After the Reformation service concluded, it was time for celebration!
And boy, did we celebrate. There was an array of choirs and dancers and musical talent.
I think my favorite part of this was watching the boy dance – he was into it!
As the LWF Assembly Reformation service progressed, we came to Communion.
The question was – how do you get communion to 10,000 people? Sounds like a logistical nightmare if you ask me.
Yet, it worked. It helps that there were so many clergy who were willing and able to help out.
In all, Communion lasted about 30 minutes. Not bad really. And everyone received the sacrament.
We went to evening worship on the first day of the Lutheran World Federation assembly. It was a great experience.
Here’s a couple of the neat things from the service.
First, the cross.
This cross has been moving around the world at different events. It was in Lund, Sweden for the ecumenical document between Lutherans and Catholics. The artist is from El Salvador. I have a friend who is Finnish, but from El Salvador who knows the artist. How cool is that? The cross itself is beautiful and about six feet tall.
The altar –
The altar was made completely of wood. Really nice.
The candles show the theme of the assembly.
The people –
This is me with Rev. Dr. Martin Junge, the Secretary General of the LWF. He’s a great man. It was an honor to meet him and have an opportunity to talk with him.
We made our way to the LWF conference setting and the first thing was morning worship.
It was in a tent. The setting was nice, the air was flowing and it remained cool throughout. It was wonderful to worship with people from all over the world (literally) and to worship in four + languages.
The official languages of the LWF are English, French, German, and Spanish. The LWF has shifted over the years. The primary language used to be German, with the other languages thrown in for good measure. Now the primary language is English, with the other languages thrown in for good measure. Most of the speakers spoke in English during the conference, but translation services were available. We did have some French speakers, a couple of German speakers. Regardless, knowing the primary language makes life a bit easier, if for nothing else, you don’t have to wear headphones all the time. Even still, I enjoyed hearing the multiple languages. It took me back to my time in Finland and visiting countries in Europe where hearing multiple languages is the norm.
Here are two definitions of idol that I like:
Those come from a quick Google search for “idol definition.”
Those are pretty good definitions – straight and too the point.
I wonder, what are the idols we have in our lives? What are the things that we have faith in? What is it that we worship?
The last two weeks, I think it would be safe to answer those questions saying that there are many people in the US who have made partisan politics and politicians into idols. We get plenty of language that refers to it that way. How many times did you hear people talking about a politician who was going to “save” the nation and referred to the other party as evil. These folks give messianic descriptions of their preferred candidates.
Some people make celebrities into idols. I’m not sure why exactly. They are just doing a job, which they happen to make a lot of money doing. It makes as much sense as making an idol out of a well paid garbage collector who is seen on TV a bunch.
Sports has turned into an idol for some. In fact, often it seems as though sports is it’s own religion in the US. You have professional teams that have die-hard fans who practically worship and hang on anything the team says or does and takes it as gospel. “I can’t go to church pastor, I have to [worship] at the stadium instead.”
This list can get long, so here are some other popular idols that people have – wealth, sex, food, the environment, drugs, entertainment, patriotism, the bible (yes, I said the bible – the bible is not God and not to be worshiped.), automobiles, technology, work, safety, etc.
You can come up with your own list. Here’s the deal, if we think about this a little bit, I’m willing to bet that we can all find and admit to the idols we have made in our lives. Everyone – you, men, even the pope.
Idols provide us the sense of safety and control. It’s right there when and where we need it. Idols listen to us and make us feel the way we want to feel. Idols give us words we want to hear. Idols help us dream of what could be. Idols help us to feel justified. Idols give us something to defend and help us create us and them sides. Idols do a lot for us – or rather, they give us the impression that they are a great benefit to us. Which is why we have them and create them.
Yet the problem with idols is just that – we create them. An idol doesn’t exist on it’s own. It exists because we give it meaning and significance. It comes from us and continues to exist because of us. Idols are all about us.
Yet, idols are ultimately empty and worthless. They are made up. They will end up failing us. They will never fill the hole within us completely or satisfactorily.
