December 21, 2008
A Family Ministry
"So are ya new here, or just visiting?"
Peter jumped up and whacked the ball away from me as I managed to say, "No, I'm here for an English project..."
"Yeah, Peter," a girl said next to me. "Don't you remember? This is Anna's friend!"
"Oh, yeah! I remember! Sorry, I wasn't here last week. Nice to have you here!" Peter said this all in one breath as the ball came soaring back at him. He swung his arm and slapped the ball off by Justine, who was standing against the wall, away from the action.
Human fooseball is a pretty easy game to understand. It's like a cross between volleyball and soccer on couches. I was nervously sitting in the defense section, praying that the ball wouldn't come to me, and that I might observe the group unnoticed while they batted the ball back and forth between the old sofas and into the makeshift goals. Those hopes were shattered thirty seconds into the game when a boy named Lucas decided to pound the ball toward my head. My arm swung out instinctively and, by some stroke of luck, the ball soared over Meghan's head and into the goal.
"Way to go, Hannah!" Justine called from the far desk.
Peter pompously clapped his hands in my direction as he called out to Linda, the other leader, "We should play this every week!"
So this was what the Youth did at a Lutheran church, huh?
When I first entered into the round sanctuary of Family of Christ Lutheran Church, I didn't know what to expect. I had always envisioned Lutherans to be these tambourine-shaking, Bible-thumping evangelicals who sang songs like "Amazing Grace" all day. I thought that the youth, in particular, would be extremely rambunctious, nothing at all like the strict services I was used to. I always knew that Lutherans were a lot more accepting of newer practices, but I didn't quite know just how accepting they were. Would there be music? Movement? People shouting "I believe" while jumping up and down to an electric guitar? There was only one way to find out. I entered the large sanctuary, bracing myself for the noises and activity I thought would come.
I was caught totally off guard, then, by the peace that greeted me as I entered. The room felt much more solemn, much more quietly friendly than I had ever expected. Already, everyone was embracing each other and talking in hushed voices as elaborate piano accompaniments were playing in the background. I paid special attention to the youth, who were scattered about the room, laughing quietly with members of the congregation filing in and taking their seats. Some were helping pass out programs and hymnbooks. They all were smiling. Everyone was smiling. Based off of this first experience with Family of Christ Lutheran Church, I knew I'd be welcome here.
Churches, of course, often focus on God and spirituality. Family of Christ is no exception, although their ideas and methods of worshiping are like none I had ever seen. Christ seemed to be the focus of each meeting. After the welcoming and announcements, a man in a white robe and colorful scarf entered the room from a side door. He was bald with a gray beard and mustache. This was, I learned later from Anna, Pastor Lee, or Pasta to the youth (on a mission trip to Tanzania, the African youth they visited could not pronounce the word Pastor). Everyone rose as he entered, and once he reached the podium, he gently set a large black binder open on the wood.
Lee spoke with fervor, "Good morning, everyone, let us pray."
I hear the silence of bowing heads and closing eyelids, and I followed suit. I listened as Pastor Lee thanked God for the chapel, safety, and comforts given to the congregation for worship. He spoke of God's mercy and wonder, and asked for a blessing of safety in the cold, icy weather. Then, almost as if not to interrupt the flow of reverence, he quickly muttered, "amen." The congregation nearly whispered their amens in response.
Pastor Lee spoke almost as if he were talking to friends as he gave his sermons. Each week, he'd choose three scriptures from his New Revised Bible, and teach lessons from them. he'd make links to each and eventually lead the congregation into the overall theme of his sermon, which was always centered around Jesus Christ. "Christ will come again, and we have to be ready," he said once. "Let us be more like him and let us not be slow to come unto him. We want him to know us when he comes."
Everywhere, there are small reminders of this principle. Pictures of Christ adorn every corner, and of course, there are crosses everywhere, including a large metal cross sculpture positioned just outside the main entrance, that cast formidable shadows along the snowy yard. This was where people would go to think about Christ, and what he did for them as individuals and as a whole. A strong focus on Christ is what brought these people to church each week.
This was impressed on me the most as I watched the wafers and wine get passed to each kneeling Lutheran during Communion. I made note of the few youth I recognized, up there doing the same thing as the adults. Clasping their hands while waiting for the Pastor to come and drop a wafer into their hands and say, "The body of Christ broken for YOU." Then each member, young or old, would penitently take it and eat slowly, as if thinking deeply about each bite. In ever face, there was no hint of doubt, just sincerity and reverence.
