Worship: Where is everybody?

Worship:  Where is everybody?

Last Sunday, I played guitar and sang at our contemporary worship service.  I don’t play in church very often, and I don’t claim to be very good.  In fact, I play and sing so rarely, my meager abilities are always on the far-to-rusty side.  But, in spite of my rust and musical limitations, I love the rare opportunities I lead people in worshiping God in song.  At one point, Sunday, as I sang, I was overcome with emotion and nearly cried.  Crying and singing is really, really hard!

While I don’t play and sing in worship, often, I do preach on an almost-weekly basis.  Preaching is my true passion.  I hear some preachers struggle with sermon preparation.  I hear some preachers struggle with sermon writing.  I hear some preachers struggle with nerves, delivering sermons.  I hear some preachers are worn down by preaching EVERY week.  I don’t struggle with any of that.  I love it, from beginning to end!  I’m not claiming to be a great preacher – I just love doing it!  If I could give 100% of my time to preaching prep and delivery, I gladly would!

In fact, I enjoy all facets of worship – traditional/liturgical and modern/contemporary.  I love planning worship.  I love spontaneous worship.  I love singing hymns and contemporary worship songs.  I love traditional liturgy and technology.  I love the “smells and bells” of “high” church worship, and hands lifted in praise, in contemporary services.

I love planning worship.  I love leading worship.  I love worshipping from the pew.  I love all of it.

But, in spite of my passion for worship, I have growing sense something about worship isn’t “working.”

Throughout my entire Christian life and ministry, Sunday morning worship – regardless of form or style – has been the primary function of every local church I’ve known and served.  Yes, churches have meetings, Bible studies, missions, fellowship, etc. throughout the week.  But, worship draws the crowd.  Worship requires most of the church’s collective time, energy, focus, talent, facility, and funding.

What’s the largest (and least used) building on a church campus?  The sanctuary.  What’s the largest portion of the budget?  When you add up everything – from salaries, to utilities, to property maintenance and insurance, to the cost of music – I suspect Sunday morning worship represents the largest chunk of a church’s expenditures.  Why do churches require so much parking?  Only one reason: Sunday mornings.

Likewise, throughout my entire Christian life and ministry, worship attendance – across the nation and across denominations – has been, and is, statistically in decline.  Sanctuaries and church parking lots are less and less full on Sunday mornings.  Even the super-successful, fastest-growing mega-churches are noting a decline in weekly worship attendance.

Why?

One reason is, younger people aren’t attending worship services like the older generations.  We’ve all heard about the growing numbers “nones” and “dones.”

Another reason is the growing affluence in our country.  In spite of many claiming to have financial struggles, overall, more and more people can afford to travel, participate in sports, buy a boat, go to a concert or movie, renovate their home, pay to run a marathon, own a boat, or go to the beach for the weekend.  When you can’t afford to do those things, you might be more likely to stay home and attend worship.  But, when you can, you do.

Another reason is technology.  Now, thanks to the internet, you can watch or listen to the very best preachers and worship bands, often “live,” from the comfort of your own home and Laz-i-boy recliner, in your boxers and bathrobe, rather than getting dressed, dragging the kids, dealing with the traffic, sitting in a hard pew, and being hounded about giving your tithes and offerings.  Oh yeah, you can avoid human contact too!

Which leads to another reason: consumerism.  Rather than viewing worship as something we do, together, in service and duty to God, we’ve turned worship into a spectator sport – a form of spiritual entertainment.  If worship is just entertainment, we’ll never compete with what the world has to offer.  Whether it’s a 3-D surround-sound movie theater, a sporting complex, or Walt Disney World, church-as-entertainment can’t compete.  Nor should we.  We aren’t in the entertainment business.  But, as long as we approach worship as consumers, rather than contributors, worship will be little else.

And, another reason is the current climate of divisiveness in our country.  We are as divided and polarized as ever.  I find everything I say “from the pulpit” is scrutinized more than ever before, for signs of hidden biases and agendas.  I do have biases and agendas.  But, they aren’t hidden.  You don’t have to search for them.  I’m usually pretty open and honest!  If people don’t agree with the pastor’s preaching, rather than being challenged to think and reconsider their beliefs, they just leave.

