Seven worship truths for our time...

NOTE: Here are my notes for this coming Sunday's worship message: January 25th at 10:30 am. After worship we will be hosting two Fellowship of Reconciliation guests recently back from a peace mission to Iran. Join us if you can...

To say that there is confusion and polarization when it comes to the meaning of Christian worship in the 21st century is an understatement. There is bewilderment and dissent about the content and purpose of this sacred Sunday hour, there is division and uncertainty about what each of the elements of worship mean and accomplish and there are often generational, class and cultural tensions swimming around in the mix, too.

What’s more, there are profound and practical theological differences at play in how worship is experienced within the wider Christian community: the contemporary Evangelical world, for example, is currently grounded in a style of worship that is mostly performance and spectator based while our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers remain fixed within their rituals. Some speak of worship as a holy obligation, others consider it a time of personal spiritual enrichment and renewal and still others believe that worship is essentially a sweet and wonderful waste of time – a Sabbath – that documents just how much they trust the Lord.

+ Some people hate new music, others despise the old standards. Some of us would prefer to celebrate Eucharist every week while others don’t really get what’s going on with the bread and wine no matter how many times we get it.

+ There are those who think that worship is just for adults and those who yearn for an inter-generational experience. There are some who love the fullness of musical expressions – Bach and the Beatles as well as Russian, African and European choral treasurers – and those who only come for the sermon – or just for a few minutes of quiet and beauty amidst the hustle of life.

I think of the Sunday School teacher who was helping her students learn the value of worship. As she was preparing to take them into the Sanctuary she asked, “Does anyone know why it is important that we keep quiet in church?” To which one little girl said without missing a beat, “So that we don’t wake the people who are sleeping?” Could be…!

Today, as I draw to a close my reflections on our proposed mission and vision statement, I need to think out loud with you about worship: what it means in our tradition and why we do it in certain ways. As a part of our democratic process, you see, the word “worship” was recently added to the statement so that it now reads: "In community with God and each other we gather to worship, to reflect on our Christian faith, to do justice and share compassion.” It is a good and helpful addition because not only is worship the front door through which people learn about our way of being the Church, it is also how our lives are shaped into something resembling Christ’s people in the world.

So what I want to do this morning is share seven key principles about worship with you – I’ll even give you a cheat sheet – so that we might better understand what practices and ideas have shaped our tradition. Everyone, you see, is entitled to their opinions and preferences but worship is really not about opinion and personal style: worship is fundamentally about bringing ourselves into relationship with God.

Worship is about God – much less about you and me – and that is often forgotten. But before I go deeper into the heart of worship let me state something about worship music that needs to be said boldly and clearly: it does not matter WHAT style of music we use in worship – secular, sacred, traditional, contemporary, folk, rock, jazz or classical – unless the music is vibrant and helps us open our hearts to God, it is a problem. Music must help us all go beyond ourselves and into the heart of our Living God. Our quest – our goal and purpose – is to be with God in worship and music must support rather than hinder this act.

Also, music style does not build a church. The large evangelical congregations are NOT large because they have a great band or do worship in a certain style. These things can help, but the fact of the matter is unless the living spirit of Christ is present so that people can feel and experience it, it doesn’t matter what kind of music you perform. Worship must touch and heal our hearts and souls and that can happen with Gregorian chant, German chorales or soft rock praise choruses. So let's disabuse ourselves of any trite notions we might hold concerning music, yes?

To advance the cause of Christ in this generation, we need to look carefully at the essential elements and truths that have shaped worship in our tradition and see what they tell us. I will be using some of the wisdom from the Calvin Institute of Worship in Grand Rapids, MI to do this as well as the writing of both Marva Dawn and Martin Copenhaver.

First, Christian worship needs to evoke a vivid awareness of the beauty, majesty, mystery and holiness of our triune God. Worship is where our knowledge and imagination about who God is and what is important to God takes place. We learn of creation – and redemption. We are invited into confession and forgiveness – and all of it happens in community. This is not merely intellectual or experiential – but all that and more. Worship invites the use of all our senses and the totality of our being so that we are awakened to the true nature of God - to the beauty and majesty, mystery and holiness - of the Living God. So, tell me, how does this happens among us?

