- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003

The following are excerpts of a sermon by the Rev. Carl O. Bickel at the United Parish of Bowie.

Local churches are often separated by class. H. Richard Niebuhr made this observation in his classic book, “The Social Sources of Denominationalism.” For example, if you worship in an Episcopal Church you will tend to find more affluent people than if you worship down the road in another type of church.

Some people who “market” the church have spoken of the “homogeneous unit principle.” According to this perspective a church should target a certain kind of person and seek to gather like-minded people so that everyone will be pretty much alike and hence more comfortable. Should, however, our unity be based on class or what gives comfort? What about there being neither Jew nor Greek in Christ?

I don’t believe we’ve ever had a cabdriver come to our church. I have thought of buying an old, beat-up cab with, say, 400,000 miles on it. I would have it cheaply painted bright orange, and park it day after day very visibly in our parking lot. This would tell all cabbies they are welcome here. I probably won’t do it, but the idea pushes us in the right direction.

Should the unity of a church be based on race? Is it not regrettable that there is such separation of the races during worship? Should our unity be based on our all thinking alike in the details of theology? Should our unity be grounded in our commonly held social or political views? What about unity based on age — all youth here and all older people over there?

I recall in the earlier days of this church that we did not have anyone in the congregation over the age of 40. We were a ghetto of young adults and children. Then one day a couple in their early 60s joined our congregation. How pleased everyone was. This couple would probably have felt more comfortable being with people closer to their own age. Yet they gave up this comfort.

They brought a quality to our church that we wanted very much and that has enriched our lives. They are still with us today, and some who were in their 30s and are in their 60s now, but we always want to retain age diversity.

Should our unity be based on our preferences in music? In earlier times, people fought over theology. Today churches sometimes are in terrible conflict over the kind of music that should be in worship, should it be contemporary or traditional? Doesn’t it make sense to have more than one musical style in worship? Can we not learn to appreciate or at least tolerate music that may not be our first preference but that for someone else is profoundly important? Within certain parameters isn’t music from different cultures and different eras appropriate in the same worship service?

Reaching out to people is crucially important, but sacrificing unity in Christ to comfort and preferences is too high a price to pay. We have much to learn from people who are different than we are. When the church follows or acquiesces in the expedient of pandering to everyone’s comfort level, it simply contributes to divisions and even hostility between groups in our culture.

We are united in the midst of our differences by Christ, and we are united to serve. To say that we want to serve is, for some, evidence of mental illness. Mother Teresa was thought by some to be mentally unstable when she announced she wanted to work among the poorest of the poor. A life of service is, however, integral to the Christian faith.

God is the focus of our worship, not our self-focused feelings. We thus speak of the “service of worship.” We serve by worshipping God. We also serve by sharing the gospel.

If a church has many good ministries but falls short in this task, it is failing to serve others at the level of their deepest need. No other institution in society has this explicit purpose. The private and public sharing of the gospel was the primary focus of the early church.

We serve by nourishing and teaching one another in the faith. This teaching and nourishing keeps us from giving up our faith when we might need it most or when we might be in a position to use it and make a substantial difference to people. We serve individually by living out the gospel in our homes, our schools, and our places of work.

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