Friday, July 7, 2017

Loss of community. . and its gift in worship. . .

Everyone laments the loss of community -- a loss social media is ill equipped to restore.  Nowhere is this more true than in the parish.  In the modern day world of Western Culture the breakdown of community has created an abundance of tensions for neighborhood and nation but it is also responsible both for new pressures upon the parish and new challenges to it. Our increasingly mobile lives have left us more and more alone.  We no longer can count on having extended family, long-term friendships, and stable neighborhoods.  Part of this, of course, is the result of affluence.  Because we can afford it financially, the members of the individual family as well as other opportunities for relationships are stretched by the individualism of preference and its accessibility in the technology that has as one of its consequences our increasing isolation. A robust family life lives in tension with competing schedules and interests that pull apart husband, wife, and children.  The increasing phenomena of singles or marrieds without children means that our individual interests and the wealth that allows them keeps us from the kind of interconnected lives known only a few generations before.  Travel that was once a wish has become normative for all ages and classes. Families find it more and more common to see their children head off to college in a different region of the country, not only testing their local ties (which may never have developed in the first place) or severing them, never to return again. Our workforce is highly mobile and people shift locales as easily as they shift careers and jobs -- even overseas!  The distance between the places where we work and live means our lives are tethered in various places, none of which garners our full attention.

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.


Padre Dave Poedel said...

Your last paragraph sums up the issue for me, as I have heard the same sentiments from folks who moved away from parishes I have served. Our problem is a lack of a teaching magisterium, Lutheranism, especially the LCMS, with our non-heirarchial structure makes the choice of how to do worship up to the resident Pastor.

As an Emeritus Pastor, I do pulpit supply and vacancy work, as well as being an intentional interim certified. Going from parish to parish is like going from one denomination to another. My sermon style, length and content is the same, but whether I vest or not, whether I am asked not to wear a clerical collar or not has become something I need to ascertain in advance, so as not to cause offense to the worshippers' expectations.

Of course, all of this depends on the Pastor of the parish. When I began serving a congregation, I brought my liturgical reverence, my chasubles, my wearing a clerical collar every day. As soon as the next Pastor came, most of what I had established for the previous 10 years of my tenure was discontinued because my successor "wasn't into liturgy" like I was. That is pretty heady stuff for a Pastor, but because there is no more "LCMS culture", or no one agrees on what that culture is, this is inevitable. When one seminary seems to produce a form of evangelical catholic Pastor, while the other seems to produce an evangelical with sacraments. How much training in the Divine Service do our seminarians receive? From what I hear, not much. So, we publish a new hymnal and everyone still does their own thing.

As long as we have no consistent teaching authority, we will continue to have a potpourri of worship in our congregations.

Anonymous said...

AC Article VII The Church
3] For the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree about the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies instituted by men, should be the same everywhere.

AC Article XXI Worship of the Saints: A Review of the Various Abuses That Have Been Corrected
6] It can easily be judged that if the churches observed ceremonies correctly, their dignity would be maintained and reverence and piety would increase among the people.

Excerpted from Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions-A Readers Edition of the Book of Concord - 2nd edition by McCain, Paul T, General Editor

AC VII 3 does not lead to liturgical carte blanche.
AC XXI 6 tempers any idea of gross departure from catholicity