Only God can do that. Yet, that can be scary. It’s scary because it means we aren’t in control. We can’t control of God. We are the limited ones. Trusting in God is taking a leap of faith – not knowing what or where your next step will land and yet still taking that step. Idols will fail us – they won’t be there when we need them most. God never abandons us – especially in our time of need. It may not appear that way. We may not get the result we wanted. Yet we are never abandoned.
There is something that drives me nuts, especially as a seminarian who hopes to be a pastor someday when the seminary finally says I’m done taking classes and I have raked up enough debt to pay for it all.
The thing that probably drives me a bit crazy is the perpetual focus on the worship wars – especially in stories and posts on the Internet. It’s not one of those top of mind focuses, but rather one of those below the surface, consistently there things that will just never die. If I had the magic wooden stake that could kill it once and for all, I would not hesitate to use it. But I don’t, so alas, you get some venting from me and a few thoughts on worship.
For those of you not familiar with the idea of worship wars, I’ll take a stab at trying to describe it. There are people who will argue that their form of worship is the “right” and true form of Christian worship. Some will say it’s a “high church” liturgy with all the bells and smells. Some will claim it is a simpler form. And there is a huge range of this.
I think what drives me crazy about this topic is that it has been going on since the earliest days of Christianity. I say this because early on, and I mean early on, when the church was being persecuted by the Roman empire, there were churches in various regions around the Mediterranean. Each of these regions had their own preferences and styles in worship. When the church became the church of the empire, things started to change. A shift happened – the people in charge had the brilliant idea that all worship should look the same, lest someone inadvertently do or say something deemed unorthodox – oh the horror! It also meant that everything started to be scripted – no extemporaneous prayers or singing, or worship styles. You wouldn’t want to fall into heresy now, would you?
You know what happens when such conformity takes place? Fights break out over who is “right.” That’s what. And we’ve been fighting ever since.
And here’s the thing – it’s ridiculous. I swear we (Christians) have wasted more energy, time, money, lives and relationships fighting over who is “right” when it comes to worship than almost anything else. Can we just call a truce and be done with it.
Rant over, here’s my (hopefully) positive contribution to the whole mess. This isn’t something new either, I’m just repeating something I agree with. Can we agree that “right” worship will look different and unique for each community and context in which it is practiced? It’s like the early church in a way. Each worshiping community had their own preferences and styles because, well, that was how they could offer authentic worship to God. It was authentic because it came from the community gathered and represented them in an honest and open way. It was the community’s offer to God – a show of gratitude for what God had done for them.
I think this idea has merit today. When I see all the varieties of worship out there, there is quite a range – high church, low church, contemporary, liturgical, charismatic, praise, long preaching focused, etc.
Here’s what I think – the variety showcases that each worshiping community is unique. And here’s another thought – if a worship service is thriving or dying tells us something important. What it’s not telling us is the worship, on its own, is “right” or “wrong” but rather, if the worship actually represents the people worshiping. If you have a mismatch, then the worship is just a program that people will go through. There will be no joy. There will be no gratitude to God. There will be a focus on who is right. There will be a focus on other stuff that frankly doesn’t matter. There will be a focus on the “stuff” instead of on God and the community.
When a worship is thriving, well, you can tell. It doesn’t have to have a ton of people either. Thriving doesn’t have to mean mega-church. Thriving means being alive in the presence of God.
And the amazing thing is that thriving worship can happen in all of these variety of worship styles. I have seen a thriving worshiping community that practices praise and celebration and I have seen a thriving worshiping community in the highest of high churches.
When it comes down to it, it’s not the stuff or the style that matters, it’s the people and God that matter. But then again, that’s true not just for worship, but for most things in life. When we focus on stuff, people slip to the background, trudge through and wait to feel alive again. When God and the people are the focus, things become alive again.
Being a seminarian and having a family with four children makes our family stick out usually. “My, that’s a big family these days,” is a typical expression. I don’t know if it’s a compliment or some kind of slight that is supposed to imply something. I usually just agree with the person offering it and move on.
