Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Confessional Consumer (The Consumer Confessional?)
(wow...I got an Aardie !!!)
My husband's first call was to a very small congregation in the middle of Pasadena, CA. It was a beautiful, mission-style church with a real bell that had been used as a means of summoning in the hands from the orange groves that Pasadena used to be....before it was put in our church tower 75 years before. There were 30 people in the congregation, entirely over the age of 50. Most of them older.

The people were wonderful, only possessing most of the same sins that most congregations possess. They told my husband when he was called that they figured they had five years to give it a go before they would have to close the doors. They had been a very liberal congregation. They also had a reputation even beyond the immediate area as being "the congregation that always fought." They were beyond that now. There had been a split, and then four years of refused calls, a colloquy vicar, and a worker priest....the poor people that were left were the ones who didn't want to fight. They were the ones who loved that congregation, who'd seen their kids grow up there, were disappointed that their children chose not to remain, and would do just about anything to make anyone happy in order to keep the peace. They also liked being together. The only area they were truly organized in was making sure that there were greeters at the door, coffee and snacks after church, and potlucks or sandwich luncheons all the time!

My husband came in and lovingly taught them, immediately got rid of lay-readers, brought order to their worship, and began the practice of closed communion. Not yet strong in any confessional identity, it was not even worth the battle to try to replace the green hymnals with the blue they'd already rejected, so my husband replaced any theologically improper parts of the liturgy with the wording from LW and printed it in the bulletin, making it in essence, LW with a slightly different musical arrangement.

We also hoped, prayed, held parties, did door-to-door evangelism, structured a Sunday School, etc. in order to be ready for families who might come.

And they did come. And they left. Confessional families came, looking for God's Word preached in its truth, and for the right use of the Sacraments.....and they walked away because there "were no kids," "no people my age," "ew, LBW."

Too often, Lutherans would come through the door, and we could tell "we are being auditioned." They didn't want just a confessional congregation. They wanted all the bells and whistles, too. There were often months where if one of these families had chosen to attend for a month, one or two other families would come the next week, and another family the next....and the concerns that they had regarding "proper social interaction" would've been fortuitously resolved. The very same people that were criticizing their own congregations for starting "small groups" or "contemporary worship" looked down on our congregation, not because Christ wasn't there, not because they wouldn't hear the Law and Gospel preached properly, not because they wouldn't be fed through the Word and Sacraments......we just didn't have the right social atmosphere. What's more, they wanted exactly what they wanted...and they wanted it now. If they didn't get it, they were going somewhere else. And they could find it, if they were willing to drive 25, 40, or 50 miles further. Forgetting Christ's admonition that "where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am also", they could still gripe about how you just couldn't easily find a good confessional church in L.A. without a long drive.

Some would stay longer...maybe even a few months before some aspect of our church that had absolutely nothing to do with our theology or practice got in their craw and they started their search again. There was a small population of "confessional nomads" that wandered from church to church, never being able to find "the perfect one."

In the privacy of our living room, we called them the "confessional consumers." They were looking for just the right thing, expecting to find it, and ready to "buy into it" when they did...but they rarely did. Confessional pastors would compare notes with each other when they had to process the membership transfers. You can't even say it was because we weren't friendly enough. We were (and we did try not to appear desperate, really). In fact, often these very people were the ones who dashed off after the service, didn't have time for the potlucks, and complained about how much work being the coffee host was. There was no understanding of the "Communion of the Saints" as Luther described it - not only are we communing with the saints in Heaven, but also we are communing with our brethren beside us. Their problems become our problems...their joys become our joys. No, these people were completely isolated in their pews.

They had no idea the hope they brought to the others when they arrived, and no idea how many hearts they broke when they left.

Often the concern was for their children. They weren't getting much social interaction (as if they didn't get that every day, and as if the only valuable social interaction were from people exactly the same age.). They would be willing to subject their children to long drives to find the right church (or even figure it was better to not go at all), but they were not willing to teach them how important it was to stay when one is found where they could find the Means of Grace....and to work to develop all the things that strengthen the Body...the things that laymen are needed for: raising funds for better hymnals, teaching Sunday School, leading youth groups, bringing a new dish to the potluck, serving on a board so that the guy who is serving in three positions can relax just a little, backing up the pastor in the voters meetings, and being a body in the pew so that when others come, they don't go through the same dilemma they faced and being there to lift up other brothers in Christ who have been working so hard.

Now of course, God is the one who cares for His church, and some of the faces in that congregation are different than the ones that were there 9 years ago. Knowing the precious gift we had, and the fact that so many people were looking for just that, we'd hoped to thrive and fill the pews, knowing even then that numbers themselves weren't important. My husband kept focused on feeding his flock, and some incredibly special people came in and served with all their heart. God has blessed them. Numbers aren't important, but they have grown, in quantity and quality. The five year deadline came and went, and God provided for the continued survival of that congregation (never, never underestimate the importance of the endowment fund!). After seven years, my husband received another call, and they were surprised and blessed with the means to call another pastor....and they continue to be blessed in ways that we never could've anticipated. Thank God that it doesn't all rest on the "confessional consumers." Thank God that in reality, it rests only on the shoulders of Jesus Christ...and not on you or me either.


Favorite Apron said...

I have felt like a church hopper myself - but we were going in search of the Gospel. Thank God we have a confessional Pastor now. Our former church, where we belonged for 7 yrs after leaving ELCA, just closed it's doors forever. How sad. As a friend told me, they would rather die than be Lutheran.

laker said...

My dad was a pastor (now deceased) and at one point served a little congregation in Fort Dodge, KS. It was basically a retirement community for aged veterans. The youngest member of that church had to have been 70 years old. The only young people in the parish were me (8 yo) and my younger brother and sister. I have to say it was absolutely awesome! As the only kids we got tons of attention, enough to go around for all 3 of us.

I learned so much in Sunday School from a faithful elderly lady that would teach from the Bible. No puppet shows, no coloring pages, no fluff, just the straight truth about Christ from her well worn Bible.

Who says you need other young people for kids to relate? I "got" the lady and she "got" me. That experience helped me to not fear relationships with "older" people, to value their wisdom all the more, and to realize that the body of Christ is made up of more than people my own age.

Sorry for the long comment!

Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...

In many ways, it was a beautiful place for my kids, especially my son. He spent his first seven years there. He had 20 grandparents, the organist would hold him on her lap and let him pull the stops when she played for the choir, and after the Sunday School lesson was done, he'd walk to Starbucks with the Sunday School teacher. When his cousin took over teaching, he became VERY close to her...and that relationship still means so much to him, even if we are TERRIBLE at correspondence. One of the members would even come to his Little League games. He has kids his age here, and there are a couple of people he has those kinds of relationships with, but it is entirely different in a congregation of 140. Thank you for sharing...what you said is very very true.

This Pastor's Wife said...

You make some excellent points and thank you for saying it.

Dan @ Necessary Roughness said...

Loved this post. Thank you.

Orycteropus Afer said...

Thanks, "Rebel"; please accept this Golden Aardvark Aaward on behalf of a grateful confessional Lutheran blogosphere.

Jason said...

Thanks. This post means a lot to me.