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Toward a Strategy of Worship

Toward a Strategy of Worship


Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a great deal about strategy in connection with Christian living. It started when I was invited to preach the Sunday after Veterans Day, which was also the Sunday after the election. I used the first chapter of Colossians to talk about our identity and the means that we, as Christians, have to impact our culture. We have an identity in Christ, an authority in Christ, and a mission in Christ. The key is “in Christ.”

There are some keys to thinking strategically about anything. First, you have to know what it is you are trying to accomplish. Second, you need to know what resources are available. Third, you have to know what limitations there are in how those resources are applied. Use of resources without reference to purpose is largely waste. Anything accomplished is random.

I’ve noted over the years that one can tell whether a church is alive and active by asking a couple of members what the mission of the church is. This can apply both generally (the Christian mission of the Gospel Commission), and specifically (what is the mission of this church). Tactics is more specific and local. Individual tactics can be successful in a strategic failure. This usually results from improperly planned overall strategy. To see some excellent application of tactics in a mission that was a strategic failure, watch the movie A Bridge Too Far. In my sermon I quoted Gen. Robert H. Barrow, commandant of the Marine Corps from 1979-1983 who said, “Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.”

Here’s some tactical thinking about worship:

  • We had good attendance today for our special service. We should do that more often.
  • Lots of people complimented me on my sermon after the service. I must have done something right.
  • Some people walked out. We need to fix it.
  • If you didn’t like the service, it’s probably your attitude.
  • Worship’s about God, not about you. Forget about your desires.
  • I realize that nobody remembers what I say in my sermons even until next week, but I’m still preparing for the same sort of sermon next week.

I know the second to the last statement, “worship is about God” is repeatedly stated with great piety. I disagree however. Worship is certainly all about God, but it’s all about the worshipers as well, in that 100%-100% sense that orthodox theology brings. Usually “it’s all about God” is used as an excuse by people who are putting on a worship service (and I use putting on, in the sense of a performance intentionally), and doing so badly. It’s there excuse for leaving the worshipers behind. I don’t like “I have to be fed” or “I need music that I like” any better. All of these are narrowly focused and frequently selfish in orientation. In all cases they’re very much tactical. Did we get what we wanted out of this week’s service?

Our starting point for worship must be to ask what worship is. Let me quote Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World:

… But this [cultic] is not the original meaning of the Greek word leitourgia. It means an action by which a group of people become something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals–a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It means also a function or “ministry” of a man or of a group on behalf of and in the interest of the whole community. (p. 21, Nook edition)

There is a function of the gathering of the saints in worship, but worship does not occur exclusively in this “worship service.” There is a purpose in our gathering, which is to constitute and reconstitute ourselves as a community ready to be Christ in the world (our identity in Christ), to understand the reality of what Christ has done through his death and resurrection and how we are incorporated in that (our authority in Christ), and the empowering and impetus to carry that result back out into the world. (I highly commend Alexander Schmemann’s work, whether or not you are a fan of Orthodox theology. For the Life of the World is a powerful little book. I may develop some of these ideas further on this blog, but for now I’m just assuming them due to space limitations.)

So at the starting point of our search for a strategy of worship is to realize that it is not a teaching event, or a singing event, nor is it necessarily a ritual event. It may be partly all of those things, but as long as we don’t consider what our real goals are, why we gather for this event, we may carry out every worship service over “a bridge too far.”

Here are some things to consider, I think:

  1. How do we gather the people together? Questions of music, format, buildings, PowerPoint presentations, pews, advertising, and so far can occur at this point, but all must be subordinated to the overall purpose. And we might want to ask a more important question: Have the people who gather in the church experienced becoming the church? Have the experienced the presence of God? Have they sensed the reality of that community? If they experience none of these things, I believe that in time no matter how entertaining you may make the time, it will still be a failure.
  2. What do we do to make people a community? Schmemann works through the meaning of the liturgy, and I find his interpretation powerful. Yet I don’t think what he outlines is the only approach that can be authentic and successful.
  3. What do we do to engage people as a community with God? This would require many words. I’ll just leave the question open.
  4. What do we do that helps us leave empowered to be Christ in the world?

If we aren’t accomplishing these things I question whether we are truly engaged in full Christian worship. We may be taking stabs at it. We may be doing a great job getting across the bridge that’s in front of us, but are we becoming the body of Christ?

