Sunday, January 02, 2011

Pew Sitting

Our family has continued to regularly attend the local ELCA(Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregation in our area, and I must say that I have felt more comfortable at this particular church than I have in years. I say that with some trepidation, afraid that I might "break the spell" and suddenly reverse my opinion on the matter.

I've tried to analyze what it is about this church that makes me feel welcome, or slightly relieved, when I walk through the doors. I'm not sure that I can completely quantify how I feel, but I'll try.

Lack of politics mentioned in the service/sermon: Neither conservative, nor liberal slants have seemed to surface in the actual services. I'm sure that doesn't mean that the congregants don't have opinions, but they remain just that...opinions held by people attending the church, not opinions held forth as truth from the pulpit.

The service is liturgical, but with contemporary music....which is contemporary while also being simultaneously reverential, as opposed to full-on rock band mode that I've been used to in non-denominational, evangelical churches. This has been good for the kids, because they have known several of the worship songs and it has eased them into this different type of a service.

There is also a lot of singing.

Typical evangelical churches have a strict 3-4 song structure to the service: Welcoming song, announcements, worship song, sermon, closing song. There may be a "special" song thrown in there by a vocalist or group. But, the actual singing by the congregation is frequently broken up, or made difficult by churches using music which is not meant to be sung by large groups of people....making half of the congregation unable to participate because the key is too high. Male, tenor, worship leaders are notorious for this. They pick the songs they like, which show off their range but which also exclude everyone who isn't a tenor or soprano from doing a halfway decent job singing along.

The worship leader at this church has done a good job of picking songs that are meaningful and using them in the appropriate key for congregational singing.

So...right off the bat...the church does several things that appeal to me emotionally. That probably seems superficial, but I don't care. ;-)

Most importantly, I think one of the main reasons I like the church is the way that following a liturgy nips certain practices in the bud. Because communion is the climax of each service, the altar is always reserved for the bread and wine. The worship leader and musicians are off to the side, instead of occupying the space as a stage. There are also no "specials". Everything in the service is directly tied to congregational participation. After the Scripture reading, the congregation replies with "Thanks be to God". After the pastor says "Peace be with you" the congregation says "and also with you." If there is a prayer the congregation responds with an "amen".

The creed is sung together and the Lord's Prayer is sung with the congregation holding hands, and with a nice musical arrangement.

Aesthetically speaking, it appeals to me.

The pastor does brief sermons, but he does them well and is generally a good speaker. His points are always relevant to the text and generally encouraging, even while exhorting people to be more faithful in their relationship with God.

Every time I leave the service, I leave feeling more uplifted than when I went in. Every time I leave the service I have some hope that I will be able to maintain my faith matter how bleak my heart might feel before the service.

At this point, I am forcing myself to attend church, hoping against hope that I will find a way forward, while also knowing that there is no returning to certain paths for me. And, at this particular church, "forcing" myself has been easy. I don't feel pressured. I don't feel as if I am surrounded by people waiting to dissect my thoughts and show disapproval.

On the other hand, we haven't made any real effort to dig deeper into the church. I'm not even sure if I am capable of it right now. I can't teach Sunday School as I used to because I can't teach the Bible stories with the credulity that most churches would want. A literary, critical, anthropological approach isn't going to fly with the elementary students...or even most adults.

Being honest that it is easier for me to state the things I don't believe rather than the things I do believe would be another obstacle for me.

Every Sunday in which we attend, we participate in communion, except for our children. Coming from a Baptist background, infant baptism was something we didn't believe in or practice. In this Lutheran church baptism is required to participate in communion, and also a brief class or two is taken by children before their first communion. Our children haven't been baptized and when they walk up with us to receive communion, they instead receive a "blessing", which is a quick prayer said over them. I know the pastor is always perplexed when we show up and tell him to "bless" the children who are much older than the usual first communicants, but we haven't actually spoken with him.

Today, as we approached the altar he reached for the communion wafer and I had to explain that the children weren't baptized. He replied, "Well, we should probably talk about that." He said it with a smile, not in a particularly stern way. I simply answered that it was a long story.

Truthfully DH and I have talked about wanting to speak with the pastor about many things, but we have always been busy or hesitant.

Honestly I am slightly afraid to have the conversation that I need to have. Afraid that revealing all of my doubts will not be met with understanding and compassion, but disapproval and trite answers.

How do I tell a pastor, "I may not believe half of what you do, but I still like coming here."? How do I reveal that I am agnostic about many things of which I used to be so certain, and I am OK with that?

And if this revelation of my inner thoughts is met with rejection...then where do I go?

Most of what I think, I keep to myself. I don't want to disturb the faith of others. I don't desire to cause anyone to go through what I am going through.

