What is this church called to be?
What is God calling this church to be and do in the future?
What changes are in order to help us respond most faithfully?
These two questions, which guided the work of the Living Into the Future Together (LIFT) task force were swimming around in my mind as I stepped into worship this afternoon. Who are we called to be and how are we going to become who we are called to be?
The highlight of worship
And so it was that I found my place in worship beside an old friend who had saved a place for me. I found myself remembering why so many assembly-goers find worship to be a highlight of our time shared.
Everything is done so well, sung so well, played so well. To experience the ”holy” among a group, which truly represents the breadth and width of this whole church, is something not to be forgotten.
As I sat down to listen to the lessons, though, some movement off to my left caught my eye and took me back to countless Sunday mornings in the congregation I call home where the same scene plays out.
A curly haired toddler was nestled in the arms of her grandfather, peeping over his back at the stranger behind her. And the middle-aged gentleman who had caught her eye was playing peek-a-boo with her.
Over and over he would lift his worship program to cover his face, dropping it again and again trying to get a reaction out of her. But she wasn’t biting. No matter how hard he tried, she continued to gaze at him with not so much as a glimmer of a smile in her eyes.
Now I know that little ones still play peek-a-boo. It’s an age-old game that doesn’t lose its appeal either to the little one in a parent’s arms or to the grown-up who has found an entertaining diversion during Sunday worship.
I know for I’ve seen it out of the corner of my eye as I’ve stood before my congregation. Little ones still play peek-a-boo. It helps them to build trust that even if they can no longer see something, nevertheless, it is still there. And besides that, it’s just plain fun.
As I consider the report and the recommendations of the LIFT task force, I find myself thinking about things that are still the same and things that have changed as we seek to be about the mission God has called us to.
The more things change
To be sure, a great deal has changed.
Those who decide to visit a congregation are every bit as likely to have spent considerable time on the website of the congregation long before they get around to joining the community in worship.
Our attention spans have shortened in the 23 years I have been a pastor, at least if the average length of my sermons has anything to say about it.
Indeed, people are less engaged by the spoken word and more likely to be reached by other mediums of communication. Even many of our smallest towns have more ethnic and religious diversity than they did a generation ago.
And fewer and fewer of our neighbors can be found worshiping anywhere in any given week. The world around us has changed and few will argue that as the church we have been a little slow to catch up with those changes.
The more things stay the same
Yet, some things don’t change.
People are still looking for an authentic human connection -- even if they do first turn to technology to begin to find it.
The good news of Jesus’ love is the same good news I yearned to hear about as a child and as a young person. People are still seeking a sense of purpose, looking for ways to live their faith in the world.
And yes, we still play peek-a-boo with our children. We still want to laugh in the joy of the wonder of new life among us. And we all still need to be assured that even when we can’t see something for ourselves, even if God’s love seems distant, it is still there.
It’s no easy task that the ELCA is called to now as we ponder the questions of the task force and to wonder at what it means for us: in our congregations, synods, through the churchwide expression of this church, and in our agencies and institutions.
Maybe we feel a little like that toddler who is not quite sure that when something is out of sight it isn’t actually forever gone. And so perhaps now as we ponder the important questions before this church we do well to rest in those things that have always been true -- with the joy of a toddler whose eyes meet that of a trusted loved one again -- remembering what has always mattered:
God has always loved us and loves us still.
God holds not only the past and the present, but the future, too.
God has a vision for where we’re being led, even if we can’t quite see it yet.
If we can only begin there, perhaps we can step out in trust and in hope, asking the important questions that are before us now.
What is God calling this church to be and do in the future? What changes are in order to help us respond most faithfully?
If all else fails, find a child to play peek-a-boo with. Maybe in that age-old game, we’ll learn something anew. And besides, it’s just plain fun!
Janet Hunt was a pastor at Salem Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Sycamore, Ill. In September she will begin work as assistant director at the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center, Lombard, Ill.