Our family goes to church most Sundays. There are some exceptions from time to time, but generally you can find us at church at some point on the weekend. It really just depends on when the service is offered. And being overseas can complicate the matter a little. We try to find a service in English so the kids won’t feel too lost.
Having our kids in church is important to us. They don’t always want to go, but they do come along and sometimes actually enjoy it.
I know I’m not the only one who takes their children to church – this is not something novel. Elizabeth Rowlings wrote a great article on getting kids to willingly come to church.
Here are my own insights into getting kids to church from a different perspective – a future pastor’s perspective. Here’s what I want to do as a future pastor to encourage families with children and make sure they feel welcome in attending church.
1. A seminary professor once told a class I was in that architecture trumps theology every time. So true. When it comes to children that means we have to think about how to be creative with the spaces we have in church. I have seen many churches do this effectively and I think they do a great job.
Here’s one example from a Kallio kirkko, in Helsinki, Finland:Across the Atlantic in the US, I can highlight my home congregation, Zion Lutheran in Etters, PA, USA. Our pastor had the first pew removed and made a young kids-friendly space. Talk about making it obvious that families are welcome!
2. Kids involved in worship. Not just on youth Sunday either. If we want to send the message that children are important, then what better way to do that than through actions – like involving children in worship as often as possible.
3. Spending time with children – This doesn’t mean I will be teaching every Sunday School class there is – but I can make a time investment in other ways.
4. Speaking of Sunday School, maybe its time to rethink how Christian education happens.
5. Sacramental stuff – I have no theological problem with having children receive communion. Whoever came up with idea that you had to fully understand what was going on in order to receive communion had a nice idea, but really – do we honestly think that most adults fully understand what’s happening in the Eucharist?
6. Confirmation – I’ve seen too many Confirmation programs that just seem physically painful for everyone involved – students, the pastor, parents, etc. Like Sunday School, maybe it’s time to rethink how this happens and when.
So, now that I have that wonderful list, here’s the other part of the list that is important – the consequences.
1. People have to be willing to have noise in church. If you are going to children, then there is going to be noise. There is no way around that. And if there is going to be children in church, there is going to be plenty of movement around the church. Little ones will wander, adults will chase. Other children will be lying around, playing, etc. I saw one church deal with this effectively – Verkosto – it’s a blend of Lutheran and Pentecostal services in Helsinki. The church wants children in the service and no one has any issue with the lively and noisy nature of that decision.
2. People have to be willing to have imperfection in worship. Children don’t have nearly as much experience at doing things as adults. They make mistakes. Guess what, so do adults – it’s just that adults think that mistakes are not allowed in worship. As if we are supposed to hide our humanness from God or something. When children are involved in worship, stuff is going to happen and that’s ok. And it’s ok for adults too.
3. It’s not all about the children. The idea is not to focus on one group of people – i.e. children. The idea is to welcome all to come to worship. Typically children get the shaft on this in too many churches. If we take a little time to see how children can be welcome, then maybe we’ll also think about how we welcome the stranger, the visitor, the elderly, the divorced, the outcast, etc. There are a great many people out there.
There is quite a variety of singing styles too – each denomination has their own version or variation it seems – and many churches within a denomination can increase the variation, making for more confusion.
Kenny Lamm wrote an interesting article on the nine reasons people aren’t singing in church these days. Mr. Lamm writes from a Baptist perspective, so there isn’t a whole lot liturgical background to add in and you can see it in some of the points he makes. Having said that his list is worth reading.
My own observation of why people don’t sing come down to this main point:
We make a whole bunch of faulty assumptions – like people know when to sing, what to sing, how to sing. We assume people will know the melody. We assume people don’t know how to read music. We assume people do know how to read music. We assume people equate singing with worship. We assume people like to sing. The list could go on and on.
For many churches, these assumptions are safe assumptions – especially if you have regular worshipers who know the routine of how your church worships.
