The Spirit Calls, Gathers, Enlightens and Sanctifies God’s People
Keep Trying Innovative Ministries
The cues people respond to today are different from those of even thirty years ago. Think cell phones and social media. Churches have always been a source of cues for recognizing and reacting to God. What’s happening today is that the old cues are not bringing expected responses. Thank God for church leaders willing to try innovations to be more effective in their ministries. Some of those changes may not work out well in the long run. But such efforts can bring valuable excitement. To be effective in mission to others in a changing world is to be constantly innovating.
In my lifetime, I have seen a major innovation among Lutherans that, judging by results, has not worked out well. This was the introduction of an increasing amount of formal rituals into worship. In the decades after World War II, the slogan was “Liturgical Renewal.” The introduction of liturgies going back centuries provided excitement at the time. But such innovation, in my opinion, has not worn well over time. I will be strongly criticized by others in my church body for saying this, but I think highly formal liturgy is associated with stagnant and declining church life today. It was a wrong turn.
The issue came into focus for me when I did a funeral home service for an elderly member. My message featured a review of salvation by grace and immediate presence with God in heaven. A week later I received a call from the daughter scolding me for offending her Catholic friends. They apparently expected an inoffensive ritual of familiar words. I delivered a personal call to the biblical Gospel.
My negative reaction to the liturgical renewal movement may stem from my personality. But I think it has a biblical footing. Rather than liturgical renewal, ministry revolves around Spiritual renewal and how best to present opportunities for the Spirit to bring newness to the hearts of those reached.
Keeping the Sacraments Personal
Greater reliance on the sacraments was basic to liturgical renewal. But I worry that increased ritual has weakened their effectiveness. Baptizing can be done with a pages-long liturgy. Better it is to informally talk through what needs to happen for an infant to be baptized and raised in the faith. The church I serve has an annual Reaffirmation of Baptism on the second Sunday in January for the Presentation of Jesus. The font is moved front and center. One by one, participants come forward down the center aisle. The pastors dip their fingers into the water, make the sign of the cross on the forehead and say, “This is to remind you of your baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” Almost all eagerly participate and I can see the anticipation in their eyes. It is a very personal, meaningful experience for them.
I recently led a Bible study using a guide from a stalwart professor I knew. It was frustrating. No matter what the biblical text said, he had us looking for texts about baptism. He packed a lot of theological meaning into baptism, but it was forced and distracting. Baptismal language is confusing to most in our culture today. Keep the biblical message simple and straightforward.
Preparation for Communion
The liturgical renewal movement brought the more frequent practice of the Lord’s Supper. The goal was every service, and the norm now seems to be twice a month. What got lost is special personal preparation for the experience of receiving Christ’s body and blood.
The 19th-century congregational practice of communion had much to offer. It was celebrated four times a year. Each time was an occasion for special personal preparation. The parish pastor made the rounds to visit each family to offer counsel about what was happening in their lives. Personal relationships were deepened. Then the preparation process got simplified when communion moved to once a month and the telephone became widely available. My memory as a child in a parsonage is answering the phone to hear a parishioner “announce” they were coming to communion that Sunday. Presumably, they were spiritually prepared. Even that specialness has now disappeared. When distributing communion, I often wonder what is going on behind the eyes of those at the communion rail. Has partaking in the Lord’s Supper become just a ritual without much personal content?
Pastors can work hard to make the application personal by explaining the symbols. But why not just make the Gospel personal without the extra layer of symbols and ritual? In practical terms, the more time spent on distributing communion, the less time for preaching the Word in an hour-long service. The recommended sermon length has been reduced to twelve minutes, with the rationale that people now have a short attention span. But the better solution to that problem is to make sermons more effective at holding attention with good illustrations and application to contemporary life.
The practice of confirming boys and girls in their faith has been around since Martin Luther wrote the Small Catechism for pastors to use in educating children. In my personal experience Confirmation was a big cultural event, bringing a new suit, a watch, and my own Bible with my name inscribed. The big hurdle was Questioning before the whole congregation, where we confirmands had to demonstrate our knowledge of Lutheran doctrine. Stress was high. The assumption was that head knowledge somehow equates with Spiritual condition.
Over recent decades I have watched as resources for confirmation have expanded, particularly through the work of Rich and Arlyce Melheim and their Faith Inkubators material. Gifted educators focus on offering many touchpoints that can engage participants, drawing them into discussions of what their relationship with God can mean to them. Significantly, the curriculum describes their themes as “Head to Heart.” Old timers may criticize that there is too much emphasis on fun. But at issue is whether these youth will see the church as a valuable resource for reassurance as they encounter the difficulties of life ahead. The loss of younger generations is apparent in most congregations. Churches that do 14-year-old Confirmation should worry as the parental expectation to present their children for confirmation weakens.
One innovation lies in the direction of exposing confirmands to older “graduates” like themselves who have felt the hostile pressures of high school and college and come out with their Christian commitment even stronger. Hearing such “success” stories can be very affirming.
The Alpha Course
When I focus on innovations in ministry, I mean biblically faithful changes that are acceptable in a traditional mainline congregation. Be open to what growing Evangelical community churches are doing. In my experience, most of those churches are biblically sound. I don’t think it necessary to denounce them for not taking the sacraments as seriously as Lutherans now do. These are supplements to the basic Gospel.
The Alpha Course has much to offer. By now over 30 million have participated. Originating out of an Anglican Church in London, Alpha is basically a simple eleven-week Bible study that offers fellowship in a meal, a Bible-based presentation on the basics of relating to God and a small group discussion. It is oriented toward newcomers who are exploring the faith. It presents itself as Real where participants can be authentically themselves, as Relational where friendships can form, and as Reliant on the Holy Spirit “because we realize that it is only God who changes people—we just introduce him.” I offered Alpha seven times at my church.
What makes it Alpha special is the half-hour video presentation by Nicky Gumble, the senior pastor at Holy Trinity Brampton. He is a very accomplished, humble speaker who holds attention well and is not at all “preachy.” What he offers that no one else can equal is case studies of the experiences of previous participants in Alpha. A special Saturday five-session focus is on the Holy Spirit, what the Bible says about him and how he changes lives. The tone in the course is that something special is happening, and this is reinforced by the frequent stories of changed lives among participants. Expect change and it will more likely happen.
What are some practical ways ministry can stay relevant in a changing world? How do we help individuals still connect to the Lord? And do you feel it is important to innovate the practice of the Lord’s Supper to keep it more personal for participants?