Thursday, October 28, 2010
Fostering a Sense of Reverence...
A few weeks ago, for the hundredth time, I listened as a member of the parish complained about how noisy it was in the nave during the preparation time just before the service begins. This pious person just wanted some quiet time to pray and was "bothered" by laughter and loud conversations sent across the rows of pews by those "fellowshipping" with one another. I nodded my head. It was not that this person thought I could do something about this casual attitude toward God's House, but simply that we could nod our heads together and wish that there was a little room for the sacred, for silence, and for reverence among the people gathered for worship.
Some weeks I cringe at the flip flops (quiet but too informal) or the high heels (formal but definitely not quiet) worn by the acolytes. I have long since gotten over the garish colors of the sneakers and have breathed a sigh of relief that the style of untied shoelaces shoved into the shoe has passed. Worn down by parents complaining that is all their children have to wear and by the years of exposure to these "shoes" I find myself relieved when they are all white or mostly black.
On the other hand, I have acolytes who bow every time they pass in front of the altar and a few who genuflect (I did not teach them). It is not like you can paint with a broad brush but look at different perspectives from within the same community of faithful gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord. Some of the more reverent ones come from families that have no long history in the church and others come from those families where the church building is as familiar to them as their own home. Go figure.
So how do you foster a sense of reverence, whereby the gifts of God become common to your life without being commonplace? How do you foster a sense of the sacred that is not some, stiff, imposed formality but the honest awe of a people who know they stand on the holy ground of God's presence? How do you instill in your people a sense of wonder at the mystery of God who makes Himself known to us in the Word and in the Breaking of the Bread each Lord's Day while at the same time encouraging them to see this mystery as one that beckons and bids them instead of causing them to run in fear? How do you build a community in which this wonderful sense of reverence and mystery are present even while the high mobility of the people in the pews means that this is an ever changing assembly?
We have a congregation of people somewhat divided (those who have been Lutheran the longest and members of this parish the longest tend to attend the early Divine Service while those newer to Lutheranism and newer to Grace Lutheran Church tend toward the late Divine Service). With a high number of military families, we have people from all over the world who, on average, are here for between 2-5 years, may have a family member deployed for a year or more during that time, and who view home as a place different than where they reside. We have a great disparity along the educational and economic spectrum (with university faculty, blue color workers, business folks, military, and retired). We have a big mix of ages with, perhaps, more children and young marrieds than the average Lutheran parish but these folks also tend to be in church less frequently than the older age folks without children at home. I know this impacts the sense of reverence and contributes to the mix of piety and experience of the folks in the pews.
I know it is an ongoing struggle, with no magic bullets, that is taught and exemplified Sunday after Sunday in the liturgy and attitude of those leading worship as well as communicated through the preaching and teaching of a parish. It is just that sometimes I wish I had a better handle on accomplishing this goal more effectively and efficiently... sometimes it seems for every step forward, we take one behind.
I was happy to read from Fr Wil Weedon that he has found that in his parish the increase in membership does not result in a proportionate increase in attendance. That certainly is the case here. Yet knowing this is a more common problem does not necessarily make me feel better about it. Perhaps I am forever colored by the experience I had growing up and the faith and values planted within me by my parents. It makes it hard for me to understand such casual attitudes about attending the Divine Service and such a casual informality being within the Divine Service that it grates against the sense of reverence, mystery, and awe inherent to what we believe, teach, confess, and practice...
Ahhhh.... if only my mailbox were as full of programs promising to fix this problem... the way my mailbox is filled with offers to help me use PowerPoint better, welcome visitors so that they return, manage volunteers, keep up with the latest in contemporary church music, and stay ahead of the technology curve in the church... Well, there you have it... but I would welcome any hints or suggestions from the peanut gallery.