80 kids and youth helpers are participating this week in “Deep Sea Discovery,” the Vacation Bible School program at First Lutheran Church in Waltham, Massachusetts. The photo is from the congregation’s Facebook page and is used with permission.

After 24 years of Sunday morning responsibilities as a pastor, seminarian, or church organist, I finally took a break.   For a full year I declined all pulpit supply requests and Sunday morning responsibilities and gave myself permission to experience a year of Sabbath rest.   The only commitment I made and honored was to attend a liturgy somewhere every weekend.

Worshiping with almost 20 parishes of the Lutheran, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, and United Church of Christ traditions gave me an invaluable “Perspective from the Pews.” Before assuming the responsibilities and demands of a second call to parish ministry, I would like to share just a handful of my many observations from this Sabbath year.

[1] There are lots of healthy and faithful congregations out there … It’s easy to get discouraged when considering the demographic trends of Christian denominations and declining worship attendance numbers. Yet, in parish after parish, I experienced Christ and left fed and nourished. I observed pastors and people faithfully tending to God’s Word and celebrating the Eucharist. I witnessed baptisms, heard people praying for each other, and joined in singing praises of our living God. My home congregation for the year, First Lutheran in Waltham, Massachusetts, blessed worship space for a new Latino ministry, started a second Sunday morning service, and had 80 kids and youth helpers participating in Vacation Bible School this summer.  According to Pastor Tom Maehl, the VBS students came from Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Evangelical, Unitarian, Mormon, and Muslim faith traditions and speak English, Korean, Spanish, danish, and Tamil at home.  Local congregations continue to be alive in Christ ministering in a diverse world. Thanks be to God!

[2] A simple welcome goes a long way … The profound value of a smiling greeter standing at the doorway saying hello and handing out worship bulletins cannot be overstated.  This was not only an act of hospitality, it was a demonstration of the congregation’s commitment to welcoming the stranger.  That being said, nothing felt more lonely than standing by myself in Fellowship Hour among a group of people demonstrating more interest in each other than in me. At least one person breaking the ice and saying hello went a long way.

[3] I wanted the preacher to give me Jesus … The best sermons I heard, and I heard many, were thoughtful messages about Jesus. I was surprised at how little style mattered. I didn’t care how it was presented, I just wanted a message about the mercy and grace of Jesus, his teachings and healings, his death and resurrection.

Perhaps because during the week I was immersed in politics and policy while studying at a school of government, I recoiled when sermons ventured into faith-based political commentaries. In recognizing this, I had to ask myself, had I become one who didn’t want to hear politics from the pulpit? Was I seeking escape from the world? Not so. I realized that the sermon was the only time all week I had the opportunity to hear about Christ from someone with no other agenda than my faith. With faith awakened, the message of Christ never leads us from the world, but always precisely into deeper engagement with the world.

The most disappointing sermon I heard was in one of the largest parishes I visited. Ironically, the preacher’s sermon was about our need to go tell people about Jesus for the sake of church growth. The preacher himself, however, never told us about Jesus, or why it was important for others to hear about Jesus for their sake.

[4] The sacrifice of church attendance shouldn’t be underestimated … I told Pastor Maehl I would attend Advent Evening Prayer on Wednesday evenings in December, but then didn’t make a single service. Not because I didn’t want to. I did. But, getting home late from school, wiped out after a long day, needing to eat supper, or go the gym, or study for my final exam in Finance, I didn’t have the energy. Attending Sunday morning worship was all I could do most weeks.

In the parish, I was often annoyed at people’s lack of commitment to midweek bible study or worship. With the shoe on the other foot, however, I remembered Professor Timothy Wengert’s warning about “congregational monasticism.” Is activity between the church walls more important than activity beyond the church walls? While I believe Christians must offer countercultural witness to oppressive busyness of Western culture, I also think we need to appreciate that Christian faithfulness can be found in weekly attendance in worship combined with clear teaching and understanding of Christian vocation in daily life.

[5] There is a need for resources for daily life … The other faith commitment I made at the beginning of the year (actually an ongoing two year commitment) was to pray and read my way through the four volumes of the “For All the Saints” prayer books published by the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau.  I used this resource to pray Matins on the first bus of my daily commute to school and, during Lent, Vespers on the reverse commute. This daily immersion in the Word was an invaluable source of grounding and connection with the communion of saints.

It got me wondering … What resources for daily scripture reading and prayer are we placing into the hands of lay people?  How effectively and thoughtfully are we utilizing social media, digital platforms, and technology to provide high quality resources that connect with people in their daily lives? What resources are we offering busy parents to help them teach faith to their children?

I conclude my Sabbath year refreshed, renewed, and restored. A year in the pews went a long way in reversing the toll that 13 years of wear and tear in the pulpit had taken on my personal life of faith. Grateful for dedicated pastors and congregations proclaiming Christ and faithfully living as Christ’s body in the world, I pray that Christ continues to protect and defend pastors and congregations. Alive in Christ, they are the salt of the earth, faithfully bearing witness to the healing, reconciliation, and hope of Jesus Christ that the world desperately needs.