I’m sure there are as many reasons for NOT regularly attending a worship service, as there are people who regularly do not attended worship services.

So, I’m beginning to wonder, what if it’s time to reevaluate the Sunday worship gathering as the PRIMARY function of a local church?  I’m NOT suggesting we should stop worshipping together.  Rather, I wonder if, in the not-too-distant future, corporate worship will be in smaller, less formal settings, and not necessarily in church sanctuaries, on Sunday mornings.

Perhaps worship will happen more organically, and even more frequently, when Christians gather to share a meal, or for a small group Bible study, or to serve together.  I wonder if worship, in the future, will be more relational, more face-to-face, more conversational.  If wonder if worship will be less professionally driven – by paid preachers and musicians – and more lay-led.  I wonder if worship will happen less in sanctuaries, and more in homes, parks, coffee shops, yoga studios, gardens, around dinner tables.

And, I wonder if Church will become more dispersed; perhaps, fewer large-group gatherings, and many more smaller gatherings for study, service, worship, prayer, fellowship, accountability, etc.

Think of worship in the Bible.  Yes, we can all think of some large gatherings – the Sermon on the Mount, the day of Pentecost, the annual Jewish festivals in Jerusalem.  But, I get the impression that most corporate worship, in biblical times, wasn’t very much like what it’s become.

Please hear me.  I’m not trying to be prophetic, predictive, or prescriptive.  I’m not implying any “shoulds.”  I love the ministry of corporate worship, and am saddened to watch it decline.  It’s what I know and what I love, and I hate the idea of losing it.

But, I’m just wondering.  I’m wondering.

I do think there’ll continue to be a place for the Sunday worship gathering, at least in the foreseeable future.  I do think corporate worship continues to be worthy of our best efforts.  I still think there’s a role, thankfully, for professional preachers, worship leaders, organists, etc.  I still think there are opportunities to offer both traditional (and contemporary) worship services, as well as new and innovative worship experiences.  There are still churches with growing worship attendances, and we should pay attention to how and why that’s happening.

But, perhaps its time to expand our minds.  Perhaps its time to expand our understanding of what worship is and who it’s for.  Perhaps its time to expand our vision for what Church can be.  Perhaps – brace yourself – it’s time for change.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

Faith in the Rear View Mirror

Faith in the Rear View Mirror

Throughout the Bible, God’s people are reminded – over and over and over – about all God did for them in the past, and as an encouragement to trust God in the present and future.  For instance, when time came for the Israelites to enter the Promised Land, they feared the Anakites, who were already living there.  Deuteronomy 1:29-33 says,

Don’t be terrified! Don’t be afraid of them!  The Lord your God is going before you. He will fight for you just as he fought for you in Egypt while you watched, and as you saw him do in the desert. Throughout your entire journey, until you reached this very place, the Lord your God has carried you just as a parent carries a child.  But you had no faith in the Lord your God about this matter, even though he went ahead of you, scouting places where you should camp, in fire by night, so you could see the road you were taking, and in cloud during the daytime. (CEB)

In spite of considerable evidence of God’s past faithfulness, the Israelites lacked sufficient faith to face the challenges before them.  And, if I’m honest, I’m exactly the same.

In a general sense, I believe all of the blessings I’ve received in life are gifts from God.  Marriage and family.  Friendship.  Ministry.  Life experiences.  Health.  Security.  Education.

And, in many, more specific ways, I’m keenly aware of the countless ways God has been faithful – more than I can possibly name.  Without a moments hesitation, I can share story after story of God’s particular faithfulness to me.  A quick glance in the rearview mirror of my life reveals God faithfully, consistently, generously present and working, time and again.  In the words of the great hymn…

“Great is thy faithfulness.  Great is thy faithfulness.  Morning by morning, new mercies I see.  All I have needed thy hand hath provided.  Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.”

Looking in the rearview mirror of my life, my faith is strong.  God HAS been faithful.  Even reflecting on past pains and struggles, I can see how God was working.

