{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

This Holy Mystery: Our Misplaced Methodist Identity (Part 2)

What is worship? I know that sounds like an elementary sort of question. But really, what is worship? Why do we organize once a week, at an odd hour of the day, and sing strange songs and say funny words? I ask because I wonder sometimes if whether we really think about teaching a theology of worship in our local congregations.

Thanks to Christendom (and in particular, my context in the southeastern United States) attending worship is a bit of a cultural norm. The irony is that we no longer live in a world where Christianity and the church sits at the center of cultural life. Blue laws are a thing of the past and even my state of Georgia is beginning to ease into the idea of selling alcohol on Sundays. These aren’t necessarily bad, they only point to a larger reality that Sunday is no longer observed by the wider community as a special day set apart during the week for Christian worship.

All of this raises the question, in a world where Christian worship is no longer accepted as the sole cultural norm, what does it mean to worship?

This is why worship as experience has been the driving force behind our theologies of worship for some time now. Seeker Services, Praise Services, Small Group Retreat Services, all of these have an implicit goal of generating an experience between the worshipper and the divine. This trend lays at the heart of the worship style debate that has dominated many local faith communities for 25 years or more.

“We need to worship like we’ve always worshipped, it’s been meaningful for us all this time.”

“If you want new people to come, you need to worship in a different way; one that will be attractive to someone outside of our circle.”

These are common responses in the debate of “traditional” vs. “contemporary” styles of worship. I intentionally put quotes around both terms because they are, by and large, misused by our local congregations.

Traditional worship tends to reflect only recent tradition. An aesthetic worship experience with fancy words and a push toward beauty and art as a focal point of worship is not very traditional at all. This doesn’t take away any of its beauty or grandeur, we just have to recognize that this style is rooted in much more recent tradition that we sometimes realize. It carried some ancient elements but also intrinsic goals of not only allowing the attendee to worship, but also to teach through beauty and art.

On the other hand, contemporary worship covers a wide spectrum of style and tools for worship. The average person in a local congregation may have their thoughts immediately go to screens, projectors, and electric guitars when they think of contemporary worship. But the truth is, the vast majority of so-called contemporary worship reflects a style that is now going on 25 years old. So we have to ask ourselves, how long before something can no longer call itself “contemporary.” Keep in mind, the misuse of a lable does not take away from the power and stirring nature of a service geared specifically toward heartfelt praise and adoration.

The problem with the discussion of style is not which style is better than the other. The problem is in the discussion itself as a whole. Why is style the driving force behind meaning in worship? Why is it that we see it fit to use worship as an evangelistic tool for our local church? Why is the question always posed in an either/or argument?

[My guess it is much of this is symptomatic of a generational divide in our churches and church leadership, but that’s a post for another day]

Worship is about participation in a larger reality; one that remains a mystery and yet where the very transformative power of this reality is found in its mystery. It is an exercise of praise, adoration, lament, proclamation, and fellowship. Faithful worship does not seek to create experiences with God. Instead it’s about creating space where experiences can occur. It may sound like a simple manner of semantics, but please note the emphasis in the two statements: one puts humans and human desire at the center and the other puts the worship of God at the center; the by-product of which can create space where the Holy Spirit can meet us by the surprising grace of God.

Issues of style become secondary to the worship of God. And the worship of God quickly becomes a statement not of our taste or preferences, but a statement of who are and who we long to be.

What does worship mean for you? And how does practicing Holy Commuinion every week fit into this framework?

This Holy Mystery: Our Misplaced Methodist Identity (Part 1)

“We’re not Episcopal or Catholic.”

“There’s not enough time to get it in during the hour of worship every week.”

“Hey, even the churches that do it every week have a hard time keeping it fresh; their folks get bored with it too.”

All of these are responses I’ve received from Methodist pastors and lay people when I bring up the issue of practicing Holy Communion on a weekly basis. We’re taught that John Wesley took Communion everyday of his life. He includes Holy Communion as one of the means of grace. So why is it that, by and large, modern Methodists practice the sacrament on a part-time basis?

