Before we were known for our massive processes for doing ministry; before our bureaucracy grew to a size rivaling only The United States government; and before our Book of Discipline grew to the size of a graduate school textbook:
Methodists were known as a singing people.
Those were the days when the movement was new and fresh. People were excited to be apart of something new and growing. And thanks to John and Charles Wesley, singing was at the heart of what it meant to be a Methodist (so much so, Mr. Wesley felt it necessary to print “Rules For Singing” that all Methodists were to follow and which are still found on the first page of our United Methodist Hymnal).
As time has marched on, we’ve seen a great deal of evolution in worship. Styles have changed, some have been blended. We’ve evolved from a liturgical church with an emphasis on disciplined living through class meetings, to a denomination focused on revivals and being a central power in the nation, to a church in decline searching for an identity with various styles and influences vying for our attention. All the while, we’ve tried to discover and rediscover what it means to worship God in such a way that gives proper praise to the Triune God and also seeks to connect us to God and each other in meaningful ways.
In that spirit, I would like to make a modest proposal:
Let’s have fewer choir anthems, fewer solos, less volume from our praise bands, and turn our focus back to congregational singing.
I know this may sound crazy at first. Who doesn’t love a stirring anthem or a moving offertory solo? Who doesn’t love hearing their favorite praise song led by that worship band who knows right where the drum solo or guitar riff goes to make the song soar to a new level? Who doesn’t enjoy going to worship on Sundays to hear talented, and in many cases professional, singers and musicians showcase their talents in ways that we only wish we could do?
But worship is not about listening — it’s about participating.
If church leaders fear that people are becoming consumers of worship, then we need to plan worship that places the average worshipper in the role of participant and not observer. There’s already a big chunk of the worship service devoted to listening to a sermon (15 minutes…or 25 minutes…or 45 minutes). That time needs to be balanced with opportunities for the gathered assembly to offer itself as a sacrifice of praise. And there is very little sacrificed when we’re afforded too much time to sit back and passively listen. Worse yet, it comes all too natural when we’re already formed as a people who enjoy consuming.
Let me recommend an article written last year by Dr. Timothy Tennett where he advocates we learn to unplug worship, turn down the electronic sound, and turn up the lights. His best lines for me are when he makes the case to emphasize the priority of the congregation singing together over the individual focused on their own personal time of worship:
It is very common today for worship leaders to dim the lights of the sanctuary during the singing part of the worship service. As a worshipper, you may not be able to see people across the room or even down the row. However, the lights on the “stage” or “platform” are very bright which tends to focus the attention on the worship band rather than on the people. I actually think it makes better sense to keep the lights in the sanctuary on during worship. One of the big conceptual differences between the “chorus movement” and the earlier “hymn movement” is that the former tends to conceptualize an individual singing and worshipping God, whereas the latter tends to conceptualize the corporate people of God, singing. I think dimming the lights has tended to send the message that this is your “personal” time before the Lord. Since it is impossible to “compete” with the electronically amplified voices, people often either just stand and watch, or they quietly move their lips but don’t feel that “joining in” can really make a substantial difference.
Before you think I’m simply picking on contemporary, praise band style worship, let me also offer a word to the more liturgical worship planners (because I am one):
A friend of mine told me recently, “a theology you cannot sing is not a very deep theology at all.” Singing requires we engage our faith with more than just our brains and this can be hard in a culture that says religion is simply a set of beliefs you either agree with or not. True faith, the kind of faith that shapes and forms us in ways we cannot begin to describe, will touch on all of our senses. And congregational singing has the power to reform us from individuals who simply ascend to a set of ideas, into a community that instinctively understands our shared life and faith are best sung about.
[For a powerful non-church example of congregational singing check out this clip. The National Anthem is one of the greatest soloist hymns of our time but I bet you've never heard it sung with this kind of power and emotion]
It was a hot, June day in South Georgia. The word “hot” doesn’t even seem sufficient. After all, June in South Georgia can bring days when the heat sits on you like a 50 pound backpack.
It was the sort of day when you couldn’t keep water cold for long. But you don’t care because you’d settle for tepid water if it means rehydrating after just a few minutes in the oppressive heat of the day. It was the sort of day when any indoor space became a Promised Land flowing with milk, honey, and air conditioning. On this particularly hot day, the assembly gathered in the convention center, fleeing the heat and anxiously awaiting the start of the next business session.
“Yes, microphone number 1. Do you have a speech for or against the motion on the floor? Please tell us your name and district.”
