Funny Thing About Church Services…


People Come Together on Sunday (or Friday, or Saturday…) for Very Different Reasons

First, an acknowledgment. I am likely the least religious person you will ever encounter. Still, I maintain an active membership in the Unitarian Universalist community. I attend services and other activities with some measure of regularity. I support the organization with time, talent, and treasure in a conscious manner.

I attended a service this past Sunday (and a fine one it was). I reflected, as I often do during a service, on why I was there. What was it that made me decide that this was where I wished to be? But more importantly, I asked myself, why is everyone here? What brings all these people together? The answer is not as obvious as one may think.

People have described these regular gatherings under religious auspices in many ways. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that 11 AM Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America. He is still pretty much on target with that observation. But there is a clue in that fact.

The clue is that for many people, this is an important social time. For many of them that means they gravitate to groups of people that look, sound, and think like they do. That is a lost opportunity, even a wasted opportunity, but there we are.

Still, such gatherings have the potential to teach and expand. I began regularly attending services a couple of decades ago. I was clear about what I wanted and what I did not want. I was there first for intellectual stimulation. I wanted a place to think and talk about the big, tough questions. I wanted a place of contemplation and meditation. Talk of social justice issues seemed a distraction. Music, while often pleasant, seemed an interruption. Spare me anything that smacked of theology or doctrine.

Those are still my priorities, but as my exposure to my chosen community grew, so too did my expectations. I learned that without a social justice commitment, talk of values by a religious community was hollow. I came to appreciate that music has a core value beyond words of explanation. I remain profoundly unreligious. But I have learned to engage spiritual and mystical issues in a rewarding way.

Community engagement taught me to look wider and deeper than I would have on my own. Far more importantly, I learned a valuable lesson that may be summed up in the phrase: “It’s not always about you.”

For several years I was a member of a congregation served by a minister whose view of things synced with mine. One Sunday, she began a service in a very changed manner. The sermon was full of deeplyreligious words and iconography. Some of us were looking at each other as if to ask, “What the heck is going on here?”

About then, the minister stopped the sermon and asked a question. “So, are all you atheists and agnostics getting uncomfortable yet?” Yes, we were. Her point was that every service is not always about you.

Sure enough, from time to time I find myself in a service that is not connecting for me. I don’t care for how the topic is being developed, the speaker doesn’t move me, the format seems awkward. Then I look around the room and I see on other faces that the opposite is true for them. This service is exactly what they needed. And that is good enough for me. It need not be about me every time.

Gatherings like this are unique in that people come with very different expectations. Some come to be social. Some are present to live out their values. Still others seek answers, consolation, or challenge. Some want their curiosity addressed or their children taught what is important. I don’t know of any other regular gathering that brings such diversity in motivation. What an opportunity that provides.

Wouldn’t it be great if we all developed a new habit before entering all our social, political, or other gatherings? What if we repeated to ourselves the internal mantra, “It’s not always about me. What can I do to serve others today?”

I like the sound of that. How about you?

     Bill Clontz

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4 replies to Funny Thing About Church Services…

  1. You are on the money with this one. Thank you for the good reminder that what is spectacular to me, may not be the same to others even when those others are friends you value and cherish.It’s not always about ourselves. Thanks!

  2. Excellent, Bill! I finally realized that most things are not about me, and that has become very helpful.

  3. This explains pretty well my reasons for attending UU as well. In ranking reasons I put “Community” first, incorporating empathy for the mixed reasons others in attendance find meaningful. I’m copying your blog to send to those asking why an atheist finds it important to attend church and support a “religious” community..

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