Going to church in an age of mass shootings

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Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

It has happened in schools and movie theaters, on military bases and college campuses, in nightclubs and churches. Someone walks in and opens fire, killing and wounding innocent people.

Yes, it’s happened churches. How has this reality changed the dynamic of going to church? As the pastor of a Lutheran church, I never worried about it very much till a few years ago. Our church doors are still open every Sunday and we still welcome anyone and everyone who wants to worship. But somethings have changed. Here are a few of my observations:

More worshipers are carrying weapons

I don’t know who all is carrying on a Sunday morning, but I know that the number has grown over the last year. With holsters or purses designed to be inconspicuous, the person sitting next to you in church may well have a permit and a handgun with them. I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, I feel good knowing that these folks have taken steps to protect themselves and the congregation. On the other hand, I pray that they have taken some classes and know how to use the weapon safely.

We now have an emergency plan

A few of our members who have been police officers, military or security have sat down and developed an emergency plan, should a threat arise. The plan includes dealing with medical, fire and storm emergencies, as well as violence. They make a conscious effort to keep an eye on the room where we gather for worship, taking note of anything out of the ordinary. I’m thankful for those who bring that training and experience to the table.

Such times are not without precedent in the bible. When Nehemiah was overseeing the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem after the return from Babylonian exile, half of the workers did construction, and half held the spears, shields, bows, and coats of mail. Some of the workers held a tool in one hand and a weapon in the other (Nehemiah 4:16,17).

We are better at welcoming guests

Things have calmed down recently, but for a few months we were on edge. We carefully watch anyone arriving for worship whom we don’t recognize. I know that sounds a little unfriendly, but it actually enhanced our welcome. We make a concerted effort to welcome and get to know our guests.

One morning a young many with a backpack arrived for worship on a bicycle. After entering the church, he left his backpack in the back row while he went out to lock up his bike. The pulse of the sopranos and altos began to race as they watched this happen from the front row of the choir loft. The gentleman returned to his seat and worshiped with us without any incident.

We have a remote alert system

We’ve installed what some have called a “panic button.” It’s really just a way for me to alert the elder and ushers to something going on. From the front of the church, I can see everything happening in the room, while most of the worshipers are facing the altar. If I see someone come in late who needs help or see something out of the ordinary in the entryway, I can push a button, a small light flashes in front of them, and I have their attention. I have not had to actually use this yet, and I’d be fine never having to use it.

We are more thankful than ever for the freedom to worship

Along with the uncertainty of what might happen on any given day, we enjoy a freedom to worship that is still one of God’s greatest blessings. We ought never take that for granted.

It has not always been this way. Early Christians met in secret to worship, knowing that if they were caught they could be put to death. Conditions were much the same not that long ago in the Soviet Union and China.

I have worshiped in inner city churches where iron gates at the front door were locked when worship began and did not open until it was time to go home. The shadow of similar iron bars could be seen through the stained-glass windows. Yes, it was that kind of a neighborhood.

I have worshiped in other countries, where every gas station was protected by armed attendants and an armed guard accompanied us to church where the ushers all had nine millimeter handguns on their belts. The worship – in a language I didn’t know – was vibrant, Spirit-filled, heart-felt, and well-guarded.

My greatest fear

Having said all that, my greatest fear has nothing to do with weapons or shooters. The greatest danger we face is that parents do not bring their children to church. For a wide variety of reasons, so many mothers and fathers do not regularly avail themselves of our freedom to worship, teaching the next generation that it is not important. If we do not raise our children in the fear and knowledge of the Lord, will religious freedom mean anything to them? If that freedom is threatened, limited, or taken away, will they even care? Or will it have no effect on their lifestyle at all?

That’s what frightens me.

 

 

 

Just one

IMG-7655.JPGToday we did something a little different for Reformation worship. Rather than two services with different styles, we had one service utilizing the musical talents from both at our usual later time. The praise team (guitar, bass, piano, vocals) led the first half of the service, and the organ, choir and bells stepped in after the sermon.

As usual, I was a bit reluctant to wade into the logistics of a blended service. I know that some of our worshipers attend one service or the other because of musical style. Others choose to come at a certain time. Pouring everyone into the same bucket means that we’ll be missing some families that day. It also means that some people won’t get to sit in their usual seat for worship, always a source of irritation for Lutherans.

As expected, attendance was down about 20%. We were missing a good number of families who usually come to the early worship service. Five cars pulled into the parking lot for the early service, somehow not knowing that this was the one service week. Despite three weeks of verbal announcements, emails, and text messages, they didn’t get the memo.

