Friday, June 24, 2011

The Problem with Friendly Churches

Genuinely friendly churches are wonderful to experience.  It gives you the sense that these are real Christians, and that your presence was felt and welcomed.  One of the sure signs that you might have found a genuinely friendly church is when you go back the next week, or a few weeks later, and it becomes clear that people remember you, in some cases by name.  Note, however, that I am referring here to churches which display a genuine friendliness, and have no need for contrived and fake friendliness.  I do believe that while friendliness is a natural product of the love which the Christian has for mankind, friendliness is also an art which can be cultivated.  Great athletes are born with certain gifts, and yet they become great in their field by constantly and vigilantly exercising those gifts.  Likewise, I don't think it is a contradiction to say that, on the one hand, friendliness and hospitality should not be forced or programmed or faked, and that on the other hand, true and loving hospitality can be practiced and cultivated and improved, both on a personal level and within the culture of the parish. 

So I appreciate and applaud the churches where real hospitality shines and takes place.  If it's not so in your church, take heart, for as I say, I think it is something that is a natural characteristic of the Bride of Christ, and can be cultivated and encouraged, over time.  Let it begin with you.

So what's the problem?  The problem is that too often today a good or an ideal, such as hospitality, is approached on the same terms by which we would practice it in the world, when in fact it would be healthier if we would restore a more traditional idea, namely, that there is a distinction between worldly etiquette and churchly etiquette.  I am now beginning to speak a foreign language, but please hear me out. 

In many ways, churchly etiquette and worldly etiquette intersect and are identical, for they both have in common a sense of courtesy, neighborliness, and gentlemen being gentlemen and ladies being ladies, etc.  In other ways, however, they lead to different courses of action, for in the culture of the Church (and contrary to what some claim, the Church does by its very nature have its own culture) there are other goods or ideals which must not be allowed to be trampled by our own notions of how to practice the ideal of friendliness. 

One of those ideals is a sense of prayer.  On the whole, modern Lutherans, certainly here in the Western world, are accustomed to the notion that "church" starts at a certain predetermined point, and likewise ends at a given point.  In some places it is when the music for the first hymn kicks in, or when the pastor and his assistants are seen walking out of the sacristy, or when the pastor begins the Invocation.  Up till whatever point that is in a given parish, anything goes.  Likewise, after the service has ended, in some places the organ kicking in with a loud and boisterous postlude is the cue for all hell to break loose.  In some places it is when the pastor is finished with his announcements, or whatever.  And when I say things like "anything goes" and "all hell breaks loose" let me be clear that I am not trying to be uncharitable, for most of what happens, in most places I am sure, is good and wholesome activity.  It is people being naturally friendly with each other, both with friends and with visitors.  However, this is a deeply faulty way of thinking of the church, and it kills a sense of prayer and reverence in the church.  Church is not merely what happens on pages 184 through 202 (or pages 15 through 31).  It is a holy people, one of whose chief characteristics has made her known as Ecclesia Orans, the Praying Church.  It is a people filled with gratitude for what they are about to receive, and then filled with awe at what they have just received, for they have been in more than one way filled with eucharist.

Many Lutheran children were, are, ingrained with the idea that the Church is not a place, but a people.  This is misleading, at least the way it is often taught, for a couple of reasons.  1. While it is true that the Church is the people of God, we ought to follow up that lesson by talking about how the Church thus defined is characterized, how it relates to its members, how she relates to her Lord, etc.  2. We ought not let this lead to a cheapened notion of the holiness of the place of the Church's worship.  That place, whether it be a centuries old edifice or a rented meeting room, is where Almighty God, in the Person of Christ, makes Himself present for us.  When He appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush, our Lord did not tell Moses to be sure to be jovial in that place; His message was quite different:  "Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground."

