I found myself in far away from home and no specific church assignment awaiting me for ministry. I searched the Yellow Pages and picked out a church to attend. I knew I did not want to go to a church where everything depended on whether the sermon was good or bad. Chances were, based on what I discovered in the phone book, much of the preaching would have probably left a great deal to be desired. I opted for liturgy, thinking as I did, “At least we will likely read Scripture, say some significant congregational prayers, and remain rooted in the Trinity,” I reasoned as I made the choice to attend a Lutheran Church (ELCA) congregation. This particular church had served in the old downtown area for more than 150 years. The place simply breathed history and community. I loved it.
I was not disappointed about the liturgy on the whole. It was rich and followed the basic patterns of Christian worship for centuries. We renounced evil, professed faith, Said the Apostle’s Creed together. We even witnessed a baptism that was quite well done. The prayer of the day was solid and the Scripture readings were from Daniel 12:1-3, Hebrews 10:11-25 and Mark 13:1-8. We even sang Psalm 8!
But the sermon, that was another story. The pastor preached for about ten minutes, if you could call it preaching. There wasn’t a shred of gospel in his message. Come to think of it there was no law either. It was an appeal to the flock to turn in their “talent inventories” for service to the church in the coming year. The sermon was about “expectations.” The only Scripture cited was Hebrews 10:24, (“provoke one another”) and that in an oft-handed way. What you check today is more than a job to be done, it is about building up the community in the love of Jesus. The pastor told us the cure for exhaustion was “wholeheartedness.” I’m still not sure what he meant but it could be me. I am pretty wholehearted myself but I am also exhausted far too often for my own spiritual good. Not much help in this “bit of wisdom” he called it. We were also told to “listen to what excites you” and respond accordingly. But when I listen to what excites me I get into more exhaustion. I guess I missed that point too. All in all it was a bleak experience.
So what did I learn from my visit to a mainline Lutheran church as a guest unawares? First, without liturgy most of the people would get absolutely nothing at all. At least the theology and the prayers are still there. That is more than I can say for some “red-hot” conservative churches that talk about just about everything but the Father and the Son. Second, that these churches are dying is precisely because they don’t preach the gospel. They also fail to teach people the Bible with any passion at all. Isn’t that obvious? Apparently not to most of those who still attend such churches. (By the way not one person said “Boo” to me and I almost begged them to greet me with my frequent attempts at eye contact and my smiles, etc. Even in the men’s room there was no informal “hello.” I wonder if the talent survey had a category for friendly greeters on it?)
By the way, the “glossary” that explained the various ministries that people were urged to sign up did list evangelism as one option. Here was the definition: “This committee is concerned with welcoming, educating and bonding new members in a large congregation where visitors are hard to identify.” No wonder they missed me as a visitor. Maybe they should rethink evangelism but then if you don’t preach the gospel what on earth are you using to evangelize?
While conservative churches have tended to worship more and more like the culture, with less and less theological fabric in their liturgy, mainline churches retain some liturgy but give up preaching the gospel in many cases. I actually think my labors for renewal are more important after my visit than I did before. Maybe that was the greatest benefit of the experience.