Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Hints from a Church Shopper

Several times in the past few years, I have found myself "shopping" for a new home church. My search is somewhat narrowed by my insistence on attending a Missouri Synod Lutheran church. Call me silly, but I am convinced that the LCMS is tapped into the purest stream of biblical, Christian teaching in the United States - in spite of all the clowns who are drilling exploration wells, looking for other substances to tap into. Plus, there's the small matter of still being an ordained and rostered minister in the LCMS...so sue me, I'm not looking outside the LCMS for a church home.

And though I'm very satisfied with where I have landed so far, I think it's time to drop a few hints to pastors and congregations about some things that can cause a church-shopper to take a hard look at them...in the rear-view mirror.

Hint #1: QUIT TURNING THE GOSPEL INTO LAW! According to Luther, the Lord's Supper is nothing but the purest gospel. It puts God's forgiveness on display in a form that can be seen, touched, and tasted. It applies the redeeming death of Jesus to every part of our fallen, sinful nature: body and soul, cleansed - healed - quickened. Nothing should ever be put between this comforting Sacrament and the penitent sinner, who comes for relief from the shame and sorrow of sin. Nothing should be taken away, or added to, the gracious promises of God. And yet I have heard an LCMS pastor dismissing communicants from his altar with the following words: "Depart in peace...and serve." AARGH! By insisting on sticking those last two words on, every time, my dear brother in the ministry is snatching the gospel away at the last moment and replacing it with law! Do, do, please, do stop it!

Hint #2: SHUT UP AND LET GOD SPEAK! Now don't worry; I'm not going schwaermer on you. I'm just saying that God's words in the liturgy are clear enough to speak for themselves. God's Word is alive and powerful; we do not make it "come alive" by what we add to it. I have heard many pastors embellish the liturgy, some a little, some a lot; but they never improved on it. Mostly, they just made at least this church-shopper impatient. Why say "The Epistle lesson for our consideration God the Holy Spirit caused to be recorded in the second letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, chapter 2, beginning at verse 1, where we read as follows in Jesus' name" when "The Epistle is from Second Thessalonians, Chapter 2" will do the trick? Is this some kind of test of your hearer's ability to bear the cross patiently? Or how about the pastor who prefaced each little part of the liturgy, including both the confession of sins and the absolution, with its own extended explanation of why we are doing it? Is the idea to make the congregation slaver with yearning for the word of forgiveness? Just get out of the way, Pastor Chatterbox! I want to see Jesus in His words!

Hint #3: WHAT'S WITH THE GUITARS AND DRUMS? On several occasions I felt very blessed to have chanced upon a service where the organ was being used, because right next to it - or, in some cases, at the far end of the church from it - was a set of instruments that looks more at home in a nightclub than a church. My first reaction, as a church shopper, is to ransack the bulletin looking for the schedule of services. Then, when I read, "8:00 a.m. Traditional Service, 9:30 a.m. Blended Service, 11:30 a.m. Contemporary Service," I think, "Gee, do I want to have anything to do with a church that thinks the Lutheran hymns and liturgy are just an old-fashioned tradition on its way out?" Sometimes I have actually read: "Third Sunday of the Month: Contemporary Service." That's when I think, "Wow. If I join this church, I'll get to stay in bed one Sunday out of four." Why? Because I might go to a rock concert on Friday night, but I am not getting up on Sunday morning for one. If Word and Sacrament are not on offer, I would rather sleep in. A church that throws a pop concert on Sunday morning gives me no reason to get up early. But I can endure even a crummy sermon if I am at least fed by Christ's teachings in the Word-saturated liturgy and hymnody that are the Lutheran Church's distinctive treasure.

Hint #4: WHAT'S WITH THE GRAPE JUICE? I'm not going to get into a discussion about whether Jesus' Words in the Sacrament can consecrate non-alcoholic "wine." This would be a frivolous controversy if there ever was one. I think it is enough to say that any practice that leads anyone to doubt the real presence of Christ's Body and Blood must be shunned like the deepest, darkest heresy. Plus, tampering with the Last Will and Testament of our Lord shows an appalling carelessness toward God's Word. I generally notice a blurb in the bulletin, directing communicants to look for jiggers of non-alcoholic wine in the center row of the tray, in the same churches where the pastor casually and needlessly changes words of the liturgy, including confession and absolution, creeds, the Lord's Prayer, and the Words of Institution. It all goes together with a disregard for Christ's Word and, frankly, I flee bodily from a church at whatever point in the service when I realize this is going on, right up to the beginning of Communion. Yes, you heard me. I'll put up with a lot of weird things, and try to be open and understanding of such embarrassing rituals as the adults singing "This little light of mine" with all the hand-gestures, and being obliged to pause in the middle of the service for a minute of divine insincerity, to shake hands and exchange greetings with my neighbors who have already shaken my hand and greeted me. But when my eyes hit the communion announcement and it says "Grape juice is available for people with allergies, substance abuse problems, and an aversion to the gracious and efficacious promises of Christ," I bolt.

Hint #5: IF I WANTED "CLOSE" COMMUNION, I WOULD JOIN THE E.L.C.A. I've actually managed, unintentionally, to pick a fight with more than one pastor when I mentioned that I thought "close communion" was a typo. Of course it's "closed," you silly duck! If you mean "closed," say it! "Close" is a wishy-washy word that means one thing to some people and another thing to other people, and is supposed to keep everybody happy. It could mean "closed" (perhaps as an archaic form), or it could mean "open" (in the sense of us all getting closer together). So in the final analysis it means nothing. If everyone's happy, you're not teaching them anything! And when the usher at a church I am visiting, who has never seen me before, jogs my elbow and says I can go up to communion as if he thinks I haven't noticed that it's my pew's turn to get in line, I instantly think: "How do you know I'm LCMS? How do you know I'm Lutheran? How do you know I'm Christian? Do you care?" And suddenly my status downgrades from "Not communing because I arrived too late to announce myself to the pastor" to "Not communing because I have serious doubts about whether these people have been instructed about examining oneself before communion."

HINT #6: IF I WANTED COMMUNION TWICE A MONTH, I WOULD COME TO CHURCH TWICE A MONTH. Personally, I haven't made a strict rule of this. But it is a consideration I have weighed, and I know some excellent Lutheran believers who have decided which of two churches to join, based on which one celebrated the Lord's Supper more often. Old, conservative congregations are understandably slow to make major changes such as moving toward weekly communion, but think of it this way: if it's available every week and you only want to receive it twice a month, you don't have to go every time. But if it's available twice a month and you feel a need for it every week, you're out of luck!

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