For other churches, we forget that there are people walking in the door who aren’t familiar with how things are done – they may be from the same denomination, but it’s still a new place. They may be from a different denomination, which means they don’t know the order of the service. Or they may be someone who has limited or no experience with church at all – meaning they don’t know anything, or very little about what happens when.
How to deal with this? It depends on what the church is going for? If your church focused the current membership, then you’re likely to cater to the members. If your church is focused on new members, then you’ll have a different focus. And if your church is focused on the unchurched, then you’ll have a completely different focus and experience.
The point is that, ready, the context matters. There is no one right answer for why people don’t sing in church, or why they don’t do anything they are supposed to do in church. It depends on the context. Know your church and you’ll know the reason why people don’t do something, or why they do. But this requires honest assessment of the situation. Often that is hard to do when you are on the inside.
There seems to be a great deal of debate on the internet about how churches should respond to the decline of people leaving their pews. There are articles, some of which I have posted on this blog, talking about the rise of the “nones,” people who are done with church for a variety of reasons. There are lots of thoughts about how churches should respond to the exodus of people from church. Carey Nieuwhof wrote an interesting article recently with seven ways to respond to the decline of the church. I think he has some valid points.
While they are valid points, I would also say they aren’t right for every church. Context is important. What is the context of the church community?
Which leads to my point. People have a lot of ideas on how to “right” the direction of the church so it stops losing members/gets people in the doors/gets back to its mission, etc. I’ve written pieces on this as well. The challenge is that there is not a single way to do this. Nor should there be.
Here’s a little church history for you to help us with this idea. So jump in the Tardis with me and let’s take a short trek back 20 centuries. (trust me, I’ll keep it short)
There is this false notion that the early Christian church (1st-3rd centuries AD/CE) had a unified way in which they worshiped. There is no evidence for this. Not one shred of evidence for this. If anything, the limited resources that scholars have found point to a different picture – each worshiping community did things a bit differently. There were some overriding themes and practices – a gathering for Eucharist (there’s debate on what that meant), there were baptisms (again, debate on how that happened), and there was praying (again, more debate – I’m sure you are surprised by this. Not!). This really shouldn’t be a novel idea – I bet your church doesn’t do the exact same things as other churches.
How the church worshiped in Rome was different from how they worshiped in Carthage and Syria, Jerusalem, Antioch, Egypt and elsewhere. In fact all of these locations had their own versions of worship. And that worked out pretty well mostly. Yes, it was confusing sometimes. Yes, there was debate on whose way was better. But overall, everyone lived with the situation. They adopted practices of other communities as they deemed them appropriate.
That changed with the advent of Constantine, the Roman Emperor. He wanted unity in the church. He had an empire to control and run and the last thing you want when you are doing this is diversity – you don’t have as much control in diversity.
Ok, let’s jump back in the Tardis back to our modern times. So how does the church respond to people walking out the door?
1. Accept that there is no nice simple universal answer to people leaving the church, except for broad brush statements like “Return your focus on Jesus.” While true, it’s hardly an action plan with defined steps for a church to carry out.
2. Since there is no nice answers, we have to do some nitty-gritty work here and start with more questions. Questions like “who are we as a church community?” “What is this church about?” “Why does this church exist at all?” “How is God calling us and in what ways?” These are difficult questions that take time, self-examination, prayer, etc. In some cases, there’s aren’t any apparent answers, just more questions.
3. We have to stop responding all the time. Yes, you read that correctly – stop responding. I read something a wise person wrote long ago – “you can’t lead if you are always responding.” Responding feels good. It shows that you care. It shows that you value the person making the action. It also means you never do anything to move things forward. Yes, there are times when response is appropriate – I won’t deny that. This isn’t an either/or thing. And in our modern society, we’ve gotten really good at responding – think instant communication and the expectation of an instant response. But if everyone is responding, then who is leading and what are they leading us to?
4. What is the role of the church in your community? It goes back to the context of the local church. This isn’t easy work, but really anything worth doing involves an investment of sweat, blood and tears, time, money, and life.
