For my first foray back into the fold, I made a conservative choice. I was brought up in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) branch of Lutheranism — that is, the liberal branch of that sect. Of course, I haven’t attended a service since I was 20, so it’s been 36 years since I’ve gone through the motions. It seemed most likely to be rustily familiar, and a relatively painless reintroduction to the church life, so we attended the First Lutheran Church of Morris this morning.
First good news: the souls of the damned did not wail a warning as I crossed the threshold, nor did I burst into hellfire or get sundered by lightning from the skies, so we’re off to a great start.
The striking thing about the whole process was how familiar it all was — almost nothing has changed from what I experienced way back when I was an adolescent. Three things jumped out at me as having changed:
Padded cushions on the pews! Arr, this generation has gone soft in the fundament.
I was an acolyte myself, and we had much fancier dresses: white silky gowns with layered vestments and embossed velvet geegaws all over the place. These poor kids were wearing peasant gowns.
The rituals were much the same, but the pastor sang the chants here. He had a nice voice, but it was jarring: I expected spoken chants and spoken responses. Maybe my old pastor just couldn’t carry a tune.
Those are trivial differences. Otherwise, it could have been the same service I heard in Kent Lutheran Church in 1970, right down to the light Minnesööta accent in the pastor’s voice. It was kind of sweet and kind of weird at the same time.
I also observed a number of good things which help me understand why people keep attending church.
The first notable phenomenon is the congregation. Somewhere around 70-80 people attended, and they looked like a highly representative slice of the local population: all ages, from children to the very old, and an equal mix of men and women. There were several people who needed help getting to the pews, and there were ushers waiting who would help them. I noticed one developmentally disabled individual in the congregation, too: there was no segregation at all, everyone was treated as a full and equal participant. I have to give a big thumbs up to the inclusiveness of the group.
Sociability was high, too. Everyone was greeted and welcomed, people everywhere were saying hello to each other. Even us odd strangers got handshakes and hellos. The pastor, of course, was all over the room, personally greeting everyone and having a few word of conversation. He had a little chat with us, too, introducing himself, asking where we were from, clearly curious about these strangers. I noticed a little bit of a startle when we told him our names — I got the impression he suddenly realized who the heck we were — and he rather quickly left us, but that may have just been because he had to greet everyone.
We sat in our comfy cushioned pews (decadence!) and read the announcements that were displayed on a screen in front of the room. It’s a busy organization. Everyone gets acknowledged, the ushers, the greeters, the musicians, everyone by name right up front in a big display. You will not volunteer to help this church and not get gratitude. There’s the usual local events — confirmation classes, a picnic today, people who need prayers — and also a request for donations to the church mission in Senegal. They’re also very open about finances: there was an announcement that said that their operating budget was about $313,000 per year, and that they needed about $78,000 more.
Keep that in mind, atheist groups: a mid-sized local church, one of over a dozen in town, is bringing in somewhere around $300K per year. What’s your budget like?
Then the service began. I was impressed: it began right on time, and ran exactly one hour. This is a well-practiced, smooth-running ritual, I’ll say that for it.
And now, of course, is when my objections begin. As an efficient and rewarding social organization, the church is really, really good. I wish atheists could be this open and welcoming and egalitarian. It’s just that, well, the content gave me the heebie-jeebies.
Like my childhood church, this is not a hellfire kind of church — I noticed in the hymnal a word subsitution with a footnote explaining that some versions of a hymn used the phrase “land of Hell” but this one preferred the phrase “land of dead”, for instance. Liberal Lutherans were never very big on threats and extortion.
Instead, it’s very Jesusy. Lots of songs about “praise to the Lord” and begging Jesus for mercy and “we are captive to sin” — we are all really bad people but we can be salvaged if only we beg the Lord to have mercy. The Bible verse readings were a little daunting, too: 1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43, which encourages us to help foreigners “know [god's] name and fear [god]” and Galatians 1:1-12, which tells us helpfully that anyone who teaches any other gospel than Jesus’ is “accursed”.
Obviously, I reject all that.
The sermon was based around Luke 7:1-10, the story of a Roman centurion who had a sick slave and asked Jesus to heal him. I’ll confess, I was very confused by the story: it was all about how the centurion had “power and authority” and showed respect to Jesus. I had trouble getting beyond the fact that he had a slave, and everyone was very matter-of-fact about it, and seemed to think it was perfectly reasonable for someone to have that kind of power over another. There was also this odd children’s message: the kids were asked to come up, and the pastor asked them questions directly. He asked them who is the authority in their house, and the kids are all saying “my parents”, and the pastor asks “But which one?”, and they reply “Both”, and the pastor then says that was very PC of them, but it’s natural for one to have authority and power.
The sermon itself (short! 10 minutes! Yay!) started off with a nice story about the pastor’s family’s dog, which they found abandoned on a highway and rescued, but then segued into a bit about training animals, and how dogs need an “alpha male,” (I resisted the temptation to raise my hand and explain that the alpha male is an outdated and over-simplified caricature) and how he is the alpha male in his house. This was somehow tied back to the confusing story about the centurion and his slave, and how they were supposed to have faith and hope because of Jesus. I was totally lost, but the whole thing was mercifully short. I think now I’m supposed to roll over and expose my belly to Jesus, anyway. Or at the very least recognize that having a man head the household is the natural order.
At this point I’m neither enthused nor persuaded, but then, I’m actually listening to the content of this service, which is probably not the best thing to do.
It’s all wrapped up with some more hymns, more prayers, a very nice “peace handshake” were everyone shakes hands with their neighbors, the communion (no, I didn’t get in line for a wafer and grape juice), and a recitation of the Apostles’ Creed. Don’t let anyone try to convince you that testimonies of belief aren’t a significant part of religious practice — this is a ritual that spells out precisely what you must believe to be part of this community.
There was an offering plate. We threw in a few dollars because it was the thing to do, and we left. We shook the pastor’s hand on the way out and wished him a good day.
I think the social part of the morning was very pleasant and I’d like to see more of that, but the belief part of the event was…unbelievable. So I haven’t yet seen a reason why people wouldn’t pare away the religious fluff and just have a friendly social hour and barbecue.