I recently ran this question as a Facebook status update. It’s very fascinating to read the various responses. Some lay people joked that “we have to beat the Baptists to lunch.” This is funny but very true. It speaks to the importance (or lack thereof) we’ve given the institution in our weekly worship if it immediately brings to mind jokes about getting out of church late.

Methodist preachers who were circuit riders in the early days of the American Methodist Movement could only get around to their churches about once a month. Legend has it that for that reason, Methodists got into the routine of practicing Holy Communion on a monthly basis (and that’s the most often for many churches). Some pastors had up to 12 churches and so ordained clergy were on;y present once a quarter. For this reasons some may still practice on a quarterly basis.

Others will admit that we also avoid it because “it will hurt attendance” so we can’t do it too often (yes, I was actually told that by an ordained Methodist clergy person).

The Early Church set the precedence that Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, is more than just an aspect of worship–it’s the defining act that marks us as Christians. It is the reenactment of the incarnation of Jesus, the recounting of his sacrifice, and our call to “be for the world the Body of Christ redeemed by his blood.” For the early church, an “open table” policy was not practiced because one had to be a Christian to take part in the meal. Personally, I don’t think that aspect of the practice is theologically feasible in the 21st Century. Some may disagree. But the importance of the Table is no less reduced.

Justin Martyr (ca. 150) designed a basic Order of Worship that flows from Word to Table. One cannot have a service of Word without the observance of the Table because the sharing of the meal by the Body of Christ is the utmost response to the Word in the context of the act of worship. In other words, according to this view worship is not a full worship experience without a participation in the Lord’s Supper.

So why is it that the majority of our congregations do not adhere to this emphasis? Do we not recognize this as a change in church practice? If we cite history for our reasoning, then the greater question is “which history is most important?” The Protestant Reformation brought more of an emphasis to the Word part of worship, but the downfall of this has been an American Protestant culture that is suspect of things too liturgical. Either way, these are important questions to be asking ourselves; much more important questions on worship substance rather than the tired, old questions of style.

Part 2 of this post:
What are the underlying meanings of worship and how do we miss them by failing to practice this sacrament on a weekly basis?

The Sacredness of Everyday Life

I have a friend who recently exclaimed after two weeks of trying to follow a Lenten discipline, “This faith thing is just too stressful! How does anyone manage?”

Faith is hard. I can’t lie about that fact. It’s probably one of the hardest things to try and adhere to in life-acknowledging that you’re okay with the fact that something beyond yourself is in control. It’s takes real guts to have faith sometimes (although I would also say it takes real guts to not have faith too, but that’s for another post). Seeking to create and adhere to various practices and beliefs can begin to weigh on a person. In world that’s chaotic as it is, wouldn’t it just be easier to have faith when it’s convenient? Well, many of us do just that.

But for a moment, what if faith and life as a disciple were not that “difficult” as we sometimes make it out to be? Or maybe a better way to put it: what if we didn’t have to go to such extremes to search out and find ways to practice faith-what if all we needed were eyes to see opportunities and signs right in front of us?

The idea that faith had to offer meaning is a more modern construct in understanding what faith actually is. Early Christians didn’t practice faith because they felt inadequate and needed to find meaning in life-they did it because somewhere along the way they went through a process of transformation where they were taught that practicing faith is something you did because it was who you were.

As Christians, our baptism gives us a new identity-one where we don’t have to search long and far for meaning and worth in faith. Rather, this identity in Christ calls us not to care if we get any so-called meaning whatsoever out of faith practices and experiences-it’s about participating in something larger than we are.

It’s because of this reality that everyday life can be full of a plethora of encounters with the Divine. Faith isn’t something we compartmentalize into our “spiritual life” but it is, instead, the lenses we use to focus on the everyday and even mundane routines of life. It’s what helps you notice the beauty of a Spring morning in spite of the stress of “yet another Monday morning.” It’s what helps you laugh at the odd nature of children at play even when they’re steady working your nerves into a frenzy 5 minutes later.

