According to my quick estimate, 100 people had gathered for worship at Linwood Christian Church, Indianapolis, on Father’s Day 2010, and a quarter of them were children and teens. One of the teens was worship leader and she presided with skill and confidence. In addition to a wide age range, congregants represented the mixed-race neighborhood in which the church is located.
The worship space had been transformed: the choir loft was covered with blue plastic, evoking the presence of a great river. The communion table and elders’ chairs were covered with a large white quilt consisting of sixty-three squares (at least 12 inches by 12 inches). The chancel was set up to replicate a village in Congo. Bamboo arches were set along the center aisle, strings of green foliage made of construction paper hung from balcony to balcony, and a runner made of large bands of cloth covered the front half of the center aisle. A Congolese woman who had visited during the week had declared that the runner made it all real. “It’s like being home again,” she told them.
During the portion of the service listed as “Children’s Message” all of the younger congregants gathered on the chancel steps and fifteen or twenty others, ranging in age from mid teens to older adults, stood on one side in front of the pulpit. After a presentation to the congregation by one of the adults, the children sang to the congregation, using simple percussion instruments that some of them had made. The English version of their song (“Jesus loves me”) is well known; less so the French (they sang both versions): “Jesus m’aime, je le sais / Pour la Bible me le dit. / Les petits lui appartiennent. / Ils sont faibles, mais il est fort.” (After the children had learned the French, the leaders decided that the preposition should have been car rather than pour, but it was too late to revise the song.)
The mood was upbeat, with brief outbursts of applause and laughter. The tone of the assembly? Keyed up casual comes to mind. Ordered informality is another possibility. The pastor’s liturgical vesture illustrates the mood: denim pants to mid-calf, bright blue tee shirt emblazoned with the congregation’s picture and logo (which many others were also wearing, and which they also wear when they attend Indianapolis Indians baseball games together), and liturgical stole.
Even with the high-energy message by the children and the adult leader of the group–all addressed to the congregation, the rest of the Sunday liturgy was intact: congregational singing, serious intercessory prayer, blessing of a young child, offering, celebration of the Lord’s Supper (which included a thoughtful introductory meditation by one of the church’s liturgical elders), reading of the lectionary text for the day, and a strong sermon (eleven minutes long). The service lasted an hour and twenty minutes, but it didn’t seem long.
Something was happening.
Of course, this Sunday was one of a kind for this congregation. The special effects had been created for “Congo Connection,” the Vacation Bible School program that had been conducted every evening the week just ending. The curriculum was rooted in the partnership between the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Indiana and churches in the Mbandaka region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
I could be called a “spit and polish” person when it comes to liturgical form and procedure, yet this service seemed right. Most congregants, including children, appeared to be involved with the movement and mood. With forty percent of the people up in front because they had been involved with VBS all week, you could feel that they were offering up to God, as well as to the rest of us, their thanksgiving for a week well spent. It is not that one style of worship is right for all times and places. Rather, on any occasion the liturgy can be purposefully adapted to who is there and influenced by how congregants have been living their faith before God and with one another.
One of the pastor’s comments implied that on most Sundays the number of children in the service is much smaller. Afterwards, however, someone told me that three-fourths of the children in the VBS were connected with the church either through Sunday School or the church’s food pantry.
Linwood Christian Church is a diminished congregation in an old working class neighborhood, but on Sundays like this, it’s easy to believe that the gospel is alive and that new life is emerging in this quiet corner of a big city.
(Disclosure: The pastor of this congregation is a daughter of keithwatkinshistorian.)