And then suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind filled the convention center. Some wondered if it was a summer twister – the ones famous for rolling through South Georgia at a moment’s notice on a summer afternoon. But then they saw it – fire. Tongues of fire rested on all who were gathered in that place. All at once clergy and laity alike began to speak in one accord telling of the glory of God. The business of annual conference became a revival where worship and singing sprung forth in true Methodist fashion. And there was no more division between people based on theological stances and worldviews. Friend and foe alike began to praise God and speak of his mighty acts of salvation.
Onlookers began to ask questions about the absurdity of the scene.
“They must be drunk!” one said.
One of those on the floor of conference responded, “We’re not drunk, we’re Methodists!”
In the midst of the singing and praising someone remembered the words of the prophet Joel:
“In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.”
What would happen if Annual Conference really transpired like this?
It can be easy to long for dramatic scenes of revival in the midst of what seems like mundane business sessions. We’re United Methodists, and these days we probably feel less evangelical and Spirit-led and more method-oriented and process driven. Sometimes it may feel like we listen to Robert’s Rules more than the Holy Spirit.
I’m still very new to the ministry (this is only my third Annual Conference session as a clergy-person). But I wonder if we don’t miss the forest for the trees in front of us when it comes to preparing for Annual Conference?
Maybe we long for the return of a past that we’ve romanticized so much that we miss the glory of the present and the future unfolding before us? We swear up and down on our grandmother’s grave that the Annual Conference sessions of 40 years ago used to be simpler and more spirit-filled. In an age of church decline it can be hard to see the movement of the Spirit among us.
Maybe we wonder if the mundane business of Annual Conference sessions – the policies, procedures, and Lord knows, Robert’s Rules – doesn’t serve as the perfect distraction from listening to where the winds of the Spirit are blowing.
But what if the Spirit of God is present even (and especially) in the moments when we aren’t expecting it?
What if the Holy Spirit is present in and guiding our talk of budgets and mission and even district realignments?
What if God’s Spirit is leading us even when we dare to talk about radically changing how we function as an Annual Conference?
What if, by the grace of God, we could see the Holy Spirit’s presence in our agendas and budgets, rules and procedures, reports and motions when we least expect it?
I’m looking forward to my third Annual Conference. I’m looking forward to breaking bread with friends and worshipping with the people called Methodist in South Georgia. But even more, I’m looking forward to being a witness to God’s mighty acts in and among us.
We do not orchestrate God’s redemption of the world – we simply look for the signs and participate in it. And we don’t have to wonder whether we should call on the Spirit to move among us – God’s Spirit is already at work in amazing and unexpected ways.
So I guess our prayer as we approach Annual Conference should be something like this: “Lord, give us eyes to see and ears to hear the signs of your mighty presence among us.”
Oh, and don’t be surprised if the cool rush of air you feel on the back of your neck at the Macon Centreplex is not the air conditioning at all. It might just be the quiet rush of the Spirit’s wind reminding you that God is indeed among us.
[This post originally appeared in The South Georgia Advocate on 5/3/13]
The United Methodist Church has an amazing document entitled This Holy Mystery that outlines our doctrinal and practical understanding of the sacrament of Holy Communion. Maybe you’ve heard of it or even participated in a class where it was taught. I have the privilege of leading a small group in studying this document over the next six weeks.
One of my initial thoughts in approaching this series with a group of lay people is that it might be helpful to blog about it and share it with the wider United Methodist community. Therefore, I invite you to join me for the next few blogs as I process my experience in both studying anew and teaching this fantastic United Methodist resource on sacramental theology.
Spoiler alert: I think it will have a lot to say not only about how we celebrate Holy Communion, but also how we seek to form and be formed as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Session 1: Hungering for the Mystery
An excerpt from the teaching resource written by Gayle Felton:
The story is told of a little girl whose parents had taken her forward to receive Holy Communion. Disappointed with the small piece of bread she was given to dip in the cup, the child cried loudly, “I want more! I want more!” While embarrassing to her parents and amusing to the pastor and congregation, this little girl’s cry accurately expresses the feelings of many contemporary United Methodist people. We want more! We Want more than we are receiving from the sacrament of Holy Communion as it is practiced in our churches.
The resounding response from our group in hearing this story was, “YES!!!”
We began our session by going around the room and naming 1 or 2 words they think of when participating in the sacrament. Some said, “renewed.” Others said, “forgiven.” Still others said, “strengthened and nourished.” Oddly, no one said, “bored.” I wonder how many lay people are sitting in our pews wishing we could celebrate Holy Communion more often. Where I serve, the Walk to Emmaus has served as a great source for helping people find new love for the Holy Communion. A couple of Emmaus alums in our group noted how let down they were in finding that after a wonderful weekend away where Holy Communion was so prominent, they realized just how much their local church kept it off to the side as though was not central to worship.
