A Conversation with Rev. Karen Bernhardt
After my experience attending Christ Evangelical Lutheran, I met with Rev. Karen Bernhardt, who currently servings as vice-pastor at Christ Church and as senior pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Millville, NJ. We met to discuss the worship service I had just experienced at Christ Church and the Lutheran confessions found in the Book of Concord. Pastor Bernhardt was very knowledgeable about the history of the Lutheran tradition, the present state of the church, and a pleasant person to talk with.
She described the Book of Concord as laying out the foundation of Luther’s theological thought, a theology that is fairly simple. It is centered on the theology of the cross and of grace. In her words, “We do not look up to God. He comes down to us.” She retained Luther’s emphasis on the distinction between Law and Gospel. We relate to God, not by Law or human actions, but because of the Gospel and what Christ has done. As a convert from Presbyterianism, she believed Lutheranism is more grace-filled than Calvin’s theology. While Calvin spoke much of a sovereign God above who rules over all and directs all things according to His plan, Luther was focused on the Christ-event. We know God because of how He has revealed Himself in Jesus. In her assessment, this was a far more personal faith, particularly in its view of communion. The communion meal is a meal for us in which we are given the body and blood of Christ in, with, and under the elements. “Here is the body and blood of Christ for you.”
It is this sacramentalism and liturgical focus which Pastor Bernhardt believes is the greatest challenge to Lutheranism today. These quiet, repetitive movements are dramatically different from our entertainment and media-driven culture. The difference between the culture and the Lutheran Church is most visible in its music. Most of the Lutheran Church service is sung and has been for centuries. It is very difficult to introduce contemporary songs into a setting that has retained a musical culture and language for so long a time. Yet it is also difficult to introduce someone new to the congregation to the foreign music which comprises most of the service. While Pastor Bernhardt has attempted to introduce contemporary songs, she herself has not been able to find many which proclaim the Gospel. She has found that while many speak of God loving us, few go to the heart of God’s love as expressed through Jesus in His death and resurrection.
While there are limits on updating the musical language of the Church without shifting its focus from the Gospel, Pastor Bernhardt did have suggestions to make when it came to the liturgy itself. Her approach is to be relaxed with the liturgy and provide more variety. She mentioned she found the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship helpful in providing resources for adding variety to her liturgy. She provided several examples of how she varies the liturgy. One of the most common is to vary the lectionary. The Lutheran lectionary provides readings for the entire season which is to be used over the course of the season. Rather than maintain the same readings for multiple weeks, after two or three weeks she will utilize alternate readings. Another common practice of hers is to find creative ways of preaching the Word such as portraying a character in the narrative or retelling one of Jesus’ parables in a way which brings the congregants into the story, the way Jesus’ original audience were brought into His parables.
The goal of the Lutheran liturgy is to bring people into who Jesus is so that they might take part in His mission. Hence it is essential to practice communion weekly and to follow the service rhythm of gathering-Word-offering-sending. “Go out to the world!” In fact, she has slightly adjusted the wording for the dismissal at her church to emphasize the missional aspect of the liturgy. When she proclaims, “Go in peace, serve the Lord,” the congregation responds, “We will! Thanks be to God!” When the service is over, Pastor Bernhardt hopes the congregation has experienced Christ’s mission so that they might go out to love God and to love their neighbor.
While the ELCA is a confessional denomination, one known for emphasizing the cerebral side of faith, the liturgy adds a spiritual dimension to the faith, enlivening the confessions by working out the good news of Jesus which they summarize. It brings a life and vitality to the faith which Pastor Bernhardt hopes shapes her congregants into people who love their God and their neighbor.