I think our general failure is made evident by the way in which we depend on Caesar’s methods to accomplish cultural goals. We sense that our witness to Jesus Christ is not accomplishing what we believe we need to see. Perhaps we need to reconsider whether our witness to Jesus as the Anointed One is genuine and whether our activities on a Sunday morning are more about keeping the church calendar moving than about being Christ in the world.

What do you think?

Seven Marks: Christ Centered Gatherings

Seven Marks: Christ Centered Gatherings

nt church booksIt has been some time since I posted my last installment of my discussion of the book Seven Marks of a New Testament Church by David Alan Black, along with some commentary from the books Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel, by Bruce Epperly and Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations by Ruth Fletcher. My most recent installment was actually an excursus, Is There Such a Thing as a New Testament Church?. (You can find most entries in the series by searching for the words “seven marks.”)

9781631990465mI find this topic as a whole, and this chapter in particular, are examples of a topic where we should read material from people outside our own tradition. We need to strip away some of the “stuff” that has gathered in our denominations and churches that keeps us from being Christ-centered. It’s easier to be building-centered, tradition-centered, or us-centered. All three of my authors suggest things that would take us away from those three centers and ask us to seek what is Christ-centered.

Dave Black cites “They devoted themselves to … the breaking of bread.” in the heading to this chapter and indicates he sees this as a reference to celebration of the Lord’s Supper (also called Communion or the Eucharist). I was interested in how many references I had to choose from in all three books. One of the key points Dave makes is this:

And how often was the Supper observed? If we compare Acts 20:7 (“On the first day of the week, when we came together to break bread….”) with Rev. 1:10 (“On the Lord’s Day….”), it seems that it was observed every Lord’s Day, that is, every Sunday. (p. 33)

Of course, the frequency is not the most important point. I would suggest that the most important point is that this is something instituted by Jesus which calls us to remember his incarnation and sacrifice for us. It centers the act of worship around the person of Jesus who is, or should be, the center of our faith and worship. Thus, “Christ-centered gatherings.” Now there is more than performing a certain ritual to a Christ-centered gathering. In fact, if your communion service is just an act of ritual, you may well have a problem in your church. Let me bring in Ruth Fletcher on this point:

ThriveBecause individuals who participate in the worship life of transforming congregations will have an active daily prayer life, images and words they encounter in the corporate worship will connect them with experiences of the Spirit they have had during the week. A phrase in a song, in a reading, or in the proclamation may well remind them of a time in which they experienced a call upon their lives, a clarity of purpose, or an impetus to take compassionate action on behalf of someone else. Those moments of resonance will be what infuse the worship service with a sense of integrity and power.

Worship in transforming congregations will offer reminders of what the congregation is trying to become. (p. 134, emphasis mine)

I would note that Dr. Fletcher is part of a denomination that practices communion on a weekly basis at every worship service. The question here is the next step. Why is it that we want to have Christ-centered gatherings? I think it is because of the last line, which I have highlighted above. We come together to center ourselves on Christ, and thus to prepare to be the body of Christ in the world when we leave in whatever way the opportunity presents itself.

This is critical: If your worship service is not leading you to service, to acting as the hands and feet of Jesus, to being a witness, and to proclaiming the good news, it can hardly be Christ-centered. Certainly we focus on Jesus, but if we do so simply to get a dose of “specialness” for ourselves, to satisfy our own emotional, spiritual, and social needs we will fall short. By this I don’t mean that our spiritual needs are unimportant. They are, in fact, critically important. But they will never be satisfied unless we carry what we experience in worship out to wherever it is we go during the week.

Now think of your last worship service. How much of the “worship service” led to actual service out in the world? I suspect that it cannot be real worship in the sanctuary of a church unless it leads to the presence of Christ, through you, outside. We tread the room in which we meet as a sanctuary. It even has some architectural similarities to a temple. But it is each one of us as a group, no, better, as a community, who is filled with the Holy Spirit and called the temple of the Holy Spirit.

I would say that communion then is:

  • Christ-commanded
  • Christ-centered
  • Christ-commissioned

And we are the body of Christ, commissioned to be his body in the world. What better way can we have to remind us of this than to participate in communion?