Frustration was expressed when clergy rush the liturgy, when the table is not carefully and lovingly prepared, when the theology expressed is questionable, and when clergy do not teach on the rich meaning and mystery in the sacrament. The laity all said they wished they heard more about the sacraments. They wished practices matched the deep meaning the sacrament had in their faith lives.
I wonder, too, if the disconnect felt has more to do with what we see as the primary focus of our worship — do we see the sermon as the primary turning point of worship or do we see the Table? For our Anglican brothers and sisters it’s the Table. Sermons are short and normally lead straight to the Table. But we’re United Methodists (and I’m in the South) so preaching and revival-style worship holds a special place in our cultural imagination. Legends are told of the great preachers of our past. Preaching is viewed as a primary skill for the ministry (and it should be).
I wonder if our emphasis on preaching has come at the expense of emphasizing the importance of the sacrament of Holy Communion?
A couple of years ago I did a very informal, unscientific poll on Facebook asking whether or not Communion would lose its meaning and importance if it were celebrated weekly instead of monthly or quarterly. Interestingly my responses were split into two categories — everyone who voted for celebrating MORE often were laity and everyone who noted the difficulty in celebrating more often were clergy. Now I’m drawing my own conclusions but I wonder if that doesn’t have a little something to do with our emphasis on preaching. In other words, do we preachers secretly enjoy knowing that our sermons are the pinnacle of the worship service? Another thought could be that with more observances comes more planning and responsibilities — is it just easier on preachers and worship teams to stay with fewer observances?
But it’s not just a critique of the place and priority we give preaching. Emphasizing the sacraments calls into question how we view worship as a whole. Giving the sacraments a primary place in worship means not only allowing, but inviting mystery to be primary in our worship. This means we have to be okay with not being able to explain our the0logy and rituals in neat, compact ways. It means being okay with allowing the Spirit to move without our putting a formula on how it moves. And it means seeing worship as something more than just entertainment or comfort where style trumps content and we think we can become full off of a steady diet of thin, shallow meaning.
Don Saliers notes that emphasizing the sacraments in such a way as to make the link between ritual, mission, and discipleship will require some change in how congregations approach the sacraments. First, he says, congregations would be forced to teach and learn more about the sacraments on an ongoing basis. We need to teach worship instead of just doing it and expecting that folks get something out of it. But we cannot marginalize the sacraments just because they’re cloaked in some mystery and not easily understood. We can still teach in the midst of mystery. Secondly, Saliers notes, preaching would need to root itself in a sacramental sense of church and world. We cannot simply preach that salvation is found in Jesus’ death. The entirety of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is the foundation for our preaching and worship. The liturgy of Holy Communion covers the spectrum of this foundation, invites us to “taste and see,” and then sends us forth in mission as we participation in the fullness of life in Christ. Thirdly, congregations would have to celebrate the sacraments with more vitality and enthusiasm. Baptisms are not meant to be rote and routine. Holy Communion is not a funeral service. We offer ourselves in thanks and praise as we participate in the very life of God’s redeeming action every time we celebrate one of the sacraments. Why would we not want to do this as often as possible???
Question: How does your congregation celebrate Holy Communion? Do you wish you could celebrate more often? How are the sacraments taught in your congregation? Do you wish they were taught more?
Easter Sunday. It’s the one day of the year when even the people who hate mornings will gather at an ungodly early hour to stand on a lawn, in a field, under a canopy, or maybe in a parking lot to watch the sun rise and hear a few words about resurrection.
Easter Sunday. It’s the day when music is extra special – organs, brass, electric guitars and singers alike soar in the music as though they’re heading to the very property line of the pearly gates. It’s the day when our pews are cramp, our parking lots are full, and everyone arrives at church with their best outfit on and a camera in-hand lest they miss out on the annual photo op that marks time for with our friends and families.
Easter Sunday. It’s the time of year that serves as both a Homecoming and a “seeker service” all in one. Family members long gone are back in town for the celebration. Visitors may also decide Easter is the day they’ll try a new church out for the first time. If you’re lucky, you’ll even have a few members who are visiting again – ones for whom inactivity has lasted long enough and they’re making an extra effort to be active in church again.
It’s that last part that probably captivates pastors most. It can be tough to gather on Easter Sunday, see the great attendance, and know that it will be “same ‘ol same ‘ol” the next week. The hymns sound so good when a full sanctuary sings them. The sound in the room is so much richer when there are more ears to hear. Starting next week we go back to the era of decline remembering “days gone by” when our sanctuaries were full.
