Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Lutheran visits Methodist services (Part 1)

This summer, again, I am visiting other churches when I can. The particular Methodist church that I visited has an 8:30 service that allowed me to attend there and still make my regular service at my home church. My visit was in June, though this write-up is being posted later. I happened to visit during a time after the previous regular pastor had left but before the new one had arrived. That is to say: the church had a substitute pastor, so I don't know if this was a typical service.

The sanctuary

The worship space was reassuringly Christian, with crosses displayed and seasonal dressings on the pulpit. The sanctuary also gave some thought to beauty with its stained glass windows. The projection screens did detract from the otherwise beautiful and timeless interior, in a way.

Liturgy and worship; Methodist particulars?

My previous notes on worship services have had a separate heading for worship and for things particular to a denomination. With the guest preacher at this service, I'm not sure it would be right to assume any Methodist particulars from attending this service, so I'm grouping it all together here. (Though I'm fairly sure the sermon's reference to the brave circuit riders of the frontier days was a Methodist particular, as each denomination had their own approach to getting through the frontier days.)

The service was not one that I would recognize as the standard liturgy. The worship service began with greeting and passing the peace, so it was familiar that far. There was no confession, no assurance of God's forgiveness at the start of the service (or anywhere in the service, for that matter). The congregation confessed the Apostles' Creed, but without acknowledging it as the Apostles' Creed; it was titled "Affirmation of Faith".

There was one Scripture reading (as opposed to the three-readings-plus-a-Psalm that I'm used to) and it was drawn from the Old Testament. That is to say, it was a worship service in which the words of the gospel were not read at all. Neither was there any reading from the New Testament, where I'm accustomed to two New Testament readings. Jesus was worked into the sermon briefly though not in a major way, and Jesus was also in some of the hymns and the "Affirmation of Faith".

There was no communion; I'm not sure how often Methodists celebrate the Lord's Supper. The offering was noted as "Tithes and Offerings" as if the Old Testament command to tithe were considered to be applicable. 

In my mind, I couldn't reconcile the fact that there were liturgical colors on the pulpit with the fact that the Scripture reading showed no sign of following a liturgical reading calendar. Considering that there was a guest preacher, I left that as a question for some other day.

The hymns / songs

During the service, the plainest reassurances of God's love were in one of the earlier hymns. In general, the hymns were singable and had decent tunes. The Doxology was sung in the middle of the service: not where I would expect it, though still welcome. The closing hymn was the biggest surprise. It is a song that I strongly doubt would ever be included in a Lutheran hymnal. (I checked a couple of Lutheran hymnals and it is definitely not included in those.) It was literally the end of the service, and the closing hymn had the closing words
A Charge to Keep I Have
"Assured, if I my trust betray,
I shall for ever die."
The tune wasn't bad, but the content and the timing -- having eternal condemnation as the last thing in the song or the service --  just wouldn't be done. It's a longstanding Lutheran standard that, when condemnation is mentioned, it is not the final word. The final word is hope in Jesus and trust in God's goodness, as is typical of the majority of books of the New Testament. So it was interesting to see a hymn that closed with such words, and to see it placed so that the entire service closed with such words. It did follow the same pattern as the other differences I've seen about whether grace is considered as important to Methodists as it is to Lutherans.

The Sermon

The sermon was about acting in faith and hope for the future; the text was Joshua crossing the Jordan. The sermon was mainly about not giving up, about moving forward to a new future. The sermon was largely geared toward their current situation of being between pastors. The preacher did manage to include assurances of God's presence wherever we go, though the main point was about not giving up or being complacent with standing still and settling.

I found the sermon unusual this way -- and it may have been the guest preacher or the occasion of being between pastors: There was more ... I'd have to call it self-congratulation ... than I can recall hearing in another Christian service before. The preacher assured the congregation time and again that their church was known in the community as one that prayed. And, again, the preacher assured the congregation that their church was known in the community as "the church that cares". (I've never heard that this particular congregation has any particular reputation; my own either for that matter. So I chalked up those comments as mostly cheerleading, more about building a positive self-image or encouraging them through the transition than anything else.) I didn't know what the congregation might have gone through during the transition, or whether this was something just for the awkward in-between times.