But, in any given moment – or looking ahead – fear, doubt, and uncertainty often take over.  Hebrews 11:1 says…

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”

But, SEEING makes it SO much easier than hoping for what we don’t see!

So, I doubt.  I worry and fret.  I get scared.  The “what if?” scenarios consume my thoughts, far more than my prayers.  My prayers, themselves, lack the confidence of a man whom God has blessed as much and as often as me.  I possess too little faith, and far too much fear and trembling.

The answer, of course, is surrendering our fears, and to possess more faith.  Wouldn’t it be nice if it was just that easy!?!  In reality, the best most of us can do is NOT act on our fears and doubts; acting instead on the flimsy faith we wish was stronger.  Perhaps, one day, faith will come more automatically.   But, it until it does, “fake it until you make it!”

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, once confessed to a Moravian pastor, Peter Bohler, thoughts of quitting the ministry.  Wesley felt he lacked sufficient faith to preach, thinking, How can you preach to others, who have not faith yourself?”   Bohler’s advice to Wesley was,“By no means.  Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

The truth is, I preach more faith than I actually possess sometimes.  I don’t mean to imply I don’t believe what I teach and preach – I do!  I’m confessing I may lack sufficient faith and courage to act on what I say I believe.  And, frankly, the acting on faith is far more important than the preaching of it!

The good news is, I’m not the first, only, or last to struggle with a meager or wavering faith.  Neither are you.  The Bible is full of weak-faithed servants of God, doing the best they can.  The good news is, we too have faith-filled rearview mirrors to remind us of God’s history of faithfulness, in each of our lives, if we’ll only remember to look back and notice.

But, remember: you can only stare into the rearview mirror for so long.  While it’s helpful to look back from time to time, life consistently moves forward, into the unknown.  The past reveals God’s PAST faithfulness.  The present and future is where we discover God’s continued faithfulness.  NOW and THEN are where we act on faith, whether we have it sufficiently, or not.

So, move forward with faith, even if its scary.  Move forward with faith, even if you don’t have enough.  Act on faith, even when it’s weak.  Then, maybe, we’ll discover what faith really is – confidence in what we hope for, and confidence in God.  We have every reason to believe, and every reason to act, and plenty of evidence to believe God will be faithful.

He was then.  He will be now.

What do you see in your rearview mirror?

 

 

God Speaks: are you listening?

God Speaks: are you listening?

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”  (John 10:27)

Does God really speak to us?

Is it possible to hear, recognize, and comprehend, the voice of God?

Jesus says we can.  “My sheep listen to my voice.” 

Throughout the Bible, God spoke…

  • God spoke to Adam and Eve, face-to-face.
  • God told Noah to build a big boat.
  • God told Abram and Sarai they would become parents in their old age.
  • God spoke to Joseph in dreams.
  • God spoke to Moses via a burning bush.
  • God spoke to and through the Prophets.
  • God spoke to Elijah in a “still, small voice.”
  • God spoke to Mary and Joseph through an angel.
  • God spoke, and the “Word became flesh, and lived among us.”
  • God spoke, through Jesus, to the multitudes.

“For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken.”  (John 12:49)

If God speaks, and if it’s possible to recognize God’s voice, inevitably the question is, “how?”  How do we hear and recognize the voice of God?

I suppose the different ways God might speak to a person are innumerable.  Sometimes, God might provide a literal “sign.”  I have a small sign, that sits on a shelf in my office, that says, “If you’re looking for a sign, this is it.”  It’s funny – but, probably not the sign most are looking for!

Sometimes God speaks through a person.  Pastors call that “incarnational” ministry: when we become the human vessels through which Divine speaks or acts.

Sometimes God speaks through a painting, a song, a line from a book, a billboard, a dream, a movie, a TV show, a Social Media post, a “coincidence” – you name it.  The possibilities are endless!

But, a word of caution is needed.  Even the most experienced, godly, spiritually-gifted “listeners” hear God incorrectly, sometimes.  Your “signs” might be from God, or they might just be wishful thinking!  Your “signs’ might be from God, but you may not be very good at interpreting the signs.  After all, we’re all biased by our hopes, desires, fears, and limited by what we don’t know or understand.  If we want a sign badly enough, we will likely see one, whether it’s from God or not.

