Preaching to `irregulars'

March 31, 2002|By Donna Schaper

MIAMI - There is one big prohibition and a half dozen permissions when it comes to preaching to the Easter-only crowd.

The prohibition is obvious: make no reference to the obvious fact that you haven't seen much of them lately.

Reward the positive behavior; do not punish the past. Punishment only works when we catch people in the act. That means we can call them some Sundays at 10 a.m. and get somewhere with negative remarks. When a family or person has come back, it is prodigal time. It is welcome time. It is a time for feast and great joy.

Toe-dippers in Christianity deserve the same respect as the fully immersed. Jesus may even prefer some of these skeptics to those of us who have become self-righteously convinced. Manners are everything on Easter and other big crowd days.

More positively, what we can do is to make sure the service is as transparent as possible. It should be simple and short. The bulletin needs to be readable by someone in the sixth grade. It needs to make sense. There need to be no "little" mistakes like forgetting the "to stand" asterisk on the last hymn so the newcomer doesn't know to stand, even though the regulars do. There need to be no bulletin bloopers that cause an "irregular" to feel dumber than he or she already feels.

Think about the irregulars as feeling as if they are wearing a big sign, "I'm new." Think from their side of the pew as the service is prepared. If there is a sharing of the peace or physical time in the service when people greet each other with the kiss or handshake of peace, make sure it is fully explained before it happens.

Also, this Sunday is not the time for the preacher to tell everything he or she knows about the Resurrection. Simple is better. Short is best. People who aren't coming to church regularly have probably been bruised by church. Either people or preachers have insulted them. We need to take very few risks in repeating whatever behavior originally offended.

If regular Christians are getting nervous about your manners by now, good. You might want to take a look at a painting as a form of spiritual preparation for the service. I recommend Chagall's Crucifixion. There we see a jumbo crowd beneath the cross of Jesus. There we find a quiet and meditative way to prepare ourselves spiritually as well as practically for our Easter guests.

Gaze at (Russian Jewish) Chagall's crowd and be reminded once again that salvation is "what all flesh shall see together."

Or think of Easter and its guests as boarding a jumbo jet. A child speaking three languages will sit ahead of us in claustrophobic community. A family of five will occupy the middle seat, all playing cards and giggling. The boys will be poking each other.

Some of the guests will have just discovered that they have cancer. Others will have been beaten by their spouses the night before. Still others will have discovered marijuana in their children's sneakers.

We ride this jet, we enter this Holy Service of the Easter Festival, all together beneath the cross of Jesus, clutter clutched to our hearts, self-preservation continuing its old drum beat, in the air, on the ground, wherever.

The cross makes us new. How? In how we address the person in the seat next to us. The new will come in new relationships, just as Jesus warned eternally, saying that he lived and died so that we might love one another.

The new will be in relationships to what we don't know but do want to know about each other. The new will be in little packages, packed tightly beneath the cross of Jesus, in urgent expectation.

Donna Schaper, senior pastor of the Coral Gables Congregational Church in Florida, is the author of Spiritual Rock Gardening (Paulist Press, 2000).

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