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Love for Easter-only worshippers

How one pastor’s investment in a theology of belonging has liberated him from resentment.

Photo by Matt on Unsplash

I have a love for those folks who come to worship only once a year. I think they are unfairly made the butt of jokes. Moreover, while they are welcome to return to worship, I don’t have expectations that most, if any will (at least not until Christmas Eve).

Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely rely on dedicated volunteers, people who are present every time the church opens its doors — the people who have keys to unlock the doors! Those who prepare communion elements and change the vestments, who sing in the choir and ring the handbells, who make coffee and clean the kitchen. We call our dedicated grounds team the Holy Mowers and the Garden Angels!

I also depend on volunteers to carry the ministry of our congregation beyond our church doors. To volunteer with our meal-delivery ministry; to attend our monthly gathering with the Black Baptist church; to visit members in the hospital and deliver meals to grieving families and so much, much more.

Yet, I believe that the person who shows up only at Easter belongs just as much as the most invested person, whether a giver of time, talent or treasure.

We belong because of grace, not works.

I don’t think that I neglect our congregation’s volunteers. I thank them regularly and try my best to support them, including with prayer.

At the same time, I’ve found it freeing to believe that we all belong regardless of attendance or stewardship. I am liberated from resenting folks who are not active. I can have empathy for different situations, which might explain their church-going habits. I can have humility that Spirit-led lives might take another form than participation in the faith community in which I serve.

Most of all, I think it’s true that comparison is the thief of joy. Appreciating people for who they are, when they are present, has led to unexpected gifts of delight. It’s given me a new perspective on my own efforts toward ministry.

After our 11:00 Easter service this year, I found myself next to a first-time visitor. We exchanged pleasantries. He pulled out his phone, which I took to mean that our conversation was over. Instead, he pulled up my public Facebook page and pointed to a little poem that I’d dashed off in a moment’s inspiration that very morning:

Easter morning and the birds sing,
“The Lord is risen.”
Yes, O feathered hope with wings,
the Lord is risen indeed.

“That’s why I came today,” he said. I smiled and thanked him, thinking about how much more time I had given to crafting words for the liturgy, prayers and sermon. But no one knows what going to connect, or how someone will just happen to be at the right place at the right time, even online. It could be that my prepared remarks or occasional improvision from the pulpit stir someone’s heart; or, a line in a prayer, a refrain in a hymn; or, a smile from a friend, stranger or child; or, something in the way the tops of the trees sway in the wind, visible through the large, clear windows of our sanctuary. The point is that it is bigger than me or anyone else. And grace abounds for all, whether they attend regularly or rarely, rather they preach or sing or scroll social media. We can’t quantify it with attendance or budgets, spreadsheets or programs. You just never know how the Spirit will work.

Last Sunday, I merely told this newcomer that he was welcome back anytime. He shrugged, “Maybe I’ll come back.”

I smiled wider. I’d take it.