By Paul Koch –
I was fortunate to be able to go to church last Sunday. It was one of the few times of the year when I’m on vacation, so I actually get to sit with my family in church on a Sunday morning. Now, going to church with me isn’t exactly an easy thing. Usually my poor wife must calm me down a few times, as I tend to be hypercritical of any congregation I visit. But for once church wasn’t anything too strange or out of the ordinary for me. It was a Lutheran church with the same hymnal in the pew that we use in my congregation. Their order of service was nice and simple and predictable. The sermon contained a clear distinction of Law and Gospel, the Lord’s Supper was celebrated, and the gifts were given.
Everything was great on the surface, but something kept bothering me about the whole affair. All the elements I value in a service, all the things I lead my congregation through every Sunday were there in this service. And yet it seems so boring and lifeless to me.
Now this wasn’t a critique of this particular congregation so much as it was a hard look at myself and my own practice in the ministry to which I’ve been called. During lunch I finally mustered up the courage to ask my wife the question that was really bothering me. I knew she would answer me honestly, and her opinion was one I valued more than most. I asked, “Is our church that boring?” And without much hesitation, she replied, “Yes.”
Now that hurt a bit, or at least it surprised me. I thought I was more charismatic, more dynamic in my leadership. But this was coming from a person who knew what she was talking about. She is no casual churchgoer, no wandering shopper of spiritual things. She taught 5 children to sit in church, to participate in the service, to sing the liturgy and confess their faith. And she did it alone. I was working, I was up front. But was it really boring? Was it something that was endured rather than celebrated?
Now, none of this seemed to bother my wife. The gifts of Christ were given and the whole focus of everything we did from the Invocation to the Benediction directed our attention away from ourselves and placed it firmly upon our Lord. Boring was okay. In fact, it might even be preferred over most other options that place entertainment as a higher value in worship. But she wasn’t going to pretend that it wasn’t boring, and perhaps neither could I, at least not anymore.
Now this led to a wonderful discussion about why we do what we do in church and if there is a way to improve it. A discussion of resources and proper focus and oversight required from a pastor. It confessed that it was weird to not be caught up in all the details of that particular service and just experience it. But was that experience powerful? Did it move me? Does any of that matter? Should it matter? Does it matter for my congregation? What about when they invite their friends to join us? Does it matter then? Should it?
All churches struggle with this to some degree. Whether they expressly know it and organize around solving it or they pretend like it isn’t an issue (my preferred way of dealing with it), it is a constant problem. Churches that pull out all the stops and look almost indistinguishable from a Christian concert know exactly what they are doing as their form and function serve to entertain those gathered. The same goes, I think, for all the smells and bells, the ultra-high church folks with their procession and incense and somewhat excessive bowing. They too know they are catering to and crafting an experience for their worshipers and devote a lot of resources to do so.
Do we really need to be concerned about such things? Are we being unfaithful if we don’t worry about it? Is it okay to be boring?