Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Lutheran visits Church of Christ services

This continues my summer visits to different Christian worship services, both to help my thoughts about Christian reconciliation and also as part of a quest for a hungry soul to be fed. (This week I heard from an old friend, former member of my church. Some 10 or more years ago when our congregation's current pastor came, she left our church over some events related to her and her husband's needs at the time, and the pastor's response. She asked -- hopefully, I thought -- whether he'd left yet, and I told her no. She still doesn't really have a church home.) I have remembered where to find some good sermons on-line, and that is helping. But still, I did visit another church this week before going to my own service.

The worship space

The Church of Christ worship space was lacking absolutely anything that would identify it as specifically Christian or even religious. There was no altar, no crucifix, not even a cross. There were no religious images or even banners. There was no marking to designate we're in the season of Pentecost. (I got the feeling that the Church of Christ doesn't recognize a liturgical year. I'd be curious what they do with holy days such as Christmas, the Resurrection, and Pentecost.) The walls were utterly bare, other than three flat-screen TV's at various places, showing the same thing to people seated in different sections. Before the service, the screens  usually showed a countdown of time until the service began (5:35 ... 5:34 ... 5:33 ...) though occasionally mixed with written announcements ("Please turn off cell phones"). Despite this institutional-looking start, the people were friendly enough. Promptly when the countdown got to 0:00, a worship leader stepped up onto the stage (yes, a stage) to the podium (small and clear plastic, definitely not a pulpit). Interestingly, it was almost exactly an hour later (1:00:00, I wouldn't be surprised) that the service ended. There were signs notifying people that the service was being recorded.

The worship service

The worship service started with several praise songs, none of them familiar to me, but all so familiar to the members that they knew the tunes without consulting the hymnal or songbook. The words were put up on the monitors around the worship space, but without notes so that I had to resort to the hymnal or songbook (depending on which song) in order to sing along. There were probably seven or more songs during the service, all short and peppy, and most of them in a recognizably modern American style. (Making no comment on whether that's good or bad; just mentioning how it was.) They all had fairly singable tunes. The songs of the day were themed around imitating God, being like God, or volunteering ("Here am I, send me").

There was no place in the service where we had a Bible reading exactly, or said a creed, or prayed the Lord's prayer. The closest we came to a Bible reading was that several verses from the parable of the sheep and the goats were quoted and shown on-screen at the start of the sermon. The service consisted of welcome announcement, songs, a prayer, communion and offering, the sermon, and more singing. (They might not acknowledge the ancient liturgy, but other than leaving out a place for regular Scripture readings and prayers and the creed, the outline was close enough.)

Church of Christ particulars

I had heard that the Church of Christ forbids instrumental music. There was no sign or sound of an instrument during the service. So it surprised me that music was so much a part of the service, and was well-done. All the singing was without any accompaniment. They've apparently found ways to keep the singing on-key, and on-beat, without musical instruments. They even had a lot of people venturing harmony, and a number of songs where the men and women were singing different words, overlapping and harmonizing as they went. Overall the music was good.

I had also heard that the Church of Christ believes in some form of baptismal regeneration -- like the more ancient churches, in that respect. The closest it came to being mentioned during the service was an offer for visitors to meet and talk to someone if they wanted to know "What's all this about baptism?" (I have to admit to starting out with a bad feeling about the Church of Christ because someone I knew had a bad encounter with them that kept him away from the church. His mother was intending to become a member and intending to be baptized, but before the date of her baptism she was killed in a car accident. He was told that his mother was in hell because she hadn't yet been baptized. I'm really hoping that's not their standard teaching and was just some uninformed person making a horribly cruel and wrong statement at the worst possible moment. At any rate the man wanted nothing to do with Christianity afterwards. His mother has been gone for nearly 30 years now, and last I heard he has not yet been to a church.)

The sermon

The majority of the service consisted of this sermon of sorts. The sermon wasn't about a particular Bible reading so much, though the starting point was from Jesus' words of the Last Judgment. The teacher said that this Last Judgment was a final exam that we all wanted to pass, but that Jesus had given us in advance not only the question but also the answer, in how we treat the least of these. The rest of the talk -- which probably went on for close to half an hour -- covered the details of various ministry programs carrying out that type of help for those in need. The ushers passed out sign-up sheets for people to volunteer for one of these ministries. The ministries ranged from visiting shut-ins, to giving people rides to medical appointments, to helping people with house and yard work after an illness or hospitalization, and so on.

From my point of view much of this was admirable, that they would place so much emphasis on serving others in genuine love, and be willing to devote so much of their church's emphasis to carrying out service in the world. In part it was exasperating, that there was almost no recognition given to what Christ has done for us.

I'm sure a Lutheran would never have preached on the sheep and the goats without a plain acknowledgment that we follow Jesus imperfectly and we are forgiven; the lack of that was surprising. (From their point of view, I wonder, if they would say, "The Church of Christ would never have preached on the sheep and the goats without a plain acknowledgment that our service is expected, and without the church providing opportunities for people to serve.") Ever notice that our divisions in the church tend to result in such either-or thinking, along the fault-lines after a division?


I say that "almost" no recognition was given to what Christ has done for us; but they did have communion, and acknowledged plainly that it is more than a memorial, more than a proclamation of Christ's death and an expectation of his return, but that it also acknowledges our dependence on what Christ has done for us. (I don't remember that "forgiveness" was ever mentioned in the service; there was certainly no confession and repentance and proclamation of God's forgiveness. The closest they got to any of that was a recognition of our "dependence on what Christ has done".) As they began communion, they made a defensive-sounding announcement that there had to be some kind of leader to keep there from being chaos. The ushers passed around trays containing tiny pieces of unleavened bread (not quite as big as a sunflower seed) and little glasses of grape juice. The words of institution ("On the night in which he was betrayed, Our Lord Jesus took bread" etc) were not said at all. So "This is my body, given for you", "this is my blood, shed for you", and "for the forgiveness of sins" were not said at communion. All the same I was surprised that they had communion; I've heard that non-liturgical services don't typically have it at all. This is probably obvious: they did not sing "Christ, Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" in the way that any liturgical church would at communion. (A rousing Lutheran chorus of "This is the feast of victory for our God!" would have been right out.)

The prayers

There was very little praying during the service, to the point where the lack of prayer surprised me. I think there was one prayer during the service, though it lasted just a moment. The Lord's prayer was not included, or any of the prayer concerns that are a standard part of a liturgical worship service. (A liturgical church like mine will not have a worship service without including the Lord's prayer as well as several other prayers.)

The leadership

The worship leaders were all men, unlike the Roman Catholic service I had attended recently. They did not wear the "robe and stole" common in Christian liturgical churches, with the stole being a recognizable variant of the Jewish tallit. The leaders were in street clothes. (I don't expect that the dress code of the leaders matters much, so long as it isn't a distraction.)

The congregation

The people were, again, friendly and full of a noticeable Christian goodwill towards each other. There was an offer, as we dismissed, for people to go meet with others who were willing to hear their story and pray with them, as needed. (That, or hear them explain their views on baptism.) But I had my regular service to get to, so I left.

Back to my own congregation

A Lutheran visits Lutheran services: The songs were not very singable compared to the a capella ones I'd heard earlier. But it sure was good to pray, and to read from Scripture, and to hear about the forgiveness of sins.

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