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Worship for Doubters and Other Good Christians: Learning from the Thomas Mass

Every two months, at 6:00 on a Sunday evening, three to four hundred people gather at St. Mary's Church (Lutheran) in Reutlingen, and in over fifty towns throughout Germany, to participate in an ecumenical worship service called the Thomas Mass. The service is advertised with the slogan "A worship for doubters and other good Christians." The term Mass comes partly from its Lutheran roots in Finland, but it also hints at the strong liturgical aspect of the worship. Both old and modern liturgical elements have their plate in the Thomas Mass.

A unique feature of the Mass is the "open phase" or time for prayer—a twenty-minute period during which participants can move around the church and choose from a number of different spiritual activities. At St. Mary's, for example, worshipers can choose between lighting a candle, contemplating an icon, singing Taize songs, observing a time of silence in a side chapel, engaging in a discussion with the preacher, having personal counseling, and more (see sidebar on p. 16). Or they can simply stay seated or stroll around the beautiful church. In spite of all these activities, a peaceful, meditative mood reigns throughout the service.

At the end of the Mass everybody is invited to gather in a large circle to take part in the Lord's Supper, during which music in different styles— Taize canons, modern hymns, and instrumental jazz—plays a meaningful role.

Whom Docs the Thomas Mass Appeal To?

The planning team for the Thomas Mass at Reutlingen includes about forty-five Christians of all ages, from young adults to senior citizens, from several denominations, including Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Methodist. Eleven of us are ordained ministers. Some belong to the wide spectrum of the charismatic movement; others find their spiritual home in pietism. Some describe themselves as liberal Christians; others are committed to ecological or political projects. But our planning team also includes those whom we are especially trying to reach; doubters and those outside the church.

The people who attend the Thomas Mass are a diverse group. Because St. Mary's is a large church located downtown, a number of homeless people join us, including some who are mentally ill. Members of Reutlingen's middle class also attend the Mass to enjoy the mixture of classical and jazz music in a beautiful setting. Many are active members of different churches who have already attended a morning service in their own parish.

According to a Scandinavian study, the sociological profile typical of most churches does not apply to the Thomas Mass. Most churches show a high participation in church activities among children and teenagers, followed by a decline among those of an employable age, and then an increase among older people. In contrast, an amazingly high number of people who come to the Thomas Mass at Reutlingen belong to the middle-aged bracket—about 50 percent of participants are between thirty-one and fifty years old.

The Thomas Mass also reaches those for whom it is named: doubters, those who in some way or another still eavesdrop at the church wall, who are in search of spirituality, deep community with God and humanity, healing, and meaning for their lives. A questionnaire filled out by participants at the St. Mary's Thomas Mass indicates that a significant number identify themselves as "searching" or "doubter."

Why Is the Thomas Mass Appealing?

There are three important reasons for the appeal of the Thomas Mass: first, an encounter with "the holy," second, the trinitarian structure of worship, and third, the answers it offers to postmodern questions.

An Encounter with the Holy

A few comments from the guest book of the Thomas Mass in Reutlingen illustrate the personal, existential emotions brought on by this worship:

Much has touched me. Thank you ...
Heart and soul were filled ...
J'ai enfm trouve la paix (I have found peace at last)....
1 am very touched....
The Mass for me was a grace of God....

To feel safe is wonderful....
The Thomas Mass is like an oasis for me. . . .
I needed that today....
It was a wonderful worship, one that makes the way
with and to God easy....
The worship fills me with deep peace and courage for
the future. . . .

These comments, including such vivid mental images such as being at home, feeling safe, and finding oasis, make it clear that worshipers experienced God's presence during the Mass in many ways. In religious-phenomenological language, we might call their experience an encounter with the transcendent or "holy." Contemporary German practical theologian Manfred Josuttis defines "the holy" in a trinitarian way: "Through God, the Creator, there are energetic potentials in nature, in the body and in the soul. Through God, the Savior, mortals, in spite of all their sinfulness, can reach the heavenly domain. Through God, the renewer, people are seized by godly power, which exceeds all rationality and emotions, and changes them completely." Josuttis has rediscovered something fundamental: above all our worship should help people to experience the presence of God. Worship should provide nourishment, space, and time to support an encounter with God and with other people.

The Trinitarian Structure

We worship in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God is active in worship in many ways—as Creator and Maintainer, as Savior and Reconciler, and as Deliverer and Sanctifier of our lives. In worship the spiritual and the creative, the Word and the ritual, belief and emotions, and God's works and human actions are not to be played off against each other. The Thomas Mass, with its ritual and symbolic wealth, does justice to this basic trinitarian structure in a unique way.

Consider the level of creation, for example. At Reutlingen, the arrangement and decoration of the church is very important. Many hours before the worship begins, helpers gather to decorate the church with flowers, fabrics, and symbols—always according to the theme of the worship. At the same time, in the different corners and side rooms of the church, people are preparing various spiritual activities for the open phase of worship.

Music also plays a major role. A small ensemble of musicians and a group of singers accompany and lead the congregation in singing. Other musicians, typically from the jazz scene, are invited to participate in every Thomas Mass.