I believe the church has an important role in society. I also believe that the church will look different going forward – I don’t know how, but I sense it will be different. Everything changes over time, even the church.
Here’s what I know – when a church knows who it is, whose it is, and why – then I’m willing to bet there isn’t a focus on people leaving. Why would you focus on that when you are being who are called to be?
I took the picture above on Saturday. This was a worship service in the Cathedral in Helsinki, Finland during the Finnish Independence Day celebrations.
First understand that in Finland, Independence Day is a serious and solemn day. Imagine if you can – all stores are closed on Finnish Independence Day…In the beginning of December…a few weeks before the madness of Christmas. That would never happen in the US. We can’t even have stores close on Thanksgiving Day anymore, and that’s a month before Christmas. You’d think stores would go out of business if they closed for one day. Finns hear speeches, go to grave sites and watch the presidential couple shake hands with dignitaries for something like 17 hours on TV. Some watch war movies burn blue and white candles in their windows. It’s a pretty dignified day that would combine the national spirit of American Independence Day with the somber recollection of Memorial Day.
At any rate, the worship service was organized by several churches that are associated with the Lutheran Church of Finland. It’s complicated to explain, but here’s the best way I can try to explain it – There are worshiping bodies that are “independent” of the Lutheran Church but work with the Lutheran church and some are supported by the Lutheran church. The Lutheran Church work with these bodies to service different worshiping needs – i.e. language, ethnic support structures, etc.
The churches that organized the service were the:
That’s a lot of churches with varying backgrounds, ethnic groups, languages, styles, etc. The service focused on praying for the nation of Finland, for broken people and relationships, for immigrants in Finland, for peace in war-torn areas, etc. There was singing, preaching, and a testimony. The service was conducted in English, because that’s the pretty much the most international language there is, at least in this part of Europe.
So during this service on Saturday, I sat with my family in the service. I looked around and saw an array of people. I thought about recent events in the US – skin color causing division. I didn’t call it racial differences because, well, that sounds too sanitized. It’s skin color differences. Honestly, it boggles my mind that we spend so much time, energy and effort judging people based on what they look like. That makes about as much sense as judging people based on what color their phone is.
I heard a variety of languages. Someone on the left side was quietly interpreting the sermon for another worshiper into either Chinese or Korean. And yet in many places, we get concerned when we hear broken English, let alone a foreign language – as if some “foreigner” is going to come and take over the country, or something like that. Guess what, broken English is the most common language there is.
And yet, in all this diversity and differences during this service, I didn’t see people focus on the differences. I didn’t hear people ask us to focus on how different we are as people. What I heard was a unified message – we are God’s children, let us pray and worship together as best we can.
See, for me, what I see is that Christianity has a unique message in a world of division. Christianity is a message of community in which we see that there are differences, and yet at the same time, we are able to come together – looking different, sounding different, being different. We are able to do this because the core and the focus is not on us. It is on God. That is the core of Christianity – God. And because the focus isn’t on is, we can stop looking at ourselves and others in judgement. Because God is the focus, we can stop focusing on the differences as if they matter. Because God is the focus, we can start to see people as just that – people, children of God just like us. Because of what God has done for us mercifully, we can see suffering where ever it may be and show mercy.
So there we were, participating in worship – united in God. A verse of Scripture came to mind – Galatians 3:28 – “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
I left a bit exhausted from all the prayer, but full of hope. If so many people could come together and worship God, regardless of what they looked like or sounded like here, gosh, I wonder what something like this would be back home in the US. It might actually look and sound like healing of a broken people.
Go To The Place of Shame, Pain, and Despair and Bear the Image of God There
Re-connect your thoughts and actions with your deepest values and purpose, and engender the same in others
The weaving of words from a Christian husband, father, pastor, professor, and author
Thoughts and images for reflection and inspiration
Imagining what I would say to my congregation each week if I were a pastor or priest
Explore. Unlearn. Have fun.
We're here to make a difference
Jesus. Church. Culture.
Reflections On Faith and Values by Steve Harsh