At the end of the service, a rousing song was always sung, and the windows around the sanctuary were opened. The flooding light was a symbol of the light of God in every person's life. During the song, everyone stood, smiled, and some would clap. This was still not the evangelical chaos that I had expected before. It was still solemn, still very reverent.
When I first sat down in the front row with Anna, I got my first taste of Family-of-Christ friendliness. A short, dark-haired woman came up to me from down the aisle and asked pointedly, making perfect eye contact with me, "you know you had your lights on for a while after you parked, right?"
Ah, she had seen me sitting in the parking lot idly, waiting for eight-thirty to come.
"Yes, I turned them off, thank you." I said, sheepishly.
"Okay, just making sure you didn't leave them on, then," she smiled at me, turned, and waddled back to her seat.
That was just the beginning. The start of the service was led by yet another dark-haired, middle-aged woman in dress pants. Her smile would stretch across her face as she'd exclaim, "Welcome to worship! And a special welcome to anyone who's visiting us today!" It seemed as if her goal was not just to welcome newcomers, but to beckon them. The same inviting attitude was present as she read off a list of upcoming events held by the church: Ladies' Circles, Craft and Bake Sales, the Children's Choir, and so many more. "We'd love to see you there!" she'd cheer after each announcement. She also mentioned what felt like countless amounts of youth activities going on during the week. Clubs and dances were held on Saturdays. Service opportunities like Feed My Starving Children were available on weekday nights. And on Wednesdays, there was always a social activity for the highschoolers. There were so many ways to get involved. This was much more than just a Sunday morning church. This place was open every day of the week.
Then the woman asked three of the new families to come up. Anna whispered to me that this didn't happen often, but when it did happen, it was a big deal. These three couples who had recently moved into the area all had young sons, and as they'd peek from behind their parents' legs, an "Awwww!" would echo across the crowd.
"Tell us your names and whereabouts you come from!" the welcoming woman said, and each of them then would sheepishly spout out their names. Pictures of these families appeared in the newsletter a week later. I also saw their faces up on one of the many cork boards found in the chapel hallways. this one was titled, "Hey, Who's That!?" A little note was listed under their names that ended with, "Welcome, Children of God! We're so glad you are here!"
Service was an integral part of being a member of the church. The whole congregation gets involved. Service groups would baby-sit children, prepare meals for the poor, and visit those in a hospital. They would pray for those in need, and do all they could to help. For the youth, service was key. The highlight of their ministry was the mission trip to Tanzania, where they would assist and help the poor African youth who lived there. "It was an amazing trip," Anna told me as she showed me a scrapbook she had made of the journey. She also showed me the letters the African children had sent back. Their English was rough, but it was easy to see that these kids were thankful for their service. Each of them would end with "God bless you."
Another opportunity the youth had was to sleep in cardboard boxes in recognition of the homeless. A hallway cork board displayed photographs of the youth spray painting and drawing on each box in vibrant blues and greens. Those same boxes were hanging in the youth room downstairs.
Another fellowshipping activity known in the Family of Christ is the Exchange of Peace. "It's simple," Anna told me as everyone stood up. "You just shake a person's hand and say, 'Peace unto you!'" With that, she took my hand and shook it wildly. soon I was bombarded with handshake after firm handshake. Each member would look me in the eye and say, "Peace be unto you." Trying to be just as good as they were at making eye contact, I managed to croak out the word, "Peace." As each week wore on, I began to feel more comfortable, and I began to understand more fully what this did to the congregation.
The word peace. What does it mean to Lutherans? "It's the love of Christ," Pastor Lee explained during one of his sermons. "Every one of us here is a unique and special part of Christ's ministry here. If we loose one of us, we loose part of that great ministry. We need to unite together and understand one another." The exchange of peace, as well as the welcoming of new families and other fellowshipping routines, help bring the congregation together into this ministry. Everyone treated each other like children of God, and love was everywhere.
This was the time where I first got to see some of the youth I would later associate with after the service. It was surprising how mature they acted in this setting. Everyone was quiet. Two girls who sat in front of me didn't even pass notes back and forth; they just sat and listened, totally in tune with what was being said. It was very eye-opening to see how even the youth can contribute to the congregation by doing nothing more than listening.
