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Thoughts from an Empty Church

A few Sundays ago, I visited a church not far from my home. It was a Lutheran Church, because I fancy myself some kind of Lutheran, though I may quibble or nit pick on a thing or two. So I visited St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church. It’s a quaint little church tucked a way in what looks like a mostly quiet neighborhood. This was actually my second visit. The first time was probably a year ago. To be honest, the very first time I found it, I was surprised it was there. I’ve lived in Staten Island, the mostly forgotten borough of NYC all my life, and I never noticed it before, though to be fair, I probably wasn’t really looking up until very recent. This is one of only two LCMS (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) churches in Staten Island. I have to be honest though, from what I experienced, it wouldn’t surprise me if it gets downgraded to one soon.

I arrived about a half hour before service, but I couldn’t find parking. So I drove around the block to give it another look. Just then, the Catholic Church, St Ann’s, which occupied one corner of the block while St. Matthews occupied the other, was letting people out of their Sunday service, and scores of people poured out from their doors. They scurried along hurriedly to the cars that packed the neighborhood streets. In a matter of minutes, I had my choice of parking and I was able to park right in front of St. Matthew’s. I still couldn’t believe how many people came rushing out of St. Ann’s and how empty the streets now were. I couldn’t get the image out of my mind.

I parked and sat in my car and waited until about five minutes before the service was supposed to start, but to be honest, I wasn’t even sure they were still doing church. As the time neared, I didn’t see anyone making their way in, and frankly, I was afraid to try the door. I was afraid I’d look silly if it was locked. Then I heard the organ sounds coming from a speaker outside. The musical prelude was a call to worship, and it was a bit of relief. At least now I knew there was some activity. So I ventured in and sat at the back near the exit. The organist welcomed me and engaged me in a brief but friendly conversation, and a few minutes later, an older gentlemen entered through a side door and handed me the church bulletin, with included the order of service and weekly church calendar. Since this was not my first lutheran rodeo, I grabbed the hymnal and turned to the proper pages ready to engage in the service when it began.

By the time the service started, a older couple and another woman joined myself, the usher, and the organist. Another man arrived as well, who would later participate in the service by reading the scripture passages for the day. In total, there were eight of us in attendance, including the pastor. This was similar to the service I attend there a year ago.

The service was good, even familiar. To be truthful, my regular church experience is with a Lutheran Brethren denomination, which includes many important elements of the lutheran service, but has a more contemporary evangelical feel in many other ways. A service like this, I’m sure some would call it dry, or lacking some spiritual verve that is so expected in a church service now. So I can understand why people think churches like this are dead, just by mere physical observation, I mean.

But then there’s the Catholic Church, not more than 50 feet away. People pouring out in droves. Please spare me your negativity on this. Whether Catholic, Lutheran, or any other christian denomination, they all have their issues. I personally know some catholics who I have no doubt, are Christians. I know some Lutherans, that at least in observation, don’t appear to be. I’m not having the who’s in and who’s not conversation here.

There is a bigger problem being expressed. 

Typically, Lutherans aren’t big Gospel-Sharers. Lutherans tend to be insular in a lot of ways. They never seem to be big engagers of the culture around them. I see that changing now. There are organizations with a heavy lutheran lean, eager to spread the message of “Christ For You” to as many people as possible. They have good, let me emphasize, GOOD, podcasts, books, and video resources. You can find articles that address all sorts of issues, and in much of it, is a sharing of all the lutheran distinctions of faith. I have seen eyes opened because of it. Part of it is that these resources just teach what the scripture states and the authors of all these resources let them find out the lutheran part on their own later, when its too late. Trust me, that’s a good thing. We are not leaving the word lutheran behind, we are just putting it behind everything else. We are giving people a chance to see scripture without the baggage they THINK it has. Again, this is a good thing.

But still, it comes back to church.

If we are good christians, good lutheran, we still want to see someone coming in and sitting there. Especially if they are new and exploring. I could sense it in the short conversation from the organist. She wanted me to feel welcomed to stay, to get the good news. We want people to grab hold of these things. We want them to hear the words of absolution, reminding them of their forgiveness and freedom from snares and sufferings of sin. We know it’s not about manufacturing emotions and feelings. But these things should stir us, shouldn’t they? No one should be a “frozen chosen”. At least… not internally.