On the flip side, the church felt like it was full, we enjoyed the musical talents of all our musicians, and we were once again blessed with God’s gifts of grace. Not all, but most of the babies, toddlers and children were there, which is such a dynamic part of worship. They remind us that unless we become like little children, we’ll miss out on God’s kingdom.

It’s different for me. You see, I go to both worship services every week. I’m OK with worshiping early and later in the morning. I enjoy both styles of worship. I know everyone in the congregation. Each week I get to spend the whole morning there with our families, children, youth and seniors.

Unfortunately, in the back of my mind, I am always aware of the reality that if someone doesn’t like the worship experience, they might not be back. I know it’s not supposed to be that way, but it is a reality in our world and in the church. It certainly doesn’t honor the work of the Holy Spirit in believer’s hearts. It also doesn’t recognize the faith of those who gather not just to receive God’s grace, but to take it with them back out into the world.

Will we do it again? Probably. For some special occasion. Maybe for my last service. Ha! That got your attention, didn’t it?

 

Ten for ten

screen-shot-2017-10-17-at-5-06-39-pm.pngFor the first time this year, I had all ten of my confirmation class students together. Trust me, in a world where there is so much going on in the lives of our children and their families, this is nothing short of a miracle!

The students range in age from twelve to sixteen, from sixth grader to high school junior. They are all involved in other activities during the week, including but not limited to: band (three tubas and two clarinets), orchestra (violin), golf (at the state championship level; one young lady can drive 250 yds!), flag-football, boy scouts (one on the way to eagle), girl scouts, youth group, and future problem solving (with international competition experience). It’s a diverse group with interests that range from fried-chicken to robotics to “The Big Bang Theory” to their various pets.

It is such a dynamic time of life for them. Each is now just discovering their talents, passions and relationships as we learn how our Lord and faith affect every part of our lives. I’m fascinated. Our conversations take totally unexpected and bizarre directions every week. I was watching the video stream of last week’s class as we covered so many ideas about the third commandment and worship.

At one point, I told how some ancient civilizations made human sacrifices to appease their gods. That was their form of worship. One of the students shared that how they probably sacrificed the best looking people to please the gods, so it was better to be ugly and have ugly children. I said, “Imagine if that’s the way they did things in band?” After auditions, we’ll cut the best player from each section. By the end of the year, the band would sound horrible!

Some heard for the fist time that Jesus was Jewish. And that according to Old Testament law you weren’t allowed to eat shellfish. And how shellfish are bottom feeders, which is yukky. We discussed whether or not chickens have vocal chords (if not, how do they say, “bock?”) and whether or not it is OK to have a job that requires you to work seven days a week and words that my dog knows (bark, ruff and woof).

I’ve been teaching confirmation class for over thirty years, and it never gets old. Thank goodness for the catechism, laughter, and the joy of the Lord!

Who did you see in church today?

pulpitA preacher (like me) has a unique perspective on Sunday morning. While you are sitting watching and listening to me, just one person, I am looking at you, a whole congregation. You may notice a few of the people and your friends around you, but I get to see all of God’s people gathered together to hear His word and receive His gifts of grace.

Do you know who I saw this morning? Continue reading

How to survive a lousy Sunday

By a lousy Sunday, I mean a dramatic drop in attendance. This year we’ve been averaging about 275 in worship each Sunday, but this past week, only counted 175 in attendance. Worst turnout since June of 2006. As unsanctified as it sounds, pastors tend to obsess about such things. If we’re not careful, it becomes personal, as if the numbers were a direct reflection of our performance.

Reasons for the anomaly? Plenty to be sure. First of all, it is the middle of the summer. Even I was among those absent, having left town to take the high school youth group to the national youth gathering in New Orleans. There’s always someone sick or tired. Or entertaining guests. Cars that won’t start. Mental health days. Malfunctioning alarm clocks. Hangovers. Perhaps an information leak that the elders were leading the worship service and there wouldn’t be any communion that day.

I guess if I can embrace the ridiculously high attendance figures on Easter Sunday, I should accept the dips, too. An even better idea is to stop counting. Then it wouldn’t be an issue, would it? Until someone asks for an average attendance reports. Or wants to know how many worship folders to print.

Worst worship attendance ever: when all of Jesus’ disciples ran and left him alone. His passion was the highlight of his message and no one showed. But it was still effective. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

From now on, when someone asks me how big our church is, or how many come to worship, I’m going to say, “I’m not sure; how many do you think there are?” I’ll just let someone else worry about it.

