Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Teaching the faith. . . on Sunday morning. . .

The soft underbelly of modern Christianity and current Lutheranism is the lack of teaching.  You can call it catechesis or Bible study or whatever you want, but the reality is that our people recognize less and less the allusions and references to the great people of faith in Scripture and the mighty stories of God's redemptive work.  While this is true for Scripture, it is also true for the liturgy.  Absent such teaching about the liturgy to understand, recognize, and reference the events and Scriptures alluded to in the grammar and vocabulary of the Divine Service words and the prayers, the people are either left to their own explanations or miss out on the references entirely.  Where the guided “spiritual” interpretations of the liturgy are missing, the faithful in the pews will develop their own, subjective, interpretation of the liturgy, infusing their own spiritual needs with what may (or may not) be conveyed in the texts themselves and/or placing it all in the context of what seems reasonable or logical.

Having spent a month discussing in the Sunday Bible class the vestments, vessels, ceremonies, and celebrations of the liturgy, feast, festival, and season, I know how many struggle to find meaning to what they see routinely on Sunday morning and what they read and pray and sing in the liturgy.  And this is in a place where we have multiple opportunities to deliberately explain and place into context what happens in the Divine Service!  What happens in those places where worship is barely touched upon in youth catechesis, adult information classes, or thereafter?  It is no wonder that our people do not get why we Lutherans have some strange attachment to the hymnal or why that hymnal can be ditched when it does not seem to be relevant or effective for the folks on Sunday morning.  We have developed a Lutheranism in theory which has no particular face on Sundays and therefore inadvertently told our people that Lutheranism is about what you believe and not how you worship.

The people are generally hungry, full of questions, and desire to know the "why" of what we do as Lutheran people in the Lutheran service of Word and Sacrament.  By failing to deliver to them the background to the Sunday morning story, they are left to develop on their own explanation, understanding, context, and meaning.  This too often relegates the Divine Service to the very realm of feeling, felt needs, and spiritual relevance that the concrete symbols and sacramental means of Word and Table are there to combat.

Some years ago, a generation after the introduction of LBW and LW, a Lutheran pastor whom I had grown to know and respect said that he understood the hymn of praise to vary depending upon whether or not the service included Holy Communion or was the old dry mass.  In other words, sing This Is the Feast if there is a feast and Glory to God in the Highest if there isn't.  While this is certainly a small thing it is but the tip of the iceberg in mistaken understandings of what the liturgy is and what it means.  If this happens among the clergy, how much more does it happen among lay folks who have been failed by the pastors and have not been catechized into the liturgy, the liturgical year, and sacramental piety of Lutheran Christians?

Teaching the liturgy is eminently practical -- teaching people what they will use every Sunday morning and equipping them to teach their children and the stranger who shows up with them in the pew.  I am not at all suggesting that we fail to teach the Catechism or minimize Bible study but that in addition to these we add an annual review of some basic liturgical theology, a run through the Divine Service, a review of why vestments and rituals, and the Church Year.  We know what has happened by our failure to catechize folks into the liturgy.  We may be pleasantly surprised by what happens when we begin to do just that!

1 comment:

John Joseph Flanagan said...

In my opinion, some LCMS churches I have attended over the years do indeed fall short in teaching the Gospel. The Sunday sermon is usually about 20 minutes or so, and sadly some churches, even fairly large congregations, do not have a year round weekly Bible study. This should be a basic activity, and it should be scheduled throughout the year, not cancelled for "summer vacation." Whether 3 people show up or fifty, a mid-week Bible study should be a must. Session leaders can be selected and a Lutheran study aid utilized. There are some denominations that have more engaging activities and members of the congregation are being fed the word of God. The LCMS needs to "get on the ball." We cannot complain about low membership and apathy if we are simply not engaged with people and teaching the word of God.