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“Change is hard because people overestimate the value of what they have and underestimate the value of what they may gain by giving that up.” – James Belasco and Ralph Stayer

Every church hates that dreaded word: change.

Everything else in our world tends to change and shift, why can’t church be the one thing that never makes changes?

Well, for starters, change is a sign of growth. Even in our scripture for this week, we will hear about how Paul tells us “we will all be changed.” You cannot become a tree unless the seed sheds its husk and sprouts forth and grows into something completely new and different.

I’m no stranger to change. Heck, I went from being raised in rural Nebraska, to making movies in Hollywood, to seminary in Minnesota, to parish ministry in Florida. I’m very familiar with the struggles that go along with changes.

What a lot of people don’t know is that I was one of the “de-churched” for a long time. What brought me back to church? Contemporary worship in a Lutheran Church. I’d tried it in other churches but the messaging wasn’t striking home. I was drawn to the Lutheran message, but never felt a connection with many of the traditional elements of worship.

But I found a congregation in Lincoln after returning from my stint in Hollywood that was exclusively contemporary worship. For the three years I was there, not only did I watch that congregation grow into a nearly four-thousand member congregation (which, given the prevalence of Lutheran churches in a city of only 250,000 people, that was quite an achievement), but they helped lead me on a path that would make me uproot my life once again and go to seminary.

Of course, what I discovered was that contemporary worship in Lutheran churches isn’t the most common thing in the world. So I was forced to adapt to the traditional style. While both of my previous calls had a contemporary worship service, they also retained their traditional worship services and straddled both worlds. In both cases—the contemporary was the only service that continued to grow, while the traditional services declined.

I’m not saying one form of worship is “better” or more “right” than another. It’s what we are used to, it’s where we find comfort. Unlike many Lutherans, I actually find comfort in the contemporary style, as it’s the style that drew me back into the church. It’s what I connected with.

When the time came that God was making it clear I needed to leave the congregation in South Florida, I will admit there was a part of me that felt some despair that I was still not going to be able to “do worship” the way I felt most connected: in a contemporary style.

So if you’re wondering what first caught my attention when I saw the ministry site profile for Crossroad, this was what made me go, “Oh, I need to interview with them.”

The Crossroad profile stated: "Crossroad Lutheran Church in Northeast Florida dares you to consider the opportunity to lead a casually dressed congregation…Our worship services follow Lutheran liturgy within the context of exclusively contemporary style worship with upbeat praise music."

Casual contemporary worship? In a Lutheran church? I’d found a unicorn Lutheran congregation!

When I interviewed, it was made clear that continuing to grow the contemporary style of worship was what you all were looking for in a pastor. “Crossroad…dares you…”

OK! Challenge accepted!

Now, the bigger challenge: what does “contemporary” mean to me?

There have always for me been three main markers of a contemporary worship style.

  1. The music, of course, is led by a band or praise team of some sort. Guitars, drums, keyboards and singers.
  2. The format of the worship is a little different—in particular there’s usually only one reading that is the focus text for the sermon that comes toward the end of worship. Being we ARE Lutheran, we do believe in a service of both word AND sacrament, so weekly communion is important to many of us. Thus it appears, typically, a little earlier in the service prior to the sermon—the idea being that the sermon is that word that sends you out into the world to inspire or comfort you as needed. Communion at the beginning is where we gather together during the part of the service where we’re being more, well, communal.
  3. The pastor does not vest, meaning they don’t wear the traditional vestments like the alb and stole. Depending on the congregation this can range from very casual, shorts and flip flops, to more dressy (suit/tie, or in my case, usually slacks and a blouse of some sort)

While I understand with that last point, you’ve had an interim for the past two and a half years that vested regularly because that was what she felt most comfortable doing, that is not, in my view, part of what defines a contemporary worship service. I’ve had some requests that at least on the “high holy days” like Easter and Pentecost that I return to vesting, but after consulting with council members, we are in agreement that is not the style of worship we are wanting to continue to move forward with here at Crossroad. I realize for many, they feel it’s important to know who the pastor is by the clothing they wear that sets them apart.

If I may take a different perspective for a moment and state that part of what drew me back into the church when I was twenty-eight was that the pastors looked…just like me. I saw them as approachable. The vestments had always been a barrier in my view to how I related to the pastor. They were not someone I felt I could sit down and chat with when they exuded an air of “holiness” that made them unapproachable. Those vestments--they set them apart as someone who was not like me.