I would like to suggest further that communion, and likely church fellowship in New Testament times was not a large amount of liturgy with a moment when a small piece of bread is provided and dipped into wine or juice, for that one moment of “communion.” Rather, when the saints gathered, they shared a meal. Many of our churches are too large to share a meal on this basis, and that in itself may be a problem. Large churches, of course, can have small groups that gather and have this type of communion. If we are to spur one another on to good works (see Hebrews 10:24), we need to see one another, hear one another, and know one another. In such a circle we can draw our community together and prepare to extend our circle.

9781938434648sBruce Epperly notes:

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch reminds me of the origins of the American denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). From the very beginning, Disciples of Christ have practiced open communion and have been a model for the ecumenical movement’s communion hospitality. In the early nineteenth century, Thomas Campbell, a newcomer to the United States from Ireland, was appalled by sectarianism among religious groups in the new nation. Even Presbyterians from different sects would not take communion with one another. Inspired by his vision of the New Testament church, Campbell welcomed everyone to the Communion Table. “Don’t fence the table,” he proclaimed. “Anyone who seeks to follow Jesus as the Christ is welcome, regardless of denominational background.” As early Disciples of Christ proclaimed: “We have no creed but Christ.” Our unity in Christ and our allegiance to Christ compels us to expand the circle of his love to include everyone. (p. 78)

I think that there should be nothing that does not lead us forward into a new sense of mission. But what happens in our churches? Do we feel a welcome such that we are nearly compelled to share this with others? Some may object that the call is not to the church, but if the church (building) is where the church (the body of Christ) meets, then should it not be inviting people to it as Jesus did? When Jesus Christ was here in the body, people flocked to him. He didn’t have to hunt for them because there was something there that they wanted.

We need that attractiveness and welcome in the church. Not the excitement of new glitzy programs, entertainment, and excitement, but the welcome that says that here is a place where the longing of my soul can be satisfied. Here there is not just a building but a community of people whose unity and love for one another is so special that I want to be a part of it, and that they welcome me to be a part of them.

I’ve met people who want to be prophets. Some have asked me to pray that God would call them as such. I always ask them if they are aware of the kind of life led by prophets in scripture. Is this what you really want? Similarly we need to ask ourselves about being the body of Christ. If our gatherings are Christ-centered, they will not be “me-centered.” If we are to be the body of Christ we must remember what happened to the body of Jesus, the Christ. Then, as we look to close our doors to those in need, even to our enemies, to those who hate and would kill us, we need to remember who it was that He gave his life for.

Christ-centered? We need it. We claim to want it. Do we want it enough?

Another Note on the Eucharist Celebrated Weekly

Another Note on the Eucharist Celebrated Weekly

9781631990113… at least.

Bob Cornwall shares a bit on this topic, including, of course, a link to his book in Energion’s Topical Line Drives series.

I often don’t like John Calvin, but I do like this view of the Eucharist. I don’t see the need for some kind of physical description, but I do believe that through carrying out this common ritual as commanded by Jesus we share in community.

I like the weekly celebration as part of the service. Our pastor normally connects the celebration with the topic of his sermon and makes it a combination of traditional elements and up-to-the-moment connections. I recently experienced this with someone who read the liturgy word for word, and I must say that the difference was striking to me. I think there are ways to make traditions both familiar, so people feel able to participate and also new, so that participating is an uplifting challenge.

In any case, check out Bob’s article.

A Note on Sacraments and Sacramental Acts

A Note on Sacraments and Sacramental Acts

Meditations on According to JohnI’ve generated a bit of surprise by my agreement with Dr. Herold Weiss (Meditations on According to John, chapter 18) in last Thursday’s video study from the gospel according to John (not to mention my Sunday School class), that the gospel is not attempting to institute or to teach sacraments.

As a foundation to this brief note, you might want to either read Weiss’s chapter (pp. 151-158), watch my video (about 1 hr, embedded below), or both. I’m just going to follow up on a couple of items here. I suspect not that many people will watch an hour of me talking, so I will try to make these notes self-contained.

First, the video:

My view of the sacraments is simple: I think that there are public actions and rituals that we take that reflect what is happening spiritually. I do not believe that the presence of Jesus in these activities is dependent on having ordained clergy to preside. I don’t believe that the rituals in themselves are valuable.

The value of sacramental acts is that they help us recognize and participate in the spiritual reality that is behind, in, and through them. Thus if I partake of communion, a shared meal, and then spend the following week withholding food from those in need, or cutting off fellowship from people I don’t like for various reasons, my act of communion has become a dead ritual.

