Episcopal Churches are spiritually responsible for loving everyone and every business and community within their parish bounds. We do not love conditionally, intending to make Episcopalians or church members out of those within our bounds, though we rejoice if God calls them to membership. Our vocation is to love everyone and the natural environment within our bounds. I love this part of our faith. To be a member of an Episcopal Church is to accept the call to love those in our bounds and let our lives speak. The goal is that anyone walking or driving by Christ Church might point to our red doors and say, “Those are the kindest and most loving people in this town.” We don’t just gather people in, we spread ourselves out to love Newton, the region and the world.
What a gift to me to hear a couple declare that they love soft serve ice cream, and, that the love coming from Christ Church has been a rock in their lives and in this community for decades. Amen.
The Reverend Dr. Patricia Lyons