We land right where we started, St. Stephen, a few minutes before service begins. The first thing we all notice is that the Education Wing has a pitched roof. Praise God!
The second thing we notice is the new sign on the side of the building, “St. Stephen Lutheran, a SP/P/ED/M-UP Church.”
“Sped mup?” one of us says aloud.
To which an usher responds, “Yeah, Sped-‘em-up… South Plainfield, Plainfield, Edison, Metuchen United Parish. Welcome to service, if you turn your Tablet to Wireless J3:16 you can find the order of service… oh… you all don’t have Tablets with you… that’s okay… we have some dead-tree editions somewhere,” and with that he passes you a paper bulletin.
The service seems fairly normal, at least at first, though the person leading the service isn’t wearing a stole… then when it comes to the sermon a screen falls from the ceiling and Pastor Jim of St. Paul’s Edison reads the Gospel to both his congregation, as well as to St. Stephen. He proceeds to preach about the Good Samaritan and how our recent contact with sentient life from another planet is another opportunity to serve our neighbor in need.
Then, at collection, everyone but us uses the Simply Giving application on their tablet and electronically sends their tithe in.
The Deacon leading the service proceeds to preside over communion… I nudge one of the ushers and ask discretely, “He’s not ordained is he?”
“No,” she whispers, “but that’s okay, the ELCA has allowed Lay Presiders for nearly a decade now… ever since tele-preaching became normal… Sped-‘em-up has 4 Pastors, so two congregation go without an ordained clergyperson each week… the options were tele-preaching or changing service times, and for whatever reason churches prefer a change of technology to a change of service times.”
A young lady in the pew across from us shushes us.
We take communion, are blessed, and then comes announcements.
· Since none of the individual churches can hold us all, there will be an All Sped-‘em-up Advent Service at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. Pastor Hagos of All God’s People Lutheran in Metuchen will preach.
· Pastor ‘Tina is looking for a representative from St. Stephen for the South Plainfield Interfaith Council (formerly the South Plainfield Ecumenical Council of Christian Churches).
· Sped-‘em-up’s confirmation students will play their confirmation Massive Online Role-playing Game from 4:30-6pm this afternoon.
· If you’ve given clearance to Sped-‘em-up, an updated calendar of Parish events can be found on your tablet.
“What’s All God’s People Lutheran?” one of the time travelers asks the Usher.
“It’s one of the other churches in our Parish, you should check them out sometime… they meet in the basement of the Metuchen Assembly of God.”
We make our way to Metuchen just in time for the service. We notice the congregation is mainly African and Asian (this shouldn’t have surprised us, already there are more Lutherans in the Global South than in the Global North). Our mainly European group of time travelers kinda stick-out.
The usher hands us very well-worn copies of the ELW, along with song inserts in Oromo, Swahili and Hindi. The service is mainly in English, though Pastor Hagos breaks into Oromo on occasion. She preaches a powerful sermon on the Jews being in exile in Babylon and relates it to the feeling of dislocation many in the congregation feel, speaking English as a second language and watching their children Americanize before their eyes. She concludes by letting everyone know God provided in Babylon, and God provides now too.
We feel quite at home in the service, up until communion time, when everyone but us seems to know the moves to a sort of shuffle/dance thing we all do around the altar during the singing of the Sanctus (which was done in Spanish).
Pastor Hagos closes the service by giving a Seminarian from the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Campus, the mic. He proceeds to thank the congregation for its generous donation of $30,000 to the Fund for Leadership, which means he will have no student debt once he finished up his three years of seminary.
“Hey,” you ask the Usher, “If you guys can donate that much money to the Fund for Leadership why don’t you have your own building?”
He snickers, “That’s why we can do it… not having a building saves us $40,000 a year, we spend the other $10,000 on Sped-‘em-up’s joint evangelism team… this year we decided to send off a big donation to a church in Portland, Center 7, their Pastor, Chris, is doing some pretty amazing stuff.”
With that, we all hop back into our time machine and use it to whisk us to Portland and Center 7… which is a bar!?! And behind the bar is a 51 year old guy with no hair and a potbelly… “Oh my… that’s Pastor Chris?” one of the time travelers (perhaps present day Pastor Chris?) says in horror.
“Hi, what can I get you?”
“I thought this was a Church?”
“Oh… sort of… Here at Center 7 we’re a decentralized worshipping community centered on the 7 central things of worship: Gathering, Confession and Forgiveness, Baptism, Word, Thanksgiving, Meal, and Sending.
We have teams that make sure those seven things happen… they don’t necessarily check with me in advance, hence the de-centralized thing… it can be rather chaotic and uncontrollable, but as the two congregations I served before going part-time can tell you, control was never my strong suit. So, on any given day the Gathering Team will be knocking on doors, both physical and electronic, inviting people to events or checking in with people connected to Center 7; the Word Team… God bless them, run 10 Bible Studies, discussion groups, book groups, what have you—maybe more than 10 now… they agreed to split every 6 months and I can’t keep track of them anymore—they also train newer members on how to tell their faith stories; the Sending Team coordinates the food bank and keeps an ear to the ground regarding needs in the community… it’s a good time.”
“So you’re part-time?”
“Yeah, when I went to Seminary they kept talking about Pastors having to be Bi-vocational—in other words being a Pastor and some other job at the same time, but pastors wouldn’t do it, I mean who could afford to with student debt as it was…before the Leadership Fund really took off… but once I paid off that debt I kinda felt guilty about being full-time when everyone kept saying moving to a part-time call was the faithful thing. So I did something about it, I quit my second call, moved out to Oregon, bought a bar, and re-named it Center 7. I do the bartender gig and also making sure Church takes place in and around the building.”
“You’re a worshipping community, but not a Church?”
“Yeah, the official ELCA term is a Synodically Authorized Worshipping Community—a SAWC—as long as we stay a SAWC we can organize in a much more decentralized way than we could otherwise, this makes us more nimble and empowers lay folk to do more, which is good, because I’m part-time and I have to manage the bar… speaking of which, can I get you a drink?”