Thursday, March 28, 2019

Worship: Are you Experienced?

I noticed that lots of churches today are calling their Sunday gatherings an “experience” rather than a “service”. Changing the names of doing things Christians have done for centuries is a peculiar characteristic of the American Protestant branch of Christianity.  It is one thing that unites both liberal and conservative Christians in this country. It probably has to do with the fact that the United States religious landscape is characterized by competition and we are all trying to get an edge to help our congregations grow.  I understand that changing the descriptor of worship from service to experience is usually done for evangelistic reasons.  The idea of having an experience may seem less threatening than performing a service to people who have demands on their time coming from all directions.

However, worship is the primary action of the Christian community, so we should really take a step back and ask ourselves, is this a good thing?  Does the word experience communicate what we are seeking have happen in our worship?  We should also ask the same question of service.  I would start by taking a looking at our sources and see what they say about what our worship should be. 

St. Paul gave a quick model for worship in his dialog with the Christians in Corinth: What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 1 Corinthians 14:26 (NRSV)  So, is this experience, service or something different?

To the Christians in Rome Paul would describe worship in the following way: I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Romans 12:1 (NRSV) This one seems move us in the direction of service.   One doesn’t just attend worship but presents oneself as a sacrifice.  But still I think there is more than service going on.

In John 4, Jesus has a dialog about worship with a woman at well in Samaria: But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  John 4:23-24 (NRSV) Do the words experience or service capture what Jesus is trying to communicate to this woman who was need of acceptance and healing?

If you asked me which term is more biblical overall, it would be the word “service”.  Forms of the Greek verb λειτουργια are used about 15 times in the New Testament and it can be translated as “to serve” or “offer service” and used on several occasions to describe worship.  The English word “liturgy” which traditional churches use to describe worship, is the loan word derived from this New Testament term.

Words that can translated to the English word experience occur 10 times in the New Revised Standard Version.  The King James only uses them 4 times.  No Bible translation uses the word to describe worship.  So, calling worship “an experience” is obviously a modern innovation.  That need not be deal breaker if we keep to the core of what our worship should be but does it?

My gut reaction to using the word experience to describe worship is a negative one.  The word is too passive.   It has connotations of entertainment and its goal seems selfish and unfulfilling.  It is too much like going to a concert or watching a movie and worship should be more.  Yet, I must admit that as a pastor one of the blessings in my current ministry is “experiencing” the ministry of our worship leader and team he has assembled to lead our congregation in song.  On countless Sundays over the years I have had to drag myself out of bed wondering how I could face the congregation I serve, only to have the worship inspire and encourage me to give. So yeah, part of great worship is the experience.

Even though the word service has a Biblical basis, I think it also is lacking.   Worship is not just about what I can bring to God, it is what God can do with, for, and to me.  If it is only about what we do, then worship can become drudgery.   Unfortunately, I have witnessed this happen when we in the church make too many demands of those who attend.   In summary, I suppose we should be careful about limiting the phenomenon of worship to the words we use to describe it or qualify it.

My choice for the congregation I currently serve is to let the word “worship” stand alone. I no longer use words like traditional or contemporary to qualify it.   Keeping it simple helps preserve the idea of majesty and even mystery.  For worship in Spirit and Truth that Christ describes will always be more majestic than our words.   Worship should be “an experience”, but remember we are saved for a purpose which means it should be a “service” to live out our call.   In all its unfathomable majesty worship should encourage, challenge, stimulate, comfort, heal, and all kinds of other things.   For indeed our best worship is when we meet and come face to face with the unfathomable God.

As we come into the church’s great season of worship, I pray that worship in your congregation may be so wonderful as to be indescribable.

Be blessed,
Pastor Knecht

Friday, March 1, 2019

What’s Up with Lent?

The season of Lent has been a time when Christians have focused on the core principles of their faith.   Early Church historians point out that Lent was at first the time when early Christians began to teach people about the faith in preparation for their baptism.  Many Christians in the first few centuries of the church were baptized during the Easter Vigil Service (a service that starts sometime after sundown on the Saturday before Easter) to accentuate the believer participating in the event at which Jesus Christ saved the world. So basically, the season was a time prepare new disciples of Jesus Christ.  What ended up happening is that rather than segregate these new disciples to work on their faith alone, the church decided it was best if we all work on this together.  Lent has been and is a time to get serious about our faith ever since.

Lent has always included the following elements to help people commit or recommit to a life of discipleship:

1. A call to repentance: we recognize our need for God and our need to be forgiven for the things that we have done or failed to do.   The words “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” spoken as ashes are imparted in the beginning of Lent, remind us of our limited nature and our inability to save ourselves.   Since Hebrew Bible times ashes communicate the realization of the believer that life is transient and that only by appealing to the Eternal One can he or she have any real hope.

2. A re-commitment to living out the faith daily: sometimes our healthy patterns of practicing the faith can drift away due to the demands of living in a sinful world.   The repentance spoken of above is characterized by the Bible in one of two ways.  Changing one’s mind or changing one’s direction.   So, Lent can be a time recommit to a practice that has been left behind in the chaos of our living in broken world.  Restarting Bible reading or a prayer practice, or attending worship more often are some common examples.

3. The exploration of new ways to live out the faith: changing one’s mind about one’s faith and starting a new direction in the faith can mean picking up a new practice or new way of living the faith that you might lead you to a closer relationship with God. If you haven’t had a regular devotional life before, Lent is a perfect time to start.

4. The denial of those things that obscure our faith: perhaps the idea of “giving something up for Lent” is the most common way people think about Lent.   People fast so they can remember what it is like to be hungry for something.   This opens the heart of the believer for God.   Lent is perfect time to drop a behavior that is leading your life astray.   It is a perfect time to do away with those things which make us unhealthy and weigh on us.  An essential part of a life of discipleship is to care for the life we have been given because that is what those who love us would like us to do, and nobody loves more that God who sent Christ to save us.

5. The preparation of the heart for the coming joy of Christ’s resurrection: reliving the story of God sending Jesus to the Cross and Resurrection is the best thing one can do with Lent.    We are reminded of our own dignity as well as our brokenness and God’s answer to the dilemma of living in the tension between these two things.   The best part of Lent is about making the story of Jesus real again.  This can kindle hope which strengthens our faith, which in turn can empower us to love others as Christ loves us.

Just as we set time apart for God Sunday of each week, we also set six weeks out of the year to focus on the essentials of our faith.  Lent is a gift to help us not to take the essential elements of our faith for granted.  It enables us to remain grounded in the faith that gives life.  It is this faith that kindles in  us hope for each day and that
hope helps us persevere through all the challenges that we face in life.

Be blessed
Pastor Knecht