“When are we going to put the pews back in rows and get back to the way things have always been?” This is a question I've heard from a few folks our congregation with increasing frequency in the past several weeks. And the answer is more complicated than it might seem. First, the organization of seating in worship is the responsibility of the Worship Team and so any decisions about pews and chairs happens in that team (you are welcome to join us). The second answer to that question is that we're probably not going to ever “Get back to the way things have always been” even if the Worship Team were to decide put the pews back in rows tomorrow. And here's why.
Just about a year ago, the Bethlehem Church Council took a hard look at our financial situation. Even though we'd had 49 new members in the previous two years and all manner of life and ministry of our congregation was on the upswing, our financial picture was not “A-OK” like we figured (or hoped) it would be. New members just did not equal financial security. So last spring we held a series of conversations with the whole congregation about what we might do about that. The reality was that since our grants from the ELCA were going down (as planned over 3 years) and our giving had not risen at the same rate, that our ministry as we had structured it was becoming unsustainable. In fact, if we didn't see some changes by Christmas of 2009, we were going to be in some real trouble.
And so we had conversation together about options, in terms of what God is calling us to do next—Do we keep on as we are, hoping something will happen? Do we find a way to cut back what we are doing so it doesn't take as many financial resources? Or do we all roll up our sleeves, get more involved (both in finances and hands-on participation), and open ourselves up to whatever God has in mind for us? Nobody said we should just keep on as we are, two or three people voted for the “cut back” option, but the rest of us (many enthusiastically) thought that God was calling us to roll up our sleeves and get Bethlehem to the next level so that our ministry could be sustainable. Almost immediately, God placed an amazing opportunity in front of us to share space and partner with Bethany Presbyterian and Emmanuel Metropolitan Community Churches, and our council whole-heartedly embraced this opportunity. This was a much needed boost to our budget, even if it was not really enough to make us sustainable (and is only guaranteed for two years).
Despite the strong and hopeful affirmation of God's call for new directions for our congregation and this exciting new partnership, in the weeks and months that followed it seemed as though many people in our congregation were actually living the first option (that nobody voted for)—let's just keep on as we have been and hope that something happens to keep us going. Giving and attendance dropped, we were having trouble filling volunteer slots that a few months before were full (ushering, reading, bringing cookies, etc), and many of our newer members drifted away (and a few were pushed away). And many seemed to sense a grumbling dissatisfaction lurking just below the surface. Our leadership struggled, and then grew frustrated with where we seemed to be—its as if people said “Lets go for it!” but really meant “You go ahead and go for it!” without wanting to get more involved. As we moved into fall, that Christmas 2009 “end point” seemed increasingly likely, and in fact without the income from Bethany and Emmanuel we wouldn't have had the financial resources to go on past then.
So our council leadership had some difficult discussions over the fall about whether Bethlehem was financially sustainable at all. We shared these concerns through our stewardship season, basing our budget on actual pledges and estimates from the congregation rather than on “what we need will come in somehow” as we have for many, many years. And in December we had some conversations with the whole congregation when the 2010 budget income numbers weren't matching the outgo numbers. And despite much conversation, our community wasn't able to come up with a solution. So then we began to ask: What is going to change in the next year or two (when we might loose our space sharing income) that will make us more sustainable?
Keeping on as we have been puts us on the clearest path—continuing the 20 year financial decline that we're currently in past the point where we can't afford a full time pastor and a building. We're on the verge of that right now, and have been for at least 5 years. As our three year grant ends, what will we do to make it through? It was clear to the council leadership that Bethlehem of January 2011 was going to look very different than Bethlehem of 2010—either because we've radically transformed, or because we've closed. The options we presented to the congregation at the annual meeting were: Do we spend the next 12 months of our life together closing down and giving thanks for over 50 years of ministry at Bethlehem? Or do we spend the year laying it all on the line and embracing some really radical change to see where God might take us?
At the annual meeting we unanimously passed resolutions about how we would go forward in which we committed “to become the 'leading edge' of what the ELCA church of 2046 might be” and “to experiment with what that future might be as part of our continuing ministry together, thus becoming an exciting example right here in the heart of our own Synod.” We also passed by a 2/3 majority authority to use our $50,000 long term reserves (aka “endowment”) over the next year to make that happen. It was clear that the will of Bethlehem was not to close down in 2010, but to “go for broke” and see what God has in mind for us.
