Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Octogenarians and Bicycle Helmets and When a Church Isn't a Church

I had a strange dream last night.

In it, my wife and I were the ages we are today. But we were back to taking preaching calls to congregations with pastoral vacancies or where the pastors were on vacation, just like we did when I was in seminary thirty years ago.

We arrived at a church building that looked more like an old-fashioned township hall than a traditional church building. The exterior was covered with simple white clapboard and it was topped by a simple, shingled roof like you'd see on a slab house.

We walked inside to see that the interior was one room, except for a few restrooms tucked away in a corner. The walls and ceiling were untreated, unpainted wood, the beams overheard, exposed framing wood.

There were no pulpit, altar, lectern, nor a single other item that looked "churchy."

That was OK, my wife and I told each other. Over the years, we've worshiped in school gyms, a Lions hall, a movie theater, and a cafeteria. 

The words of Article VII of The Augsburg Confession crossed my mind (yes, even in my dream):
...The church is the assembly of saints [saints are those who believe in Jesus Christ and are covered by His forgiveness] in which the Gospel is taught purely and the sacraments administered rightly. For the true unity of the church it is enough to agree concerning the teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions or rites and ceremonies, instituted by [people], should be alike everywhere...
In other words, church buildings don't have to look like church buildings we're used to and worship services don't have to be like the ones we're accustomed to, as long as the Gospel is taught in its purity and the sacraments (Holy Baptism and Holy Communion) are administered rightly.

I didn't remember all the lines of Article VII in my dream, mind you. I just smiled as I scanned this "unchurchy" place and thought, "Article VII."

But then, we met the people.

The average age was about 85, although it was clear that quite a few of the folks were in the habit of dyeing their hair (even their eyebrows) all sorts of natural, that is, unnatural, colors.

From the beginning, they were a talkative bunch. They talked through the Order for Confession and Forgiveness, through hymns, through the Bible readings, and, in fact, at every single point in the service.

And they weren't just talky, they were disruptive. They were all seated in chairs and none of them seemed to give a second thought to sliding the chairs across the hard floors to get up, creating sonic skidding sounds, in order to talk to a neighbor seated elsewhere.

Suddenly, I found myself preaching on an Old Testament text and was constantly having my own concentration disrupted by the mayhem. I'd be a in the middle of a point and the whole group would get up for restroom and smoke breaks.

My wife and I kept looking at each other in mystification.

It's probably no stretch to say that many, if not most, Christian congregations are composed of functional atheists for whom the Church is basically a social gathering which occasionally does nice things for people. But this group was overtly heedless, almost scornful, of God, Christ, the Bible, worship, and so on.

At one point, they'd settled back in to listen to the sermon and I determined to keep it short because of the short attention span of the congregation. Just then, a man with Grecian Formula brown hair and  mustache, pushed himself from his chair in the back of the sanctuary to station himself behind a person sitting toward the front.

In the meantime, one woman was speaking loudly to another woman, also toward the front. I did something I've never done as a pastor: I gave the loud talker the evil eye. She shut up, but then the Grecian Formula guy started conversing with the guy in front of him. I tried the evil eye on him. He simply looked at me dismissively, contemptuously, and started talking even more loudly than before.

The next thing I knew, the whole group had run (yes, the 85-year-olds ran) to a back room I hadn't noticed before and emerged with bicycle helmets in hand. As I struggled to keep preaching, each hung their helmets on hooks on the bare wooden wall and stood back about five feet. Then, in unison, they started a deafening countdown: "10, 9, 8..." At "Zero!," they all grabbed their helmets and were out of the room.

My wife and I were the only ones left in the little building. "I think we're through here," I told her. We both laughed and walked away, the bicycling octogenarians nowhere to be seen.

Keep in mind, this was just a dream.

But its point was clear: This strange church wasn't a church, not because it didn't look like a church, but because its people ignored the Gospel and presumably disdained the sacraments. The people didn't believe.

How many churches might that describe?

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