There are so many churches around Marysville that I lose count. It used to be easy keeping track of churches by tallying belfries, steeples and crosses but nowadays you find them settled into schools, theaters and industrial parks. About the only way to spot churches is by concentrations of cars on Sunday morning. It’s trickier on Saturday night or whenever else worshippers gather.
Apalachicola, Fla., in the far corner of the U.S., is a strip town on the Gulf that may well hold the title for the most churches and splinter-groups per thousand in the nation. Twenty-two churches line its one main street. Given that its population of 2,350 holds the usual mix of godless heathens, backsliders and barflies and that a few church regulars might choose to do some Sunday devotions from a bass-boat, the count must drop to where certain congregations could meet around a table in the park.
On the up-side, churches are where Apalachicolans do come together. They reserve time from staring at ball games or clinging to pillows to go to churches to find out how to become better people, neighbors and citizens. That’s good.
Time was when stained glass and pipe organs impressed townspeople enough to fill the pews. In those days, many a preacher made a career of literally scaring the hell out of people. Tent-meeting revivals featured preachers who could switch from the love of Jesus to hell and damnation in a single awe-inspiring breath. These things aren’t working as well today.
A new crop of preachers, believing that love is greater than fear, reach for the heart. As often as not, their parishioners pick up a conviction that there’s important work to be done out there and that if they’re to become a part of it, they have to change, too. It truly feels good to be hooked into higher purpose than being consumed by scheduling the week’s TV lineup or fluctuations in the stock market.
Churches run food banks, pre-schools, meals-on-wheels, give scholarships, host Alanon, AA, Boy Scouts, Weight-Watchers, blood bank drawings and, of course, car-washes. Churches are behind the best care facilities, hospitals, meals-on-wheels programs and they care for unfortunates who fall through the cracks in social welfare systems.
Churches have trouble competing with Sunday’s bone-jarring drama of pro-football — or a host of other attractions. People who go to church want to go, and a lot don’t. Some have been turned off from a particular church for good reasons. On the plus side, the coffee and cookies are free and it’s a chance to meet people who, on average, aren’t unhappy.
Though churches won’t put it this way, they offer a sort of insurance policy against unhappy stuff that life might throw your way. It may not cure sickness or pay past-due bills but through some mystical goings-on, it appears to set people up so they can cope with whatever ails them. Bad stuff will still happen but according to what I learned in church, life doesn’t have to get me down and if it does, it doesn’t have to hold me down.
I just visited an old buddy who’s on his final count-down. Kidneys have failed, lungs aren’t working right and his heart won’t last much longer. But he’s not down in the dumps and he’s not scared. How about that? If his time at church set him up to reflect happily on even a portion of a life well lived, that’s not bad.
Most will agree that the world seems to be going to hell on a handcart. Television and newspapers keep us up to date on the latest election fraud, mass-murder, rape, abduction, drug-bust and hanky-panky in high places. A status quo isn’t the world that parents want children to grow up with. As part of a generation that messed things up so badly, we ought to be gearing up to make things better.
When good church-type people volunteer to set things right as Peace Corps volunteers or poll watchers or whatever, their projects seldom get hung up in the restrictive world of red-tape and petty regulations. How do you regulate stuff that isn’t generating a profit—other than good will? Threats of controlling volunteerism don’t work because there’s not much in the way of assets or wages to threaten.
Churches have a lot of company in doing good works. Volunteers abound at the YMCA, in city government, Kiwanis, Scouts, Rotary, Soroptimists and Lions and so on. A check on the movers and shakers in every seat of volunteerism will show a surprising number to be church members of some kind.
If you feel so inclined, try out a church. If it doesn’t fit, try another. When you walk in, stun them with the question, “What’s in it for me?” After they pick themselves up and if you’re in the right place they’ll say, “By God, that’s the most honest question we’ve ever heard around here.” And it’s the best and most honest start.
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