It’s in the hidden moments of everyday life, when the mundane meets the Sacred, that we discover a God who can’t wait to reach out and be with us. And it’s when we’re able to slip up and see these moments amid the clutter of our lives, in all of their eccentric beauty, that we’re gradually formed a little more into who God desires for us to be. It’s not high-minded theological discourse we’re talking about; but rather, it’s about the muck and mire where the stuff of life becomes the very places where the Holy Spirit meets us anew. And we’re reminded in these simple moments-maybe more than the “mountain-top churchy moments”-that we’re not alone, God is with us.

What if We Can’t “Make Disciples”?

Go ask any church leader what they see as the mission of the Church in the world and they might quote Matthew 28:19-20 to you:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

I’m a United Methodist pastor and we make sure people know its our mission. Just read paragraph 120 of our Book of Discipline:

The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world

Now we could get bogged down into a discussion of etymology and debate Greek participles and cognates and how they could possibly change the traditional interpretation of this passage. But instead, let’s discuss the hidden meaning that quietly lies behind the phrase: “Make disciples.” Besides the fact that it makes for a much more interesting discussion, I think the meaning behind the actual meaning reveals a lot more than we might be willing to admit about how we view evangelism and discipleship in lieu of our “mission” as the Church.

Maybe it roots back to our American heritage and the impact of the Industrial Revolution. This, plus the framework established by a world of knowledge firmly grounded in the Enlightenment, gives us a systematic understanding of the world and everything in it. Life is put in terms of production. Success is measured in business-model terminology. Companies are run on “supply and demand” terms that emphasize creation, implementation, and finished products. We constantly look for “solutions” and “fixes” to all of the major problems of life. If there is any mystery in life, we’ll dissect until of its guts are out and exposed. Then we’ll put it back together only to seek to figure out a faster way to do it next time. In essence, we identify a problem, attach a good solution and voila-problem solved.

Many of those in seats where their voices are heard the loudest in our institutional churches would lead us to believe that churches can become vibrant again if we just simply find the “right formula” and implement it. The seduction of the bigger-is-always-better life lures us into believing that measurable growth is how we tell that something is functioning well. Discipleship is a concept judged in terms of “progress” and “measurable growth”-just as many churches are. “Benchmarks” are established as a means to evaluate the “success” of our work. And “making disciples” is the business terminology we use to emphasize this need for growth.

To “make disciples” leads us to believe it’s our mission to convert those who we deem as “not yet converted” and “make them a disciple of Jesus Christ.” Forget that this mindset led to many injustices during the height of Colonialism. The object of this game of church is to help those “over there” realize that they really want to be a part of what we have “over here.”

There are a couple of fundamental disconnects with this mindset. First, operating under these terms sets up an inherent position of power on the part of the “one who makes” and a position of subjectivity on the part of the “one who is made.” Being a disciple does not put us into a position of power entitling us to “take” the Gospel anywhere. Nor are we called to “produce” disciples in our local churches. To invite someone to church and introduce this framework tells a would-be Christian that they are inherently lacking in some capacity and are not worthy until they have exactly what we have to offer. The problem here is, who really wants to come be a part of something that tells you from the time you enter its doors that you’re second-class to those who are gathered there already?

Second, if our so-called mission is to “make” disciples, the implicit notion is that in order to “make a disciple” one must already “be made.” The truth we hate to admit is sometimes folks outside of our churches know the Good News better than we do inside our churches. We can’t shy away from the ways in which those from the outside of our religious circles can bring the Good News of Jesus to us inside religious circles. It’s not about “taking” Christ anywhere-it’s about finding where Christ is outside of our normal circles of influence.

In the end, all of this language of “making” or “producing” disciples is fundamentally flawed because there’s no such thing as a disciple who is “made.” We’re all on a continual process of growing, maturing, failing, and succeeding as we hope to merely keep up with where God calls us to be on our journey as disciples. The condescending notion that we could ever hope to “make” a disciple is laughable at best. How do we really make something when we don’t know for sure what exactly it’s supposed to look like? This doesn’t mean we don’t tell the story of God’s transforming love for the world. On the contrary, it means when we realize that it’s God’s message, we should concern ourselves more with being God’s people in the world and less with futile attempts to convert people to “our way” of understanding faith.