Even the children were reverent. Pastor Lee would bring them up and have them sit behind the podium, and he'd give them a much simpler and shorter version of his sermon. Then he'd give them bags filled with Bible story coloring pages and crayons, and they returned to their families. These children were never loud during the service. They smiled and whispered, once in a while, but never did they cry or yell. There was a "listening room" alongside the sanctuary for parents with fussy children to go if things got noisy, but never once have I ever seen it used. I still, for the life of me, don't know how that was able to happen. But no matter how it happened, but the silence from even the children increases the peace in the room.
The youth were always participating in the actual service, as well. Each week, different teens would carry a gold torch into the sanctuary and light the candles, bowing before and after they left the front dais. During the service itself, kids would get up and read the lesson scriptures at a back podium, or they would recite prayers with Pastor Lee.
Then, of course, there was the whole youth group meeting after the regular service was over. That was the wildest part of Family of Christ. Anna led me down the stairs to what obviously looked like a basement. The walls were pasty, the ground was nothing but cement, and ventilation tubes were left exposed in the ceiling. But upon entering the youth room, a whole new world came into being.
This was nothing like the calm service I had just attended. I could hear girls squealing with each other as they talked about the new Twilight movie that had just come out. Boys were talking about the Vikings game they would attend in the afternoon. Christian rock played loudly. There were tons of couches. At least eight, all circled around about a giant space. High windows let the sunlight shine upon the posters, hubcaps, cardboard boxes, photos, and other things tacked all over the wall. Rugs were spread on the floor, twisted and wrinkled, with litter spilled all over them. There were about twelve kids already inside, sitting on couches, eating popcorn, and throwing pillows at each other. It was the perfect teen room, if I had ever seen one. Suddenly I felt right at home sitting on a brown-floral couch next to Anna.
The leaders, college-aged Jenine and a much older Linda, would bring everyone together at about eleven fifteen. The kids would clamber onto the couches and talk about good things and bad things that happened to them that week. Jenine and Linda would then teach a heartfelt lesson. They'd read Bible verses, give surveys, tell stories, and then ask the kids to give their own thoughts. They often would get so caught up in a story the kids would spin, they'd end up going into a long tangent that had nothing to do with the lesson, but the message was always there.
Then the kids would get a chance to ask questions about the Bible or about Jesus.
"Do you know if it says anything about Barrack Obama in the book of Revelations?"
"People I talk to say that Jesus was married. Is this true?"
Together, the youth and leaders would try to answer these questions. They’d read together, express their thoughts, and finally reach conclusions about a subject. It was obvious that the kids felt comfortable here. Many were willing to open up and discuss things that they weren’t even sure about. I later looked at a poster in the room of all the group’s values and guidelines. At the top of the list, there read, "Trust."
"Our goal is to have the kids trust us and each other, so that they know where to go with their problems," Linda said. "That's why we have such strong confidentiality standards and trust exercises." The goal here was to create a place for the kids to talk about God in a casual, teen-friendly environment, and to learn something from it.
Music served as a link that brought the kids together. They'd listen to tunes like, "Blessed be Your Name," where the leaders would post the lyrics on an overhead projector. The kids who knew the song would sing loudly along, while the kids who weren't as familiar would form the words with their mouths, listening and taking in each lyric. The rock music was catchy; I couldn't help but tap my foot. I had no idea that worship music could be this hip.
Then there would be times for fun, like the day we played human fooseball. That was the time the kids would really get to know each other. I met Peter, a jokester who would pick on all the girls. I met Todd, who loved football and watching movies. I met Meghan, who loved the color pink. These Youth became my friends.
Jenine and Linda became my friends as well. They loved the kids they taught. You could see it by how they would light up when the youth would tell them something good that happened to them that week. You could see it in the way they'd toss the ball back and forth to each of the kids during human fooseball. "We gotta love one another first," Jenine said as the kids circled up for a final prayer before they split up and traveled home.
And there is plenty of love. Within the whole church, love is what guides this culture. Love of God, love of themselves, love of each other. I felt loved every moment I was with them. It did not matter if I wasn't a member, or if I said nothing at all, they were there to show they love they believed to be of God.
Family of Christ is exactly that -- a family. There is unity and a common goal that permeates in this culture. Through their connection to Jesus Christ and their service to each other, especially among the young people of the Church, they accomplish their ultimate goal of bettering their lives, as well as the lives of those around them.