I also won't stay at this church, or any other church, under false pretenses. When we have a conversation with the pastor, it will be with brutal honesty from me. If that means that I simply attend and never participate in any leadership position...then that is what it will be. If even that is untenable....then I guess that I will be on my own, though that isn't what I want.


Like a Child said...

You sound like me. We have been attending, off and on, an Anglican church since the summer. I'm not sure about it. For awhile, the were vocal about communion only being for believers, but the last few services, they haven't said anything (perhaps a result of a conversation my husband had with a deacon?), so I have felt a little more welcome as an agnostic Christian. But still, I just haven't felt sure I could be honest. Growing tired of the introversion of my doubts, we decided to try an emerging church 45 minutes from our house. It was actually a pretty good experience. It was so untraditional it didn't stir any bad memories from my Baptist and PCA days. But I did mention 45 minutes right? Perhaps a good church to visit when I get to frustrated to go to the Anglican church.

It shouldn't be this hard. I wish you were closer...we could be friends;) We've actually grown so exhausted with several aspects of living here that we are considering moving back to FL where all of our family resides. We'll see.

terri said...

I haven't really tried the "emerging" route. Mainly because my impression of it is that it is the hip, cool way of being "evangelical" or post-evangelical....and I am not that hip and cool! ;-)

The interesting thing is that I am more drawn to this liturgical way of doing things in the face of my doubts...which doesn't really make sense because liturgy is so attached to creeds and rituals that are believed to have an efficacious, spiritual effect.

The ELCA is more liberal than other Lutheran churches, but it still believes in infant baptism and Jesus' presence in Communion. So why am I attending somewhere like this instead of a place that simply views baptism and communion as symbols?

I think mainly I feel more comfortable here because God has been assigned to these very general rituals and is available through them and not dependent upon a particular preacher's interpretation or personality. KNowing what "God wants" is not a matter of trying to emotionally figure out what "He's doing". I am not trying to find him by praying more, listening to more sermons, going along with what someone in church believes is a word from God....etc.

It is easier for me to attend and appreciate the broader themes of God and Christianity here then it would be at the local non-denominational evangelical church filled with people who spend a lot of time talking about God and his will and what's he's doing...which most of the time consist of telling everyone else about their own, personal projections of God and expecting everyone else to go along with them.

It's a very strange paradox that I would attend this type of church while also letting go of many of the specificities I used to have.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this, Terri. I have to hold my nose much of the time at church due to our agreement that the children be "brought up in the church." It can very difficult maintaining any sense of connection. As you pointed out, participating in Sunday School can be a challenge as well.

DoOrDoNot said...

I have been talking with friends about this phenomenon of becoming more attracted to "high church" with all its liturgy when people begin to doubt. I think it has to do with what you said, a different way of knowing or experiencing God. Instead of through personal experiences of prayer to our friend Jesus or listening to what God told the preacher, high church offers a more indirect, perhaps mystical way of coming into contact with God. There is mystery and uncertainty. God is not so personalized as to be an obvious projection of the participants. God is perhaps known in a more intuitive, "tacit" way, to borrow from Michael Polanyi. Perhaps God is found in the more aesthetic experiences, the music, the stained glass, the incense, rather than through a direct line to God in his inerrant word or through prayer. I agree, it's hard to articulate what the difference is, but it is real. I've experienced it myself.

terri said...

Scott F,

I am sure that must be stressful. Are you allowed to express yourself to your children or do you keep a lid on your more controversial opinions at home also?


Yes. I think what you say is true. In my evangelical background because God is considered so personal and active, "knowing" HIm becomes an emotional exercise, or an urgent thing that we are constantly being told we need to do. Evangelical/Baptists have made any ritual inherently meaningless by calling them "symbols"...and yet in doing so they have created an even more "magical" view of God, one that relies more on personal feelings and emotions and "discerning" what God s trying to do right this minute.

It's exhausting to live that way.

It's my own personal view,at this time, that a liturgical approach can offer a more quiet and secure sense of God. Mystery allows some freedom and some wiggle room.

Cathy W said...

Wow. I can totally relate to all of this. I also desperately want to be connected to the body but no longer ascribe to the typical understandings of scripture, "church," etc. I've been considering attending the Catholic church, myself. I'm on the brink of going, in fact.

For me, I've not wanted my children IN church because I'm not wanting them to be afraid of God as so many are.

I seriously wish I could take out an ad in the paper. "Wanted: People to hang out with and possibly talk about God. BYOB."

DH said...


Love the ad, and I totally identify with you. Give new meaning to BYOB. :o)

JS Allen said...

Hi Terri, I hope your conversations with the pastor there went well. There was a recent discussion about this exact topic over at theoldadam blog. If anything, it should show you that there are variations even within the Lutheran community about what is prerequisite for taking communion. I found the comments there to be fascinating,