Weiss discusses the difference between footwashing and communion in his chapter. One has become a sacrament and one a sacramental act, the latter rarely performed. I could perform the ritual act of footwashing, which rarely has the same impact or feeling that it would have had in Jesus’ time, and then go out and refuse to place myself in the service of others. In that case, the act of footwashing would be a dead and empty ritual as well.

In the video I relate the experience of my own baptism, at which time we celebrated, as Seventh-day Adventists do frequently, by washing one another’s feet. I was partnered with a Chamula gentleman (this occurred in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico when I was nine years old) who had walked for days to be at this event. We were both newly baptized. He laughed when it came time to wash my feet because I had shoes, while he had but sandals, and I had walked a half mile or so as opposed to days. Washing his feet was meaningful to me and has stuck with me.

Despite my views, however, I don’t go out offering formal services of the Eucharist as an unordained person. Despite the fact that I don’t think the presence of an ordained pastor should be required, this is an act that is, by nature, done in community. As a member of a United Methodist congregation, part of my duty is to act in community.

At the same time, I believe that I can and should make every meal a sacramental act. The greater joy I get from the celebration of communion in the church congregation is not that I believe God is more present there, but rather that it is an act I perform in community and covenant. Sometimes in order to be in community, we have to do things the way the community does them, whether we think these things are special or not.

At the same time I have become fully convinced of the concept of open communion, and by this I mean fully open. I have long accepted the notion that when Paul, in 1 Corinthians 11, talks about taking this “unworthily” he is talking about the way in which the celebration is done, not about the character of the person receiving it.

By nature of its source, in the shared meal, and its institution, which included offering it to Judas as he prepared to betray Jesus, I think this sacramental meal is intended to invite and not to exclude. It is reaching out, not commemorating our special status as members of some inner circle. Thus communion should be offered to all both in church and when we share our meals with others. I question the idea of a Christian sacrament that celebrates membership in the club.

But, you might say, what about baptism? Surely baptism can’t be for everyone!

Yes, baptism is different, yet it is different by its very nature. It is the testimony, the ritual representation of our dying with Christ and being raised with him to new life. It is a singular (generally) event. It does not celebrate how we have become special, but rather how we have chosen to give ourselves up and become part of a community, a community that, in turn, reaches out to draw others in.

And even here we invite anyone who wishes to testify to that, anyone who wishes to become a servant.

I think this becomes a problem when we see these events as a sort of initiation, bringing us into the club of the special, in which there are other special rituals in which only other special people can take part. The “in group” view of the people of God that many of us have, consciously or not, leads us to misread scripture. The Jews weren’t chosen by God to sit around and be special. They were chosen to be a blessing. Sometimes being chosen isn’t much fun. There’s the great line in “Fiddler on the Roof” when Tevye wonders if God couldn’t choose someone else for a while.

Christians, who are often anxious to appropriate the promises made to the Jewish people, are not nearly as often anxious to appropriate the calling, the tasks, and the negative responses of others. Being chosen, being “in” with God isn’t necessarily a picnic.

In conclusion, I suppose I could say that I have a high view of sacramental acts, and that I consider sacraments to be no more and no less. My high view says God is present and active in sacramental acts. The Holy Spirit works in and through them. But just as the rituals of tabernacle and temple didn’t magically accomplish forgiveness and reconciliation, but rather accompanied God’s actions, so these sacramental acts are filled with God’s presence when done “worthily.” (Note: I’m indebted to Jacob Milgrom, author of the Anchor Bible volumes on Leviticus among many other works, for my view of the relationship between ritual and divine action. Milgrom sees this presented, in contrast to some of the surrounding religions, in the way rituals are presented in Torah.)

Open Communion

Open Communion

I’ve always believe in open communion in the sense that any Christian should be permitted to participate. Over the last few years I’ve attended a church where truly open communion is practiced, because the pastors believe, with John Wesley, that this is a converting sacrament. So they state each time communion is offered that you don’t have to be a member of the church, or even a Christian, to participate. Jesus invites everyone.

I’m not at all prepared to debate the issue; I simply haven’t studied the theology enough. But I do have a couple of authors who are quite involved in it. One is Dr. Bob Cornwall, who will be writing a book on the Lord’s Supper for the Topical Line Drives series. (The book itself hasn’t yet been announced, but the contract is signed.)

