What Are You Seeking When You Come to Church?

A Lutheran pastor, Diane Roth, wrote a post on her blog last week contemplating how we answer the question, "What are you looking for?" in the context of our faith and church membership. She observes that it sounds like a marketing question, a question about what programs, events, and emphases will entice us to participate in a church community. But she notes that when Jesus asks this question of his disciples—"What are you looking for?"—they respond wisely (unusual for them!) with only silence. Roth writes:

...[W]hen Jesus asks those two would-be disciples the question, they don't answer him. They don't answer the question. I think this was a moment of brilliance for the disciples (who are not known for often being brilliant, to tell the truth). They did not answer Jesus' question, "What are you looking for?" To me, this simple silence is at the heart of the difference between faith formation and Christian education. Christian Education is a menu of choices as we grow in our preferred direction of faith development. In that scenario Jesus asks you the question, "What are you looking for?" and you tell him, and he designs a curriculum to fit your needs. But in Faith Formation, when Jesus asks us the question, "What are you looking for?", there is silence. There is silence, first of all, because we realize that we don't know what we're looking for, not exactly, except that it has something to do with light, and something to do with an ache in our heart. We check our pockets to see if there are keys, or a quarter, or something that will help us remember who we are. "What are you looking for?" he asked us, and the best answer is silence. And in the silence, we suddenly realize that it is we who should be asking him that question. "What are you looking for, Rabbi?" In the silence, we put ourselves in his hands, we let him form us, we let him form us. We feel the weight of a piece of bread in our hands, and we see a small shaft of light near his feet.

4696352143(Read her entire post here.) What Roth is encouraging us to do, as individual Christians and as members of a faith community, is respond to the question, "What are you looking for?" not with a laundry list of wants and needs. Rather, she prods us to think more deeply about why we gather on Sunday mornings to sing and light candles and hear scripture, when the rest of the world is running five miles, devouring the Sunday paper, or sleeping in. What is it about this fellow Jesus, and about this gathering of people at St. James's who come together in his name, that illuminates some dark corner of your life, or invites you to lay down the burden of your failures and griefs, or sparks a sense of joy and well-being that can go missing in the busy chaos of daily life? Or perhaps you haven't even experienced any illumination or laying down of burdens or spark of joy, but come to church for some reason you can't even name?

What are you looking for?

As a Vestry member and someone involved in adult formation classes, I am certainly interested in the laundry list of ideas, the concrete programs and events that could make St. James's an even more vibrant and welcoming community. But in this post, I'm not referring to the laundry list. As we ponder the question, "What are you looking for?" let's move beyond ideas. A cappuccino station at coffee hour, more (or fewer?) puns in Curtis's sermons, a cookie bake-off for those of us who don't like chili, chimes like the ones used at the Oscars to let Bob know when the announcements have gone on long enough, full-day Sunday school so that parents can take naps after church—all wonderful ideas. But at a deeper level, what is it, really, that we are seeking when we come to church? What is it about a community centered on Jesus that draws us in? How have we felt the weight of the bread or seen the shafts of light at Jesus's feet? Are we seeking something to do with light, or perhaps something to do with an ache in our hearts?

Answering these questions isn't simply an exercise in poetic pondering. Answering these questions, as individuals and as a community, can help us be more focused and intentional when deciding which programs, events, and activities are most valuable. There are plenty of opportunities in a place like West Hartford to get good food and coffee, to hear inspiring speakers, to do community service, and to enroll our kids in activities. When we come to church, we find those things, but we are fundamentally looking for something else that other groups and activities don't provide. What is that something for you?

Ellen Painter Dollar is a professional writer and member of St. James’s Episcopal Church. She blogs for St. James’s every Monday, offering reflections on current events, family life, and parish life.

Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Her articles, blog posts, book chapters, and books have been published by the Christian Century, GeneWatch Magazine, the New York Times‘s Motherlode blog, OnFaith,Brain, Child Magazine, the Episcopal Cafe, Christianity Today, the Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) Foundation, Virtual Mentor (the American Medical Association’s online journal of ethics), and more. She blogs about faith, family, disability, and ethics at Patheos.