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?
Corbie Cross says
Thanks for this article. You really nailed some of the points I struggled with our worship. I have always struggled on how to make the point that participating in Holy Communion was not just something we do but something we participate in and the fact that it shouldn’t be a rote practice! I sometimes think we get so hung up on making sure we don[‘t do anything because it might be thought that we are trying to do works to justify our salvation rather that the realization that we do good works because we are thankful for our salvation! And of course we have make sure we are humble in the process. As far as how special baptism is I wish you could join me in a baptismal service at the prison I serve as a chaplain in! Most of the men want to be immersed so we drag out the stock tank fill it and then my partner and I stand on each side and immerse them! I have to say it is not a very somber time it is a joyful time and usually a pretty noisy time of worship!
Thanks again for your thoughtful articles and I do imagine you are getting some pushback/
On His Way Rejoicing
David Luecke says
Thanks, Corbie. I can see where adults would prefer dunking it. It is so much more memorable.
Marilyn L Weitzel says
My husband and I attended Alpha within Christ Church (Anglican Mission in America ) in Mobile , Alabama. It was refreshing and renewing. I highly reccomend it for anyone. Our faith in Christ was renewed and refreshed. The Holy Spirit is active through this Pastor/Speaker and the team presenting the program. However, as in many things, you get out of it what you put into it. In atttending the course, you receive what you expect. Submitting to God, God comes near to you. Can we plan another Alpha in the near future?
David Luecke says
I wish you had been at Royal Redeemer when I offered the Alpha Course. It really never took off.
Lee Larsen says
The churches that have gone to the prepackaged wafer & juice/wine and have them piled up by the entrance for people to take & consume at any time certainly are running the risk diminishing the Sacraments down to a light lunch. In an effort to accommodate large numbers and busy schedules or Covid concerns these methods were adopted.
I personally love the idea of coming forward and kneeling before the Lord. A submissive stance that helps one focus on the real meaning and purpose of receiving the Sacraments.
David Luecke says
Carol Albright says
I love that the Pastors say what communion is & ask if you have asked Jesus into your heart, then you are welcome… It really makes people aware that it is not just walking up getting communion & sit back down, Where is you heart regarding Jesus, do you believe that he did die for you? Also to have some time before to ask God to forgive you from your sins… Great message…
David Luecke says
Better is the basic question, Do you accept Christ as your Lord? Accepting him into your heart is not a biblical phrase. We don’t do communion without a confession of sins and pronouncement of absolution.