We have been hanging out with a lot of non-denominational people/churches here. The top four questions I think I’ve heard in the last eight months are:
1) When are you leaving?
2) Why are you here?
3) Do you know ___? He’s really big in the States.
4) What is your church back home like?
The first three I could answer in my sleep – or even in a coma. The fourth one I wrestle with how to answer. Almost always I start out by saying that we’re from the Lutheran church in the States. There are about 4 million people who call our churches home, and the “Lutheran” here isn’t a great description of the “Lutheran” there. We have all kinds of worship from nearly Catholic to non-denominational in style.
But this has become boring to me – and I think that most of the people I’ve told this to don’t entirely get it. Their church experience is so far outside of the denominational existence that it doesn’t make sense – not to mention that the diversity of our worship styles and what a Lutheran is, doesn’t make sense. I’m not judging them, it’s just true – the structure of denominations, especially ones in the States and Lutherans specifically, is just outside of what they know.
So I’ve come up with a new way to answer the question, one which I hope can bridge the gap between our cultures, and our church cultures. (I may not use it much soon since we are about to leave South Africa…) “What is your church back home like?” someone will ask. “Well,” I’ll respond, “my church is kind of like yours. It’s a multi-site church – we even have them all over the country. Every few years we spin off a couple more churches. Some of them don’t make it, but some do and lots of people come to relationship with Jesus. Oh, and our preaching is similar to yours, too. We do sermon series just like you do – ours are titled things like “Hey Everyone – God Lives!” (Easter), “Jesus Stories” (Time after Pentecost), “Re:flect/think/new” (Lent), and “Jesus Is…Wait for It, Wait for it…” (Advent). And our worship is similar to yours, too. We call your “preach” a “sermon” or “message”, and we have songs, too. We have time for people to come right with God that we call “Confession and Forgiveness” – not too different from you. And we do baptisms, and communion, an offering, and pray a lot.”
And then, depending on how I’m feeling I might add in: “Oh, yeah, all those church sites I told you about? My church has about 10,000 of them.”
Not only is it a new way to describe my church for other people…it’s a new way for me to think about my church. We do sermon series, like non-denominational churches…they are just different. We plant new churches, like they do. We bring people into relationship with God, too – we just don’t talk about it in the same way.
Sometimes it’s good to rethink and reflect on my own church. Sometimes it’s good to renew how I look at it and perceive it. Sometimes it seems like Lutherans and non-denominationals, or even denominationals and non-denominationals, are millions of miles (or kilometers) apart in how we do worship and church in general.
But sometimes a re-framing of who we are and who they are can show how similar we all really are. Not the same, for sure…but we have common ground on which we can stand and where we can be in relationship. The non-denominational churches we’ve been a part of here – RedPoint and Urban Life – are very different than my Lutherans…but they are still our brothers and sisters in Christ.
And I thank God for them, and for the new view of my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that I now have.