It's a quiet Sunday morning in summer. A mother takes her toddler to the park and sits on a bench to watch him play. At first he busies himself at her feet, digging in the dirt. Then he ventures a little farther out, looking back to make sure she's still watching.
Eventually, he goes as far as the swing set. But as he leans on the seat it swings away from him and he falls to the ground. Startled, but not seriously hurt, he runs back to his mother, crying. She brushes him off, kisses his "owie," and off he goes again, but a little farther this time, in ever enlarging circles, away from her.
Across the street, a church service is letting out and people are dribbling through the doors, shaking the minister's hand. They have just participated in the same exercise as the mother and child. They've drawn close to a parental figure--to God--who they rely on for love, comfort and guidance. And now they're moving back out into the larger circles of their lives where their wits and resourcefulness will have to be enough. It's known as "managed regression."
The Grubb Institute, a British sociological think tank, issued a paper in 1984, titled, "The Task of the Church and the Role of Its Members." Its author, Bruce Reed, argued that, according to the psychological theory of "oscillation," we are always moving back and forth between self-reliance and dependence on others. The church, he said, helps us manage this natural process, by ritualizing it.
In the Eucharist, for instance, we assume a childlike stance, praising our heavenly parent ("sucking up," some might call it), acknowledging our faults and shortcomings, receiving both forgiveness and instruction, and then internalizing--quite literally, through the taking of bread and wine--the strength we require to return to our work-a-day world.
Other things can happen in church. Our bonds are strengthened with our church "family"; we are re-rooted in a particular story that inspires and motivates us; and we are reminded that we each have a role to play in making the world a better place, reflective of God's realm, heaven on earth. But its essential task is a simple one.
The church serves our need to take a load off from time to time and rely on someone else for a change, on God. It may not sound particularly ennobling, but this pattern--of going "home," where we are picked up and dusted off--is not a bad way to prepare ourselves to move back out again into the world, where we belong.
Next week: The Task of the Church: Learning to Love