The sermon included the sadly obligatory "distancing ourselves from the others" (disparaging others) comments that you hear in so many churches, my own included. This particular church congratulated itself on being a congregation where everyone is welcome, "unlike some churches where that wouldn't be true, where they don't accept people who aren't like them" (met with nods and murmurs from the pews). Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to ask the preacher what exactly was the subtitled translation there; the reception line after the service was quick-moving so there was no chance to ask. In liberal Lutheran churches a phrase like that would have been in reference to the debates over homosexuality and a disparagement that conservative churches would ask abstinence of a homosexual, but I'm not sure if that's the translation in those particular Methodist circles.

The prayers

The congregation prayed twice during the service, briefly. Rather than mentioning specific people and circumstances during their prayers, those were found in the prayers section of the bulletin. There were no details on what the individual prayer concerns might be. They did pray the Lord's Prayer during the service. 

The leadership

The leaders were dressed in street clothes, without a stole or robes. While the preacher didn't wear a robe, the acolyte did; I wondered why the difference. (I can't imagine the dress code matters much, I mention it more from curiosity.) The only thing that I didn't expect was that they had an official song leader for the songs during the service. A woman with a clear and easy-to-follow voice stood in the front by a mic and led the songs. All in all, there was nothing too unexpected in the leadership. I would likely get a clearer idea of their leadership if I visit again after their new minister is installed.

The congregation

The people seemed a little standoffish, though I don't know whether it was because of my having hit the earliest service, and I didn't see any coffee pots around. (That's a sure sign it wasn't a Lutheran service: no coffee pot that I could see.)

And back at my home service

I was very glad to hear my pastor skip the common reference in the sermon to how different we are from other groups (read between the lines: better). I really wasn't up for that twice in a day. Though it may have been because the sermon text was on Paul's warnings about biting and devouring each other with evil talk.

Paul's warning is really on-target for me in particular as I try a delicate task of visiting different services, and hoping to give a fair hearing to each. There is no way that a single visit to a church can do it justice, and our differences cause me to spend much of the service getting adjusted to what the current congregation is doing, rather than being able to see it for itself. I'll admit plainly that my visit to the church without any New Testament readings, a sermon that was 90+% exhortation, together with that particular closing hymn left me fighting a strongly unfavorable impression. But it was a guest preacher, I keep reminding myself. I have seen some guest preachers at my own church that were far more questionable than that. It would definitely be unfair of me to draw too many conclusions from this one service, and I'd like to visit the same church again sometime. (Which is the topic of the next post ...)


Aron Wall said...

Nice project; here are some questions and reactions from someone with a Wesleyan background.

Was this United Methodist or Free Methodist (or something else?) I'm attending a Free Methodist church, which is the smaller, more evangelical denomination. (If it was United Methodist, I suspect your guess about the "not accepting people" comment is probably exactly what you think it is.)

If the pastor was a guest preacher, it's possible he conceptualized his compliments as "other-congratulation" rather than "self-congratulation". When I was growing up, our pastor used to put a lot of effort into complimenting people and recognizing their accomplishments. I didn't appreciate the spiritual value of this at the time, but now I do---notice how much time Paul spends in his letters thanking God for the churches he writes to. However, this can be done in a way which does not put down others.

Regarding the scriptures/sermons, I think there are some churches which work through individual books of the bible rather than following the lectionary. I think there are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. I don't feel the same way as you do about no NT readings in a service---especially since it's far more common in my experience for churches to neglect teaching from the OT (or else sanitize it by strategic omissions). Also, many Wesleyan churches strongly emphasize adult Sunday School attendance (they did invent it, after all), which may have balanced the worship service with some other scripture study.

And what is wrong with a sermon that is 90% exhortation? Some parts of the Bible exhort, others instruct, encourage, warn, reprove, comfort, or reassure. So long as the themes come from the text, I don't see what's wrong with doing each of these things in turn. It sounds from your comments that Lutherans have a strong sense that the theological themes need to be balanced in a very precise way in each church service. But I'm not totally sure it's possible to hit all of the notes effectively in a single Sunday. I'd rather have diversity of subject matter from week to week.

Aron Wall said...

By the way, I appreciated your offer to link to a response to your series on grace. As it happened, I was going on a trip to Europe, so I didn't have time. Also, it turns out I more or less agree with where your series ended up going in the long run.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey Aron

I saw you'd been on the road. Hope you had a good trip.

