...but I don't go to church. I just, I absolutely believe in God, I just don't think you have to go to church to believe in God."
...said the grieving son as we met at the funeral home. His mother had just passed away in a town several hours from mine, but the family was returning to bury her remains next to those of her late husband. I had never met the family before that day.
The husband assured that they were Lutheran (apparently getting married in a Lutheran church building qualifies one to be Lutheran these days) and that he and his wife had gotten baptized "after the wedding". Deceased mom apparently never felt the need to have her children baptized, despite telling them stories about how her mother had read her Bible stories at bedtime.
So, "we believe in God, we're just not really church-going people, you know? I don't think you have to go to church to believe in God."
I nodded non-judgmentally and pressed the conversation further, "Tell me more about your mom," I said, as I suppressed my eye-rolling.
After a few more minutes with the family, I returned home to work on a memorial service/homily for this woman and her family who "believe in God, but don't need to go to church." And the more I thought about it, the more frustrated I became. "If you don't need the church," I thought, "then why do you need me, a representative of the church? Why don't you just do your own funeral?"
And then I remembered a seminary professor who once told me that the purpose of the church is to teach us how to die. At the time, I didn't really understand her point, but I think I'm beginning to get it.
Anybody can (I didn't say should, just can) baptize. No stained-glass windows? Well, a lot of modern churches these days are terribly ugly anyway - get married in a botanical garden if "beautiful setting" is that important to you. But death? That's different. Even people - families - who don't want a funeral "in church", want a pastor to do the funeral home service or graveside committal. And I suppose that's something in our spirits that cries out for hope, for promises, for someone to tell them, in the face of "the end", that this isn't really the end. I suppose it's something crying out to hear that, although they've forgotten God, God hasn't forgotten them. And fortunately, we have a God that does that.
It proves that "I believe in God, but I don't need the church" is a complete lie. Even if the person saying it isn't aware that it's a lie. Because as a representative of the church, I can offer up prayers about God's merciful arms. I can strip any semblance of theological sophistication from a homily. I can pray the Lord's Prayer on my own, and coach the proper response to intercessory prayers. I can read very basic, very simple, very common Scripture passages - but in the end, I don't know if this family has any idea at all what I'm talking about.
Because the prayers, the liturgy, the language, the Scriptures, the rites, the rituals all "belong", in a sense, to the Church. Even if the ancient wording is "translated" out of "King James English" and into something more vernacular, it still presumes a familiarity with the faith, with the promises of Christ, with the images of Scripture.
And so, leaving the Holy Spirit out of it for just a moment (we'll get right back to that), it's hard to know what to say. Because the Church created the rituals - selected the Scriptures, wrote the prayers - for individuals who belong to the Church, who hold to the hope of eternal life promised by Jesus Christ. And it isn't so much that God isn't - or can't be - merciful to those outside the faith. And none of us knows for sure the state of anyone's heart at the moment of death. But to do a service, and preach the essentials of the faith - for a group of people thoroughly uninterested in it every other day of their lives - is a nigh-unto-impossible task.
(And yes, who knows but that the pastor in this situation might be there for such a time as this - perhaps the Holy Spirit will indeed use this time of loss and despair to bring a grieving family to himself. And we should always hold out such hope, trusting that God works as he sees fit, and in his mysterious timing. We have a big, big God. But that's not really my point.)
My point is that, for anyone who says, "I believe in God, but I don't need to go to church," the answer is, "Well, actually, yes, yes you do." Because the Church teaches us how to die. She teaches us how to die ourselves, and she teaches us how to handle the death of a loved one. We have prayers and Scriptures and rituals and rites for just this occasion. But if you don't ever participate in the life of the Church, they will be meaningless (although not powerless) in the face of The Last Enemy.
"Christ loved the Church, giving himself up for her."
But if you and your loved ones have consciously declared that you don't need the Church, then how is the Church to explain her Lover and his promises in your hour of need?
**And yet we proclaim them all the more - we know not what seed will be planted, and while we give no illusion for false hope, we continually announce the good news of Jesus Christ for all who have ears to hear.
But you need the Church.