As pastors we want this feeling to last. We want our sanctuaries to be full every Sunday. But how?
One of the more popular methods of attracting the Christmas/Easter crowds back to church is to promote an exciting sermon series beginning the Sunday after the holiday. Usually this is a clever series, something more accessible to all levels of faith and biblical knowledge, and packaged in such a way as to draw intrigue and wonder. This can be a really good way to encourage people to come back to church following a major holiday. It’s a great way to be invitational.
But I wonder if this method doesn’t also risk missing the mark of what it means to be the church?
You see, while promoting new sermon series to visitors and inactive members can be inviting, we operate off of the idea that our job as the church is to open our doors and draw people in. All of the risk and responsibility lies on the shoulders of those who visit with us and we continue with business as usual.
We fail to recognize there’s a difference between being invitational and being missional.
Being missional means we spend Easter Sunday asking questions. It means finding out where people are from or what’s been going on with those folks who have been active for the last year. It means finding moments to invest in others before we ask them to invest in us. This can happen either on Easter Sunday or by setting up a time to do so later.
Being missional means we spend Easter Sunday with a note pad in our pocket making a call list for Easter Monday and Tuesday. It means we fill our pockets with extra business cards to give out. And it means we insist on being bothered over the next couple of days if that means an e-mail or a phone call or a lunch appointment with someone new (or old).
Being missional means remembering that being invitational is important but it’s not the end-game for the church. Before we worry about casting nets and reeling in new people, we should remember our first and primary calling is to be blessed, broken, and emptied out in service to others – even if they don’t immediately help to line our pews and offering plates.
A certain friend of mine called to tell me today of an experience at a church in the town where he and his wife had just moved to. He said the pastor worked hard to promote a new sermon series. He said it sounded interesting even to someone like him who attends church about 4 times a year. But he said the whole sales pitch fell flat when people smiled, welcomed him, handed him a brochure for the church, and proceeded to not ask him a single question about himself or his wife. I imagine my friend and his wife will be enjoying a lovely brunch next Sunday around 11:00am.
This story served as a harsh reminder that too often we miss the point on Easter. God didn’t raise Jesus from the dead in order to invite people to the empty tomb to stay and set up shop. God didn’t eventually call the Church together at Pentecost under the order to buy some good real estate and be inviting as sojourners passed by.
Easter is an eternal reminder of a God who is constantly on the move. It’s about a Savior who left the tomb and empty linens behind in order to search out others. It’s the good news of a Risen Savior who is on the move and who is calling us anew to join him in the streets, neighborhoods, coffee shops, bars, and parks. It’s the sort of news that demands we reach out to others on their terms for once, and not our own.
I have a call sheet for the coming week but I wish it was longer. I saw some familiar faces who have been absent from church lately and I wished I had spent a little more time asking them about their lives. I’ve got some folks to follow up with next week but I know I missed too many.
Maybe the best news of Easter is that when we put the power points and prep work aside for a bit, we could actually follow Jesus into the world around us? But we should probably get going – Jesus doesn’t stay in one place for too long.
If you’ve been anywhere near a television or a computer this week, you’re aware of the eventful week at the US Supreme Court. Through the power of our nation’s legal system, the definition of marriage has come to trial and we await the decision of the court amidst the protests of many advocating their position on how marriage should be defined and/or changed.
All of the back and forth debate has led me to ask some questions about marriage. As a pastor, I’m called on regularly to perform weddings (I have 2 coming up in May). And as a young pastor, I’m still learning the ends and outs of weddings and how to be a pastor to couples as they enter into the marriage covenant.
So rather than pontificating about my theology of marriage, I’d like to ask questions about how marriages are recognized in the church and our greater society. I don’t want to express my beliefs as much as I would rather try to simple punch holes in the current system of how marriage is defined, executed, and lived out in both church and society.
Is marriage a legal contract or a theological covenant?
For pastors and Christians, this is probably a no brainer — it’s both! But slow down a bit, is it really? When couples come to a church for a wedding, they seek counseling and we teach (hopefully) that marriage is about a covenant that transcends even the legal and temporal things of this world.
But when is a couple “officially married” — after the service or when we sign the government-issued license?
And when a couple divorces, where is the divorce handled — in the church or at the courthouse?
All of this then leads us to ask, what is the primary function of a pastor at a wedding — to be a representative of God or an officer of the state?
Do we really believe in a separation of church and state or is that just something we like to say?
It’s commonplace for churches and pastors to say we believe in a separation of church and state. This separation gives room to live into the tension of being both a citizen of a nation and also a people called to be citizens of a kingdom that transcends time and space. We get offended (rightfully) when churches promote partisan political values and endorse candidates. We might even struggle with the placement of the American flag in the sanctuary, noting that worship space is not national space. We enjoy tax-free status largely because we are meant to be separate from government and not part of a nationalized religion.
