"This is the liturgical service," said the usher as we stood in the entrance of the sanctuary, gazing over the scattering of congregants under the high, white ceiling. "Over in the gym is the contemporary service, which is quite well attended. They have more songs over there." Different songs, too. In the sanctuary, two female voices rang out clean, twining harmonies from the choirloft: "Joyful, joyful, we adore thee/ God of heaven, Lord of love/ Hearts unfold like flowers before thee/ Opening to the sun above..." In the dim (and well-peopled) cinder-block gym, two female voices sang from the stage, hitting minor intervals in the prelude to "We Will Worship": "Whoooaaaa...we will worship the Lamb of glory...with our hands lifted high to the sky/ When the world wonders why/ We'll just tell them we're loving our King." The usher was right about the abundance of songs at the contemporary service: three during the gathering, one in preparation for the Scripture readings, one after the sermon, three more during communion, and a closer. Still, it wasn't exactly liturgy lite. The liturgical service included a Kyrie, a Gloria, and a Collect, but it shared the Creed, the Our Father, and the Confession of Sin with the contemporary service. And the contemporary offered the Sign of Peace and the Lord's Supper to boot, the latter made unusual by the congregation's (as opposed to the presider's) recitation of the Words of Institution: "This is my body... This cup is the new covenant in my blood."
The Communion song began, "Come, just as you are/ Come and see, come receive/ Come and live forever." But the program noted, "Preparation for communion is a Scriptural imperative," and referred us to text that included the following: "We believe that Christ has instituted this sacrament...but for the comfort and strengthening of baptized Christians who repent of their sins, [and] believe in Him.... Your participation in this sacrament is an act of your agreement with the teaching of the Lutheran Church." Later, I asked Burkey about that teaching. "When Jesus said, 'This is my body... This is my blood,' we think He was speaking specifically. Not that the bread and wine actually, physically, becomes the body, but in a spiritual, supernatural...the phrase we use is 'Real Presence.' It's there when the people hear the words of institution spoken and then eat the bread and drink the wine."
But that was at the end. The beginning was the commissioning of youth for the National Youth Gathering in Florida. "You have been chosen by God and Christ before the creation of the world," said Pastor Burkey to the young souls gathered before him, "and now you are about to set off on a great adventure...to celebrate your identity as a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God."
The Gospel -- or, as the program had it, "The Message from God's Life-Building Word" -- touched on the service's theme: "Building a Life that Matters: Attitude Matters." It told of Christ's dining in a Pharisee's house. First, He healed a man on the Sabbath, asking, "If one of you has a son or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull him out?" Then, He counseled against seeking places of honor. "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." And finally, he admonished his host to give banquets for those who could not repay him: "the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind...You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
Before the sermon, a three-person drama in which a man called out mock-friendly churchfolk: "You wanted nothing of me when I wasn't attractive, and now that I am attractive, I don't want anything to do with you." The churchfolk didn't get it: "He seemed to be coming along so well."
During the sermon, Burkey told us that "when Jesus tells a story...it describes who God is, and what our life could be in the Kingdom of God... God is the host... He gives us tremendous gifts: forgiveness, life with God, meaning, purpose... He even invites us to a special meal... the body and blood of Jesus, Jesus made one with us. There is no way in the world we can ever repay that. But what we can do is express His love to other people... As we travel down the ladder of service, we discover that Jesus travels with us. And as we reach out to other people, we discover that Jesus is in them, and even more, they discover that Jesus is in us."
What happens when we die?
"We believe that those who have faith in Christ have the certainty of eternal life with Him," said Burkey. "And that those who have rejected Him get what they desire: life without God."
7929 La Mesa Boulevard, La Mesa
Denomination: Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod
Founded locally: 1942
Senior pastor: Richard Burkey
Congregation size: 1100
Staff size: 10, plus school employees
Sunday school enrollment: 100
Annual budget: $2 million
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: yes
Dress: casual to semiformal, plenty of T-shirts and jeans, some dresses
Diversity: majority Caucasian, some African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics
Sunday worship: Traditional Worship (Sanctuary), 8 a.m.; Contemporary Communion Worship (gym), 10:30 a.m.; Liturgical Worship (Sanctuary), 10:45 a.m.; "Grounded" Worship (Sanctuary), 7:15 p.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour