Thursday, January 12, 2017

And the worship was good, too!

In Great Catholic Parishes, William E. Simon, Jr. has published the fruit of his own question in defining what makes for a great, that is, dynamic parish.  His own organization, Parish Catalyst, has been studying study parish life in America. In this volume, the author reports on the results of nearly 250 interviews with pastors around the country (three out of five from the Northeast and Midwest with the rest from the South and West).  It is not unlike the books that are regularly published among Protestants in our endeavor to find out what works and emulate it wherever we are.  Even the LCMS has published its own version of Courageous Parishes.

Fr. Gerald Murray, no stranger to Roman Catholic parishes, has given us a review of Simon's work on the pages of First Things.  You can read it here.  Murray offers some constructive thoughts on the subject of great parishes and suggests that Simon's third characteristic should have been the lens through which everything was viewed.  The third characteristic being they excel on Sundays (a rather general perspective on the Mass).  So in addition to fostering shared leadership, spiritual maturity, and evangelization, they do what they do on Sundays well.  Murray is correct in identifying this as the font from which all good things come and not simply one of the several things happening in a parish that are "good."

Such books are worth a read.  Every parish (including Lutheran ones) should reflect every now and then on what they are doing and how well they do it.  Thriving congregations are not accidental but the fruit of the Spirit's work in the richness of the life of the baptized around the Word and Table of the Lord, encouraging a deep and abiding life of prayer and devotion, and challenging the people of God to enter their communities with words of witness and actions of love and mercy.  Still and all worship can never be one of the many things or even one of the few.  It is THE lens through which all other things must be seen and the single most important reason for the vitality of the whole of the parish and what it does.

If you read this blog, you know that I adamantly I maintain that everything starts from and flows back to Sunday morning.  The Divine Service is source and summit of all that God has done and all we are in Him.  This is not worship in the sense of whatever you do, you must do well, but worship that is catholic and evangelical in the best sense of those terms.  For Lutherans this is rooted in our Confessions.  We insist we have not abolished the Mass or abandoned the liturgy but observe it and "do it" even more faithfully than our opponents.

What flows out of Sunday morning will determine what comes back.  Without the solid food of Word and Sacrament and the vibrant liturgical worship of God in which the means grace live, there is nothing to encourage or sustain the kind of activities God seeks from us or the kind of fruit that will glorify Him.  What do we have to offer the world if we cannot first and foremost offer them entrance into the mysteries of God, the means of grace, through which God comes to us and delivers to us the riches of His grace and mercy to forgive, enliven, and save us?  Any parish that hopes to accomplish God's bidding must have this mission flow from their Sunday morning life together around the Word and Table of the Lord or what they do will be superficial and temporary.

The Church is no social service agency.  We do not feed the poor or raise up virtue or care for the sick and needy because we are good people (better people than others) or because we think we can earn God's approval.  We do this because God has found us poor and made us rich in Christ and His righteousness, covered us with His holiness so that we might learn to be holy in Him, come to us sick and wounded and bestowed upon us the healing of His own flesh for the life of the world, and saw our need and answered it with nothing less than His own self-sacrificial life and death upon the cross.  We are no mere do-gooders.  We are instruments of God's own purpose and gracious favor.

For this reason everything else we do flows from our encounter with God in His Word and at His Table and everything flows right back to this Divine Service.  We are doing a poor job at everything we do if it is not formed, shaped, motivated, and empowered by the God who meets us in the earthly forms of His Sacramental grace and graces our ears with the divine sound of His saving voice.  Worship is not one of the things we do.  It is the lens through which our health or sickness is seen, through which our noble work or worthless busyness is revealed, our depth or shallowness proclaimed for all to see.

Sunday morning is not everything but there is nothing good in our life together that is not the fruit of this cup that overflows with mercy.  Once we learn this, we will be richer by far and way ahead in the goal of serving the Lord with all our strength, will, resources, and energy.

1 comment:

William Gleason said...

St. Paul's rededication was a much better picture for this post. IMHO ;-)