One of my biggest arguments against my becoming a pastor was I never ever wanted to be seen as someone people saw as “too holy” or unapproachable. That’s just not who I am. My pastor informed me when I raised this objection…it’s my “approachability” and “down to earthness” that would make me a good pastor.

That is simply who I am. It’s who I am as a person, and it’s who I am as a worship leader. It’s also who I believe I was called to be as the pastor of Crossroad, specifically.

Now as for the second point regarding the order and format of worship: I know I’ve also received some complaints that we only have the one reading and it is not from one of the four Gospels. As I stated, contemporary worship typically only uses one reading that is preached on. However, I am never against reading more of God’s Word in worship.  

This weekend you’ll find in your bulletin an insert explaining where I get the readings for worship from: it’s called the “Narrative Lectionary.” Like most Lutheran churches, you’ve probably been using the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) that was developed by the Catholic Church back in the 1960s following Vatican II. (A lectionary is simply a list of readings that a church uses to preach on and be read in worship throughout the church year.)

The Narrative Lectionary was developed by Lutheran professors at Luther Seminary back in 2010 as an alternative to the RCL. What we have been discovering is that the way the RCL organizes their texts, they lose the overarching “narrative” of scripture. Plus it only follows a three-year cycle based on only three of the four Gospels. By losing this overarching narrative, we have found that many congregation members who don’t attend a Bible Study in addition to Sunday morning worship, have lost their knowledge and understanding of how scripture tells its story as a whole.

The Narrative Lectionary was designed to address that deficiency. Now we hear texts from books of the Bible we typically don’t pay much attention to. They are not only read, but preached on, and preached on in a “narrative” or continuous fashion working our way from Genesis to Revelation during the year and on a four year cycle, giving John’s gospel his own year of focus.

The texts include the major episodes in Scripture. They are arranged in a narrative sequence to help people see Scripture as a story that has coherence and a dynamic movement:

  • From September to mid-December the preaching texts begin with the early chapters of Genesis, move through the stories of Israel’s early history, the exodus, the kings, prophets, exile and return.
  • From Christmas to Easter there is sustained reading of one of the four gospels
  • From Easter to Pentecost the texts are chosen from Acts and Paul’s letters.
  • During the summer, there are suggested 3-6 week themes for preaching.

Texts were selected that lead well to the proclamation of what God is doing. The stories tell of hope and disappointment, suffering and redemption. In all these varied contexts, we find God dealing with the complexities of human life. Stories from the gospels differ each year, avoiding repetition and highlighting what is distinctive about each gospel’s telling of the story of Jesus.

The Church Year helped to shape the flow of the Narrative Lectionary. Old Testament readings move through the story of God’s dealings with Israel and culminate in Advent with the prophets who speak of longing and hope. Readings from the gospels fit the movement from Christmas and Epiphany to the Transfiguration, Ash Wednesday, Holy Week and Easter. Selections from the book of Acts and Paul’s letters trace the outward movement of the resurrection message, culminating on Pentecost with readings focusing on the Spirit.

It’s designed to only have one focus reading for the day. Given these readings are meant to help tell the “narrative” of the Bible, they tend to be a little longer and therefore do not work well if you have multiple scripture lessons to read. However, given many Lutheran churches are accustomed to a Gospel reading, when the Gospel is not the main text, one is provided as a secondary text to fit with what the primary, focus text is for the day if its absence is a point of contention within the congregation.

Given we seem to have a point of contention regarding one of the four Gospels not being read, we will include a Gospel going forward as a “secondary” text when it is not the focus reading for the day.

I have used this lectionary in each of the congregations I’ve been at in the past. While there was some discomfort among some members regarding this change to “how we’ve always done things,” most soon began to realize the value of learning and hearing about parts of scripture many of them didn’t even know were in the Bible.

One of my primary goals as a pastor, preacher and teacher, is always to teach people the first language of faith: scripture. Scripture is one of the primary ways we hear God speaking to us, so becoming more fluent and familiar with the overarching story is an extremely important part of a faith life. I believe preaching on scripture in this more “narrative” sequence and style helps me accomplish that goal.

Adjusting to new realities takes time. We're both adjusting to each other. We're both learning about one another. There will be growing pains. There will be things that you don't like, things that I don't like. But, as we've been covering in Paul's letters the past few weeks, when Christian community is able to see each other as fellow image-bearers of God, when we are able to approach those differences with love and compassion, we will grow in our relationship with both each other...and God.