If and when you believe you’ve heard from God, before acting on what you think you’ve heard, I suggest the following…

  • Pray more, and wait on the Lord for further confirmation, clarity, or instruction.
  • Read the Bible.  Is what you heard consistent with Scripture?  God never contradicts his Word!
  • Seek “wise counsel.”  Go to the godliest people you know, share what you think you’ve heard, and be open to their feedback.  Hopefully, they won’t just affirm what they think you want to hear!
  • Consult with a Spiritual Director: someone who has training and the spiritual gifting to help you discern God’s voice.
  • In seminary, a nun taught me to apply the Great Commandment to what I think I’ve heard God say.  Does acting on what I think I’ve heard cause me to love God and my neighbor more, or less.  “If more,” she said, “do it.”  If an action fulfills the Great Commandment, we should act, whether God told us to, or not!  Of course, if it doesn’t, don’t.
  • One of my dearest friends always asks, “Is it the brave thing to do?”  Often, God challenges us to move past our fears, doubts, insecurities, and complacency, requiring bravery to act.
  • Pray and listen some more – it never hurts.

Like I said, God speaks, and may speak to anyone at any given moment.  But, if you want to become more familiar with God’s voice, and to hear God’s voice more frequently, and with greater clarity… well, that takes faith, practice, time, and trial and error.

I begin every day (almost) with God.  Sundays are a bit of an exception, as I’m preparing to preach (I consider this God-time too – it’s just different).  Every other day, my morning routine begins with God-time.

Though my exact routine varies from day-to-day, most days begin with Scripture and devotional reading.  Sometimes, I believe God speaks directly through Scripture, as a particular word or phrase seems to “leap” from the page, drawing my focus and attention.  The same happens in my devotional reading.

I usually spend some time in relaxed silence.  Silence can be hard for some people.  Internal and external noise can be a distraction.  For some, repeating a word like “love” or “peace” can be a helpful aid to focus – sort of like a mantra.

Throughout my silence, my primary focus is on God’s presence.  Because I believe God is both intimate (within me, through the Holy Spirit) and transcendent (greater, higher, mysterious, ineffable), I focus my attention on God’s loving presence in me, and all around me.  Usually, as I do this, I feel a gentle weight in the center of my chest.  I don’t know why, but that’s what happens.

Then, I move into a time of listening.  I simply ask God, “Is there anything you want to say to me?  Please help me hear your voice.”  Sometimes, I ask specific questions, or bring up issues I’m praying about.  Then, I listen.  I find that using a journal helps.    I write down what I bring to God.  Then, as I sense a voice, other than my own, speaking within me, I write down what I “hear” (this is rarely audible – more of an impression).

Let me be clear about this.  Just because I sense God speaking, and just because I write it down, doesn’t mean I am 100% confident God has spoken.  But, I do write down what I “hear.”  I simply trust – by faith – that God is speaking.  Time will tell if God actually has, or not.  To me, the important thing is having sufficient faith to believe God DOES speak, and sufficient humility to recognize my limited ability to listen.

There have been a few, rare times I’ve heard an audible voice, that I believe was God’s.  I can’t prove it.  For the most part, I’ve not sought those occasions.  Rather, it’s seemed I needed to hear a particular a word from God, that I didn’t know I needed.  More often than not, what I’ve heard has been quite humbling, and usually uncomfortably challenging.

My personal belief is, God is constantly speaking to anyone who will listen.  As God is essentially relational, and desires a relationship with each of his children, and relationship requires communication, it only makes since God is constantly striving to initiate a conversation with each of us.

The challenge is, God rarely shouts or screams.  God is far more subtle.  In my experience, God mostly whispers.  So, while any of us could hear from God, at any given moment, most of us aren’t paying attention.

One of the questions I wrestled with, following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was, “If God speaks – which I believe – why didn’t God warn anyone about Nikolas Cruz?  How could family, peers, teachers, administration, DCF, FBI, and law enforcement all miss it?  Wasn’t God speaking to any of them?”   I obviously don’t know the answers to those questions.  But, I’ve come to believe God was speaking – because God is always speaking.  Perhaps no one was listening.  How tragic is that?

