This summer, which has ended with our first days of the empty nest, has been full with work, vacation, and preparation of our youngest for college.
But there has been something else. If you read my previous blog, you know that I am about to begin pastoring a brand new church. In preparation for that, I have spent my summer intentionally visiting many different churches, representing four different denominations or no denomination at all, with worship styles running the gamut. My goal has been to learn as much as I can about what others are saying, how others approach the throne of grace, what worship can be, what sits well and what does not to those in the pew, and how I can best mediate the Word of God once I stand in the pulpit.
I have attended everything from a formal matins service, with chants led by one facing the altar with his back to me, to a summer vacation-themed rock-n-roll service with beach balls batted about the congregation during the sermon. I have heard organs and pianos, guitars and drums, violins and French horns. I have seen screens of all sizes, camera operators wandering across platforms in the middle of worship, stained glass windows, smoke-and-light shows, and chancels simple and elaborate. I have sung "Holy, Holy, Holy" and praise choruses with titles I could not understand and do not remember. I have heard sermons from preachers wearing robes, suits, dresses, khakis, and flip flops.
I have not experienced it all, but I have tasted quite a variety of 21st century American church this summer. I have learned some things that I did not know I liked, and I have discarded some practices that I know I do not want in our church.
In each church, no matter the style or the attire, I could easily detect the planning that went into and the purpose that those in charge had for the service. No matter how unpolished or informal, nothing I saw was slipshod or haphazard. Every preacher was prepared and said something that captured my attention.
I do not expect us to incorporate everything I saw and heard into the new church. Some of it is not, in my opinion, appropriate. Some of it works for the people leading it but would be a bust if I tried it.
Still, I finish this experience encouraged. Cliche' though it may be, what unites us as the church is far greater than what divides us. Our differences of doctrine and approach, of style and emphasis ... these are real and important. But they do not come close to the magnitude of our mutual recognition of God the Father, the power of the cross, the importance of scripture, the need to give of what we have for the spread of the gospel and the needs of the less fortunate, the wonder of baptism, and the value of Christian fellowship. The Lord's Prayer, the bread and wine, the invitation to respond, the second chance of forgiveness - these are constant, even if portrayed and shared in different ways.
I am relieved, frankly, after these weeks to be reminded how many gather every Sunday - albeit with different beats and clothes and words and rituals - to worship my God. It is too easy to feel isolated, as though our particular church or youth group or community group is the only one fighting the good fight, the only one giving to the needy, the only one standing between Satan and victory.
We are not alone. I do not want to worship in the same way that others do, and that is ok. Our church will add its voice, as I add mine, to a great symphony of believers and worshipers. We are running this race together.
That's what I learned on my summer vacation.