Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Faith Works 7-23

Faith Works 7-23-11

Jeff Gill


What is familiar may not be reassuring




On vacation last week, my family went to church. No shock there, I trust.


This is something I regularly commend to anyone who will listen: I've heard marvelous feedback from young people and seniors alike over the years, in parish ministry and through this column, in how one's own experience of worship is seen afresh by way of going to a service where you're a stranger.


What's different, even in small ways, can help us get to grips with what's important. We've got that well-known travel writer Soren Kierkegaard to remind us that worship is fundamentally conducted for an audience of one, that is, God (not a program put on for the benefit of the congregation).


When we go to a different service, we don't have any reason to expect things to be the way we're used to, or oriented around our tastes, and when those experiences are subverted, we can get a bit more real about how we tend to want worship to focus on us, not God.


On the other hand, we need a service that helps us focus on God, so our choices and responses are part of the picture.


Our experience last week, though, surprised me in a way that doubles back on these questions. We were in a tourist-oriented, resort-ish community, with a very young demographic on the streets and behind the counters, but probably an older skew if you came back in February. Either way, the surprise in the service was . . . how unsurprising it was.


From the moment we stepped off the sidewalk through the red doors, there was nothing unfamiliar at all. Granted, we were in a neighboring Midwestern state, even if it was a long drive away and there were large boats down the block with masts higher than the steeple. It was a mainline Protestant denomination with which we're familiar, and there was much that would have led you to assume most of what made up the service.


But it was just striking how we could have been sitting in a pew, singing these songs, looking at the make-up of the parishoners around us, anywhere right here in Licking County. Drop this church in Kirkersville, St. Louisville, or out towards Croton, and they would have fit right in, let alone if you'd walked out the doors not to fudge shops and beachwear stores, but to Perry or Knox Counties.


There's something very comforting and (duh) familiar about singing "How Great Thou Art" or "In the Garden" when far from home, and the prayer time joys and concerns, with a few names changed, are almost certainly the ones you would have heard along Rt. 13 or down Church St. in Newark.


Yet the question I think we could ask is: why? Why would an order of worship, and even more so the style of worship, be so identical, across eight hours of driving or four decades of churchgoing? And how is that working for us?


To which many sigh wearily, and reply "so the answer to share the gospel is to do everything differently? And if so, how often do we have to change? And to what, exactly?"


Actually, not at all. What I think the problem is has to do with not so much our worship patterns, but our understanding of what church is for, let alone worship. If a church is doing mission that is deeply engaged with their local context, and that missional life is woven through the entire life of the church, then it won't be a question of conformity to culture, but a healthy interchange from the everyday work of the church back into the worship life itself.


I think of a Franciscan parish among the Navajo/Dineh people, where the art and images of the culture were shaded into the familiar stations of the cross and window art. There's a community center down in Buckeye Lake where lighthouses and lake scenes that tie directly into Bible stories fill the worship space. A church plant we occasionally visit when in a suburban area where we have family has literally built its sanctuary into an office park, the horizontal lines of the space echoing the area in a way that reaches out and embraces the world where they are called to serve.


What have you seen while worshiping on the road, whether familiar or unexpected, or even unexpectedly familiar? And what does it say to you about worship?


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him about your wayside worship experiences at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

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