A hazy old memory came back to me the other day. It goes back to the summer of 1955 when I was a boy growing up in Chicago. That summer my brother and I played church. We’d invite friends from the neighborhood to worship with us on our back porch. He was the church musician, actually the church accordion player, and I was the preacher. Our back porch worship drew quite a crowd, 12-15 kids. Their bikes were lined up on kick-stands out on the street. We even made a sign, “Church Today, 4:00.”
We set up chairs in churchly rows. We charged 5 cents per hand-made bulletin, and the money went for missions. We prayed, sang hymns, read the Word, and listened to a very short sermon, I mean, very short. A few of us even acted out a Jesus story from the Bible. Mom had some snacks for us afterwards.
Each of us kids on the block had a nickname – Billy Bob, Stumpy, Killer, Flip, and Dusty (my nickname). We were all there. We came from a variety of church backgrounds or none, and there we were, “playing church,” as we put it. It happened that summer several times.
Slightly more sophisticated now, theologically speaking, I can easily question what in the world I thought I was doing assuming the vocation of a pastor without benefit of ordination (or confirmation for that matter!). And did we have pulpit fellowship with these kids? “We were just playing church,” would be my defense. I was, after all, seven years old. My vocation was that of my parent’s child, a learner, not a pastor. I get that, but again, we were just playing church.
All these years later, I wonder where those in that little band of worshipers ended up, vocationally, geographically, eternally. Looking back through all my years of pastoring flocks, somehow, when I think of that little flock, it does seem as if we were doing more than just playing church. At seven years old, I was seeing the Word of God work. I was listening to a kid who just last week had hurled two rocks through Mrs. Pfeiffer’s window try and sing an old Lutheran hymn. I heard Flip ask if God could forgive his mother and father for their divorce.
I do smile when I think of that gathering of young souls. Sunday School, confirmation instruction, Lutheran schools, college, and seminary would give me answers for many of the questions I began hearing on our back porch that summer. My brother would grow up to be a church musician, and I a pastor. Yet the unsophisticated seven year-old I look back on from here has my attention today. He was learning that worship matters. He saw his friendships and neighborhood as settings for sharing Jesus’ love. He began to see the marvelous power of the Word to answer big and little questions and transform lives. It might have been “play,” but as I look back, there is the ring of reality to it.
The church gathers around the Word and the Sacraments, but there is also church to be done outside the walls of our church buildings. People like Billy Bob, Stumpy, Killer, and Flip long to be called the children of God (1 John 3:1-2). We are never too old to relearn that fact. Even back porches can be consecrated by the Word of God at work. Fulfillment in our vocation is as close to us as our neighbor.