On Feb. 2, I attended a worship service that mattered.
It was an ecumenical service, held as part of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Here in Laird, Sask., population somewhere south of 300, three churches participated. All are, by most standards, laughably small. And yet, there we were, crowded into tiny St. John’s Lutheran Church.
The service began with the Lutheran pastor, Jason, asking for announcements. A woman responded, obviously the crucial person responsible for organizing the post-service potluck. She announced, “We have lots of food! So please phone your family and friends, even if they’re not here for the service, to come eat with us!”
An inclusive tone was set, one that resonated for the remainder of the morning. Participants from the three churches joined in welcoming, prayers of pardon and reconciliation, and reading Scripture. Jason referred to Acts 28:2, and held up the image of showing “unusual kindness.” That unusual kindness isn’t about us, but rather the marvellous work that God is doing through us.
I thought of the Sunday brunch that this tiny Lutheran congregation creates annually on a cold January Sunday. Church that day becomes a time for flipping pancakes, frying sausages and scrambling eggs. Then, as the two local Mennonite congregations end their worship, they gather at the seniors hall and enjoy brunch with the Lutherans and the rest of the community. Donations are forwarded to the local food bank.
My thoughts about unusual kindness brought to mind a visit with a St. John’s friend, someone with whom I rub shoulders at the same food bank. I asked him how large the Sunday attendance usually was. He came up with eight or nine. Jason drives out from Saskatoon every two weeks; on the other Sundays, the doors stay closed. This has been the activity, and more or less the attendance, of the church for decades. There is no feeling of grief, no feeling of despair, but rather a celebration that this faith community chooses to gather in this intimate version of worship.
As the Feb. 2 service carried on, my eyes explored the congregation, the leaders, the sanctuary. And questions came to me: Could we gather, equally comfortably, as a community church? Are three plants, yards, three staff, critical in this tiny and close community? How might denominational distinctives be upheld? What are the denominational identities that might be threatened? Need they be?
If a distinguishing feature of such a group could be found in Jason’s unique description of showing unusual kindness, might there be a common will to love and support each other?
As we crowded into the church basement, I again quizzed Ernie about how this tiny group functions. He chuckled, and suggested that, when something needs doing, someone just appears to do it. If there are bills handed in, cheques are mostly signed and returned. Expenses aren’t large, other than a current cemetery refurbishing project that involves significant dollars. In a small group, common resolve is arrived at quickly, and things simply move forward.
What is the lesson for struggling congregations everywhere? Are there bold steps to be taken, new models to explore? Are there theological dissonances that hold us back? Can we gather to discern what unusual kindness might entail, and use that as a pointer towards faithful ecumenical community?
St. Augustine suggests that “love is the highest form of knowing.” On Feb. 2, Jason’s theology concurred, and I’m intrigued by the possibilities.
Ed Olfert (firstname.lastname@example.org) discovers holy wisdom amid potlucks.