Friday, January 3, 2014

The Spiritual Benefits of Kristkindl Markt.

Every year, the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ in Kansas City, transforms itself on the first week of December into a German Christmas village complete with bratwursts and streusel,  choirs that sing in German and a real liederhosen-wearing oompah band.  This is what I wrote a few weeks ago about what I think that event means for our community of faith.

The Spiritual Benefits of Kristkindl Markt
I know that we are almost at Christmas and the 2014 Kristkindl Markt (KKM) is now in our collective rear view mirror, but before we rush into the new year, I want us as a congregation to reflect upon what this event means to our collective life together.  I still find it funny that out of all the UCC churches in western Missouri we are the one who turns our building into a German Christmas village complete with beer and brats along with a lederhosen-wearing oopah band.  Most of the UCC churches in Missouri were founded by German immigrants who were a part of the Evangelical Church, one of the four denominations that became the United Church of Christ.  When I look through the events of UCC churches in MO they are full of Oktoberfests and other events from their German heritage.  Our church was founded by Congregationalists--one of the other three denominations that became the UCC--who somehow wandered to Kansas City from the northeast United States.  We have some members with German ancestry, but CCCUCC never heard sermons in German or taught the Heidelburg Catechism.  No, we have a German festival that attracts thousands of attendees each year, because we had a pastor, Roger Kube, along with his wife Diane who visited Germany and saw Kristkindl Markts there and thought it would be a nice community outreach to Brookside.  Over twenty years later, our church is still doing it--not because of our Teutonic heritage but because its fun.

When I came here in September 2012, I was told I needed to experience KKM to believe it--boy was I bowled over by the line out the door (it was warm last year) for brats.  There are many church buildings in the area that people pass right by and have no connection with, so I can think of a lot worse things to be known for than the church with the German festival.  The worst of all is to not be known for anything.  It's a wonderful way to expose people from across the city to our beautiful building and are welcoming congregation.  Each year I'm touched by the young people who grew up making gingerbread houses at Christmastime who return home from college and come by for a visit.  This year I was not the only one touched by our two Father Christmases (Harold Ivan Smith and John Ellington).  The children's eyes lit up when Father "Harold Ivan" Christmas greeted them.  Also, Father "John" Christmas made a special effort to make it down to the gingerbread houses to interact with a disabled child in a wheelchair.  This is good stuff!

KKM also provides a necessary amount of money for our annual operating budget (this year it looks like around $13,000).  I know that when it was first started their was discussion about giving all the proceeds to missions and outreach, but lean times since then have made those proceeds necessary for operations.  Still, this year we raised $2000 for Operation Breakthrough thanks to donations from families constructing gingerbread houses.  Perhaps, if our stewardship and annual pledges continue to increase in years to come, proceeds from KKM can all go to missions. 

In addition to making our church a known entity in our community and raising money for our annual budget, I want to draw your attention to the spiritual benefits of doing an event like KKM.  A big chunk of the proceeds is due to donations of cash and in-kind donations given by church members.  Also, it takes hundreds and hundreds of volunteer hours to run the event and months of planning beforehand.  There are easier ways to make money and there are other ways to get the word out about the church.  Why keep doing it year after year? 

If we didn't do KKM each year, then we would need to do something like it for our church to thrive.  I'm not really even talking about attracting new members or raising funds; rather I'm talking about relationships.  KKM provides numerous opportunities for people to work together for a common purpose and to build relationships with one another.  It's a great way for people new to the church to get involved without making a huge commitment, and for those who are averse to serving on boards and committees to give time and talents to the church.  There's a lot of work that goes into KKM, but there is also a lot of laughter that occurs at KKM serving on the food line, busing tables and keeping the gingerbread house construction going. 

These kind of social interactions are what makes a community of faith a real community.  Here's an example.  Robert Putnam and David Campbell have a book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, in which they talk about charitable giving.  Research continues to show that thee is a direct correlation between how religious a person is and how charitable a person is.  While there are exceptions, religious people give the most to charity, especially religiously affiliated charities from their own local congregations to groups like the Salvation Army.  Conventional Wisdom would say that religious people give, because their religion values giving.  This is not the major factor, however.  The biggest factor in a religious person's financial giving (as well as time, talents, etc.) is social ties.  The more connected a religious person feels to a group the more she or he will give.  One can be a dedicated never-miss-a-Sunday churchgoer, but if one does not have significant relationships in that religious community she or he will give far less, if any at all.  A church's health depends upon the social networks within it.

People doing work together, such as sorting used Christmas ornaments, serving bratwursts, making gingerbread houses, etc. builds community--relationships that result in friendship and emotional support.  I can remember when I first became a minister reading a list of qualities in a healthy church, and one of them was how often church members see each other outside of church activities.  I had never thought about that, but since then I have been in churches where many of the members only saw each other on Sunday mornings and you could tell a real difference in terms of community.  Of course, socialization can go too an unhealthy extreme where the church becomes a clique rather than a worshiping and serving community, but more commonly, I think, churches fail to thrive, because their members really are not friends with one another.

During the final week of preparations before KKM, I read with interest a column by Frank Bruni in the New York Times called "The Families We Invent."   Bruni was moved by the stories he read in a book Ties That Bind,  put out by Storycorps--if you listen to NPR you will be familiar with the recorded conversations between people aired weekly.  Many of the moving relationships told in first-person narrative in the book were by blood relatives, but some of the most meaningful stories were from people related by choice rather than blood. 

Bruni writes the following:

"A slight majority of the pairs in the book are linked by DNA, marriage or such. They're kin in the conventional sense. But what struck me most forcefully was how many others had found extraordinary, enduring intimacy outside of that context, stretching the definition of family, making clear that it's not just or even chiefly about common genes, common beds.

"It's about common needs, common generosity. It's an act of will as much as an accident of birth. That's worth remembering during this merrymaking, reunion-heavy season, when "family" is usually invoked in terms too narrowly traditional. They fail to recognize that former schoolmates, fellow churchgoers, neighbors or other friends can mean every bit as much to you as any actual relatives do. They fail to acknowledge how many people have been let down by those relatives, and have forged a family of their own invention."

I read these words while KKM decorations were going up and I couldn't help but think that they described pretty well what we are up to in our own little German Christmas village.  We are creating family together.  It's a good thing that Kristkindl Markt translated means "Christ child Market," because at the heart of the story of Christmas is the story of God creating a family.  God creating a family is also at the heart of the Christian religion--a family not made by blood ties but by ties of love. 

Grace and Peace,


No comments: