Same Gender Marriage & The State: A Perspective Rooted in Freedom & Faith

2014-01-13 09.26.10

Yesterday I stood with hundreds of fellow citizens outside the doors of the Indiana State House Judiciary Committee, which held a hearing on HJR-3 – a proposed state constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. I was part of the large crowd opposing this unnecessary, anti-family proposal.

As a person of faith and as an American, I oppose HJR-3 for many reasons. Here are just a few.

  • Constitutions ensure, rather than deny, certain rights and protections.
    This proposed constitutional amendment would prohibit a class of citizens from eventually accessing a body of legal protections available to the general population, and would limit the ability of future legislatures and courts to provide that class of citizens with those legal protections.
  • Democracies don’t vote on legal protections for minority groups. All are equal under the law.
    If passed by the legislature, HJR-3 would lead to a general election vote on whether a minority group should ever have the chance to access certain legal protections that are enjoyed by the general population. In this case the minority group is gay and lesbian citizens. Which minority group will be next to have their legal protections determined by the majority’s vote?
  • Marriage doesn’t need protection. People do.
    Supporters of HJR-3 speak of protecting or defending marriage. Marriage is an institution that has changed dramatically over the centuries – socially, religiously, and legally. The state has authority to address only one understanding of marriage – civil marriage. Civil marriage, and the rights, responsibilities, and protections it affords, is quite popular and doing just fine. Civil marriage doesn’t need any so-called “protection.”
    What does need protection is the class of citizens whose families are endangered because they cannot enjoy the rights, responsibilities, and protections of civil marriage. Let’s protect people.
  • Gay and lesbian soldiers and veterans deserve legal protections.
    I am applying to join the Indiana National Guard as a chaplain. I am concerned that soldiers who serve our state and nation could be denied legal protections if this constitutional amendment passes. People who offer their lives in service to others don’t deserve this kind of legal discrimination. Neither do their families.
  • 2014-01-13 09.58.37John 10:10 – “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
    My faith informs the way I live and the way I look at public policy. How can my neighbors enjoy the abundant life that our Lord desires for all people if they are denied basic legal protections for their families? We’re talking about inheritance, health benefits, property ownership, joint bank accounts, medical decisions, and so forth. An abundant life is made much harder by legal and constitutional restrictions on a class of people.
  • The Fifth Commandment – “Thou Shalt Not Kill”
    In explaining the fifth commandment in his Small Catechism, Martin Luther writes that not only are we not to kill, but we are to do everything we can to improve the wellbeing of our neighbor. Limiting access to legal protections harms the wellbeing of our neighbor and is a violation of the fifth commandment.
  • Micah 6:8 – “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
    Scripture is chock full of calls to justice – to protect the orphan and widow, to extend care to the outcast and marginalized, to welcome the outsider, to lift up the lowly, to visit the imprisoned, to feed the hungry, and so forth. HJR-3 is exclusionary and runs counter to the Scriptural call to extend care and protections for all people.
  • 1 Corinthians 13:5 – “Love does not insist on its own way.”
    HJR-3 insists on its own way – a narrow definition of civil marriage that would restrict legal protections and rights for a minority class of citizens. Why not have a more inclusive approach to the rights and protections of civil marriage? Even if HJR-3 is defeated, people who hold a certain “traditional” view of marriage will still be able to maintain their traditions and teachings. Even if same gender civil marriage eventually comes to the Hoosier state, “traditional” marriage will continue to be legal.

I enthusiastically endorse freedom of religion, and I respect those whose faith lead them to hold other views of marriage and sexuality. My objection here is not about those who hold a so-called “traditional” view of marriage.  My objection is that HJR-3 would deny a class of citizens from one day enjoying certain legal protections and benefits.

We do not need to deny our fellow citizens access to legal protections. We do not need HJR-3.

Decline of What?

The church is in decline.

Sure, I guess. But, what do you mean by that?

city-methodist-cathedral-2

Membership is down in many congregations. Average weekly attendance is down, too. They are down as compared to 1965. They are down as compared to 1985. They are down, in many places, as compared even to 2005. There has been a general decline in the church.

And it’s not just people. There’s not enough money. Ministries – campus ministries, urban ministries, youth ministries – are being closed down or cut back due to lack of funding. And the buildings. They are crumbling. Literally, crumbling

The church is in decline.

Sure, I guess. But, what do you mean by that?

[Confused that I asked the question again]

No, not what do you mean by decline. You already covered that. This time I’m asking about what you mean by church. What is this “church” that is in decline?

The church on the corner. It has beautiful stained glass windows, dark wood pews, and a fellowship hall. Two worship services. Sunday school classes and Vacation Bible School. A seniors group and, sometimes, a youth group. It’s a place where people come to learn and grow and be together and worship and serve. That’s the church that’s in decline. 

OK. Glad we got that cleared up. The institution that we’ve come to know and love, the institution that we have called “church” all these years, is in decline. Yes. But, I’m unwilling to say that “the church” is in decline. You see, it all depends on what you mean by “church.”

church n  a big building on a corner lot with one (or more) full-time pastor(s) and other staff members, where people of a common faith gather for weekly worship and Bible study, a variety of fellowship, program, and service ministries, youth programs, education, etc.

church n the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly.

Increasingly we are unable to sustain the first definition of church. That first definition represents a model of being church that was born in an era that has come and gone, an era in which church was seen as a prestigious community institution to stand alongside government and civic institutions. It is a way to do church that thrived on historically high rates of church participation, a culture that embraced (certain forms of) religion, and a post-war economic boom. It is a way to do church that was funded by an unusually high volume of offerings given faithfully by the unusually high numbers of people who attended church. Lots of good and faithful ministry happened in this model of being the church, but it is a model that does not thrive in today’s cultural and economic climate as much as it did in the past.

Today, church participation rates are leveling out in relation to historical trends. Today, the church does not have as vaunted a privileged place in society as it once did. Today, household discretionary income is at historic lows, debt levels are skyrocketing, and good paying jobs for young and middle aged people are harder to find. Today’s culture and economy simply do not support the model of church that thrived in the mid 20th century.

Too often when we speak of “church decline” we speak of the inability to maintain the buildings and staffing and programming of the 20th century church. We speak of an inability to pay the bills. Fair enough. But buildings and staffing and programming (and money to fund these) are not the church. A lack of funds represents a decline in how we do church, but not in church itself.

People, gathering at the foot of the cross and the opening to the empty grave to give God their praise and receive God’s many blessings – that is church. Or, to prayer groupuse traditionally Lutheran lingo, the church is “the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly” (the second definition, above, from the Augsburg Confession VII). Or, to quote Professors Wengert and Lathrop, “Church is not a noun; it is a verb, an event, or, to use the language of the sixties, a happening” (Christian Assembly: Marks of the Church in a Pluralistic Age, pg 27). Church is that encounter with God’s Word that puts sin to death and gives rise to a new creation. Such an understanding of church doesn’t require dedicated buildings, staff, or programs.

In some places the received model of church – building, program ministries, staff – is working well. Thanks be to God! Let us pray for the church to thrive in such a way! Yet in a growing number of communities this model of being the church is struggling.

Many of our attempts to renew the church today are aimed at renewing the 20th century model of church, at renewing the received model 0f church supported by a building, pastor, and programs. I hope and pray that such renewal efforts bear fruit, and indeed it seems that some such efforts are bearing fruit. Praise be to God!

Nonetheless, I think we need the creative and faithful imagination to conceive of, and the courage to be, church in drastically new ways, as well. Alongside familiar and renewed models of church, let us also live into new ways of being the church. Such new ways might look like extremely old ways (see Acts and the early church), ways that may have fewer of the trappings of the (beloved) institutional church. Such new/old ways of being church might have a different kind of intimacy, meeting in living rooms and coffee shops rather than in grand sanctuaries. Such new/old ways of being church may have less reliance on professional clergy and more reliance on the shared wisdom and faith of the community. Such new/old ways of being church might find an essential connectivity in social media, just as Saint Paul used social media (letters that were passed around among early Christians) to connect with and encourage the earliest Gentile churches.

Particularly in those areas where the received model of being the church is not thriving, but also alongside established congregations, such new/old ways of being church can renew our experience of a Christian community that gathers at the foot of the cross and the opening to the empty grave. Such new/old ways of being church can faithfully gather God’s people around Word and Sacrament and be that community of sinners redeemed and saints sent into the world to love and serve.

The church church is not in decline as much as the way we do church is in decline. Let us nurture established congregations into ever more faithfulness and vitality, and let us also give birth to new/old communities that live into the promises of God in new ways for this new day.

Learning How to Give

You’d think it wouldn’t take much to learn how to give. Just reach into your pocket and give, right?

franpitre-boysfightovertoy2Of course, if you’ve ever spent time in a preschool, you know that there is often a reluctance in giving and sharing. Sharing toys doesn’t come naturally. Giving that toy to Bobby is even harder.

I was raised by parents who, each in their own way, were generous with their time and treasure. They modeled giving. As a young adult I strived to follow their model, often volunteering for and giving financial gifts to those organizations that were important to me, particularly the church.

But I didn’t start giving in a more significant, sacrificial way, until I met Larry. Larry hired me to work in the development office at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. I was young, about to get married, and this was my first job where I was expected to wear a tie to work every day. I was working in fundraising, and after a few weeks on the job Larry asked me for my pledge.

My pledge?

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Do it now. Go say Thank You.

Larry House died last week. He was my first boss, hiring me for my first wear-a-shirt-and-tie-everyday job at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia in the development office. I will be forever grateful that he took a chance on me, a young, not-ordained, 20-something fresh out of seminary with lots to learn.

Larry was a real mentor to me. He taught me three things that I didn’t necessarily appreciate at the time, but which have proved essential in my ministry several years later:

  1. Larry taught me how to be a professional.
  2. Larry showed me how to give, and he expected me to do so.
  3. Larry modeled a great love for the church and its people.

A few years later, after I left the seminary and was working elsewhere, I called him on the anniversary of my hire date and thanked him for giving me my first job. He was touched and surprised by the call. Yet,  I’m not sure that even then I truly appreciated how much he shaped me. As a pastor, I am grateful for the lessons Larry taught me, and I am continually trying to learn those lessons and practice them in my daily work. And I wish I had fully expressed this to him before his unexpected death early last week.

Who is that person in your life who gave you a chance when perhaps you didn’t deserve it? Who taught you life lessons and professional skills that have proved helpful over the years? Who shaped you into the person you are today?

Figure out who that person is, or who those persons are, and track them down. Give them a call or, better yet, write a letter. Write a letter describing what they did for you and how appreciative you are. In fact, write the letter, copy it, and send two copies – one for that mentor, and one for their spouse or safety deposit box or otherwise for safe keeping. Not to be morbid, but if this person is that important to you, you want these words to be available to their family upon her or his death. And, you want to write and send this letter now, if for whatever reason your death predates hers or his, so that she or he and their family has the chance to know what they mean to you.

I have three letters to write – for starters, anyway. The first letter is to Larry’s family. Though I’ve shared some of these thoughts in person, I want them to have it in writing. I only wish I had done this earlier.

I’ll also be writing letters to two men with whom I have little regular contact these days but who were deeply influential in forming me into the man and pastor that I am today. Indeed, not a week goes by in my life and ministry when I do not think of them. They need to know that. And I need to tell them that.

I have three letters to write. How many will you write?

Creating Space for Communion Before Baptism

Who is welcome to receive Holy Communion?

Are all invited to receive the sacrament? All baptized Christians? Or, all baptized Christians who believe that Christ is truly present in the sacrament? Variations on these three invitations can be found printed in worship bulletins across our church.

Communion in the HandThe longstanding understanding of the church is that communion is for the baptized, a teaching that is upheld in The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on The Practice of Word and Sacrament, adopted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1997.

THE HOLY COMMUNION IS GIVEN TO THE BAPTIZED Principle 37
Admission to the Sacrament is by invitation of the Lord, presented through the Church to those who are baptized.

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Fitness for Ministry

Today I begin resume a new journey, a journey of fitness for ministry. You see, I’m not fit for ministry.

For the ministry of National Guard Chaplaincy, that is.

On and off for the past several years I’ve been discerning service in the National Guard as a chaplain. [In a future post I’ll write more about my discernment on this issue, which goes back to high school and to conversations with my grandfather, who was a Marine in the pre-WWII era]. National Guard Chaplaincy is a part-time ministry – the proverbial “one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer” – with a population of part-time soldiers that is mostly young, culturally diverse, and service oriented. It is a population that needs the comforting Good News and presence of our God. It is a population that is largely absent from our pews.

When I lived in Minnesota I had several conversations with the chief of chaplains for the Minnesota National Guard, and I was about to start the process of formally interviewing with Guard leaders and discerning this call within my congregation. But then an unexpected opportunity led us to Indiana, and that process was put on hold. While I have yet to reach out to the Guard leadership here in Indiana, there is one thing I need to do before I give this much more consideration.

I need to get in shape. I need to get fit for this ministry. There are fitness standards for members of the National Guard, including chaplains. And while I can pass the running requirements fairly easily, I cannot yet pass the sit up and push up tests, and I am not at the target weight. I have some work to do.

So today I will meet with a trainer at my city’s fitness center. I will begin a training program designed to get me into good enough shape so that, if I ultimately do decide to enter the Guard, my physical fitness will not be a barrier. I am told that my trainer is a veteran, and/or has done fitness training with soldiers. Either way, I’m in for a workout.

My hope is that this time of focusing on my fitness will be a time of discernment of my call to this ministry, a time of personal and spiritual growth, and a time of improved physical well-being. Keep me in your prayers, please.

Exploring a Post-Establishment Church

One thing I’ve noticed about new churches and new mission starts in my denomination (the ELCA) is that they often seem to try to do the same thing in a new way. Many of them, anyway.

By “same thing,” I mean that these new mission starts seek to establish (or renew) a congregation with a building and a full time pastor and worship and Bible studies and social gatherings and service projects and the whole nine yards. Good stuff. Holy stuff. The stuff that churches on our continent have been made of for a hundred years and more. The kind of stuff that formed me as a Christian and contributed to the kind of pastor that I am today.

Of course, these new starts seek to inject a new type of DNA into this established model of church. A DNA that takes seriously the changing landscape of America – a landscape that is richly multi-religious. A landscape that includes a rapidly growing group of people who do not identify with any religion at all. A landscape that includes a new – and less secure – economic reality for young people. A landscape that includes a culture which doesn’t necessarily value joining organizations. And we can go on with the descriptors of the new realities, but we won’t. For sure, the landscape today is significantly different than the post-Word War II era which birthed or shaped so many of our established suburban congregations.

To be sure, some of these new mission start congregations are not seeking simply to inject a new DNA into the old, established model. Some of these congregations are departing from the established model in that they do not seek to have their own dedicated building, but instead seek to only ever rent space, or meet in public spaces. And some of these ministries don’t intend to ever have their own space, nor do they ever intend to be self sufficient financially. They build into their ministry structure an expectation to receive mission support dollars from the denomination, from partners in ministry, and from members of the broader community. And yet others are ministries that are starting out as arts or social service organizations, or even as small not-for-profit businesses, that are led in and with and by faith. Great stuff. Amazing stuff.

I’m at the very beginning of part way down a road of exploration of another model of ministry (even as I have yet to learn much more about these other models I’ve observed already). I’ve been walking down this road for the past few years.

For the past several years I’ve served in established congregations. Wonderful congregations. Faithful congregations. Congregations with good and holy people doing good and holy work. Yet each of these congregations has had struggles around maintaining the institution, challenges supporting the received model of ministry. From facility costs (mortgage and facility maintenance), to having the resources to pay for staff, to identifying and cultivating leaders for the various constitutionally-mandated committees and ministries, these congregations each struggled in some way to address the differing ministry needs called for by the established model of congregational ministry.

Many of the church leadership and administration books I’ve read over the years have been about doing the established model in a better, or in a new, way. I see this, too, in what some of our mission start congregations are doing. A modified, and perhaps fresh, way of doing congregational ministry. Surely we need this. The established model of ministry is not going away any time soon, and it needs to be done well, to be refreshed, to be renewed.

But … what models exist, or have yet to be explored, for doing church in a post-establishment, less centralized, more diffuse kind of way? Something more along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous, Scouts, or Little League … something with some coordination, of course, but with fewer institutional trappings, and with a structure deeply imbedded in the community? Something vaguely like the house churches of the Book of Acts or of modern day China? Something that would perhaps challenge our established ecclesiology and understanding of ordination, while being nimble enough to scatter and gather in various small corners of our communities …

I’m exploring, because I love the church, its mission, and its message. While I have serious concerns about the viability of the current way we tend to “do” church, I have no doubt that God will continue to bless the church and make the Gospel known, to be faithful to God’s people and rebirth the church in a variety of ways for a new day. The church wasn’t always organized with congregations led by full-time clergy meeting in large facilities on multi-acre lots. Over the centuries the church has had other ways of carrying out its God-given mission, and in each era the church has flourished with multiple models of ministry at the same time.

I’m excited to explore – and to join in – some new ways of doing church in this new day.

Putting Everything on the Table, In Faith – Acts 15

I haven’t been posting sermons here recently … but this one on Acts 15, and the bold faith of those first believers to trust in and be moved by the Spirit to do a new thing, is one I wanted to share. I believe that the church today is in an Acts 15 moment.

Preached on Sunday, April 28

Grace to you and peace, from the One who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.

“If the people lead, the leaders will follow.”

This is sometimes true.
Leaders often take a pulse, barometer of people,
read what the people are already doing, and only then make decisions.

In the Early Church, the leaders of those first Church Councils decided
upon the Books of the Bible in large part simply by seeing and accepting
what the local churches, what the people, were already reading.
In American history, the constitutional amendment repealing prohibition
was less a bold act of leadership than it was an acknowledgement
of what people were already doing.

Sometimes, often, the people lead, and the leaders simply follow.

In today’s reading from Acts 15, the leaders made a profound decision.
Huge decision. Paradigm-shifting decision.
But, they were merely following what the people – and God’s Spirit – were already doing.
What the people were doing, what God’s Spirit was doing, was profound,
huge, paradigm-shifting.
The Council only recognized it and went along with it.

So what, exactly, were some of those first Christians doing?
They were doing a new thing in faith, in stark contrast to the tradition they received,
in stark contrast to the familiar ways of doing things,
and indeed, in stark contrast to God’s Word itself.
Indeed, on the surface, what they were doing was heresy – Spirit-filled, Spirit-led heresy.

You see, Jesus was a faithful Jew, and the first followers of his were Jews, too,
as were the broader group of Jews who followed his work closely,
including the Pharisees.
Devout Jews observed the Law as a sign of the promises God made to them.
Following the Law – including circumcision, dietary laws, Sabbath laws,
and other such laws – was a way to live faithfully as God’s people,
to follow God’s command, to be a sign and a witness to the world of who you are
and whose you are.
These laws were a big deal. BIG deal. HUGE deal.
Even re-interpreted, so much of Jesus’ work has to do with the law,
and how it is to be followed.
Let’s think of groups today and their distinctive practices.
The Amish reject most forms of modern technology.
Devout Muslims stop everything and pray five times a day, and fast during Ramadan.
Vegetarians do not eat meat.
Vegans do not eat anything derived from animals.
These are distinctive practices that define a group.
Take away these distinctive practice, and the group might not exist,
or at least, might not have as strong an identity and be recognizable.

First century Jews had their distinctive practices. To be a Jew meant to follow the law.
Circumcision. Dietary laws. Sabbath. And more. That is what Jews did.
There was no other way to be a Jew, to be part of God’s chosen people.

And yet, the early Christians – who were Jewish –
had this crazy experience of God’s Spirit moving among them.
Jews from all over the world were coming to faith in Christ,
and Peter and the early Christians were proclaiming the Good News faithfully.
Last week we heard about an Ethiopian – a non-Jew, perhaps – who came to faith.
Philip baptized him.
Then, a few chapters later in Acts, Cornelius, a God-believing Gentile, a Roman Centurion,
is brought to faith and is baptized.
Two non-Jews, brought to faith.
Then, just a little later in Acts, a large number of people were brought to faith in Antioch,
and also these were non-Jews.
And these are only the ones we know about. Surely there were more.

God’s Spirit was moving in ways that were unknown, that were unsettling to the faithful,
ways that were considered heretical because God’s Spirit hadn’t done this before,
moving among the Gentiles in such a way.
God’s law clearly seemed to outline a different experience and life of faith.
Indeed, what was happening was contrary
to much of what they had learned and known about God.
Unsettling, disturbing, baffling … indeed!

But of course, the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus
was also contrary to much of what they had learned and known
about faith and life and death and the way God works.
Indeed, a new thing was underfoot,
and it was unsettling and baffling to those committed
to the established ways of doing things, the God-given ways.
Yet, this new thing was an exciting, uncontainable opening to a whole new population,
a whole new segment of believers previously not considered part of God’s people.
Seeing this new thing at work,
the Council at Jerusalem decided to welcome the Gentiles into the church
without burdening them first with the requirements of the law.
No circumcision. No dietary laws. Just faith and baptism.
And in doing so, the leaders were simply affirming what had already happened,
what the people and the Spirit had already done,
with the Ethiopian Eunuch, Cornelius the Centurion, and the Gentiles in Antioch.
No circumcision. No detailed commitment to the distinctive laws of the covenant.
Just faith and baptism, and the life that flows from that.

I wonder what the Spirit might be up to in the church today,
nearly 2000 years after these events.
What is God doing among Lutherans, nearly 500 years after Luther
nailed the 95 theses to the Wittenberg Church door, starting the Reformation?
What is God up to here on the East Side, and here at Grace,
96 years after starting a new thing through those first saints
who established Grace English Evangelical Lutheran Church,
leaving behind the language and customs of their parents’ and grandparents’ faith?

What is that experience of the Spirit here that we,
established in our patterns and practices of faith for many years –
decades, and centuries –
patterns and practices that are legitimate and wonderful and life-giving,
as were the laws of Moses that fed those first Jewish Christians …
What is the experience of the Spirit
that we might need to work hard to grasp, see, and comprehend?
How might God’s Spirit be moving, how might God be at work in ways earth-shatteringly new,
unsettling, and perhaps even heretical and yet, simultaneously, powerful?

I ask a lot of questions here. I’m not entirely sure how to answer them.
But, let me say this. We have to ask the questions.
We have to put everything on the table.
Sacraments. Sunday worship. Music styles. Worship times.
How we spend our money.
What we expect of our members.
How we speak of God.
What and how we teach and live the faith – among children, and adults.
How we serve our community.
How we act toward one another, how we act toward others,
and how we respond to the real hurts and challenges in our world.
Even, what we eat and drink at Coffee Hour.
Everything on the table and up for negotiation with the movement of God’s Spirit.
Hold nothing back. Put everything on the table. Crazy, huh?

Those first Jewish Christians did just that –
they put their valued and beloved traditions – traditions and laws given by God! –
on the table for the sake of sharing the Gospel with those different from them.
These people were willing to mess with the very Word of God, the command of God,
for the sake of sharing this God with others.
Do you see that? Do you see what they did?
They took something they cherished, something they believed given by God Himself,
and they were able to set it aside for the sake of the outsider.
Rather than make the Gentiles become Jews, that is,
rather than make the outsiders become one of them,
they said “let’s make the church look more like the outsiders.”
Let’s make the church look more like the outsiders.

And you know how they did this, how they could make such a huge leap?
They knew the love and power and comfort of our Lord.
They knew that they could let go of something they cherished and enter into a bold –
and frightening – new future because Jesus was with them,
the one who died and rose again would not abandon them.
And so they let something go, they let something die,
knowing that a new life would blow through them in a new way.

They did this not out of any strategy for survival, self-preservation, or institutional renewal.
They did this in faith in the One who promised to always be with them, unto the end of the age,
the One who comes among them, and us, as an outsider.

Dear friends, our Lord is with us, here and now.
Our traditions and practices, handed down to us over 96 years in this place,
500 years in the Lutheran tradition, and 2000 years of Christianity,
our traditions and distinctive practices of faith have told us this –
God is with us. God is faithful to us. God is not going to leave us. God is with us.
With this comforting knowledge, now what?
Are we at another Acts 15 time in history, at least of some degree?
I think we are.
Where is the Spirit of our God blowing now? Let’s look outside and see.
And, wherever the Spirit is blowing, whoever is caught up in that Spirit,
however the church looks kicked up and remade in the Spirit’s movement,
we know this – Christ is with us.
Christ has been faithful to his church since Day One,
and He promises to be faithful until the Time to Come.
And that, dear friends, is good news.

Amen.

Do Worship Leaders Hide in Worship?

It is an odd proposition – do worship leaders hide in worship? Even though they’re standing up front, in the most visible part of the worship space, leading the congregation in prayer and praise and acts of worship, are they hiding in plain sight?

Maybe.

Capture - Bob Merrit lectern

Grainy screen-capture image from video of sermon by Pastor Bob Merritt of Eagle Brook Church, showing minimalist lectern.

I’m struck after visiting two larger churches on Sunday – an evangelical megachurch, and a large Lutheran church. At neither service did any worship leaders wear robes. Use of a pulpit, lectern, or altar was minimal, and when a lectern was used it was an attractive but slim, minimalist stand. Much of the service took place with nothing standing between the worship leader and the congregation – no bulky altar, no robe, no imposing pulpit.

I saw the worship leaders’ bodies. Their movements and gestures. Their flesh and blood. There were no physical barriers separating them and us. They were open to us and to God. Nothing separated us.

DSC_1123

Presiding at the Eucharist, behind the large altar.

When a worship leader wears a robe, their body is somewhat hidden, their legs are not even visible. Standing behind a solid altar and pulpit, half of their body is obscured. There is something vaguely decarnating (rather than incarnating) about the use of altars, pulpits, and robes; that is, there is something about this experience that minimizes (or reduces) the humanity of the worship leader rather than embracing or accepting of the flawed yet real flesh and blood of the leader. When a worship leader wears a robe, the only thing that is not covered up is the head – prioritizing thought and speech over other aspects of their carnality. I wonder if we like robes precisely because of this decarnating, flesh-minimizing – even neutering – effect. That might be the case, but I think it could be to our detriment, and to the detriment of our mission.

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Preaching in/behind a wonderful, yet massive, pulpit.

When we minimize the real flesh and human body of the worship leader, we do something to the worship leader that we don’t do to the rest of the congregation. The leader is covered, robed, and somewhat beyond flesh. Yet the congregation is very fleshy, very carnal, very real. No robes for them. Nothing hiding them and their imperfections. The congregation comes before God and each other as they are. The worship leader doesn’t, but instead wears a covering.

The altar, pulpit, and robe are literally physical barriers that hide the worship leader from the congregation and which create a distance between the worship leader and the people with whom they are worshiping. Furthermore, in many of our churches, to use the altar the worship leaders often have to stand about as far from the congregation as they can while still being in the building, in order to get behind the altar that is against a far wall.

I understand that the altar, pulpit and robe all have their purpose and powerful symbolic meaning – drawing attention to the ritual act and the Word proclaimed rather than to the person leading that ritual act or proclaiming that Word. Nonetheless, I wonder if in our care to draw attention to the Word and Sacrament in such ways we don’t unintentionally create barriers and lose out on the chance to be a bit more honest about our carnality, our fallen flesh and blood, through which God promises to proclaim Good News and do great things. I wonder if we don’t miss out on the chance to cultivate a more personable, relatable experience of worshiping the God who comes to us in the flesh and blood of the person of Jesus Christ.

You’re not going to see me leading worship in jeans and a flannel shirt any time soon. But I am wrestling with this issue of how the way we worship shapes our messages, intentionally and unintentionally, for longstanding members and visitors alike. The way we use furnishings and liturgical garb in worship deserves scrutiny, particularly as cultural norms change over the years and the ways in which received patterns of worship may or may not carry with them the same meaning as they did in previous generations, particularly for those not raised within our church traditions.

Worshiping Elsewhere

Yesterday with members of my church’s outreach committee I attended two churches for worship to experience how these churches welcome visitors and newcomers. One church was a campus of a large, multi-site evangelical church, and the other church was a large congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (my denomination). At the Lutheran church, we attended a contemporary service.

What follows are some observations, particularly about the nuts and bolts of the worship experience.

  • Both places were warm and welcoming, though one church in particular was amazing in this regard. I was greeted no less than 10 times. Not high-pressure tactics, but simply a warm greeting. Looking me in the eye. Saying hello. Opening a door. Asking if I’m new. Answering my questions. I was acknowledged, greeted, welcomed, and thanked for attending. It felt nice to be welcomed in such a way.
  • This church didn’t have a “Welcome Center” or a “Visitor’s Booth,” but instead the whole place was welcoming. Hosts at the curb, at each of the double doors, inside the gathering area, at the doors to the sanctuary, and just inside the sanctuary. There was always a helping hand, ready to open a door for me (I didn’t touch a door once at this place) and help me find where I was going (but, I didn’t need help to find anything anyway. The flow and signage was very clear.)
  • Trained church members stood in the gathering area, and greeted people entering the space. Upon learning that it was my first time there, one of these people gave me a new visitor packet. He didn’t have to go fetch the packet. He had it in his hands, expecting to see newcomers.
  • I didn’t have to open a book at either service. Nor did I have to look in a bulletin. It was nice. No juggling an unfamiliar book or unfamiliar bulletin and inserts and whatnot. The projection, and the words and gestures of the worship leaders, kept me moving along the way. Nothing in either service was assumed. Everything was very, very clear.
  • Thanks to the projection and the generally-engaging worship leadership, I was looking up the entire time. Not down at books and papers, but up at the worship leaders, the text and graphics on the screen, and at any ritual action taking place. I was never confused as to what was going to come next, or what I was supposed to do next. It was easy to follow along and participate in these services.
  • Signage is important. One church had small a-frame signs on the street, directing cars to the church, and then to the parking lot or to the drop-off area. Inside both churches, signs clearly marked literature racks, information stations, and so forth. One church had, among other things, well-placed restroom signs in the gathering area. (The signs were about 7 or 8 feet off the floor, a foot or so from the ceiling, sticking out from the wall, so as to catch your eye. A foot or two lower, and a tall person could have whacked their head on the sign, and/or blocked it from view.)
  • At both churches worship was prompt and tight. Worship was well-led. Worship began on time, segues between different worship actions (prayer and song, for example) were smooth, and technology always worked. The music – guitar bands in both places – was very good. Clearly the music, the worship leaders’ actions, and the message were rehearsed.
  • The worship leaders were personable. They led prayer and made announcements without reading notes verbatim, and shared a small (yet not annoying) level of banter with the other worship leaders. The worship leaders were accessible and relatable.
  • The worship leaders dressed casually (the pastor at the Lutheran church did wear clerics, but no robe). The overwhelming majority of worshippers dressed casually.

I will have more to share, particularly after meeting with members of the outreach committee tomorrow – two of whom visited two other churches – to gather all their insights. But this was a great experience, not just for what we observed but for having the experience of being a visitor, a newcomer to an unfamiliar worship space.