I spend my days working with and for people who go to church, govern the church, promote the church, care about the church, worry about the church. That has been so, with relatively brief breaks, since 1977 when I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. My contact with and knowledge about “unchurched” people comes from articles and surveys I read. (The “dechurched” and “believers not belongers” are a different story.) Even when I worked for a law firm in the late ‘70s, my employer was a respected Presbyterian elder, and the secretary was a faithful Roman Catholic.

I grew up in a very religious home. Bibles everywhere. Nightly devotionals led by my dad. Sunday school plus worship twice on Sunday from the time I was a kid. No liquor. Strict morals. Disapproving looks and stern lectures.

What a surprise then to discover in my late mother’s diary that as a child and teen she was unchurched. And also what an insight into how someone who comes to faith as an adult regards the rituals that I have taken for granted all my life.

She recounts how when she was 19, in late February 1951, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Albany, GA came by her home, following up on word from “someone” that she wanted to join the church. She recounts how the next Sunday she was “baptisted” (Freudian slip or simply poor spelling, I’m not sure). Apparently in that day in the Presbyterian Church in the South there were no classes required, no examination by the session, no preparation of any kind. Or maybe Mama simply didn’t consider any of that important to mention.

In that era, the Presbyterian Church did not emphasize the sacraments much at all, so “the Lord’s Supper” as the Eucharist was always called, was “observed” or “administered” (never “celebrated”) only quarterly. And always by passing trays in the pews, with little pillow-shaped pieces of cracker and shot glasses of grape juice. Mama’s comment on her first Communion, which wasn’t until the summer after her “baptisting” was one word: “interesting.” (That was the same thing she said when she first saw a TV show.)

I’m not sure what to make of that relatively emotionally flat assessment, though I think for her it was high praise. At least she didn’t say Communion was boring or incomprehensible or frightening. And knowing Presbyterian practice in that day, “interesting” was probably the best one could say. “Celebratory,” “joyful” or “spiritually uplifting” would not have fit the somber ritual of dark-suited old men serving the congregation while sad music played on the organ. (The Lord’s Supper in the Presbyterian Church of that day was always a reminder of the death of Jesus, at which the appropriate action was to weep over one’s sins that killed him.)

Reading Mama’s comment on her first Communion started me thinking about how someone brand new to faith or an unchurched person simply coming to observe these days would regard Holy Communion, the Eucharist, in my congregation. Would it merely elicit a non-committal, emotionally void response? Would it puzzle or perturb? Or would it inspire; amaze; delight; nourish; bring tears, not of sorrow, but of joy; invite an entrance into mystery?

If somehow I found out, that would be interesting.

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.