Most people who attend church on Sunday mornings are employed in so-called “secular” professions and public institutions like hospitals and schools during the week. Younger people are under pressure from school or academic life. They all come to worship on Sunday mornings with lived realities of work, home, neighborhood and personal journey on their minds. But in my lifetime in the church, I have experienced little in worship and preaching that connects with week-long lived realities of working people. My own twenty years of preaching, long past, did not engage the working realities of the people.
In recent conversations, one professional congregant who had been a lifelong leader in the congregation, explained why he discontinued attending Sunday services: “It’s a waste of my time.” Another businessman, who gives generously and serves on several Mennonite church boards, surprised by my inquiry, responded good-naturedly, “I don’t expect the church to engage my working life. “
Biblical theology is rich in its resources for the working world of its members, beginning with a theology of creation given in the first chapters of Genesis.
The first chapters of Genesis explain that God gave humans “dominion” over all that God had made. In the “Lord’s prayer” Jesus prays that God’s will might be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” The production of “daily bread” for a hungry world, including hunger in America, is a sacred vocation. John 3:16 explains that God loves the world. The Greek word for world is “cosmos,” which according to the Greek lexicon includes the planet on which we live, as well as human beings and their physical habitat. That includes the world of work. Both Testaments are rich in themes of God’s providence, ethics and justice in governance. How can the work of business, government and economics be addressed and blessed sacramental theology!
“Sacrament’” oversimplified, is the means by which God’s grace is conveyed to the believer. Mennonites past and present may have approached grace more as a teaching than as a living reality that transcends any teaching.
One theologian defines a “sacrament” as “a rite in which created things become vehicles of God’s blessing.”
The Sacrament of Worship and Preaching
The different worship moves should throb with the “sacramental” presence of God. Pastoral or congregational prayer has a sacramental function for which ministers are ordained. The prayer should be offered by one of the pastors, not a member of the congregation. The pastoral prayer is offered out of a pastor’s engagement with God and the warp and woof of people’s living, working vocation, much beyond prayer for the sick. Protestant churches I attend occasionally have more substantial pastoral prayers than Mennonites. The half dozen Pennsylvania Mennonite churches where I have worshipped rarely include a pastoral or congregational prayer embracing the local community, nation and the world, not even the global church.
Personal and public prayers tend to be framed as “petition,” asking God to act or provide. Since God has given humans “dominion” over creation, prayers of the church should celebrate and give thanks for the resources given us, and then commit to take responsibility for the world—natural, human, personal and global, à la Genesis 1 and 2 and the overarching biblical theme of God’s providence. Might this kind of thinking transform the way humans treat the world longer term?
Should not all who come to church on a Sunday morning feel that their lived realities should be blessed by worship and the pastoral vocation? “Secular” work should be given sacramental blessing as well as the formal congregational offices, church institutions, and mission and service agencies.
The various features of worship including scriptures and music should draw all worshippers into praise and thanksgiving for what God has provided and commitment of energies and resources to God’s work in the world. The benediction, in the spirit of the blessing Jesus received after his baptism, is then offered for the people as they scatter to the highways and byways of public life.
The Sacrament of Pastoral Care
The pastoral vocation of the congregation should also be attentive to the personal, holistic journey of the people.
Sacramental space for psychological and relational life transition and soul hunger is as vital as the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist. Empathic or therapeutic listening is sacred space in which a seeker feels free to explore a troubled zone, and with resolution, comes to new functional space. Therapeutic pastoral listening enables formation, re-formation and transformation.
In the early 1990’s I had a Th.M. seminary course on “Psychology of Religion.” With the help of my professor, I designed a questionnaire, completed by twenty-four members of the congregation where I was pastor. My study compared images of God in childhood and adulthood. Pastoral visits with all the study participants reflected on the evolving personal and spiritual formation, re-formation and transformation on life’s journey. That was in fact one aspect of many pastoral visits across the congregation shared by two pastors. Nearly half of the respondents to the questionnaire said their childhood images of God had painful associations. Most of the respondents said their religious language as adults was different from the language of the congregation in which they were raised.
Parishioners, in a high trust, non-judgmental atmosphere, will explore and process personal stories, relationships or history. Faith questions are typically tangled up with earlier personal formation issues in the family. Evolving identity and solutions to problems are viewed within the parishioners’ larger life context, including family of origin, family relationships, religious journey and work. Validity is given to the parishioner’s own tentative solutions and options.
The great biblical movements of love, grace, justice, mercy and peace should transcend expectations for belief in doctrine or theology. Personal, faith and professional journeys should not be squeezed into the Nicene Creed or the Mennonite Confession of Faith.
From these rich and diverse journeys I learned that congregants’ spiritualities, scientific views and life journeys and beliefs did not fit neatly into the denominationally approved Confession of Faith or ancient creeds. This is what it means, in the words of Barbara Brown Taylor in Leaving Church to risk “taking part in stories that are still taking shape.”
If New Testament texts and writings of the prophets in the Old Testament would be understood contextually and metaphorically instead of as reconstructed history, they would reverberate socio-economically and politically in our era similar to the first century. They were all written to address the lived realities of their audience living in an empire, not as creedal statements. What more could theologians and seminaries do to resource pastors and worship resources? Perhaps a more sacramental way of being church, as described above, would encourage congregants to commit to the church, rather than leave.
Urbane Peachey, retired pastor and counselor, spent twenty-six years with Mennonite Central Committee in international development and then in peace and justice advocacy. He holds an M.Div., a Th.M. in Pastoral Care and Counseling, and a master’s in International Affairs. His book Making Wars Cease: A Survey of MCC Peace Section, 1940–1990 was recently reviewed in Anabaptist Witness by Emily Welty.
 E. J. Yarnold, “Sacramental Theology,” Westminster Dictionary of Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 516.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 107.