Second, worship invites the full and conscious participation of the whole people of God – intergenerationally – as a community of faith. We are not a family but a freely chosen community of young and old, gay and straight, male and female, rich and poor and all of those in-between. Further, worship is NOT just what I do – or the organist or the musicians – it is what WE do TOGETHER. And one of the key functions of what we do together is break down barriers for this is at the heart and soul of Jesus Christ. So, let's think of how this happens here...

Third, authentic worship brings us into a deep engagement with Scripture. We read from the tradition – we reflect and ponder how and why it matters – we work with truths beyond our habits and choose to grow in the ways of God. Scripture, you see, is one of the ways we wrestle with the counter-cultural commitments of our God. It gives us perspective.

William Willimon, Bishop of the Alabama region of the United Methodists, once said that one of the reasons teens were so prone to suicide is that they have no perspective. They have little history and no appreciation of the complexities of a long life because... they haven't lived it. One of the values of reading and reflecting on scripture, therefore, has something to do with cultivating a long view of real life. It also grounds us in a sense of hope even when the evidence is murky.

Fourth, worship involves both the joyful and solemn celebration of baptism and Holy Communion. Why both joyful and solemn? When is communion joyful? When is it solemn? And in baptism: what is joyful in this sacrament? And what makes it deep or solemn?

Fifth, worship must encourage an open and discerning approach to culture. One scholar said that Christians need to be able to bring into worship elements that are universal and beyond culture as well as those things that ground us in culture or context; at the same time we need to always keep alive our counter-cultural perspective. So we use symbols and acts that connect with the human experience beyond place and time, find ways to be relevant to the questions and challenges of our generation always in the spirit of Jesus who is breaking down barriers and bringing people together in hope.

Sixth, worship always cultivates a disciplined creativity with the arts. If God is the first creator – and creativity is one of the ways we live into God’s image – then worship must utilized everything in the creative arts to open our hearts, minds and souls. Music, to be sure, but not just music: dance and sculpture, visual arts, poetry, humor, touch, smell and movement. Too often worship in our tradition has been a head only affair – if you couldn’t read… you were in trouble - so how is that changing?

Seventh, worship must embody the radical hospitality of Christ. Unless all are welcomed, Jesus is not fully present. Unless we are intentional about the embrace, someone will be ignored.

One of our texts today tells the story of Jonah: Jonah had no interest in expanding God's grace. When God commanded that he go into a different culture and share a word of judgment and healing, he refused. He did everything possible to keep his prejudice intact and his associations homogenous. And after trying to run away and being thwarted, he angrily spoke God's word to his enemies only to find them repenting - and this angered Jonah, too. He is a prime example of what we must always fight against when it comes to God's new song: God calls us into new situtations, new communities, new possibilities of serving and sharing hope and healing.

Why? Because this is God's chosen way for spreading the love of Christ - and if we always do what we've always done, we'll always get what we've always got! And Jesus is clear: what we've always gotten is just a pale image of the beauty, mystery and majesty of God's love. So, worship is bathed in hospitality.

Seven key ingredients that describe what is at the heart of worship on Sunday morning; by way of summary let me put it like this: Worship is an encounter with the Living God in a conscious way. It is creatively grounded in scripture and our senses. In joyful and profound ways, worship leads each of us into the presence of Christ’s radical grace and offers hope and healing to all.

Each of these factors is important and inter-related and it is hard to have authentic Christian worship if any are missing. Together there is history and innovation, tradition and creativity, celebration of the holy as well as meeting the needs of our humanity in the presence of the Living Christ who calls us to follow him. Jesus invites us to become our best selves, beloved, those who will pick up our Cross and follow. So let those who have ears to hear: hear.


Black Pete said…
A thought occurs that responses like the child's to the question of quiet in worship is the lack of education and awareness on worship and faith in so many people.

In other words, the presence of unexamined habit.

I could go on into essay-length on this, but I would say that an educated worship body is one that would be more likely to realize your 7 points on worship than a habitual, uneducated one.

Question is, how do we do that?
Black Pete said…
Replace "is" in the first paragraph with "shows".
Katherine E. said…
I'd love to worship in church some day!
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RJ said…
Great question, Peter, and Katherine's note re: aching to worshlip IN worship is one I know all too well. My hunch is this: preaching/teaching about what is at work, the creation of truly inspiring music that lifts us out of ourselves, participation in prayer and dialogue, lots of humor and enough quiet space and beauty to help us rest. More soon...

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