34-ELCA 3

“Called by Christ, we INVITE all people, SERVE our neighbors, and BUILD a living faith.”

Christmas Eve, 2019, 6 PM

Maybe because it was Christmas eve, maybe because we went together as a family, maybe because we dressed up, who knows, but this service felt welcoming and celebratory from the moment we walked through the doors. A trio of bass, guitar and drums played upbeat music while the congregation gathered. The sanctuary, built in 1960, seemed to have it’s original brass lighting, which now looks cool and retro. The huge wood and brass cross on the altar wall, the exposed wood beam ceiling and the stone enhancements on the side walls gave me the feeling of being in a ski lodge or large living room. The entire space felt warm, safe and joyful.

This church’s website and bulletin had been clear that they welcomed everyone, including persons in the LGBTQ category. And while we were waiting for this third out of four Christmas eve services to start, a string of about six or seven women sat down in a pew in front of us. It seemed to me that these women were a family of sorts, but without husbands or children. It also appeared that they found a church home where they are free to worship together. Perhaps this open and welcoming posture from the church also helps them in gaining parishioners.

The choir sang a prelude before one of the pastors shared several announcements. She explained that we would be taking communion by intinction, which was the first time someone had explained it in all my church visits. Also, it was further outlined in the bulletin. She also said to tip the unlit candle to the lit candle during the candle lighting at the end of the service. I remembered this was a very important safety message from my time as pastor. We then greeted those around us with the peace of Christ.

The celebrating began in earnest as we stood to sing O Come, O Come, All Ye Faithful. A procession of three acolytes followed by the two pastors came down the center aisle. One acolyte waved a tall pole with ribbons, which seemed to enhance the joyousness of the setting. Two more followed carrying long brass candle lighters, but they had not been lit. Just before the altar, the woman pastor pulled a lighter out of her robe pocket and lit them. This small but conspicuous incident lent an air of informality and humor to the occasion.

The worship time flowed seamlessly from Gathering, to Word, to Meal, to Sending. Another informal moment occurred when the male pastor stood to give the sermon. His microphone wasn’t quite loud enough and he had to make a sound check right before preaching. He did it with humor and grace, which only added to the feeling of being among family or friends. His sermon focused on the fact that the shepherds, one of the lowliest occupations at that time, were the first to hear of Chris’s birth. That first Good News came not to the rich, the powerful or the educated, but to the lowly, the poor, and the poor in spirit. He explained that God comes to us not in our strength, but in our weakness. And that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ. He said we are all shepherds at some point and his message was a beautiful reminder that the Good News still comes to us.

The woman pastor led the Great Thanksgiving, which actually explains and amplifies the Lord’s Supper (IMHO.) Assisted by the acolytes, the two pastors stood at the front of the pews as we filed forward to receive communion, while singing The First Noel.

After communion, we heard the great words from John 1: 1-5, 14. The candle lighting began, the overhead lights went down and we sang Silent Night in the semi-darkness of the candlelit sanctuary. A benediction followed, everyone blew out the candles, the lights went back up and we stood to sing Joy to the World.

Okay, so no one formally welcomed us. No one asked our names or offered theirs. Yet, because it was Christmas eve, when churches often get a lot of visitors and because this church executed what I consider to be almost a perfect worship service, I felt welcomed and comfortable in this setting. Probably one of the most impactful signs of hospitality, however, was the smiling pastors. Both pastors, but especially the woman, smiled throughout the service. They seemed to enjoy their calling; they seemed happy to be serving; they seemed truly joyful and winsome. Smiling pastors, whether they know it or not, gives worshippers a glimpse into the hidden joy of their hearts. Their smiles made me want to come back and it made this stranger feel welcomed. So, because they did worship so well and because of the smiling pastors, this church PASSED the WELCOME TEST.

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