By Paul Koch –
Last Sunday, I actually got to go to church!
That may not seem like much of an event to some, but it is something I don’t get to do very often. It’s not that I don’t find myself in church on Sunday morning, for I do that almost every week. Usually, I’m there as a pastor, one who is called and ordained to hand over the goods for the building up of the body of Christ. But this past Sunday, I got to just go to church, be in the pew for a change, and be a receiver of the gifts.
I was reminded once again of what it is like to be like most of you—to be subjected to a sermon, to try to figure out the flow and ritual of a strange place, and to try and do more than silently judge everything that is going on around me. And in truth, I was excited to be there and eager to receive the gifts of my Lord.
The church my wife and I attended was Faith Lutheran in Troy, Michigan. I have never been to such a service in my life. It is a member of the same fellowship as my congregation (LCMS) that holds to the same confessions as I do. Their pastor’s training was not all that different from mine. Yet, the similarities between that church and mine ended there.
Now, to be sure, my church-going experience is quite narrow and somewhat naive. As I said, I don’t usually get to go to another church, and when I do, it’s always one of my own denomination. I don’t think what I saw and participated in was all that unusual to most people (it certainly seemed normal to the hundreds of people gathered there that morning), but outside of the words of institution being spoken before the Lord’s Supper and the praying of the Lord’s Prayer, that congregation and mine are barely the same thing.
Perhaps this shouldn’t bother me, but it did. As I sat in a massive theater which could easily accommodate well over a thousand people, I began to wonder if this was better. As I struggled to sing along with an incredible praise band (because I don’t know the words and feel weird raising my hands), I wondered if my way, the organ and hymnal way, was just not up to snuff. At a church where every element of the liturgy as I have grown accustomed to hearing was gone, I began to second guess a lot of what I believed about worship and what was good for the people of God.
After all, there was something that bubbled up within me that spoke to every desire for glory, prestige, faithfulness, and service. To be a pastor of a church like this would be a game changer. On a given weekend, they must have more than a thousand people gathering together to receive the gifts of Christ. There was a veritable army of volunteers and staff that enabled that massive campus to function like a well-oiled machine. The resources gathered into that place must have enabled incredible impact into the community.
All the old arguments came flooding back to mind. Does size equal success? Just what is a successful church? Does musical style, the use of screens, or the wearing of vestments actually matter? Can they really help or hinder in the proclamation of the Gospel? I believe that if someone was to attend my congregation one week and this one the next they would scarcely believe that we are confessing the same thing. Would they be right?
Beyond style preferences, faithful old traditions, and for that matter the freedom to establish new traditions, I was reminded of Luther’s simple words in the Smalcald Articles:
“For, thank God, a child seven years old knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd.”
In a simple way, we might say that the goal of the service is to make sure the voice of the Shepherd sounds forth loud and clear. And in fact, it is His voice and not the size of the flock or the beauty of the sheepfold that is most important. The best way to judge what is found in a given church is not by what we see but by what we hear.
So, my journey to church last Sunday led me back to an old conviction and not a new one. What we do at church matters greatly, not because of romance or emotionalism or glory but because of our Shepherds voice. As my professor Dr. Nagel famously said,
“Our Lord speaks and we listen. His Word bestows what it says. Faith that is born from what is heard acknowledges the gifts received with eager thankfulness and praise. Music is drawn into this thankfulness and praise, enlarging and elevating the adoration of our gracious giver God.” – Introduction, Lutheran Worship (6)