On Christmas morning, there were maybe thirty people at worship. Many of our members were out of town or celebrating with family. Others were kept away by the ice on the roadways. It was an intimate gathering, and without prompting, everyone sat in the front few pews. I joked that it was so Pr. Jon wouldn’t be lonely up there.
The greeting of peace took longer than usual. With such a small group, we felt compelled—or maybe it was invited—to take the time to visit with everyone, whether with a handshake or a hug. One person even hugged another twice saying, “I came back for seconds.”
The singing was accompanied on piano, less formal and bombastic than the organ, lending additional intimacy.
The sermon, too, was less formal, with Pr. Jon asking us to listen for words or ideas that jumped out at us as he read the gospel and then inviting a few of us to share what we connected with. Then he dug a little deeper into John’s poetic “In the beginning was the Word” passage by reading from the materials I wrote for the Christmas program. He talked about Jesus’ presence from the beginning in the trinity, and shared the theological basis of Tempus Perfectum as it related to John’s gospel.
As I sat in that little gathering, I was reminded of what I’ve been learning about the early church. After Jesus’ resurrection and before the gospels were written, the disciples and Paul planted little churches all around the Mediterranean. These were not large, formal groups in big buildings with pipe organs (or the first century equivalent). They were small gatherings of people in private homes. Someone would read from Paul’s letters, which were the only Christian readings they would have had, and possibly from Jewish scripture. There would have been a meal. I don’t know if there was music.
I thought: would it be better if this is what church was like on a regular basis? Is this what “church” was meant to be? Certainly one has to wonder whether Christianity would have survived at all had it not become the social-norm-turned-imperialist-weapon that allowed it to spread and grow into the largest world religion. But everything I’m reading at seminary points to the fact that this trajectory of Christianity inevitably removed it from its basic purpose and most central theologies. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to take things back to those earliest days?
What would such a church look like? How would we “be” the church in the world? Would we miss the sound of the organ, the large choirs, the decorated sanctuaries? Or would it be liberating to gather in simple settings, with guitar and piano. Would we bemoan the loss of Sunday School? Or would we cherish the opportunity to welcome children as full participants in worship and have everything be intergenerational? Would we mourn VBS and other activities? Or would we be relieved to give up the endless drive to “create programs” in order to compete for members and resources? What if our main function was to serve our neighbors rather than to grow our congregation?
I suspect we would be deeply uncomfortable. It would be a huge change from what we know. There is so much about our Lutheran tradition I would dearly miss in a small, informal setting.
But maybe we can have the best of both worlds. Perhaps it is not necessary to completely relinquish “church” as we know it in order to move back toward “church” as the very presence of Christ in our suffering world through our actions of love toward our neighbors. Certainly from everything I have seen thus far at Luther Seminary, this is exactly the work that the ELCA is presently engaged in, and the work for which Luther is training its next generation of church leaders. This, too, would be the work of Calvary, should the Five-Year Plan come to fruition.
In the weeks to come, I will explore this and other musings inspired by my seminary education and life at Calvary. I hope you will join me in my reflection and I look forward to spirited conversations with you as we journey through 2017!