Friday, July 7, 2017
Loss of community. . and its gift in worship. . .
Children do not play with neighborhood children as they once did but are increasingly tied to the home and to the technology of smart phone, tablet, and video game. Schools struggle with this as well. Have you gone to a parent/teacher organization meeting of late? Parents are as distant from the schools and those who teach in them as the students and too often an adversarial relationship develops which pits parents and their children against teachers and administration. In addition schools are held accountable for the various aspects of socialization and individual emotional and mental health that was once the domain of family alone. Without shared values and a common life to bind us, we find our unity increasingly tested by our diversity and many are tempted by bitterness against the lack of community and communal values -- something that is felt even more acutely within the schools.
The congregation finds it hard to establish meaningful community with people living far from the church building and commuting to and from the church -- with increasing infrequency and irregularity. Every week millions upon millions of people drive past other congregations of their denomination in order to attend a church of choice -- one that is distant from where they live and work and one where this distance often precludes the kind of deeper involvement and association they seek or need. All of this places even greater pressure upon the parish and the clergy. We find ourselves often in the role of cheerleaders for the kinds of programs that will appeal to the mobile and attract those who treat congregations like the shopping choices of the mall or a decision about which restaurant at which to eat. Most congregations are earnest and most pastors genuinely want to make a difference -- working to re-establish the community so lacking from the lives of our people and both desired and needed.
Worship easily becomes a tool of fellowship and it is easily transformed into another aspect of personal preference. Congregations offer various worship times and "styles" in an effort to pack them in. Preaching tends to be addressed to the felt needs of those in the pews. It is all understandable but short-sighted. Instead of diversifying the Sunday morning offerings and spending time attempting to discern what it is that people are there for, community is established more profoundly through faithful liturgy, solid Biblical and doctrinal preaching, and thorough catechesis. Those who enjoy such faithful worship, preaching, and teaching find the result is community, common identity, and an abiding commitment to the life together formed from the womb of baptism and fed and nourished upon the Body and Blood of Christ. Instead of trying to be all things to all people (a mistaken exegesis of St. Paul), we have what is all things to all people and it is Christ crucified and risen, whom we know and who is accessible through the Word and the Sacraments.
Though the temptation is to make community a program or an effort and though the tendency is to create programs that foster such community, the community that people ache to know and need is already there where the Divine Service is faithfully the fount and center of the parish life, where the Word is preached and taught faithfully and completely, and where the catechism gives us both a common language and a common vocation flowing from that baptismal identity. We do not need to invent a means to answer the longing for community that we find in our people. God has given us the one means to true community with Him and through Him with one another. Though we should not have to choose between faithful worship and friendliness, the faithful gathering of the baptized places us within the friendship of God through the means of grace. The Spirit works through that means of grace to build this true community. Instead of building up local identity and diversity, our mobile people long to find what they had when the move to new areas or find themselves settling into new neighborhoods. This is not a plea for simple uniformity but for integrity of worship/liturgy and confession which will remind people that they belong to a greater family than simply the congregation and the things that make up congregation in one place are the same things that make for congregation and community elsewhere.
I live in just such a mobile community and the people who leave here complain to me over and over again that they miss what they had here. But what they had here was not something extraordinary. It was the catholic worship flowing from its center in the means of grace and faithful preaching and teaching of the Word (consistent with our confessions) that ought to be the mark of every congregation everywhere! We are not talking here about a mechanical uniformity but a unity flowing from our common life together as the baptized, gathered by the Spirit through the Word for the feast of Christ's Body and Blood, and for the living out of our vocation as the children of God by baptism and faith. Other things can and will be different but the renewal of our community and church will come when this is the same from place to place.