The holy week experience

When I was growing up, attending church for all the services of holy week was a given. On Thursday we remembered the institution of the Lord’s Supper. On Friday, we came at both noon, remembering the time Jesus spent on the cross, and again in the evening, as candles were extinguished and the church became eerily dark. On Sunday, we were up for a sunrise service and then another service later in the morning.

It’s always a challenge for me to remember that many have not grown up with these traditions, so it does not occur to them to come to church on any day other than Sunday. I have to remind myself to walk them through the passion of our Lord, rather than assuming they know it, for many just don’t know the story. If we don’t get a chance to pause and think of the agonizing prayer in the garden, the betrayal and denial, the false charges, the cries and “crucify him,” and the cruel nails of crucifixion, we may miss some of the impact of the resurrection, too.

I owe my parents and the church I grew up in a debt of gratitude for making sure I got the complete experience of holy week. I hope I get a chance to pass that along to others.

The fifth one is on us

A few weeks ago, I met someone who didn’t attend church much, but came to worship with us one Sunday. I’m not sure how, but we got talking about the punch cards he carried in his wallet from various places he liked to eat. You know, where you get it punched every time you come in, and then when you have a certain number of punches, you get something free.

For some strange reason, I thought, “I can do that.” I made him a “frequent worshiper” card for our church. “Attend four worship services, and the fifth mass is on us!” I laminated it, punched out one of the church logos for the Sunday he was here, and sent it with the usual letter thanking him for worshiping with us. I haven’t seen or heard from him yet, but I hope he found it as amusing as I did.

Afterwards I got to thinking, “What would it mean for worship to be ‘on us’?” I mean, we give freely because of all God has freely given us. I guess it could mean you didn’t have to put an offering in that week. Or maybe you could get something from the plate when it was passed around. Although I wouldn’t recommend it. Our ushers are pretty tough.

Actually, this isn’t such a unique idea. We have churches in our community that have given out gas and coffee gift cards to first time visitors. Some will take you out for ice cream if you bring a friend to youth group. My idea was meant to be taken lightly, but hopefully it will help strengthen the connection with this individual.

Why aren’t you going to church?

From time to time, I call people who are members of our church who do not attend worship at our church. I guess I should say they rarely attend worship. It’s always an interesting conversation. I don’t have to tell them why I’ve called. They immediately know. As soon as I say, “Hi, this is Pastor Douthwaite,” they interrupt and say, “You know we were just talking about you, and we were just talking about how we need to get back to church, and even though we’ll be out of town this weekend, we’ll be there the following Sunday.” All in one breath. A scripted response. They know exactly what to say. At least they think that’s what I want to hear.

Even though all of our members promise that they will remain faithful to the church, even to the point of death, from my experience there are always a few families that haven’t attended in over a year, and that includes Christmas and Easter. Even if they begin to attend or their names are taken off the membership rolls, other families will take their place. I’ve concluded that this is just part of the nature of the church.

Of course, in some of these conversations, I learn why people don’t go to their church. They travel. They or their children are sick. They have guests from out of town staying in their homes. They worked a lot over the past week and are too tired. They were re-tiling their floors. There was a soccer (or baseball or football) game. They had a rough week. Imagine using all those excuses for not going in to work. I imagine you wouldn’t have that job very long.

Reasons for not attending I never hear are, “We don’t like you or your church. We disagree with what you believe. We aren’t getting anything out of your sermons. We don’t like the music.” Could it be that most people join a church without any intent of actually attending on a regular basis? Perhaps we do not clearly express this expectation.

Advent midweek worship

Tomorrow is the first of our midweek Advent worship services. They are part of our worship tradition in my denomination (Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod) and my congregation (Shepherd of the Coast, Palm Coast, FL). But they are not a part of most people’s lives. In other words, few show up.

I believe that if you didn’t grow up with this tradition, it wouldn’t even occur to you to show up at a church for a Wednesday night worship service during Advent, Lent or any other time of the year. Even if it’s heavily promoted, the idea is a hard one to sell to busy people who figure they get enough religious input on Sunday mornings.

But I like it. I like night services. Things look and sound different to me. Rather than being at the beginning of the day, it’s the end, before bed, and our thoughts are on the day past, rather than  the day or week ahead.

This year, I’m going to try and be less formal and more conversational with those who are there, most of whom will be the choir and the youth group, who are there every Wednesday anyway. I want to hear from people, not just talk at them. We don’t do much of this, but it’s worth a try. I’ll let you know how it goes!