--A church congregation functioning at its best is a beautiful thing to experience. In today's world and in the times in which we now live, people need compassion more than ever. A church can offer things that perhaps people have not considered. It can provide camaraderie for the lonely, aid those in financial straits, wrap its collective arms around those who have lost loved ones, and assist in most of the ways anyone would need help.
I was recently reminded of this while attending a funeral service. My heart was stirred as I watched fellow church members shower the bereaved family with love, prayers, and home-cooked meals. About a week after the funeral, I called to see how the family was doing. One of the sons told me: "Our pastor has been so faithful, and we've really felt God's love through all of the members reaching out to us. We're gonna be OK."
In this era of televangelism and celebrity preachers, the significance of the humble local church is easy to miss. I think we need to take a second look. Often low-tech, but loving, the church is a place where members serve God by serving others. Relationships.Time. It's a golden rule of the Christian world: When someone is hurting, be there.
Of the more than 384,000 Christian congregations in America, most number fewer than 125 worshippers on any given Sunday morning. Most will never podcast their sermons, much less garner prime-time media coverage. Week after week, most churches quietly continue to go about their two-millenia-old mission.
Economics and market forces are leaving church offering plates less full than usual for this time of year. A recent study predicts that giving to churches will decrease by some 3 billion to 5 billion dollars during this fourth quarter. It is estimated that about a third of all families who regularly contribute to a church will donate less than usual this quarter.
Nearly 40 percent of churches are currently offering financial counseling for those who are having monetary struggles. An estimated 52 percent of churches (both Protestant and Catholic) have programs in place "to provide food, clothing, and basic needs" for those in economic straits.
I believe that America's churches are every bit as important today as they were in 1835, when Alexis de Tocqueville penned this observation: "Not until I went into America's churches and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her greatness and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ceases to be good, she will cease to be great."
But many today would disagree with de Tocqueville. Scores of the students I meet on college campuses (and virtually all professors) indicate a tacit agreement with the sentiment expressed in the title of Christopher Hitchen's book "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything." But any time I begin to worry about the church's role in society I remember that caring about people will always be relevant.
I think about people I've met along my ecclesiological journeys throughout America. People like Ed, who vol-untarily fitted his pickup truck with expensive devices to keep the meals he transports to area shuts-in hot. I think about Joel, a busy college student who organized a group of his peers to sing and entertain residents in a rest home each week--just because. I think about Lynn, a retired international airline stewardess who speaks fluently half a dozen languages. For years, she has led literacy courses for immigrants and taught English as a Second Language classes to hundreds--through her local church.
The church affirms life at every stage, provides fellowship, community, instruction, and care of the soul. Churches carry out their all-important function of teaching people about God, the Bible, Jesus, and salvation. Churches teach people of all ages how to worship and how to serve, how to live and how to die.
Next Christmas season, if you didn't do it this one, take in a poorly performed church Christmas play, and appreciate the fact that it was probably funded out-of-pocket by the same person recruited to direct it. Join in singing some carols that may be accompanied by an out-of-tune piano, and marvel at the beauty of withered hands that can still play in public past age 75. Let the clergyman know that his message inspired you, and thank his wife for investing in the souls of others.
Make church a part of your experience this coming year. Do more this year than just mail a check to a nonprofit organization. Say a prayer of thanks for your local churches. And tell the great untold story of the church. It might be the story someone needs to hear at this time in America.
Alex McFarland serves as president of Southern Evangelical Seminary and the Veritas Graduate School.