He pulled his earbuds out.
He was working out on the crotch machine. You know the piece of equipment. The one where you exercise your thighs by pushing in and out like the levers of a pinball machine; the one that appears designed for no other purpose than to equip the exerciser for feats of ecstatic prowess.
“I was just listening to your sermon from Sunday.”
‘You can listen to sermons while you work out?’ I said.
You listen to my voice while you’re sex-ercising?! I thought.
‘Yeah, I listen to you guys’ sermons every week when I come here.’
‘It’s not repetitive, hearing it all over again a second time?’
‘Repetitive?’ he asked confused. He added another 10 lbs and started a second set on the crotch machine, and then my assumption about his Sunday attendance washed over his face, “No, I haven’t been to Sunday Church in forever. Just so busy, you know? Work. Kids. Soccer and Lacrosse.’
He closed his eyes and, in the words of Salt N’ Peppa, pushed it real good. ‘That’s why the podcast and the online giving are so great. I can get the message whenever wherever I am and I don’t need the offering plate to make my contribution.’
‘That’s great’ I said to him.
‘That’s not great’ I thought in the same instant and walked off to the locker room for what became a long sobering shower.
In fact, I run into people like him all the time. At the grocery and the pool and the barber shop. Even the chemo ward. In the checkout aisle and in the mens room at the local pizza dive, people tell me they listened to my sermon on their phone.
The numbers bear out their testimony. In my 12 years in this parish, total worship attendance has remained stable at around 600 per Sunday; however, in that time frequency of worship attendance has declined precipitously. The average worshipper now attends on Sunday morning only twice a month, every other Sunday. This trend is perhaps the most inclusive attribute of our congregation as it cuts across every age and demographic. It’s not just the soccer moms and little league dads skipping Sunday am. It’s the empty nesters too who have over the last decade decided to snuggle up in that nest and sleep in on Sundays.
The Google Analytics confirm what I see from the altar. By the following sabbath, the MP3 downloads of my Sunday sermon will be double compared to the people who listened to it live. And, I can tell from Google’s creepy stats, many in this diaspora of sermon downloaders live right here in my city.
If ‘online community’ is even an intelligibly Christian category- and I’m not convinced- ours exceeds those who gather on Sunday morning.
The factor is even larger for those church folks who interact with me through this blog; meanwhile, every season yields a greater percentage of our operating budget given not in the brass plate but from the dropdown menu on our church website.
The upside in all of this, obviously, is that stable total attendance with decreased frequency in attendance means more total people are worshipping with us. It means people who would never join a bible study will email me a question about a blog post or a podcast. It means my church’s cash flow is healthier in the lean summer months the more we don’t need to rely on the plate offering.
So, there is upside.
But what sent me slinking off into the locker room was the gut check realization that the downside is real too.
You can download my sermons from your phone. For free. In less than 3 seconds. With DC traffic, you can check off the sermon on your To Do list on the way to the store. All alone in your car.
I wonder- in the zeal to create online constituencies, nurture e-engagement, and offer convenience and constant connection have we let slip a more fundamental claim upon us?
Have we made too easy for people NOT to show up for Sunday worship and, in making it too easy not to show up, have we forgotten that we previously asked them to vow to do just that?
In the United Methodist Church, the first vow the baptized make when joining the local expression of the Body of Christ is their presence. They covenant to show up. They promise to be present for the purpose of praise.
Not to blunt the matter, Christians have a holy and sacred obligation to participate in the community’s worship and glorification of God. Consider our fascination with the Social Principles. United Methodists do not hesitate to use the language of duty when it comes to ethical issues so why are reticent to speak of duty when it comes to the liturgical?
Our reticence is even more problematic when you recall that for Christians the ethical and the liturgical are not two distinct, exclusive, or complementary forms of faithfulness. Rather the one produces the other. The one is the necessary condition for the possibility of the other. What gets lost about the Apostle Paul’s diatribe in Romans 1 is his larger point that false worship of God produces vices while right worship of God forms us in the virtues such that repentance of our vices is possible.
Worship of the true and living God, therefore, is the only condition for right conduct.
The liturgical act makes possible, over time, the ethical act. It produces in us the habits that promise the possibility of becoming virtue. In other words, the commitment to show up and worship is the necessary condition for the creation of a people who can live out the social principles. As Paul says elsewhere in Romans, it’s through the Gospel proclamation that God rectifies us, puts us to rights.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism echoes Paul’s point about the formative necessity of worship. The very first article of the catechism answers that the chief end of man is “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
As in, telos.
Worship is where we discover and live into the end for which God has made us and towards which our lives, properly ordered, are directed. To make it plain, worship is where we learn how to be human.
The God you connect with in nature or on the golf course on Sunday morning never will be the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
Such a God will not insist you confess your trespasses every week nor is it likely the God of the golf course will command you to do something as counterintuitive as loving your enemies.
The insufficient ‘God of creation’ produces insufficient creatures.
Only in the context of gathered worship does the Living God speak.
Why would we be shy about insisting that Christians have a duty and obligation to listen? As the First Article of the Second Helvetic Confession of 1563 states: ‘The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” That is, when scripture is proclaimed faithfully and faithfully received by its listeners, it ceases to be an historical word and becomes a Living Word from God.
In other words, when I preach scripture faithfully and you hear scripture faithfully its no longer something God spoke long ago, it’s something God speaks, to us, today.
If it’s just a preached word in your earbuds absent the reception of the listening community, then it might be a good talk or a helpful teaching or an inspiring story about something God said but it is not a Word God says.
Sermons in the context of worship are live events not simply because the preacher is preaching in the moment but because this is the event in which the Living God speaks.
Here’s what’s scary in a Post-Christian context where we’re desperate for any level engagement from people:
Without the moral formation alone made possible by liturgical formation the Christians who populate that Post-Christian landscape will never have sufficient characters to be compelling advertisements for the Gospel.