As far as I know, the Church has never been known as Ecclesia Amicabilis.  That is not because she is unfriendly.  It is because while the love of God in Christ will shine forth in the life of Christ's Church (for we reflect the love which is lavished on us by the Lover of our souls, Whose banner over us is love) and is expressed by different people and different churches according to a variety of temperaments and cultures, and will be expressed in more celebratory ways in happier times and less so in times of great affliction and trouble, there is one thing that is far more constant wherever the Church is to be found.  Namely, she is Ecclesia Orans, that is, she is known by the prayerful attitude which marks her gatherings, and by which her places of worship are treated by her members. 

Courtesy itself should prevent us from joviality and loud fraternizing within the church's spaces of worship, that is, certainly in the nave itself, for even if I have no interest in sticking around to pray, or must get downstairs to help with this or that, someone else might want to pray for a few minutes, right there in the pew, and my behavior ought not cause any disturbance to that brother or sister.  I encourage my fellow Lutherans, therefore, to ponder anew the nature of the church's space, and consider what we are doing and whether it is healthy, and whether our efforts at friendliness and hospitality toward visitors could be realized in ways which better complement rather than compromise the prayer and reverence which we ought to be encouraging and fostering in the Church.


Michael L. Anderson, M.D. said...

It is not a breach of reality to say that while we have not the responsibility for our faith, we may be critical in the inculcation of a sense of awe and reverence towards the redeeming God. Behaviors are things taught, and these taught things are incorporated as patterns into the motor cortex and higher brain areas, so as to become reflexive and automatic, sort of like a golf swing (or so I am told; "automatic" for me is hitting a dippled spheroid into a standing body of water. Believe me, it took only seconds and seconds of practice).

Setting is critical, though. The high school gymnasium is generally convivial and joyful. At times it is raucously so, to the point of sheer intimidation, in the interests of camaraderie and spirit ("We will ... we will ... rock you.")

I am not sure the ecclesial communication we wish to leave with others ... be they the sincerely inquiring Nicodemuses or our incessantly squirming children ... is along the lines of "God is my cheerleader, and greeters Bill and Meg are the pom-pom girls (today)."

God's House is always special ... as is the Gloria in Excelsis, by the way. Drop that liturgical ordinary for Eastertide, because it's "not special?" What? You sing it every day of the week, without fail?

God's House is special. The blessed Apostles were in the Temple every day, not the gymnasium, even once the Temple Himself ascended into heaven. Part of the difficulty for our modern Lutheran eyes of faith, perhaps, is our increasing unease with silence. This is very much a trained illness, perhaps conditioned by i-Pods stuck in every ear.

With such re-wiring of the brain established, God's will is likely to be dismissed as something impossible; that will being "...the Lord is in His holy temple; let all the earth be silent before Him(Hbk 2:20)." Sometimes I think the "all hell breaking lose" is a defense mechanism Freud inexplicably forgot to list ... I mean, who wants to deal with God, on His turf? That silence is deafening. All the creepy stuff happens in "Scarey MOvie," when nobody's talking. So bring in the clowns, and the noise-makers!

A few fine spring weeks ago, after the Divine Service, people couldn't wait to bolt out of the pews and start with the glad-handing and back-slapping and waist-grabbing and hallooing the "Happy Mothers' Day!" stuff, all around. Nota bene: They were NOT, by the way, primed by any preceding homiletical foofram honoring the industriousness of Hallmark Cards ... thank God. They were just being friendly and intoxicated with the sweet brew of liberty, there in the nave, in recognition that God had gone "poof" seconds before.

And in non-recognition that a beard probably is strong evidence that I, personally, am not a mother.

Today, on June 26, there was NO laitical sense of the octave of the birthday of the Augsburg Confession. I am sorry to report, however, that hell still broke out as the holds of the nave emptied. The latest antics of junior, or the flat tire, or the just-out fall fshions, are not to be denied.

Faith brings forth good fruit ... in other words, faith behaves visibly. The body does thingas, betraying inward inclinations and true cognitions very effectively. The faithful Lutheran behaves, as though things unseen to the rods and cones, are nevertheless very, very real.

Based on what I routinely observe, I'm pretty sure we Lutherans fully accept the existence of Hoops and Yo-Yo.

M. Anderson, SSP

Dcn Latif Haki Gaba SSP said...

Thank you for your words, Michael. Very nice.