Monday, 8 September 2014

The Institutional Church's Unlikely Visitor: Me


"You, my brothers, were called to be free." (Galatians 5:13)

I did something last Sunday that I haven’t done in perhaps ten to twelve years; I attended an institutional church service.

Not only did I attend an institutional church service, but I attended a service very different than one I have ever attended before, other than perhaps one or two times.

On the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (I know that because it was printed in their bulletin), my wife and I went to an institutional church service that, while “Baptist” in name, could very well have been confused with an Anglican church based upon the liturgical style.

In this worship service we followed a strictly outlined order of service which included rising from our pews and standing on cue, as indicated by a printed asterisk symbol in front of the service heading. We rose to our feet for the invocation and reciting of the Lord’s Prayer, singing of hymns, and to the reciting of the “Gloria Patri,” which for those not familiar with it states,
“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.
Amen”
We had Scripture readings and sang hymns. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the beautiful choir arrangements; the opening “Introit” especially brought shivers down my spine. Conspicuously absent were any modern instruments; no guitars, no electronic keyboards, no drums, no worship team; only a pianist and professional organist. Also absent were any modern choruses.

As I thought about that, I remember thinking how interesting it is that we often stereotype such “non-modern” expressions of faith as relevant only to the elderly, or those who embrace some strange utopian 1950’s version of what constitutes “church,” for who but the elderly would be into that style? Yet as I looked around me, yes, I noticed some elderly folks, but I also noticed many more adherents who were young couples, families, and school-aged children. Clearly, it was anything but stereotypical, as evidenced by such things as semi-shaved hairstyles, to multiple earrings in the ears of the black gown-clad senior pastor, to fashion that included everything from blue jeans to bow tie to somewhere in between.

I listened to the first in what we were told would be a 36-week sermon series. I participated in “Communion” as they passed the bread and the cup. My son (who invited us to his church) later asked me how long it’s been since I participated in that style of Communion service. In truth, I didn’t know, as I’ve long since understood Communion a little differently. Still it was, to use modern verbiage, “all-good.”

Then, after the offering plate was passed, we rose to our feet again on cue and sang the “Doxology,”
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him all creatures here below;
Praise Him above ye heavenly hosts;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.”
This was followed by another congregational hymn singing, which in turn was followed by the “Sending of the Community;” in which the leader proclaimed, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you.” Then on cue (as instructed in our printed order of service), the people in the congregation replied, “And also with you.” A blessing followed, and then a postlude, and we were essentially dismissed. Despite the service being officially over, we mingled for about half to three-quarters of an hour before leaving the building.

So, are you shocked by all of this?

Anyone who has perhaps followed this blog for the past few years might possibly be. After all, I have been known to slam institutional church systems a time or ten. In a way I was briefly amazed myself that I should find myself there at all, and yet despite all the little idiosyncrasies, I felt strangely comfortable and at peace there. Even my wife mentioned how much she enjoyed the service and “needed” to be there that Sunday.

Perhaps God had us exactly where He wanted us that Sunday.

Having said all that, does this mean that we have re-institutionalized ourselves? No, it doesn’t mean that at all. We still love the Christian relationships we have built outside of the traditional institutional church, and we have no intention on giving up on those. Still, if the Spirit leads, I think I can speak for both my wife and myself and say that from time to time, we could also easily step into an institutional church and fellowship with others there as well. As a matter of fact, I now fully intend on visiting other Christian communities from time to time, as the Lord may lead me to. Could it be that maybe it’s time to bridge the gap between institutional and non-institutional Christians? I wonder.

I am reminded of what the Apostle Paul once said,
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and in all” (Ephesians 4: 3-6; NIV).
Was Christ crucified only for your little sect? Was He crucified only for my little sect? (I deliberately use the word “sect,” for no other word seems to describe what we often seem to have become as well as the word “sect” does). Of course not! For that little institutional church, be they conservative/charismatic, liberal/liturgical, or somewhere in between; are no less sons and daughters of the most high God than Christians who choose to fellowship outside of any institutional church are. The fact is, we are all brothers and sisters, regardless how we choose to worship our great God. The only problem is, some of us either are, or have turned other siblings into, black sheep. And that is really quite sad.

Freedom

Perhaps the greater sin in our respective “Christian” walks would be to fail to recognize that and keep those walls firmly erected between us. If God doesn’t make distinctions, apart from those who do or don’t acknowledge His Son, then dare we? If we dare not, then shouldn't we busy ourselves with tearing down the walls that separate us? Come to think of it, even Jesus himself prayed about that very thing (John 17).

Yes, my reintroduction to institutional Christianity was semi-liturgical, and generally speaking I’m not, but they most certainly were brothers and sisters in Jesus, and ultimately, that’s all that matters. Next time I’m in town on a Sunday, I’m sure I will go visit that little inner-city (Baptist?) church again. After all, if I left feeling blessed and in complete peace this last Sunday, why wouldn’t I go back?

Peace and Blessings, from a (temporarily?) re-institutionalized brother.

Photo Credit: Doevos, Flickr Creative Commons

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