By Pastor Paula Burchill
I was talking to a friend of mine who was very involved in an evangelical campus ministry in college. She didn’t really grow up in a church, but found groups in college where her faith was well-fed. She had never been baptized, though. At the church she attended, you had to make a big decision about it, and she just never made it.
So when she became a Lutheran, I told her that we actually don’t make any decisions about baptism, God does the deciding–she was baptized.
That was many years ago and recently we were talking about how “Lutheran” she has become. She said she used to struggle with the hymns and all the verses and now said she just loves the poetry and depth of theology in them. She said some praise music now feels kind of sappy to her. She also says that she has grown over the years to really love the liturgy as well.
I had another conversation with a colleague about how across the US, the Lutheran denomination is not growing. We are, in fact, in decline. He told me that he thinks part of the reason is that there are over 100 million evangelicals, but only 10 million Lutherans [I’m being approximate], so likely we just aren’t going to grow very much. Evangelicals want worship that has a rock band and a certain kind of sermon, and that isn’t how most Lutherans worship.
So what does this mean? It has gotten me thinking about how many people who love liturgy and hymns have spent some time with them. I will sing a hymn like “Children of the Heavenly Father,” and think of baptism, because we sang that at every baptism in my childhood church. There is such a richness in having grown up in the faith I continue to practice as an adult.
My friend has grown to love liturgy and hymns but she says it has taken her years of living with them to get there.
So what about someone who comes in off the street with no church experience? Is liturgy for them? Do you have to do it for awhile for it to sink in and give you meaning? If so, how do we ensure that happens?
I have to admit, I get a little scared thinking about the future of the church. Churches that worship liturgically, expect things out of worshipers that not many other places expect. You are expected to participate. To stand and sit, sing and pray, listen and walk forward to receive communion. You are not there as a spectator, but as a participant. But most of us are pretty used to being spectators. We watch sports, TV and our phones. We listen to the radio. Even in school, many of us mostly sat there like sponges, expected to soak in what the teacher said.
But don’t you think that when you actually participate in something it affects you in a different way? Maybe we need to do a better job of educating people about what liturgy is. Maybe we need to get kids involved more often. Maybe when we sit next to someone who seems lost, we need to show them where we are in the service. Maybe we have to talk more about how much we love it.
Because I have to believe that somehow living in liturgy is training for living in trust and hope and faith.
When I think about people who have influenced my faith, they have tended to be those who have stuck with it. One woman, when her husband died, came to church and it was Easter. She told her pastor she just didn’t know if she could do Easter this year. Her pastor told her, “that’s ok. We will do Easter for you.” And then, eventually, she too could once again sing Alleluia.
I think maybe that has to be the key. Liturgy is about doing something together. Coming together with all of our warts and confessing our sin. Then singing praises to God, whether we are hurting or full of joy. We hear God’s word and then confess our faith in words our sisters and brothers have used for centuries. We pray for the church, the world and all in need, and then give offerings to help God get his work done in the world. Finally, we are nourished at the table so that we can be sent into the world once again renewed in trust, hope and faith.
Maybe when we know what we are doing, we can feel more confident in inviting our friends. We can share the treasure of our faith and its liturgical expression. Because we truly do have a treasure and my prayer is that we can get even better at sharing it.