The truth is that at our very best, all we can hope to offer another is a nod in a good direction and a partner for the journey. We don’t have the answers or even all of the keys on how to finish this journey in one piece. Most days, we have no idea how to plod the road of discipleship or where it will eventually take us. But we do it anyways, in the hopes that we’re not alone. And so what if we have no idea how to actually make a disciple? So what if the best we can do is invite people into the mystery that is following Jesus? Let’s just take a deep breath and relax. The stress of “production” can weigh a lot on people. It’s okay to not have a solution for this one. It’ll make for better stories along the way.

How to Get More Young People in Church

Rather than coming up with an original post, I found one that says a lot of what I want to say on a topic but haven’t put words to. This is a very thought provoking post, albeit somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that I believe was a repost from an Episcopal Bishop in Arizona. I’d love for this to start a conversation on a topic I know many of us who are professional pastors have at least worried about. But also, those who might have children or family or friends who are in the young adult category, what do you think? Enjoy!

by The Rt. Rev. Kirk S. Smith/Bishop of Arizona
One of the most frequently asked questions I face as I visit parishes is, “How do we get young people to come to church?” I thought this week I would allow a genuine young person to answer that question. Tamie Fields Harkins served for four years as our chaplain to NAU Episcopal Canterbury Fellowship. Last week she had this to say about that question on her blog, which I share with you here.


Here is a step-by-step plan for how to get more young people into the church:

1. Be genuine. Do not under any circumstances try to be trendy or hip, if you are not already intrinsically trendy or hip. If you are a 90-year-old woman who enjoys crocheting and listens to Beethoven, by God be proud of it.

2. Stop pretending you have a rock band.

3. Stop arguing about whether gay people are okay, fully human, or whatever else. Seriously. Stop it.

4. Stop arguing about whether women are okay, fully human, or are capable of being in a position of leadership.

5. Stop looking for the “objective truth” in Scripture.

6. Start looking for the beautiful truth in Scripture.

7. Actually read the Scriptures. If you are Episcopalian, go buy a Bible and read it. Start in Genesis, it’s pretty cool. You can skip some of the other boring parts in the Bible. Remember though that almost every book of the Bible has some really funky stuff in it. Remember to keep #5 and #6 in mind though. If you are evangelical, you may need to stop reading the Bible for about 10 years. Don’t worry: during those 10 years you can work on putting these other steps into practice.

8. Start worrying about extreme poverty, violence against women, racism, consumerism, and the rate at which children are dying worldwide of preventable, treatable diseases. Put all the energy you formerly spent worrying about the legit-ness of gay people into figuring out ways to do some good in these areas.

9. Do not shy away from lighting candles, silence, incense, laughter, really good food, and extraordinary music. By “extraordinary music” I mean genuine music. Soulful music. Well-written, well-composed music. Original music. Four-part harmony music. Funky retro organ music. Hymns. Taize chants. Bluegrass. Steel guitar. Humming. Gospel. We are the church; we have an uber-rich history of amazing music. Remember this.

10. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

11. Learn how to sit with people who are dying.

12. Feast as much as possible. Cardboard communion wafers are a feast in symbol only. Humans can not live on symbols alone. Remember this.

13. Notice visitors, smile genuinely at them, include them in conversations, but do not overwhelm them.

14. Be vulnerable.

15. Stop worrying about getting young people into the church. Stop worrying about marketing strategies. Take a deep breath. If there is a God, that God isn’t going to die even if there are no more Christians at all.

16. Figure out who is suffering in your community. Go be with them.

17. Remind yourself that you don’t have to take God to anyone. God is already with everyone. So, rather than taking the approach that you need to take the truth out to people who need it, adopt the approach that you need to go find the truth that others have and you are missing. Go be evangelized.

18. Put some time and care and energy into creating a beautiful space for worship and being-together. But shy away from building campaigns, parking lot expansions, and what-have-you.

19. Make some part of the church building accessible for people to pray in 24/7. Put some blankets there too, in case someone has nowhere else to go for the night.

20. Listen to God (to Wisdom, to Love) more than you speak your opinions.
This is a fool-proof plan. If you do it, I guarantee that you will attract young people to your church. And lots of other kinds of people too. The end.

On the Net: http://owlrainfeathers.blogspot.com/2010/11/ah-church.html

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