Thursday, October 28, 2010

Fostering a Sense of Reverence...

I was walking through the nave the other day following Compline and noticed something bright and shiny under one of the pews.  When I reached down to pick it up, I saw it was a Pepsi can.  It is not the first time I have retrieved coffee cups, bottles of water, cans of soda, or candy wrappers from under the pews.  Sadly, it will not be the last.

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.


evc said...

I think it's a generational gap of sorts. The older church, church goers, etc. failed to pass down or entrust to the younger the importance and reality of their faith.

Many of the 20's and 30's I know have a low view of church.

Related to you post on Cain and Abel, I don't think the since of privilege is understood by very many folks today, but going to church is more of a duty. My two cents.

Anonymous said...

Commenting on Bishop Joseph Butler's sage advice, Ephraim Radner writes:

"Butler writes in a new era on the far side of the rise of toleration and its
creeping alteration to Christianity. He therefore frames his remarks to his
clergy in a special context: how to minister in the face of unbelief that is
actually encasing a once Christian culture. His main strategic answer is this:
Do not waste your time arguing, but instead carry on with your appointed rounds.
The reasonable weight of Christianity, Butler insists, can be grasped only on
the basis of "a long series of things, one preparatory to and confirming
another, from the very beginning of the world to the present time."
Rather, Butler tells his clergy, the greatest gift you have for this unbelieving
culture and thinning cultural Christianity are the forms of your church's common
life, forms that, he admits, can often seem empty. Still, he says, the "reality
and power" of these forms' content, as he describes it, assert themselves
through the imposition of the forms themselves, the only means by which over
time the divine reasonableness of a gospel that embraces time itself can ever
touch a person. The incessant round of the Church's life and the
only apologetics, the only advertising, the only marketing, that will ever begin
to match the breadth of a truth whose hold is history itself. That is
explicitly why Butler spends his charge detailing for his clergy the duties of
divine office, catechism, and visiting: these habits alone, astoundingly, can
embrace the universe.

...We do not have time in our own hands---time to make the changes we need to
make in order to convert cultures, historical diseases, and so on---but God
does. We do not have the power any longer to embrace a culture as a whole with
out religion and so, in a deliberate squeeze, to transform it---but God does.
We do not have the focused Spirit to quench the passions of human hatred that
poison even the heart of religion---but God does. What we have are the forms,
Butler insisted, that tie themselves to God's time and to God's power and to
God's transformation. We have such forms, and whoever we are, and to whatever
church we belong, we can submit to them.

...To think, to inquire, to argue even, to serve, to worship, to pray, to weep,
to give of oneself....all within the bounds of the given is certainly an odd exhortation
to offer leaders for whom the denominational and church consultants constantly
urge action outside the box. But we should listen to the call, because
submission to the given, to the forms of the church, is a transformative
Ephraim Radner, "The Merchants' Tears: The Virtues of Staying Put"

Don't panic.

Tom Fast

Anonymous said...

I feel your "pain." I too cringe--actually become angry and depressed--by the noise and hubbub prior to "worship" in my congregation. The bulletin has a comment about coming early to pray and prepare oneself for worship, but that is difficult to practice with the loud conversations. And the pastors circulate throughout the nave talking to the people and encourage this activity by their example. Then when the service is ready to begin and everyone has quieted down, we have what I call the Dave Letterman warmup: One pastor will greet everyone, expecting a loud greeting in response followed by a few announcements (most of them entirely superflous)and then we are all to stand and greet the people around us--all over again!
And as for water bottles and Pepsi cans... One of our pastors frequently carries a large glass of water up into the chancel either next to where he sits or on the pulpit or lectern. And after the readings or the sermon will stand at the pulpit or lectern and drink from his glass of water! How is that for setting an example!In other words, we tend to imitate the behavior we see in our parents and leaders. It is true that the example of society outside the church has had a greater and greater influence on behavior within the church, but all we can do is to model appropriate behavior and hope that it is catching.
And when we become depressed about the state of the church the Writing for Oct.23 in the Treasury of Daily Prayer provides comfort and encouragement.
--Bill H.

ErnestO said...

Fostering Reverence (Tozer)

Every pastor knows the plain people who have nothing to recommend them but their deep devotion to their Lord and the fruit of the Spirit which they all unconsciously display. Without these the churches as we know them in city, town and country could not carry on. These are the first to come forward when there is work to be done and the last to go home when there is prayer to be made. They are not known beyond the borders of their own parish because there is nothing dramatic in faithfulness or newsworthy in goodness, but their presence is a benediction wherever they go. They have no greatness to draw to them the admiring eyes of carnal men but are content to be good men and full of the Holy Ghost, waiting in faith for the day that their true worth shall be known. When they die they leave behind them a fragrance of Christ that lingers long after the cheap celebrities of the day are forgotten. God Tells the Man Who Cares, 98-100.

Anonymous said...

"I think it's a generational gap of sorts. The older church, church goers, etc. failed to pass down or entrust to the younger the importance and reality of their faith."

Yes, deprived both their children and the Service of appropriate dignity.