Monday, November 8, 2021

Mission, Mass, and Meetings. . .

As I have said before, the building that housed my home parish was most often empty and the lights off.  Certain essential activities took place there -- most importantly the Divine Service and catechesis of young and old -- but the rest of the time nobody was there.  There were quarterly business meetings of the congregation and of the elders and trustees (one with spiritual emphasis and the other with a more earthly concern).  There were the occasional funerals and the burials in the parish cemetery just down from the structure itself.  Oh, and VBS in the summers and pot lucks and Mission Festival also came here and there throughout the year.  But though the building was empty, the work of the Kingdom went on without the customary buzz of endless programs, meetings, and activities that fill the schedules of modern churches.  It seems that whether liturgical or not, whether evangelical or not, whether Protestant or not, we have a different idea about what constitutes a church in mission than those who went before us.  I am not at all sure we are wiser.

The people of my parish while I was growing up saw the mission as personal.  It unfolded in the home as families gathered for prayer and meals and where discussion of news and events took place within the context of their faith and values.  It unfolded in the business place (or farms) where vocations to provide for family were lived out.  It unfolded in the schools where the children gathered to learn and where faith was neither hidden nor ignored.  It unfolded in the casseroles brought to families in which illness, childbirth, or death had come -- the same food that served different occasions with the same purpose or reminding them in joy and sorrow they were not alone.  It unfolded in the visits to the nursing home and the worship services there in which members of the congregation came along to sing the faith with residents no longer living alone or with family.  It unfolded in the volunteers who staffed the fire department, ambulance core, civic organizations, community improvement group, and all sorts and kinds of other groups who met out of common interest or need.  The Church fed their lives and work from the font and pulpit and altar but it did not direct that work.

Now being in mission means programs and the programs often fill the calendar so full the mass or Divine Service is but one of many activities happening under the umbrella of "church."  Programs mean meetings -- sometimes an endless litany of meetings to plan, direct, and unfold these works deemed of the kingdom.  The average parish calendar today is chock full of meetings, of groups competing for space in time and in the building, and of needs competing for the attention of pastors and church staffs. Part of this is due to the fact that we now consider the work of the Kingdom not simply to flow out of our life together around the Word and Sacraments but to be directed and informed and fulfilled by the church as an organization and a building.  Catechesis happens more at the Church than in the home.  The faith is off limits in the school.  There is a committee to decide who gets food and who delivers that food to the families in need.  The pastor goes alone to the nursing home (if he goes at all).  And the mission of the pastors and church workers has come to include the care and feeding of the many volunteers needed to staff such an enterprise.

It may not be all bad.  It is not all bad.  Some of it is really quite good.  But the push on our calendars has been felt most of all in that the center of the parish and the core focus of the people of God is less upon their encounter with the mystery of His mercy in Word and Sacrament than it is in programs.  These programs are not bad but they are not particularly Christian either.  From sports leagues to luncheon groups to self-help groups to self-interest affinities, we busy our lives as pastors and church workers and the life of God's people but in so doing we diminish the center of our lives flowing from font to pulpit to table.  The mass or Divine Service becomes one of many things and not the one thing needful.  The Church becomes a community organization with work on behalf of the homeless, the hungry, the troubled, the lonely, the aged, etc., but does this happen so that the individual people of God are no longer as directly involved in these loving neighbor causes?  Have we funneled people into venues where they might serve or created a core of busy people serving so that the rest of us don't have to serve?  Could the way we have become a consumer culture instead of a producer culture have affected how we see our life together and what we do and what importance we attach to the things we do as a Church?

In the end, I wonder if God cares how busy our churches are or our people.  But I do wonder if God is not more concerned with what we are doing.  


1 comment:

Paulus said...

I've been reading your blog for quite some time and I've come to appreciate a central theme weaving through your thoughts and words. The mass or Divine Service is the linch-pin of Confessional Lutheranism. Properly understood, it should define the character and personality of any parish ministry. I think we are inclined to diminish this vital element as we take our eye of the ball, so to speak, and become distracted in our search for contemporary programs that we think will draw people in. "O Lord, once lifted on the glorious tree, As Thou hast promised, draw us all to Thee." LSB 837