Church Bells Are Calling

by Greg Alms

Church bells seem an anachronism in today’s world. Church goers come from far distances and can’t hear the bells ringing, calling them to worship. That’s what Twitter and Facebook and email are for. The hymns that are often played at noon or 6:00 p.m. can’t be heard in the rush of traffic or through the sealed air-conditioned cars buzzing past. But church bells can do one thing: It helps us think about the church’s relationship to the world around her.

One of the most pressing issues of our time (and really anytime) for the church is how to relate the culture and world that surrounds us. The New Testament counsels us both to flee the things of the world (1 John 2;15) and to engage the world (Acts 1:8). The world is both the evil haunt of Satan (John 12:31) and the precious object of God’s redeeming love (John 12: 47). The church both conquers the world (1 John 5:4) and evangelizes the world (Matt. 28:20). This question is all the more urgent for us when society around us is less and less Christian and more and more unfriendly to Christianity.  What are we to do? Flee the world or save it?

file000343752907The answer lies in the example of church bells. Church bells do two things. First, they call Christians to abandon the world and assemble for worship. They call out us to flee our normal routines, our day to day activities, and come to where Christ is present in mercy and life and join with angels and archangels in the feast that has no end.  We are called out of the world to be the church and receive forgiveness from our crucified Savior. That is what the word “church” means in Greek. “Ecclesia” literally means “called out.” We abandon the world to be united to Jesus.

But church bells do something else. They proclaim the message and existence of the church out into the world. There is an LCMS  church in my area in (Augustana in Hickory, N.C.) that was once in the middle of farmland and pastures. It is now next door to a big shopping mall and surrounded by fast food stores and a busy highway. It has church bells and a carillon, and if you go at the right time you can sit in the drive-thru at Wendy’s and hum along to “A Mighty Fortress is our God” or “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” This is a picture of what the church is in the world. Bells call Christians both to flee the world and to participate in the world.  The worldliness and fallenness “out there” is precisely where the church ought to be loud and joyful and insistent with her message.

Ultimately Christians do both:  Flee the world and connect with the world. But we flee the world to save it.  God calls us out of the world into the communion of the church to save us. The world is passing away, but there is a new world right in the midst of this dying place, the church, where Christ crucified is present and given as gift. This message and life is what the church engages the world with: new life right here in your midst.

This is not easy. Ringing bells in this noisy culture we live in can seem futile. The cars rush past with their windows up. But we keep ringing for God is calling sinners to His church and the sweet music of the Gospel  never fails to do its work.

The Rev. Paul Gregory Alms is pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church, Catawba, N.C.

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5 Responses to Church Bells Are Calling

  1. David Reinhardt May 12, 2015 at 10:23 am #

    We have traditionally rung the outside tower bell after the organ prelude and before the first hymn. The pastor has taken to starting his announcements while the church bell is ringing so usually the bell rings only two or three times since it seems to be in conflict with the pastor. This bothers me but no one else seems to notice. Does the LCMS have any kind of policy regarding the etiquette of ringing the church bells. Thanks David

    • LCMS Church Information Center May 12, 2015 at 12:35 pm #

      Thank you for your question. Our LCMS Worship staff shared that there are no set guidelines for bell ringing; however, there are some pretty solid traditions about bell ringing. For example, they announce the beginning of the service and in certain places they are rung as a five-minute warning ahead of the final peal for the service. They are sometimes rung during the Lord’s Prayer or they may be rung at the laying on of hands as a child is confirmed in the faith. They are not rung after the Maundy Thursday until the singing of the Gloria in Excelsis at the Easter Vigil, but they sound throughout the Gloria in Excelsis at the Vigil. And of course, the bell tolls as the faithful are taken from the church to their final resting place. Some places announce the deaths in the parish with the tolling of the bell: six times for a woman; nine for a man; and then the age is tolled.

      I pray this information on the traditions of bell ringing is helpful.

      LCMS Church Information Center

  2. Carolyn J. and James E. Davis May 13, 2015 at 2:51 pm #

    We are so proud to be a lifelong member of the Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church LCMS Homedale Id. Thank you for the beautiful story about the Church Bells.

    God’s Blessing Carolyn J. Davis

  3. Marty May 13, 2015 at 8:26 pm #

    Nice article Greg . I have fond memories of the church of my childhood, Trinity, Peoria Illinois. the church bells always rang at the beginning of the service. On occasion I would be in the balcony to watch an usher ( maybe my dad or one of my brothers) pulling on the thick rope that rang the bell. Looked like quite a workout!

  4. LAJ May 15, 2015 at 7:12 am #

    We also rang the bell on Christmas Eve and on New Years Eve at midnight.

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