This past Monday was my first day of class at Concordia Seminary. The past two months of test prep and paperwork have been building to this: the start of the academic year. Like orientation, it was a cross-cultural experience for me. While my lectures were pretty straightforward, it was chapel service that was the biggest surprise.
After the opening music played everyone stood up, grabbed a book out of the back of the pew in front of them and began opening the pages. Before I knew it the whole congregation was reading and chanting in response to the words of the chaplain. They stood or sat on cue. Prayed and sang on cue. The whole time I was lost, flipping through pages wondering how everyone knew where to look and stealing glances over the shoulder of the person in front of me to find the page numbers.
That’s right, they were using the Lutheran Service Book. I am ashamed to admit that this was the first time I had ever used one in a service. I’ve seen these volumes sitting on the shelves of pastors and worship leaders and occasionally heard reverent references to the letters LSB, but I’ve never worshipped using one. My home church has always projected the liturgy up on a screen as a way of helping newcomers follow along and to facilitate more audible congregational singing. So using LSB was a surprise and a little disorienting. I was so busy turning pages and trying to keep up that I really couldn’t focus on what was being said or the meaning behind it. I’ll be honest, I walked out of chapel feeling frustrated and a bit ashamed.
Now that a few days have passed I’ve had some time to reflect on that experience a bit and here is what I’ve come away with. On the one hand, I’m glad I had that experience. After all, I am at a Lutheran school to learn about the rich history and heritage of our denomination as well as its theological underpinnings. I’m proud to say that by day two of chapel I figured out LSB and could follow along with the rest.
On the other hand, though, it reminded me of just how disorienting walking into church can be for those who have never been raised in a Christian home nor come from a churched background. The sense of isolation and disorientation that I experienced is just what so many people outside of the church feel when they walk in our doors. It was a powerful reminder that we cannot assume that everyone is like us. Not everyone was raised in our traditions. Not everyone comes from the same background. And if we want to reach those outside the church, we must give careful attention to how we articulate and explain our faith.
This goes not just for our worship services, but extends into every area of life. Too often we Christians use a kind of religious language that is foreign to others. We don’t pause to ask ourselves, “Am I explaining the truth in a way that it can be heard? Am I taking into account my hearers so that my language doesn’t become a barrier to the Gospel?” Now, I’m not suggesting that we water down the truth of the Gospel nor that we dodge the difficult subjects. I don’t think we would be faithful to our calling as witnesses if we did. What I AM suggesting is that we should give careful thought to how we present our faith.
The apostle Paul was an excellent example of this. It is fascinating to compare how he talked about Christ with Jewish and Gentile audiences. For his Jewish listeners he would take them to the Scriptures and highlight how Jesus is the fulfillment of all that we find there. For his Gentile listeners, however, he did not start with the Scriptures. He started with philosophy, poetry, or natural revelation (see Acts 14:8-20 & Acts 17:16-34). He was doing what missionaries call “contextualization”. He started with where his audience was at spiritually and presented the Gospel from there. This is why he says,
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
(1 Corinthians 9:19-23 NIV)
Paul understood that our religious traditions and ways of speaking can, at times, be a hindrance to the work of the Gospel if they prevent people from hearing it in a way that they can understand. Chapel was a powerful reminder of this lesson.
So, while I look forward to future chapels so that I can learn more about our tradition, I also hope that Seminary will be a time of giving careful consideration to how we might reach the next generation for Christ. This was what was promised in our orientation last week. This is what I hope we will pursue over the next several years. May we learn to be all things to all people so that by every means we may save some. To God be the glory. Amen.