Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Through Other's Eyes

A few years ago our family had the interesting experience of getting to know a wonderful young German woman named Annetta. Annetta was a Fulbright Scholarship student at the university here, and she was a classmate of one of my sons. If you know anything about Fulbright Scholars, they are not only brilliant, but very open and curious about the culture they are visiting. As she and my son became became friends, she discovered that Matt was planning to become a minister. She was very curious about this! Why would an intelligent young man choose such a stupid profession? As they conversed, she became intrigued about the American "obsession" with religion. Eventually, because she was such a curious person, she accepted my son's invitation to attend our church.

She came on a Sunday when Pastor Randy was giving a first-person sermon in which he was a character from the Christmas story. Having a pastor preach in costume was quite a surprise to her. It was also a Sunday when the chairman of our trustee board announced that we had finally gotten everything in order to make a substantial addition to our building, an addition that was geared most specifically toward ministry to children and youth. It was an exciting day, and the church was absolutely packed. As usual, after singing and praying for a while, the children were dismissed to go to another room for children's church.

From my perch in the choir loft I was watching with great interest all the responses to the service flitting across Annetta's face. I saw her smile with surprise when the congregation laughed at some little joke that was made by the worship leader. I saw her listen with rapt puzzlement as the building plans were announced and the congregation buzzed with excitement. I saw her crane her neck to watch all the little ones run down the aisles to go to children's church. Being very musical, she sang the hymns from the hymnbook with great enthusiasm. She was probably more completely engaged in what she was experiencing than any one I had seen in a long time.

After the service, I met her, along with my family, out by the coat racks, where all the families in the church always lingered to chat with each other. After introducing her to a few people, we asked her to join us for lunch.

Annetta was full of questions!

First and foremost: how were we paying for the expansion to our building? We told her that all the members of the congregation were giving toward the new wing, because we were out of space for our children's and youth ministries.

This was amazing to her. "In Germany the government maintains all the church buildings. We all pay taxes for that."

It was our turn to be surprised. "Don't the people who are non-believers get mad about that?"

"No, because most of our churches are historic, so they can see that they need to be preserved.", she said.

So we explained that here we had had a separation of church and state since colonial times, and churches were solely in the hands of the people who attended them. No, no, the pastor didn't force anybody to give to the building fund, and there might be a few members who did not choose to give, but most of us really saw the need for the addition, and were glad to help make it happen.

Next, she wondered where all the little children had gone during the service. We explained that they went to another room where there was Bible lesson just for them, since they were too young to understand what the pastor was saying in the sermon. And that it was nice for them, too, because they could have fun and their parents could listen to the sermon without distraction.

"I think this is a very good idea, and they should do this in Germany, too," she said. "In Germany, no takes children to church, church is just for grown-ups. When I was a girl, my grandmother would sometimes take me to church, but I didn't like it. It was just a few old ladies sitting in a little group up near the front. It was cold in there, and you had to be quiet. I didn't like it, and I didn't understand it."

We expressed sympathy. Too bad her parents didn't find a church that had more kids, we said. "There weren't any," she said. "No one young goes to church in Germany. It is seen as something from the past, something that is part of our history, but we don't do it anymore." Then she got more animated. "But here, I can see that it is different. So many young families with children! And people are really listening to what is going on, really singing loudly. It is so different from Germany! You can even tell a jokes and laugh in church here. And people must think that this will be part of the future, or they wouldn't spend so much money to enlarge the building. We don't make churches bigger at home. We just take care of them so they don't fall down in ruins."

'Annetta," I said, "church is not a museum. We have a children's song that goes like this:

I am the Church,
You are the Church,
We are the Church together.
All of God's people, all around the world,
Yes we're the Church together.
The Church is not building,
The Church is not a steeple,
The Church is not a resting place,
The church is the people.
I am the Church,
You are the Church,
We are the Church together.
All of God's people, all around the world,
Yes we're the church together.

"So the building is just the tool that we use to do the things the people in the church need to do."

She looked bemused. "That's what is really different. When you go to a church in Germany, you don't feel anything. But here, you can feel something in the church. I don't know how to explain it-you just feel something that is more alive."

I think about our conversations with Annetta often. Sometimes, when people get a little too "preservationist", resisting change, I think about Annetta's observations and her amazing insights about the difference between dead church buildings and living congregations, dead rituals and Spirit-infused worship. It reminds me once again of the concept of "worship evangelism".

I'm so glad to be here! I need to pray that I never forget to see things through her fresh eyes, never try to turn my building or my church service into a museum piece.

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