But when we do weddings, who are we acting on behalf of?
And when we protest or support government definitions of marriage, are we saying we prefer the government to define marriage instead of the Church?
Tony Campolo has written a thoughtful article on the possibility for compromise in this great debate. In the article, Campolo wonders if we could remove government altogether from the definition of marriage. Government’s role, Campolo dreams, would be one where it sets up legally binding civil unions for all people so long as the unions are entered into in good, legal faith. Campolo then says churches could do the work of enacting marriages based on covenantal and church standards. This would allow same-sex couples to be married in a church that recognizes same-sex marriage without being restricted by state laws. It also allows churches who do not condone same-sex marriages to continue to do so without any interference from the government. I’m not sure if this is a good solution but it sounds hopeful.
No matter where we stand on a “definition of marriage” we all should admit to this: Our views reflect an incredibly complicated and often dysfunctional relationship between Church and State.
Holy Week has begun. It’s a time where we relive and follow the passion of Jesus from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, to the agony and despair of his final meal with his friends before his death, and then finally to the miracle of the empty tomb on Easter.
It’s a glorious time in the life of the church. By now plans have been made, bulletins are being printed, and the excitement is building toward what should be one of the biggest weekends of the year in the life of the local church.
It’s also the time of year where a special creature emerges from hibernation — the Chreaster.
UrbanDictionary.com defines Chreaster as: Those Christians who only show up to religious services on Christmas and Easter. Maybe it’s family pressure, maybe it’s out of obligation, maybe it’s just habit, or maybe it’s because it seems like the right thing to do, but these are people who attend church twice a year. And we’re about to embark on the second sighting of Chreasters in the last 4 months (or the last sighting until December?).
I’ve had the opportunity to be in a couple of clergy meetings in the last week or so. As you might expect at this time of year, Chreasters are a featured conversation topic. Usually the conversation moves in a predictable pattern. First we bemoan the existence of Chreasters (“you know those people will actually find their way back to church this Sunday…”). And then we talk about the opportunities, challenges, and possibilities of a Chreaster sighting (“What if they actually heard the Good News this time? What if they were inspired to morph into an actual church member? What if…?). As the conversation moves in this pattern, you can just see the clergy in the room licking their chops. They’ve caught the scent of fresh blood in the waters and they’re already imagining scenarios where possibilities become realities. Sermons are being honed to just the right calibration — when we fire our best shot and cast the net, we’re expecting to real in some Chreasters.
What if this Easter, we concentrated less on our hunting strategy and more on sharing in the good news of resurrection together?
I know that may sound crazy to some. We should always be invitational. We should see every Sunday as an opportunity to invite people to change their lives in light of the good news of Jesus Christ. I wouldn’t disagree with any of that. It’s vitally important that we be invitational.
But what if we began our sense of being invitational by viewing Chreasters less as creatures and commodities, and more as people made in the image of God? What if we saw Easter less as a hunting expedition and more as a communal experience of resurrection?
You see, the assumption we make in our talk about Chreasters is that we’re a privileged bunch enlightened in the right ways of believing and living and until they join us, they are not. We can’t imagine Chreasters not wanting to join our tribe once they heard about how great it is. We figure all we need to do is get the message right this time, open the doors, and they’ll come running. The truth is, Chreasters come back on Christmas and Easter year after year, they hear the appeal year after year and they still opt out of becoming “one of us.” Maybe it’s not a sales pitch problem at all, maybe there’s a problem with the product they see?
It’s hard to hear that we don’t have it all together. And it’s hard as Christians who are used to seats of power and esteem to hear that we are still in need of grace. Pastors are also notorious for assuming we are wells of knowledge and insight. In all of our preparing, planning, and preaching we forget that we too need to hear the good news of resurrection. It’s not ours to tell, we need to hear it as well. Our churches need to hear it too. Too often we exist week in and week out in a fog of self-denial while we focus all of our energy on our own self-preservation and success. We desperately need to hear again that life does in fact spring forth from death. We need to hear again that God’s plan for the redemption of this world is on the move despite the fledgeling efforts of the Church. And if we’re honest, we should admit that Chreasters aren’t meant to be creatures we hunt as much as they are eyes and ears and voices of the goodness of God outside of our church walls.
What better day than Easter to gather with insiders and outsiders alike to hear the good news that, by the power of God, there is still hope for us all. God is not finished with any of us. This Sunday, may we listen before we speak, look before we judge, and share in the joy of new life together.