My family and I attend Christ Ascension Lutheran Church (“CA”) in Chestnut Hill. CA is thriving as churches go – blessed with an exceptional pastor, a congregation which includes at least four other ministers (each with a deep understanding of religion and how Luther changed the church), and a sanctuary of ideal dimensions – unmistakably spiritual, yet small enough to maintain. The congregation is prosperous, well educated, and sings in tune, plus our cantor and several congregation members are accomplished instrumental musicians. In summary, CA is an enriching, excellent place to spend Sunday mornings learning about Christianity and faith. If there is a “best” when talking about Churches, CA gets the prize in my experience.
Today, as part of an outreach program among the Lutheran churches of Germantown Avenue, my daughter and I attended Trinity Lutheran, at Germantown Avenue and Queen Lane. The most obvious difference is the building. Trinity is huge, surrounded by a cemetery filled with greening, leaning grave markers, and capped with a rusting, peeled steeple which is easily the tallest structure for many blocks around. It obviously needed maintenance, a great deal of expensive maintenance, which nobody but the government (not now but in better times) would be able to provide. I recently saw a picture of a Church in similar exterior condition, but it was located in a depopulated village in the Ukraine, and was vacant.
The next difference was the worship space – a basement area without an organ, with music predominantly supplied by CD. The impossibility of give and take between the congregation and the digital accompaniment made singing with the small number of available voices more difficult. At one point, the music for worship sounded like a Barney singalong for small children. There was no communion, and the service ended in about 40 minutes. After the service, I learned that Trinity does not have a full time Pastor, or a cantor. All of this could be improved through greater attendance.
Based on the vast dimenstions of the Church exterior, I asked where the main sanctuary was located, and a friendly congregation member named Michael led Kate and me upstairs. The main sanctuary was incredible. At least a 45 foot ceiling, with numerous stained glass windows depicting the life of Jesus arrayed on the sides. Confirming the German roots of the Lutheran Church, one of stained glass windows had been dedicated to the memory of Katherine Maurer, by her husband, William Maurer. This was an interesting thing for my daughter, Kate Maurer, to see, whose great-grandfather was named William.
This space was evidently the work of a prosperous, settled congregation, built by local trades, paid by people who could afford the best when it came to religion. Evidently, this congregation no longer exists, and I wondered, where did they go? I suppose to the Main Line or a similar area where not so many buildings are empty, where there is not so much trash on the dirty snow, where one does not hear police sirens throughout the night.
It turns out that this main sanctuary has sat unused for the last two years, apparently based on concerns that the congregation is too small for it, and will be lost in the vastness of what looked like a 1/8 acre of wooden pews and the soaring ceiling. Is restoring worship to this waiting space a mission which is more in line with what we are supposed to do as Christians? Should we be grateful for CA, which shines in contrast to Trinity, or should we try to fix the latter? We talk about missions to far off places, yet it turns out there is a mission waiting to happen not two miles from our home in East Falls. I plan to learn more about Trinity’s situation later this month and will write more then. RM