Sunday, September 9th started off like any regular Sunday at Bethlehem Lutheran. As people began to fill our sanctuary, we noticed a few unusual decorative elements—colorful cloths and hangings, a globe of flowers representing the world floating in a blue sea beneath the Christ candle, wheat and other plants where we usually see flowers, and the baptismal font directly in front of the altar—hints that something different, something festive was in store for us. When we looked a bit closer, we noticed some drums up by the pulpit and wait, is that a projector? But it wasn’t until the prelude began that we knew we were in for a wholly different worship experience than had ever taken place at Bethlehem Lutheran Church.
Rather than the organ, we heard the beat of drums from our parking lot. “Listen! Listen God is calling!” The voices rang out to our neighborhood. “Hear the invitation, sent forth to all. Let us come and worship, answer God’s call.” And then, the drummers and singers made their way into the sanctuary. “Listen! Listen God is calling through the Word inviting, offering forgiveness, comfort and joy.” And you couldn’t help but listen and be drawn in to the invitation to experience God in this place. In addition to the unusual music, during this Global Mission Festival Service we focused on Global Mission, what God is up to around the world, hearing stories of pain and suffering along side stories of miracles God is doing through people just like us (and including us) and how we can be a part of what God is up to. It was challenging, heart breaking, inspiring, jarring and comforting all at the same time.
But it wasn’t all new and different. Amidst the drums and songs from Africa, Jamaica, Palestine, Brazil, Nicaragua, and other places projected up on the wall, we recognized our liturgy—bits and pieces that were familiar anchors: the Kyrie, the Apostles Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Word and the Sacraments at the center. Through the ancient pattern of worship God kept us connected to Christians throughout time and around the world—while through the unfamiliar parts we received the gifts of Christians in other places, and through these gifts God revealed himself to us in a whole new way. And it was fun! As we left the sanctuary, young and old were energized, dancing down the aisle still singing “Alabare! I will praise my Lord” as we made our way down to a coffee hour with the most incredible spread of desserts from all corners of the earth that we have ever seen. “People really eat that?” we wondered (as we ate it) “Boy, I wouldn’t have put these things together and called it dessert, but this is really good!” The presence of God was clearly among us as we worshiped and ate together—energizing us—and those who were there just can’t stop talking about it. Even little Emma sang “Uyaimose” all the way home.
Since February we have been engaged in a process of Transformation, opening ourselves up to what God is doing in the world and seeing how we can be a part of it. This worship service is a sign that this Transformation is really starting to take root. And the miracles abound. We had drums and a projector in the sanctuary—treasonous acts in some places—and they actually helped us focus on God. We raised over $150 in small change for world hunger. There were 84 people in attendance on Global Mission Sunday, TWELVE MORE than came on Easter Sunday this year. Think about that! And to top it all off, since the Global Mission Sunday nine people have indicated that they want to join Bethlehem. NINE PEOPLE! And almost all of them are under the age of 40.
Kelly Fryer in an article entitled “Traffic Jams and Transformation” reflects on research done in the past decades in the ELCA about what sorts of factors and techniques help churches to grow. She writes: “There was no single ‘technique’ that DID make a difference over the past decade…It didn’t matter what our newsletters looked like or how often we knocked on doors inviting people to church or how much people liked the pastor’s sermons. There was – get ready – only ONE factor that was a good predictor for whether or not a church grew: The ONLY factor that really matters is whether or not a church has a clear enough vision of where God wants it to go that it is open to change. The real issue, you see, isn’t HOW we do things. The real issue is who we ARE. Are we people who are so confident in God’s love and grace that we are able to try new things and welcome new people and embrace new ideas and dream new dreams? …Are we willing to let ourselves be turned upside down and inside out by a God who wants for us, for our congregations, and for our world more than anything we could ask or imagine?”
I don’t believe that these nine people (or anybody for that matter) want to join Bethlehem because we put on a good show, or because we had drums and a screen in the sanctuary, or for any other reason related to the Global Mission service except that it showed that we—the people of God who gather together here to be Bethlehem Lutheran Church—are listening to where God wants us to go and because of this we are open to change. The Global Mission service came about not because we thought it would be fun, or because we thought it would draw in more people, or for any reason other than the fact that the Transformation team, the council, and the new Global Mission team discerned a call from God that we should be exposed to what God is up to in other parts of the world—that God was calling us to think outside of ourselves. And through responding to that call, God worked amazing and miraculous things in our midst. We were, and are, willing to let ourselves be turned upside down and inside out by God—and God is already leading us into a future that is more than anything we could ask or imagine. And the people who come and worship with us experience this, and want to be a part of it—to join with us in what God is up to in the world. Our Global Mission Service was a great big sign that God is Transforming us—a little bit of our future right here in the present—that calls us even more deeply into figuring out what God has in mind for us. Isn’t Transformation fun?