I know eventually church bodies do dry up. They close, I get it. That doesn’t mean we have to be happy about it, or be settled in that fact. I was recently a part of a lutheran church plant in NYC with the Lutheran Brethren denomination. We made it roughly five years before we closed our doors. Whether it was covid or some other reason, who knows? We may have closed our doors, but while we were open, we saw life. We saw a baptism welcome someone in the faith. We saw community form with people from all walks of life, because New York is a melting pot like that. Some of those relationships continue to this day. We made ourselves a little “church for others” as we called ourselves.

It was hard to compete with the vibrant worship of the local chapter of Hillsong Church, even with all the issues they have had, or the established history and solid teaching ministry of Dr. Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian. But we tried, because we had to, and in the trying, some good things happened. Hopefully, some lessons were learned for the next plants. More than anything, I’m sure the Gospel went forth and based on the demographic of our little congregation, some of those messages, may have travelled the world.

We didn’t last, but there is a place for new lutheran communities. There is still room for a place where people can find hope and forgiveness. Maybe it won’t look like a lutheran divine service, or a contemporary evangelical service, but the best parts will still be there. The parts that make sure people get Jesus. My old pastor would say our little Lutheran Brethren church plant was probably the “highest” church service in our denomination.

On occasion, I had opportunity to lead church and preach there, and it wasn’t my most comfortable place. When I did, I loved going through the confession and absolution, so much more than I enjoyed preaching. Because in confession and absolution I was sure I was giving them something not from me, but from God. I was giving them the forgiveness Christ earned for them. In fact, I know I said on more than one of those occasions, because of all the other things we did at church there, if my sermon was the low point of the evening, they still got Christ. They still got Jesus in all the rest it.

The divine service is still divine. There will always be places to find it. And it will be a thriving place. In Staten Island, St John’s LCMS is one of the places. I pray St Matthew LCMS finds it’s legs and can thrive again. Maybe they already thrive, and I just picked the two worst days to go. Maybe I’ll give it one more shot. “The third time is the charm…” right?

The Lutheran Brethren are going anywhere either. There is a place for a church that embraces the divine AND the contemporary. They have an opportunity to open the eyes of people who may be tired of the do more church treadmill to prove their worth. I think the contemporary service and its approach can be a welcoming comfort to new believers looking for a “first-time” home.

This was not about pitting the two services against each other. Still, I have to ask, is there middle ground between the divine and the more evangelical expression? I think so.

Maybe I just miss my old church plant, and found those services the closest to melding the two. Maybe I want just a little bit more divine. Maybe I want to be fed the body and blood weekly, because I know I need it. Maybe I am simply waxing poetic about something I don’t have any more.

Maybe I want to something like that again.

Who knows…

Lately, I’ve been feeling like a square peg in a round hole. I like unchanging routine of a divine service. Like something I know I can faithfully return to every week. The routine of a divine service feels both simple and beautiful. Because of that it feels like I don’t quite fit the evangelical style of church anymore.

But the divine service, outside of confession and absolution and weekly communion, some of the liturgy, and how serious they take some of the holiday services, doesn’t totally grab me either.

Now I think the one thing my evangelical style lutheran church does really well, is preach either to me personally, or to anyone else there. Why is that good? Because the pastor there and others like him, give you “Law and Gospel.” They give you the goods. They give you the reminder that Christ truly is for you.

I think this is why I miss my old church plant, or want something that dips into the divine service a little bit more.

Every week, It was Confession and Absolution. It was Law and Gospel. It was Body and Blood. It was Christ for you.

Despite the outward expression of the church we created when people walked in, they always got those things. It was also simple enough for two people two run the service with a clicker.

I want a church this simple again. I want to see people pouring out of it. 

Instead a few Sundays ago at a divine service, we had 8 people…

That’s a lot of leftover gospel. That’s all I’m saying.

Please don’t take this as a knock on any church mentioned here. If anything this is a knock on me. On my dissatisfaction for not finding “my perfect church”, which of course we all know doesn’t exist on earth. I’m a melancholy person by nature. So this is what you get when you decide to read something I write. I suppose that means it’s your fault for reading it.

I’m kidding of course. 

I hope you all have a church you call home. A place that forgives, absolves, teaches and feeds every week. One that always blessings you before you go.

Blessings to you.

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