Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Seven Last Words of the Church

In the midst of our current change in pastoral leadership at my church, we've been hearing a lot of sermons on change. How to react, how not to react, etc. I recently heard one that made reference to the so-called seven last words of the church: "We've never done it like that before."

Over the years, I've heard that in sermons many, many times. The point is that as soon as we start to say that in church, we begin to die as a congregation. And I think there is some truth to it. As a church, we can become so stuck in our ways that we begin to worship our style of worship rather than God. (I once heard the following quip: Catholics worship Mary, Fundamentalists worship the Bible, Episcopalians worship their own sense of style. Just a joke, no offense intended to anyone.) But the older I get and the more crazy things I have seen in church, I'm beginning to think saying "We've never done it like that before" is not only not all that bad, sometimes it's required. Take, for example, the Zydeco Mass.

Watching this makes me wish someone had said "We've never done it like this before."

Maybe this kind of thing just points out an inherent problem with Protestantism. There isn't anyone to say no. In churches that are governed congregationally, a majority of the congregation can do just about whatever they want to do. Even in hierarchical Protestant churches, there is a reluctance to stifle creativity. And, of course, the opinions of the hierarchy certainly aren't infallible.

I'm not sure there is any simple solution to how to balance the necessity to be open to change with a respect for tradition. But it seems to me that there are a lot worse things a church can say than "We've never done it like that before."

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Ash Wednesday at a Catholic Church

I found myself near Charlotte, North Carolina around lunchtime on Ash Wednesday. I was right next to St. Matthew Catholic Church. Since they were having a 12:10 service, I decided to go. I've been to Ash Wednesday services at Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, but never at a Catholic one. I'm glad I went. A few observations:

The church is huge. I went to a friend's wedding at a huge Baptist church in Dallas, Texas that was bigger, but this was a close second. Our church seats around 200 to 250 (and we're lucky if we're averaging 110 these days), so this was a big change for me. The service I went to was one of four or five that day and it was pretty full, so I'm sure they have a big crowd on Sundays. The logistics of dealing regularly with that many people must be pretty daunting, but I thought they handled everything pretty well. People seemed friendly enough, but no one went out of their way to speak to me. Of course, some of that was my fault, since I was in a little bit of a hurry to leave due to work isssues.

Only two clergy, one Priest and one Deacon, participated in the service. This meant that most of the distribution of ashes and later of the Eucharist was done by lay people. I don't know if this was due solely to the service being one of several that day or if this is the usual pattern here due to a shortage of clergy. This didn't bother me at all, but it certainly contradicts the notion of the Catholic Church being run solely by Priests. I don't see how in the world a church this size could be run without most of the work being done by laypeople.

At the Protestant Ash Wednesday services I've attended, the ashes were imposed with the minister saying something along the lines of "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return." At St. Matthew's we were told something like "Repent and believe the Gospel." (I may not have that exactly right, it's been a few days.) I found the difference in emphasis (mortality vs. penitence) thought provoking. Do they always say this at Catholic churches or do they alternate what is said? And when the Eucharist was distributed, it was only given in one form. Is it the usual practice to omit the wine?

Anyway, I'm glad I went. In the midst of our transition in leadership at my church, we did not have an Ash Wednesday service this year. Though perhaps quite appropriately, the first Sunday after our minister has left is the first Sunday of Lent. It was a service and message I needed to hear.