“So”, you might ask, “what does all of this have to do with pews?” Part of what I (and others) believe the Lutheran church of the future will look like is one that takes tradition seriously, but also is willing to engage that tradition creatively for the proclaiming of the Gospel. I also believe that churches are not called to preserve the past, but to engage in the gifts that are currently present--and to use the gifts of everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, to make that a reality. As Kelly Fryer summarizes is “Be who you are, see what you have, do what matters.” As we've taken stock of who we are (a community leaning into the future) we recognized that one of the things we have is a higher than average collection of artists—painters, graphic designers, musicians, singers, visual artists, and all manner of people with gifts for creative worship. And we think that we're called to use those gifts for something that matters.
And over the past 5 years we've been trying to use these gifts without pushing too far past the sort of Lutheran worship that was common in the middle part of the 20th century. But in doing so we haven't allowed our creative folk to use their full potential. When the Worship Team gathered with the freedom the congregation called us to in our commitment to “experiment with what the future might be” and what it might be to be the “leading edge,” we started talking about what traditional intergenerational Lutheran worship might look like in the future. Two people on our team had been to conference in which they explored the power of not just the words and music, but also the arrangement of the worship space, in speaking the “message.” (and I learned about this in seminary as well). Flexibility and congregational participation were key themes. And so we started thinking about moving some of the pews sideways for Lent and coming up with some creative interactive bits, and perhaps moving the pews into a circle for Easter when we would focus on interacting together in community. When we started experimenting with the pews, we found them to be too tippy when not attached to the floor and so we decided to use chairs for this experiment.
This is not as radical as it may sound or feel to us for whom it is unfamiliar. In 1979 the manual that went with the Lutheran Book of Worship (green hymnal) said this: “Worship space ought to be as flexible as one can make it. Pews are often a hindrance to the movement of a people, and they lock a congregation into a fixed pattern of seating and action. Newer churches often use wooden chairs instead, which can be moved into various arrangements as the several services of a congregation may direct.” (Manual on the Liturgy, pg 149). In fact, it says of the LBW hymnal itself: “That book is a step in the unending process of liturgical revision and reform as the church seeks continually to shape its worship in responsible historic and relevant ways, reflecting the best of contemporary scholarship about where the church has been, where it is now, and where it is to go in years to come.” (pg 6) Traditional Lutheran worship is not just one set thing, its always evolving and adapting to new times and places while keeping connected to where it has been. And as we move into the future we'll have to be even more intentional about doing this.
Here we are 30 years later still trying to live into the recommendations of the worship experts of the last generation. If we are going to be serious about being the “leading edge” of the Lutheran church we've got to be willing to experiment (and learn from our mistakes) if we are going to figure out what that looks like. “Getting back to the way things were” is just not in the future we discerned together that God has for us.
Does this mean we will never have pews again? No, not at all. During this experiment we realized that pews have some real benefits to chairs especially for those with back or neck problems, people who are shorter that 5 feet tall, those who need something solid to grip while standing, and anyone using crayons during worship (they fall through the cracks in the chairs). It turns out pews are ideal seating for the very young and our very old (and anyone who likes to cuddle during worship). But we wouldn't have learned that if we hadn't tried this out and heard from the people who had feedback about what they like and don't like about what we are doing. So our Worship Team conversation for what to do next will certainly include “How could we continue to have flexible seating, but incorporate pews for those who prefer or need them?” There are more creative answers out there than “put everything back” and we'll keep experimenting until we find one that works for our community. And, if we together discern through this process of prayer, Bible study, and reflection (and in light of our guiding principles and shared commitments) that the best way to proclaim the Gospel in this time and place is to put things back, and that God is calling us to do that, then we certainly will.
The questions at the first worship team meeting in April about worship this summer (which had 14 people in attendance—a new Bethlehem record!) were: “Is there a way to use more pews and still be flexible? Is there a way to find a middle ground and compromise? Can we find a solution that works for all 5 generations that are part of this congregation and doesn’t simply yield to the needs or preferences of one or the other?” I think the answer to these questions are “Yes, with the help of God” and as we continue to engage with one another, through ordinary people like us, God will show us the way to where he is calling us to go.
If you would like to be a part of these sorts of decisions, I encourage you to get active in our Worship Team. We spend time in prayer, read the Bible lessons for the upcoming Sundays, and seek together for the message God is calling us to proclaim. Then we figure out how to use the gifts we have to make that message live during worship so that our community together can experience it. It’s an awful lot of fun, and we can use as many people as we can get in this process. I also believe that the Lutheran church of the future will be a lot more participatory—no longer will pastor's and professionals call all the shots and the lay people like worker bees will simply follow orders. No, we Lutherans believe that all Christians are called and given gifts for ministry, and we live out those callings in community. So if you have opinions on the pews or on anything else that is going on in our congregation, get involved, pitch in, and be part of the conversation. We need everyone’s voice, and God needs everyone’s hands.