I hope you're right about the sermon being other-congratulation. I had the impression that he was more involved in the congregation so that "self-" bit applied, but I'm going by impressions so what you say could be it.

The church says "UMC" btw, so that provides the subtitles on the disparaging remarks.

The rest has the makings of a lively conversation but we might end up too lengthy for the comment box; we'll see.

On readings of the NT - on the one hand, it's not like my church would skip either the OT or the NT readings, ever. But for all that, "skipping the OT" and "skipping the NT" are not equivalent in a Christian church. Because we're Christians, Jesus is the reason we are there. In the NT, the gospels are basically biographies of Jesus. Many letters of the NT have the main point of explaining how Jesus figures prominently into our relationship with God and changes our lives. So Jesus is the indispensable focus of a Christian worship service.

On whether people sanitize the OT ... erm, I'm sure that UMC group has what you call "strategic omissions" when they read it. :)

The thing about the Old Testament (one of my draft posts, may need to finish that one) is how the Old Testament is, in a real sense, Old. It's not applicable to us in the way that it would have been to, say, the Jews in the ages of the Maccabees.

On a sermon that's 90% exhortation (and 10% other-congratulation / distancing from other groups) ... where do you get your bread & butter, then? Or better, "bread & wine" -- Christ is our food. (Would it have been wine or grape juice, at UMC? I don't know.)

In a Lutheran service, we do have some clear goals for the sermon, and one is that a visitor should hear enough about the love of God in Christ so that, if this is his first & last visit to a Christian church, he'll have heard reason to hope. (And so that if a person in the pews is having a hard time -- common experience of humanity there -- the same applies.) A sermon can be part of a series, maybe visualized like one of the epistles where it may be "part 2" -- but in a real sense it needs enough framework that it can stand as its own unit. And Christ just isn't optional in a Christian sermon. As long as the diversity in subject matter doesn't neglect the grace of God in Christ Jesus, then have as much diversity as you like. :)

It's like the majority of Paul's letters. No matter how many topics he might have covered, he ends with the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Weekend Fisher said...

Here's a thought that didn't cross my mind til after I posted the previous: when Jews in the classical era did sermons -- which would be on the OT of course -- it was expected that they would explain how any given text related to their hopes of the Messianic era.

So preaching on the OT shouldn't prevent relating the text to the hope of the Messiah for a Christian, when it was considered the right thing to do for however many generations of Jews who preached on that text.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Aron Wall said...

It seems that most of my next responses are already contained in your comments one way or another, but I guess I'll say it anyway.

Christians understand the entire Bible to be Christ-centered and grace-filled. It follows that the OT is also a suitable subject for Christian preaching. In fact it was God's will for the OT to exist for centuries without the NT.

But, as you observe, some ways of explicating the text bring this out better than others. As you say, Paul's letters give a good example of how one can have some pretty heavy-duty exhortation without ever losing sight of the gospel message of what Christ has already done. It's not so much the quantity of the exhortation, but its context, that matters.

Of course, there is some degree of context just coming from the fact that the sermon is part of a Christian worship service, but I agree one should do better than this.

At the same time, I don't really want to lay down too many hard and fast rules. Christ is the spiritual meaning of every part of the OT, but sometimes one has to do some work to get there, starting by grappling with the literal meanings of the text.

Your concern with a first-and-only time visitor is a valid point, but of course the flip side is that we don't necessarily know what thing might draw a visitor closer to Jesus, but the Holy Spirit does know. But yes, central Christian concepts such as grace should appear explicitly with great frequency, and if they do not then something is seriously wrong.

Aron Wall said...

Let me add that I actually agree that church services should have more scripture readings, and it is a good thing if this always includes both Testaments, as in the lectionary. But if so, the default rule should not be that it is always the NT readings which are the primary focus.

Also, there are advantages to systematic study of a single book, which is hard to shoehorn into the lectionary. And if one's lectionary omits certain passages of the Bible, then they will never appear unless one goes off-script. Nevertheless, the Revised Common Lectionary exposes people to more scripture than most other approaches do, so on the whole I think it is a good thing.

By the way, something you might be interested in: my mother has a system of daily Bible reading which expands out the RCL so that it covers the whole Bible:

This way one can follow along with the church readings and also cover everything in 3 years.