Questioning My Commitments to “The System”

I'll admit that this post is driven more by emotion than by careful thought … you've been warned!

I spent this past weekend immersed in worship and fellowship and games and Bible study and fun with about 250 Lutheran youth and adults from around the DC area. About halfway through worship on Sunday morning, in a room filled with adolescents singing and praying and listening in to the preacher, I leaned over to a pastor friend of mine and whispered,

"It's events such as this that make me question my commitment to traditional forms of worship and ministry."

In church it's as if we have this system that regulates and/or structures and/or guides our relationship with God and our experience of faith. It's a good system. I buy into the system. But at what point does the system take over? At what point does the church become an exercise of fitting people into a system rather than of being a place of holy encounter with God? And moreover, how do we define this system?

Sidebar: Yes, I recognize that I'm setting up a dichotomy that, in theory, is false. Surely "the system," well-executed, creates a place holy encounter. But I don't live or work or conduct ministry in theory. In practice, "the system" can and often does become a stumbling block to faith for many individuals and communities.

I ask these question because at this weekend's youth event I saw kids and adults truly connecting in faith with God and with each other, learning and growing and having a good time in a way that is almost never seen in our congregations. The planning team – on which I sat but to which I contributed very little for this year's event – sought to create an environment where such faith and encounters with God and with each other could take place. The planning team was surely working within a system, but one that was defined perhaps a bit more generously and broadly than that with which most of our congregations are comfortable working.

For example, we showed a Rob Bell video on Friday night. Though I enjoyed his most recent book Love Wins, I'm not among his biggest fans. I've even found his Nooma videos to be overly stylized and underwhelming. But what I saw on Friday night was a group of 250 kids and adults listening and watching, with rapt attention, to a message about God's love and forgiveness. When is the last time you had a confirmation class of 15 kids sitting in class or in worship soaking up the Good News like a sponge? That was the scene on Friday night, but with 200+ kids. And despite their excitement of meeting new kids and making new friends, and against the impulses of their adolescent hormones and short attention spans, they were captivated by the video and its message. It was amazing.

And then we had the silly skits. We had "Amazing Girl" and her sidekick whose silly skits brought the crowd a whole lot of laughter, along with a message of God's amazing grace, love, and mercy.

And then there was the band. It was not a professional Christian band, but a very good youth band comprised of kids from throughout the area.  They cranked out beats of grace and led us in songs of praise, compelling us not only to sing, but to clap and dance, too.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these kids spent more time in small groups than they did in large group sessions or in worship. Ultimately, the event fostered relationships and nurtured faith through the experience of small groups and personal interaction, not through the large group gatherings (as wonderful and helpful as they were). By studying the Bible and sharing conversation in dedicated small group meetings, and through a series of hands-on activities that small groups did together, the youth of this event spent much of their time side-by-side with other youth, learning and playing and praying and laughing together.

Each of these elements, I believe, contributed meaningfully and powerfully to creating an environment in which faith could be nurtured and relationships – with God and with each other – could be made and grow.

All this led me to ask a few more questions:

  • Are we who are committed to "the system" willing to try different approaches to ministry, if they serve the purpose of communicating the Gospel and nurturing faith?
  • Are we willing to dedicate as much (or more!) of our time and energy to the ministry of faith formation through small groups and personal relationships than we do to sermon and worship preparation?
  • Are we willing to use video and multimedia in our ministry, even (or especially) in worship?
  • Are we willing to reexamine the music we use to give expression to faith, and the role that drama and humor might play in communicating the Gospel?
  • Are we willing to put youth in roles of real leadership in our churches, up front, leading music, saying prayers, serving communion, offering testimonies, reading Holy Scripture?

Of course, the first question in this list is perhaps the most important: are we who are committed to the system willing to try different approaches to ministry? Are we willing to adopt new forms in worship and in other areas of our ministry? Or, have we erected for ourselves theological, liturgical, and cultural idols to which we are over committed?

As I consider "the system" and my commitment to it (a commitment that I share with many in the church), I can't help but think of Jesus' response to the Pharisees regarding the proper observation of the sabbath. The Pharisees seemed more concerned with a system of faith rather than with the life of faith the system was supposed to support. Critiquing The Parisees' insistence that people adhere to a rather strict interpretation of sabbath observance, Jesus reframed the discussion:

"The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath." (Mark 2:27)

Jesus critiqued the faith commitments of the Pharisees. I'll admit to wondering if Jesus is critiquing my faith commitments in the same way …


I realize that I've written on or around this topic in the past. Here are a few posts possibly related to the post above:

Wearin' My Madonna Microphone
On Being Welcoming, Relevant (& Contemporary?) in Worship
Church Style vs. Church Substance: Style Wins!

Published by C. Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

6 thoughts on “Questioning My Commitments to “The System”

  1. piano(pianoforte) evolved from the harpsichord around 1700 to 1720
    bible similar to what we know now AD 393, otherwise Council of Trent(1545–63)
    first hand-written English language Bible manuscripts 1380’s AD
    early protestantism 1457 (moravian church, bohemia)
    christ 0-32 AD…
    so if nothing should ever change…
    if the way it has always been is sacred…

  2. Very interesting post, Chris. As someone who was raised Lutheran, I have always been most comfortable with church services that are “predictable” … a printed order of worship, liturgy, etc.
    But, for reasons that aren’t important here, I found the need to find another church, and started attending all sorts of other churches.
    Found myself in an non-denominational church.
    Its services go on for HOURS. Never in a million years did I think I would be one to worship for HOURS. But I found that in the service, I was never aware of “what time was it?” I truly felt the presence of the Spirit. (REALLY felt it, the way one is aware of someone suddenly near you, even when you hadn’t seen or heard the person approach.)
    The Spirit’s centrality of this church was fully highlighted one Sunday when it came time for the sermon and the preacher got up and started by saying, “Well, I had this great message that I’d planned to share with you from Phillipians, but in the shower this morning, The Spirit told me I needed to preach from Romans.
    The fact that the pastor was able to, with only a couple hours’ notice, present a message that he’d spent no time preparing, and indeed was confident enough in the Spirit’s ability to “put the right words into his mouth” was utterly awe-inspiring (in the truest denotation of that word).
    I mean, the Lutheran tradition is such that one knows what the sermon texts are going to be a year from now!!
    Just an anecdote from my own personal experience to say, I have no idea how one uses “the system” to meaningfully meet spiritual needs of folks. I don’t think “the system” is bad. I spent 5 decades in the Lutheran church and grew spiritually within that “system”. (Although I did often joke that the Spirit could never get a thing done in our church due to s/he never attending a committee meeting!!)
    Perhaps one aspect to the answer to this question is to never let “the system” be dominant. Use it as structure, as foundation, but not substance.
    I’ll be eager to read others’ comments on this post.

  3. I personally believe the important question is, “Is the system open and flexible, or not?”
    The congregation I serve is open, flexible, and willing to try all sorts of the things mentioned in your questions to help people connect to God. I shudder to think of what happens to systems that do not allow such flexibility.

  4. The system you describe is worship…so the question may be, “What’s the point of worship?” In my opinion, authentic worship should be part of the journey of connecting to others, God, and ourselves. Wherever and however that happens…it’s worship. Worship is ‘encounternment’ to me…which means it could like our traditional forms or our non-traditional forms. But – when we are forced into a system we encounter rigidity rather than journey (imho).

  5. In church it’s as if we have this system that regulates and/or structures and/or guides our relationship with God and our experience of faith.
    Well, yeah. Of course we have this “system.” Only, it is not a “system,” it is a tradition — or rather, it is THE Tradition, the Apostolic Tradition. It is what St Paul was talking about in 2 Th 2.15. And it is what Melanchthon was talking about in AC V when he said For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith.
    What I am getting at is that it’s not a system that we have come up with because we think it is a good way to bring about an encounter with God; it’s something that is given to us as part of the deposit of faith, and it is an encounter with God (the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith) because it bears the promises of God.
    That is something that cannot be said of “different approaches to ministry” that are of our own devising. I am not saying that other activities (skits, multi-media, bands, etc.) are bad and cannot be used to enhance young people’s (and other peoples’) understanding of their faith. But such things are not the same as, and are no substitute for, the Church’s liturgical ministry of Word and Sacrament.

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