(A caveat: this note is in no way intended to guilt anyone who chose to cancel their church services or who chose not to attend. It is simply an explanation of the thought process of one pastoral leader for why the congregation in his charge had worship. If this induces guilt in you, I would encourage you to engage your pastor in a conversation.)
Due to a significant ice storm and multiple days of freezing temperatures many congregations in the DFW area cancelled worship this weekend. This was an understandable decision given the lack of preparedness and ability to respond to such a storm of our state and local road crews.
However, despite this storm we had worship at Trinity Lutheran-Fort Worth today and it is important to understand why. First off, we didn’t have worship today because we were trying to show how tough we are or able to handle the weather. Icy roads are a danger and walking on ice can be even more dangerous. So we encouraged people to not come if they were at all concerned about that. Yet we had worship.
The first and primary reason is that Word and Sacrament is our main purpose for existence. The church has too often let its focus drift onto other purposes for existing. Some congregations are social gatherings for youth or adults in which people join to make political, business or social connections. Other congregations exist primarily to provide direct service to those in need or to host a daycare (as Trinity does). These are certainly part of the reason congregations exist. However, our primary purpose is to gather in worship on the first day of the week around Word and Sacrament. Without worship we are just another country club or social service agency. And frankly, we should leave that to the country clubs and the dedicated social agencies we support.
Secondly, it is vital we do this in community. As Lutherans, we believe that the Holy Spirit acts through the preached Word. That the means of grace confer God’s forgiveness and it matters that people receive them. And they should and do receive them in community. We cannot have communion on our own. We need someone to speak those words “Given and Shed for You” to us. The outside voice, speaking the words of Christ, matters.
Thirdly, we often say and we should actually believe that it doesn’t matter how many people show up for worship. Some congregations closed on Sunday because I believe in their business model it doesn’t make sense to have a worship gathering if a certain number of people don’t show up. This is one of the problems with the modern expressions of church in america today. Worship should not require so much technological and musical talent and tools that to have a simple service with 5, 10 or 20 people doesn't make sense. Jesus did not have this problem (Matt. 18:20).
Finally, I fear that when we do not gather for worship because of a storm but other agents of commerce continue to remain open we indicate to the world that this gathering is optional. When I went into McDonald's today to get a cup of coffee the staff there asked me if we were having church today (I go there a lot, they know me). They were shocked when I said we were. And one of the homeless men I talked with asked if he could come, even though he wasn't dressed well. I said of course he was welcome. Sadly, he didn't take me up on the invitation (I am used to being rejected in this manner), but he was invited.
When McDonald's stays open through the storm but worship is cancelled it sends a message. All too often, especially around Christmas, there is a regularly occurring communal lament from the “Christian” community of how secular our society is. The call is made to keep “Christ in Christmas.” Yet when we have an ice storm and the church closes but the McDonald’s across the street stays open what message do we send about what is important and unimportant to our society?
I am grateful that our attendance today was only about 15% of a typical Sunday. And those who came either could walk, drive just a few blocks or had significant experience driving in tough conditions and 4x4’s to bring them. Those who didn't have those resources or just felt like they were safer staying home did so. We provided our worship bulletin online and on our Facebook page and hopefully some had worship with their family or if they live alone used the texts and hymns as a personal devotional. No one should ever feel they “have” to be in worship if they fear for their safety in traveling. In the same way we would never guilt a home-bound person for their lack of attendance. As a pastor part of my call is to teach our community this truth and reinforce it.
This isn't about it guilt. It is about the vital importance that the church proclaim that we are just as important as McDonald’s. Our business is to proclaim the good news and provide the gifts of God for the people of God. This business is Jesus’ business (Luke 2:49). And it is a vital business whether there are hundreds in the pews or just a handful gathered around the altar. As a pastor, it is part of my call to ensure this business is carried out.
So we were open today for those who came. We will be open again next week for those who desire to come to God’s table. This is God’s simple table of grace. Where in community forgiveness is proclaimed through the Word and demonstrated in the gifts of bread and wine, As always, all are welcome.