On Ash Wednesday, I have every intention of being outside, ready to dispense ashes to college students who want some. In the past, a handful have taken advantage of the convenience of this approach. That effort, such as it was, is quite mild compared to what some pastors do: go to train stations or bus stops, or, as one Lutheran Church in Clear Lake did, hold up signs for commuters to get “drive through” ashes in the church parking lot. According to one news account, there was a line of cars full of people waiting to get ashes. The church also handed out a prayer card of some kind and offered a prayer for the occupants of the car.
This reminded me of several other attempts to meet busy Americans where they are. There have been a number whole drive-through services where congregations hosted a gathering of automobiles in a parking lot. Yes, there were people in those automobiles, but it was clear that when the preacher looked out, he didn’t see people, but the glare of the blue sky on a windshield. Microphone in hand, he held a service right there in a parking lot. (I wonder what they did if it rained)
I believe drive-through communion has also been tried. As the automobiles gather, congregants get their own communion wine-and- bread packet and at the right time, they open them and receive what is supposed to be the Lord’s Supper. (By Luther’s definition, it probably is not the Lord’s Supper, but who can be sure?) There was probably some accompanying reading from scripture and perhaps a short sermon.
Automobile-friendly services aside, there is a larger movement called “simple church.” These are churches that do away with the “formality” of traditional church life and usually meet in homes. There are no clergy, vestments, or liturgy. It is an attempt to pare things down to their barest elements and avoid the traditional trappings of Church. For it is those trappings, don’t you know, that distract the Church and keep her from her true mission. It seems the traditional church was due for this critique because some of these “simple churches” are doing quite well (others disappear within a year of formation). I’d like to respond with two thoughts. The first is that not all of these outreach efforts are equal. The second is that there is no easy way out of actual Christian community, if that is indeed what you seek.
First, what is the difference between adminstering ashes on Ash Wednesday to total strangers outside the context of worship and administering the sacrament to strangers outside the context of worship? The answer is pretty simple: ashes are reflective of God’s Law, the finality of death, and our shortcomings in holiness. Unlike the Gospel, which is God’s alien work that specifically comes through hearing (Romans 10), the Law of God is already written on the hearts of men and it can be observed through general revelation. It seems to me, in other words, that administering ashes is the simple proclamation of the Law; and that act may be done at anytime to anyone, because in truth, people already know it! When the Prophets shared the Word of the Lord with the people, they did so in public places. Indeed, the Law may best be shared in public places so that men and women will come to realize their need of the Gospel.
The sacraments form the community (Holy Baptism) and feed the community (the Lord’s Supper). They are means of grace, and they are not to be monkeyed with or distributed to any and all. Careful discernment has always gone into administering these sacraments, and for good reason. They are God’s holy means. They are given to strangers on the street because, unlike the Law, they are reserved for the Christian community. It’s one thing if a non-Christian partakes of the sacrament unknowingly in a service; the pastor should probably not be taken to task for that. But to invite such conflict by administering so publicly? Bad idea.
Christian community is something to be cherished. It should never become a matter of convenience, or something where the participants are looking for the least they can do yet still be considered members. To put it crassly, if we are not even willing to leave the parking lot to participate in worship, are we even part of a community? Would that kind of rank minimalism be tolerated in any other kind of community? Why would the church promote it?
Fortunately, these ventures are rare. I don’t see drive-thru churches becoming a model for evangelism. But I will defend the public dispensation of ashes. For instead of giving away the grace of God as though it were cheap, we are imposing on foreheads the cost of grace: the cross which crucified an innocent man.