In the meantime another author, Dr. Bob LaRochelle (I’d be in trouble without authors named Bob), who has a special perspective as a former Roman Catholic who is now a Protestant clergyman, is beginning a series of columns for on ecumenical issues, and his first column deals with communion.

I’m putting this on my personal blog because I’d like to see comments from some of my readers on this particular topic.

Experiencing Resurrection

Experiencing Resurrection

Adrian Warnock issued a 10 day empty grave challenge, asking Christian bloggers to write about the resurrection at some point before Easter. Even though I have yet to read his book (I’ll get to it sometime!), I thought I’d take him up on his challenge.

Now the fact is that my experience differs from Adrian’s in that I have found that most churches I have attended tend to be pretty happy about the resurrection, but much more likely to neglect the cross. They have generally been quite happy to discuss the resurrection without any concern for why it was necessary. Unfortunately, however, I believe that if one neglects the cross one can hardly fully understand the resurrection.

A song from my youth, Henry de Fluiter’s Homesick for Heaven:

I’m homesick for heaven, seems I cannot wait,
Yearning to enter Zion’s pearly gate;
There never a heartache, never a care,
I long for my home over there.

I may seem to be deviating from the topic, but I grew up with this concept. A desire for the coming of God’s kingdom is a kind of standard in Christian discourse. We want to go to heaven, with the obvious subtext “not too soon.”

Now I had always thought that I really was homesick for heaven. But it took the time when my son was sick and death was threatening to teach my what homesickness really meant. I am aware that I bring up this one incident constantly in discussing, but living through the death of a child is an event that will change your life for better or worse.

But the experience that I relate to the resurrection is not death, but an earlier time in our experience. James had gone through surgery to remove one lung, and was in intensive care. Prior to the surgery I had committed to teach a series each Sunday for a month at a church about 2 1/2 hours away, at least as I drive. The pastor told me he’d understand if I canceled, but he wasn’t going to withdraw the invitation.

Saturday night I stood by James’s bed side and dithered as to whether I could make it. James was trying to say something to me, but was muffled by the tubes, so I came closer so I could hear. He said one word to me: “Go!”

I went. On those trips I was sustained by the music of the kingdom. I recall in particular one song, “Singing with the Saints” —

I’ll be be sitting at the throne with an angel band,
Shoutin’ hallelujahs to the great I am
If you think it’s a dream, well it ain’t
I’ll be singing with the saints.

I played that music loudly all the way. One of those Sundays–I don’t think it was that first one because James was able to talk to me–my wife Jody tried to call me on the cell phone as I drove and I didn’t hear it ring. When I did notice the call and called back they were shocked that I had missed the call due to the music. You see, I very rarely listen to music that loudly.

But in that experience there were moments when I sensed I could feel the grass of the fields of heaven. I felt a homesickness for that land that I had never felt before. I understand that others whose view of life and whose faith (or lack of it) differs from mine. I know that they too endure great difficulties and come through them. But for myself, it was that part of my faith, not particularly the future hope, but the moments experiencing eternity here and now that sustained me. I realized that I was a native of that kingdom for just a moment. As St. John Chrysostom said of the patriarchs:

What then? Did they mean that they were “strangers” from the land that is in Palestine? By no means: but in respect of the whole world: and with reason; for they saw therein none of the things which they wished for, but everything foreign and strange.

Before that I only thought I was homesick.

I’m reminded of a quote from Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, p. 37:

…The Eucharist has so often been explained with reference to the gifts alone: what “happens” to bread and wine, and why, and when it happens! But we must understand that what “happens” to bread and wine happens because something has, first of all, happened to us, to the Church. It is because we have “constituted” the Church, and this means we have followed Christ in His ascension; because He has accepted us at His table in His Kingdom; because, in terms of theology, we have entered the Eschaton, and are now standing beyond time and space; it is because all this has first happened to us that something will happen to bread and wine.

In worship we are not merely commemorating historical events, or looking forward to future events, but we are experiencing our true homeland. When we truly get a taste of that true homeland it changes who we are and the way we look at the world.

When we study and meditate on the resurrection, I believe it should take us through that journey. We cannot do so without Good Friday and Silent Saturday. The first reminds us of the nature of evil and of the hardships we all encounter. It reminds us of the price of the kingdom. Silent Saturday is that time of waiting. Victory doesn’t come in an instant, but requires patience and determination. Easter Sunday is the victory of the kingdom.