Fourth Sunday after Easter, 2018
The second of our seven discipleship covenants is “Worship Weekly.” As you might imagine, I have been preaching on and encouraging folks coming to worship for over 30 years.
When I got to CPC there was a conversation about moving from one 10am service to 2 services. A group of self-selected folks met over six months or so to determine the whens and whats of establishing another service. Given our strong history of quality music, some wanted a service just like the current 11. Gee it would be great if the choir would do both services, they said.
Others argued for what they called “contemporary” worship, not realizing the term has little meaning anymore as 70’s style “contemporary” has morphed into a variety of worship forms.
Several lobbied for something in the middle. Polls were taken, the team visited other worship gatherings, and throughout, the one unifying desire for another worship service was convenience, not style. Folks were willing to attend a service style that was not their first choice, if the time was right.
So we launched AWE; Alternative Worship Experience, our 8:45 service.
Two months from now we’ll switch to our “summer worship schedule.” Over the last thirty years or so that has become a common experience in churches with multiple Sunday worship times. Summer schedules impact households, so the argument has gone, worship attendance and leadership volunteers drop, a single service conserves resources. And there is the added benefit we get to worship with folks we don’t see from the other service.
So we do that for a couple of months. Then when we return to two services invariably emails and comments arrive lamenting that with worship attendance down, it’s a bummer to see empty pews and chairs. Wouldn’t it be great if we just had one service? This year when the comments came there was an added twist, it would save resources. Particularly Jim and I would not have to work so hard on Sunday mornings. Now, I don’t know about Jim, but I appreciated the thought. There is a gentle flow to a Sunday with a single service at 10.
Of course there are all sorts of “traditional” things such changes bump against, Sunday School, the convenience of early worship, etc. So I set aside some time to let session discuss what they thought. In the course of 10 minutes, members of the session went from the named benefits of a single Sunday service and the stewardship of resources, to the complexities of modern culture and perhaps we should consider a service everyday of the week to meet everyone’s schedule.
I share all this with you to underline a grave crisis we have encountered. It is a crisis that is not specific to Chester. It is a crisis that has engulfed all of western Christianity. We have lost sight of what worship is. As with so much else in contemporary society, when it comes to our faith, we have become consumers. We have defined worship by our tastes and desires, not God’s. When it comes to worship, we want what we want, when we want it.
Forty-five years ago Frederick Buechner reminded us that to worship God “means to serve God.” He went on to say, “One way (we serve God) is to do things for God that God needs to have done –run errands for God, carry messages for God, fight on God’s side, feed God’s lambs…The other way is to do things for God that you need to do—sing songs for God, create beautiful things for God, give things up for God, tell God what’s on your mind and in your heart, in general rejoice in God and make a fool of yourself for God the way lovers have always made fools of themselves for the one they love.”
Buechner is channeling Paul. Immediately before our text in Colossians, Paul presented a list of ethical “don’ts” for faithful leaving. Almost as we might see a nagging parent remonstrating a child, in his phrase, he told us what “not to put on.” Then he switches to a more up-beat presentation of things “to put on” as faithful followers. Love is the knot that ties all the other graces and gives coherence to Christian life by supplying a driving force and motive. This is the key for Paul’s thought on the community living together.
Just as we have read it today, this letter would have been read in public meeting, in worship. It’s special significance in the worship setting is as encouragement to one another. Paul saw that when Christian disciples gather together to praise God, sing hymns, teach and encourage, we are given weapons for life.
Worship then, for Paul, takes on its true character not on Sunday alone, but every day as we live lives of “living sacrifice.” It is then, setting the agenda for what disciples do in the world and the spirit in which we fulfill our calling as disciples, that is, we are servants of God.
And that brings us back to our problem. Christian blogger Carey Nieuwhof tells folks he no longer attends church. The line makes him seem current with the trend of falling worship numbers across the country. But then Nieuwhof lets out his secret, since he is the pastor, not attending is a tough sell!
Then he makes his point, “Generations ago the church was a social and cultural hub as well as a missional hub. In addition to faith reasons people loved going to church because it was one of only a handful of options available in a community as well as the main way you connect with God.”
Now the problem is that we live in a culture drowning in social options. We also have the opportunity to have 24/7 access to anything Christian. When it comes down to it, Nieuwhof suggests there remain only two compelling reasons to go to church anymore: You don’t attend church, you are the church; and because you are bringing a friend with you or because you yourself are exploring Christianity.
First, as with the end of the worship wars over traditional vs. contemporary twenty years ago, we must own our guilt of slipping into a consumer mentality when it comes to worship. Consumers attend church, much as they would a concert, movie or stage production. Merely attending church doesn’t make us disciples because sitting in the back pews consuming church doesn’t make us very good at being the church.
As “God’s chosen ones” clothing yourself with Christ means living a life of discipleship for him by demonstrating God’s love serving others and sharing your faith with people. That’s different than consuming church. We are called to move beyond being a consumer and become a contributor.
And remember, gathering together was Jesus’ idea, not ours. Our contributing starts when we are together building one another up. Contributing the time and commitment, day in and day out, to be the church.
That second compelling reason for attending a Sunday morning gathering is you’re bringing a friend, or you are exploring your faith. This is a challenge for us to consider: designing worship experiences with those not yet in the room in mind.
It is worth noting one of the things about many growing churches today is they’ve become great at hosting experiences that unchurched people can access and ultimately love to attend. A significant aspect of preparing for those not yet in the room is hospitality. Creating not just welcoming spaces, training not just ushers, greeters and staff, but everyone of us to offer hospitality is a key ingredient of encouraging discipleship through weekly worship. In other words, serving others.
How we worship, when we worship, who and how many attend worship, then are not what we are to focus on. Ultimately our worship focus is about our spiritual maturity. Yet spiritual maturity is not about how much we know, it is about how much we love. Paul says love binds everything together in perfect harmony. For we are God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,” and our calling is to be bound together in the love of Christ Jesus our Lord. From that premise we can go forward to design how best to share that love in worship on this corner. As God’s chosen ones, how will you contribute to that effort, rather than consume it?