I try to listen for God’s voice, every day.  I’m not a prayer expert, or a super-spiritual mystic.  I just believe God speaks, and I don’t want to miss out, if God has something to say to me today.

Are you listening?

 

 

Fruitfulness

Fruitfulness

One of the trees in my bonsai collection is a calliandra – more commonly known as a “pink powder puff.”  “Pink powder puff” doesn’t sound particulalry manly, so let’s stick with more scientifically precise terminology!

My calliandra bonsai ought to look like the one pictured above.  But, it doesn’t.  I’ve owned the tree for almost ten years, and it hasn’t yet produce a single pink powder puff yet.  I’ve watered.  Fertilized.  Pruned.  Re-potted.  I’ve tried more sun and less sun; more shade and less shade.  I’ve begged and pleaded.  I’ve done everything short of singing to it.

Still no puffs.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not a bad looking bonsai – not my best, but not bad.  But, a calliandra is SUPPOSED to produce pink powder puffs… and, dang it, I want my powder puffs!!!

My non-blooming calliandra reminds me of a teaching of Jesus,

“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?  Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.”  (Matthew 7:16-18, NIV)

“By their fruit (or pink powder puffs) you will recognize them.”

Jesus used the metaphor of a tree and it’s fruit as a warning against false teachers.  You may recall, Jesus was frequently critical of religious leaders, who appeared outwardly pious, but were inwardly mean, stingy, and ungodly.  Basically, to paraphrase, Jesus said, “Look for the fruit.  If the fruit is good, trust the source.  If the fruit is bad, no matter how religious or pious the person outwardly seems, be wary.  Be very wary.”

This teaching could also be applied in reverse.  Sometimes, a person may not seem particularly pious or religious.  But, “look for the fruit,” and you might discover more in them than immediately meets the eye.

What fruits?

Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.” (John 15:5, NIV)  He was talking about love.

Galatians 5:22-23 says, “The Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  (Galatians 5:22-23, NLT)

You might think of other “fruits” of the Christian life – tithing, service, study, worship, and varieties of other “Christian” behaviors.  But, at least according to these two passages, the fruit of abiding in Jesus, and being filled with the Holy Spirit, is mostly related to our character.  And, character has everything to do with how relate to others; how we treat others.  The bottom-line seems to be, a fruitful Christian has a character something like Jesus’.

As you may recall, the people most condemning of Jesus’ religious behavior (healing on the Sabbath, associating with sinners, touching the sick) were specifically the ones Jesus warned us about.  The religious leaders, who constantly opposed and criticized Jesus, “appeared” perfectly religious – they tithed with exacting precision, they prayed loud eloquent prayers in the public squares, they associated with the “right” people, they avoided sins and sinners like a plague, they washed their hands vigorously, and they dressed impeccably.  But, Jesus compared them to freshly white-washed tombs – fresh and clean on the outside, but filled with death and stinking decay.

In stark contrast, Jesus was open-handed and open-hearted with EVERYONE.  He ate with tax collectors and prostitutes.  His followers were commoners.  He embraced the sinful and the sick.  He honored outcasts – like Samaritans, gentiles, and even a Roman Centurion (the commander of the enemy occupiers!).  Jesus was consistently welcoming, kind, and compassionate.  He spoke of love, demonstrated love, and embodied love.  He even loved and forgave the ones who nailed him to a cross.

Recognize the goodness of a tree, by the good fruit in produces.  Recognize a godly person by their character.  Is a person’s character more like Jesus’, or like the Pharisee?

My point isn’t to judge – the Bible is pretty clear about that.  My point is, perhaps we place so much weight on outward morality and behavior, and far too little on character.  Though I strive to live a consistent, faithful, obedient, moral life, I would much rather be known for my kindness, generosity, mercy, and love, than how much I tithe, or how little I cuss, or how many verses of Scripture I’ve memorized.  I do tithe.  I don’t cuss… very much.  And, I do know a fair amount of Scripture by memory.  But, do I love?  Do I love like Jesus?

What kind of fruit am I producing?  What kind of fruit are you producing?