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

This Holy Mystery: Our Misplaced Methodist Identity (Finale?)

Let me begin by thanking everyone who has engaged me in this soapbox discussion via Twitter, Facebook, and this site. Good points are usually never put forth and articulated by a lone thinker. It takes a community to find good ideas and carve them into a shape that best fits a particular context in a particular time and space.

To recap, we have discussed the lack of a common Eucharistic Theology in the modern Methodist Church. And we’ve also discussed a basic theology of worship and how we misinterpret this as an issue of style.

Connecting the Threads
For a moment, let me attempt to address a question I raised in a previous post (and may have not been entirely clear in answering): What does it mean to worship? Plain and simple, we miss the true meaning of worship any time worship is seen as a means to an end. When worship is constructed as a means to an experience, or maybe worse, a evangelistic means to grow our churches, we have missed the mark. So how can we define worship correctly?

Definitions of Worship
Pope Pius X speaks of worship as “the glorification of God and the sanctification of humanity.” Irenaeus would add that the “glory of God is humanity fully alive.” This does not mean alive for a momentary “worship high” nor does it mean being alive in the so-called traditions of worshipping “like we’ve always done it.” It means that through regular corporate worship, we are transformed by affirming our identity as the Body of Christ. Slowly but surely our identities are changed through the regular practice of worship. Worship is not about creating experiences for participants, but rather about creating space where divine experiences can happen as acts of grace through the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, style takes a back seat to substance and regular practice.

Why Weekly Eucharist?
If the Eucharist is the visible symbol of the incarnation, and the means by which we gather together to share in the grace given through such a mystery, it is only logical to practice the sacrament as often as we can. Maybe logical is a bad word. How about faithful? Practicing the Eucharist is not necessarily the measurement of our faithful worship, but it is an identity marker by which our worship is understood to most visibly and faithfully tell the story of the gospel and share in the grace of God poured out on all of humanity (note: this is one reason why an “open table” is such a powerful testimony to the inclusivity of the gospel).

Final Thoughts?
I’ve wondered lately whether it is better to push for a decision from “on high” that all Methodist congregations should practice the Eucharist every week on the Lord’s Day, or whether we should approach the issue on a congregation-by-congregation basis. I’m still not sure I have a clear answer to that one. I do know that wherever I serve, I will lovingly and firmly push that we creatively think of how to incorporate this practice on at least a weekly basis in various forms of worship. And I know more people like me who are doing this very thing in their contexts as well. At least forums like this makes sure the issue remains a conversation topic. So I guess that’s a start. I guess slowly but surely we’re inching closer to making a reality those wonderful words declaring that we, by the grace of God, “might be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.”

An Exercise in Holy Conferencing

If you are a United Methodist, you might be aware that on April 6 there was a Leadership Summit held to attempt to address the major issues facing the United Methodist Church. The Summit was carried live on the web which allowed anyone to watch live as the conference took place. Many Annual Conferences (including mine) held large meetings where leaders gathered to watch together and discuss the major questions lifted up in the course of the event. The second hour alone was devoted to giving time for remote meetings to discuss questions in their respective room.

While many gathered among leaders on the district or annual conference level around the country, I watched in the privacy of my office at the church. But, I did take part in something very special–maybe even more so than a larger, more formal meeting around this Summit.

For those not familiar with Twitter, this is called a hashtag. If you search hashtags on Twitter you can find trending topics of discussion. Thanks to the hard work of Rev. Jeremy Smith you can take a look at the entire transcript of tweets around this topic. In the spirit of dashboards and scorecards (see major discussion points of the Summit) that’s 32 pages of tweets around this topic! There were so many tweets that this became one of the major trending topics on all of the Twitter for awhile yesterday.

The Rest of the Story…
So what does this mean? Well it means a few things. First, this means that when we attempt to address pressing issues facing the church, we need to take in to consideration that the Internet and Social Networking sites have allowed more people to be a part of the discussion. If more people are a part of the larger discussion, then more perspectives are offered and more time will be needed to truly hear the voices of everyone around the table.

Change on the Horizon?
This could be good or bad for our denominational structure. Again I reference the great work of Jeremy Smith. Have a look at this blog post that includes a word cloud collected from the various tweets. It’s a simple concept, the larger the word, the more often it was used. The smaller the word, the less often it was used. It’s a great visual display of reactions from the Summit. Notice the largest words here? I’ll let you make your own interpretations over the value of the larger words vs. the smaller words. All of this is to say reactions tell a lot of what was heard and also unheard. If technical words (words like “vital”, “structure”, “change”, or “leadership”) are more prevalent than adaptive words (“conversation”, “story”, or “vision”) then it says a lot as to how these issues are being approached. If the larger Twitter conversation does anything, it shows that top-down, technical solutions won’t easily solve adaptive problems.

Wesleyanism at its Best
One theme came to mind yesterday as I sat at my computer, one screen with the conference streaming live and another devoted to the Twitter discussion: Holy Conferencing. I saw connectionalism at its very best when conferencing sprung forth organically among United Methodists from all over the country. We probably didn’t hear much more than we already know. We probably didn’t learn very much at all. But if our leaders want evidence that there’s hope and life in the United Methodist Church, the website is: Twitter and be sure to search #umclead when you’re there. Maybe Wesleyan values such as connectionalism and conferencing aren’t dying anymore than the United Methodist Church is. Maybe it’s all simply changing into something different, new and even more faithful. I, for one, think Mr. Wesley would have been proud had he been on Twitter yesterday.

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.

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