During the twenty-minute open phase members of the congregation can choose from the spiritual activities already mentioned (lighting a candle, singing, dancing, being anointed, and so on). The youngest participants can draw or make crafts at the children's table.

After the open phase everyone gathers in a large circle to receive Holy Communion and to exchange the peace of Christ. During the blessing at the end all those in the circle hold hands. In this way, worship addresses all our senses.

On the level of revelation and reconciliation we depend on the dynamics of the self-efficiency of God's Word. The Thomas Mass uses various elements of preaching: personal testimonies that reflect on the theme by means of personal experiences of life and faith, a ten-minute sermon, and Holy Communion, which contains an explanatory introduction.

One point under discussion at the Reutlingen Thomas Mass is the confession of sin. How do we word our confession so that it does not demand too much of those who are making a tentative approach to faith and to the church, on the one hand, and so that the biblical message of the estrangement of man and reconciliation through Christ becomes apparent, on the other? Presently we have the congregation sing a hymn of confession. The worship leader makes sure participants understand that this song is intended as a confession.

With respect to the dimension of spirituality, worshipers experience God's Spirit in a number of ways —not only in prayer, singing. Holy Communion, and blessing, but also in personal communion with God in the open phase of worship, or when lighting a candle or in the tranquillity of the side-chapel.

Apart from intercession, we try to meet our responsibility to society and the world by means of an offering, which we collect during a hymn. These offerings are used to support organizations that help the homeless, victims of war, and victims of sexual violence, among others.

Although we've listed these elements of worship within a trinitarian framework, they are not separate. Each touches and penetrates the others. Time and again worshipers report that they experience the Thomas Mass as a holistic composition of worship elements.

Postmodern Worship

Characteristic of postmodern society is a steady change and decline in common obligatory values, standards, and worldviews. French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard coined the phrase "The great stories of decay" to describe this phenomenon. People today are increasingly less willing to have their thoughts and actions governed externally. They want to decide for themselves what they believe or think and where and in what way they will become involved.

The Thomas Mass answers that need by offering not only possibilities for participation and commitment but also freedom. Worshipers begin the service together and finish with Holy Communion and blessing in a large circle. But they also have the opportunity to choose to participate in activities according to each person's own needs and desires during the "open phase." Participants determine the measure and manner of their participation in and personal surrender to the worship community. Nobody is forced to do anything he or she does not want to do—whether by liturgical instructions from worship leaders or by group dynamics.

Another postmodern element of the Thomas Mass is the variety of its liturgical and musical styles. As blended worship, the Thomas Mass combines elements of traditional, contemporary, and creative worship. That fits with the patchwork identity of postmodern worshipers.

A Final Note

It is not my aim to play the Thomas Mass off against other worship. Of course we have our lips and downs, successes and mishaps, spiritual communion and situations of conflict. But we can learn from this kind of worship. Because it links central Christian elements with modern life it is well-suited to reaching others with the gospel. The Thomas Mass answers people's need to experience the presence of God and provides a solid grounding amid the confusion of postmodern life. By addressing body, soul, and spirit, heart, mind, and emotion, the Thomas Mass provides worship that is holistic. Finally, it addresses the modern fear of commitment, and, at the same time, the longing for communion, by allowing worshipers to decide for themselves how and to what extent they will participate.

In making a plea for a variety of worship elements and styles of music and for freedom during the service, I do not intend to create a kind of religious department store where people can pick and choose as they wish. The church is not a place where a multitude of activities are simply thrown together in a colorful way. Like any other kind of worship, the Thomas Mass requires time and careful planning. But the result is worship that leads us to a healing encounter with God and with each other.

 

Excerpt
Service Bulletin
Thomas Mass
A Worship Service for Doubters and Other Good Christians

We Are Led into the Service Song:

Song: "Laudate omnes gentes" SNC 30

Greeting

Music

Prayer, followed by a time of silence

Song: Kommt teilt das Leben mit alien
[provided on bulletin]

Introduction to the Theme of the Service

Music

We Receive the Promise of God's Kindness

Sermon: To Breathe Again

Congregational song

Open Phase

[The congregation is invited to spend the next twenty minutes participating in any of the following options:]

  1. light candles (near the steps of the pulpit)
  2. take time for prayer and for formulating intercessory prayer (at the prayer wall and the wailing wall)
  3. observe silence in the St. Mary's chapel
  4. sing Taize songs
  5. sermon discussion
  6. dance in a meditative way (in the entrance hall of the gym)
  7. share your concerns with someone (identified by white shawl and name tag)
  8. receive a blessing and be anointed (behind the altar)
  9. receive information about pastoral care by phone (information table)

Offering of Music (ending the Open Phase)

We Lift Our Hearts to God

Offering

Congregational song (during the offering)

Intercessory prayers and the Lord's Prayer

We Celebrate Holy Communion

Congregation sings the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, with a four-part round on the Sanctus (text provided in German and Latin)

Passing of the peace

We Ask God's Blessing
Lord, come and bless us, place on us your peace. Hold your blessing hands over us, touch us with your power. Amen.

Music

[The worship leader invites the congregation to share refreshments after the sendee.]