It is now just more than a month since I attended a most unusual evening worship service in Red Lodge, Montana.
The worship service took place around a campfire on the banks of Stone Brook on the property of Jim and Nancy Johnson, just outside town. Worship is led by Jim, a former pastor in the Lutheran Church of America turned bar owner. The people around the fire are bar people –the regulars from the Bull ’n Bear that Jim had run for fifteen years and sold a little less than two years ago. They are not church people. Almost to a man or woman they have never attended church before. Most of them have only recently started reading the Bible. The stories of the Bible are new to them. They do not know how to ‘behave’ in church, the way people who were born into church do. This is the birth of a church. Everything is fresh and new.
They arrived in ones and twos. Before the start of the service we first have a beer or a glass of wine in Jim and Nancy’s house. The conversation is free and easy. Then we straggle out in the path to the clearing on the river bank.
The liturgy is run along the basic lines of the Lutheran Church, but with many interjections by the people around the camp fire. This does not spoil the worship. It does quite the opposite. The comments are made naturally and unself-consciously. These are real people, without any of the religious veneer or the guardedness we have become so accustomed to in church.
Jim plays the guitar and we sing from folders he has prepared for the campfire services. Most of the songs have a country and western twang to them. The people around the fire obviously enjoy them. A song with the rhythm and cord progression of “Hit the road, Jack” is sung and there is some spontaneous whooping during the chorus.
Jim reads Genesis 1 and gets to the sermon – a short exposition of the text that runs into an open conversation around the fire. Everyone participates. The text is not something abstract or separate. They draw from their own lives and the lives of others they all know in the discussion. The good things that have happened and small victories are celebrated. Pain and brokenness is shared. And then we break the bread and share the wine. These are holy moments…
What I experienced that evening in Red Lodge has filled me with new hope for the church. It also asks some uncomfortable questions regarding our essence as church. Have we lost so much of the original genius of the church that the ordinary now seems exotic? Have we gotten so caught up in the externals of being church that we have drifted away from the essentials? These are people doing church for the first time and they are getting it right. When it comes down to the rock bottom essentials of being church they are doing a fine job.
I started out by saying that the worship service was unusual. Maybe it was, in actual fact, quite normal. Maybe we have become so accustomed to the lackluster and reutilized worship services of Christendom that we struggle to be church in any normal way.
We should not romanticize this little faith community. They have much to learn. But we, the old timers, also need to be taught by them.