Archives For Worship

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.” 

Chief end.

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.

But-

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.

 

lightstock_35237_small_user_2741517A bit ago I reposted an article asking folks what they want in a sermon. I thought this was a very thoughtful response I received from a friend in my congregation. I offer to you here, with his permission, in no self-aggrandizing way:

What do I want in a sermon?

What I want is clearly not what everyone wants, and the fact that we at church have you pastors at the same time for so long is a terrific asset for the congregation.  It allows different styles to be present in the same location.

So, what do I want?

I want someone who literally struggles with the cynic inside my head.

I see tremendous hypocrisy, which includes myself, throughout our society and community – and throughout our faith.  So, I want someone who is able to identify those same things and point them out in a constructive way that reflects our faith.

I want to be challenged intellectually.

But I don’t want to be challenged to the point where I feel utterly stupid and shamed for my lack of wits.  I was unchurched after I left home in 1988 and moved back and forth between my Mom and Dad’s houses when things were going very badly at my Mom’s home with her second husband.  I started looking for churches again when I was stationed in Germany, after I spoke with a Jewish Rabbi, in 2004.  I attended some traditional and nontraditional services.  Some felt hokey and some felt familiar, “nice,” but maybe boring.

I don’t go to church to hear that I should love everyone.

I know that I should love everyone.

I want to hear how I should love someone who I otherwise would pass by.  I want to hear that Jesus is more likely to be the grumpy half-crazy homeless guy that I’d see on the way to work downtown than anyone else that’s in my daily life.

I want to be challenged, and sometimes that means offended.

I want that.

That’s tempered with not wanting a shock-jock turned preacher – or a preacher that is so full of himself or herself that any semblance of approachability and humility have transmogrified into this puritanical, holier-than-thou, give all your money to the church, “holy man” who is the knoweth and the beginningeth and endeth of all things Jesus.

I don’t want a fire breathing, Bible-thumping preacher man, who tells me that the only folks who get saved are those that are baptized in this church or that one.

I want a sermon to help bridge the gaps.

Between the Christian factions – or to at least help us understand what makes a Methodist sermon different than a Catholic or Non-Denominational one.  That desire goes back to learning bits and pieces about our faith – but through current happenings.  It doesn’t have to be about ISIS, but it can.  It doesn’t have to be about politics, but it can.

When we bought our home, we bought it to be closer to our church and to a particular school.  We want to stay and we want to be part of this community.  I want to be continually challenged.  If I’m not, I tend to wander and stray.

At the risk of your reaching critical mass (get it, “mass”…) of mental acuity and sheer mathematical arithmetical genius, I had only found a small handful of clergy that I could relate to (I guess that’s not just until I found Aldersgate, as it is still the case.

I could tell you a story through these three clergy – one Rabbi, one Catholic, and one Evangelical Preacher… I found bits to identify with each and something to take away.  It’s raised questions that I’ve asked and questions that I haven’t.

I still ended up in the Methodist tradition that I was baptized into back in the Chicago area.  Maybe because of tradition, but maybe also because I’ve found someone like you all.  We are happy here and what we are getting is exactly what we want.

Hopefully that’s helpful.

Thanks for asking.

– JF

lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517I know all the words by heart such that even now they’re at the edge of my lips ready to take the jump.

It’s not an accomplishment; it’s the trade. .

Well over 100 times now I’ve stood in the center of a sanctuary or in the middle of a funeral home chapel or at the head of an open grave on the fake plastic grass under an uneven tent or even a few times in a ‘sitting’ room and in front of all number and manner of mourners I’ve recited verses as inextricably linked with my character as ’…it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ belong to the chorus of Henry V. 

     My lines, if not bald-faced lies or pious candy, signify a great deal more than nothing: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’

Sitting here in my kitchen, staring at the baby blue folder folder whose top sheet is labeled ‘Preparing for Your Surgery,’ with my surgeon’s frank Army countenance (‘We won’t know what we’re facing until after your surgery’) ringing on repeat in my head- and my wife’s, it suddenly occurs to me that in all those 100 plus times I’ve never once stood by the dead and looked out at the living and proffered a follow-up question:

Do you believe this?

Do you believe (any of) this? That Jesus is the resurrection and the life? That those who trust in him (even though they die) yet shall they live? Are these just lines? Do you believe it? Really?

I’ve never thought to ask because, for one practical reason, the United Methodist Book of Worship doesn’t instruct me to ask it. For another very intuitional reason, it would seem boorish.

Funerals, after all, are usually emotionally bare (as in, vulnerable not sparse) ocassions with a higher likliehood of truth-telling breaking out compared to the rest of the working week. And if the Pew Surveys and Gallop Polls are to be reckoned accurate, then the priest or pastor who dares to ask ‘Do you believe this?’ should be ready for roughly half the grieving gathered to answer ‘No.’

No, we don’t.

Believe much of any of this.

Indeed I’d wager that the number of those responding in the negative would increase the closer you crept to the front pews, especially on those ocassions where the caskets are shorter or the left behind’s hair less grey, those ocassions where circumstances still seem to demand the wearing of black or where the shoulders are stooped not from age but grief.

I bet, if I asked, I’d hear more no’s up close near the front. And so I’ve never asked the question because neither my ecclesiastical script nor good manners suggest I do so. Jesus does though, in John 11, after speaking the lines whence this funerary quote gets lifted.

The dead Lazarus’ sister, Martha, gives the Gospel’s best example of tearing Jesus a new asshole: ‘If you’d only come when I called, Jesus, my brother would still be alive.’

Jesus responds with a resurrection rejoinder that ends where I begin whenever death enters in: ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’

And then Jesus, unlike me, follows up with the question: ‘Do you believe this?’

     Maybe, like Jesus, I should ask it too, propriety and piety be damned: ‘Do you believe this?’

Because, obivously, it’s a question meant for the living. Jesus isn’t asking what Lazarus believed. Four days dead, serene and sealed in the tomb, nobody cares anymore what Lazarus believed. Not God. Definitely not Lazarus.

No, Jesus is asking Martha what she believes.

When Jesus tells Martha about the power of the Resurrection, what Martha doesn’t get is that Jesus isn’t talking about a power available to us only after we die. He’s not talking about a one day down the road or even on the last day.

He’s talking about a power available in the present, today, in the here and now.

Because if you believe that Jesus Christ has destroyed Death then Resurrection doesn’t just make heaven possible, it makes a bold life possible too.

Because if you believe that Death is not the last word, then we have the power to live fully and faithfully.

And we don’t have to try to live forever.

Here’s what I’ve learned after those 100 plus ocassions delivering my lines for other people:

     When you’re staring at a euphemistically hued folder from your surgeon and when the -c- word has made a grim if hopefully premature intrusion in to your not-yet-graying-life and when wildly melodramatic Lifetime movie-type voices chatter in the back of your head, you don’t much give a damn about forever.

      Longer is all you want. Longer will do. Longer with….

And here’s what you notice:

Martha’s ‘Yes, I believe’ doesn’t guarrantee a happy ending for her brother.

The size of Jesus’ tears outside Lazarus’ grave suggest even Jesus was a little shocked the dead guy walked out newly alive, but, even after all the trouble, Lazarus will die again, of old age and natural causes, or post-op infection perhaps or maybe of a broken heart.

Martha says ‘Yes, I believe’ and no doubt she does, but, seen from Jesus’ POV, she doesn’t grasp at all what it means to believe.

She and Jesus are speaking past each other. He’s talking about his very Being; she’s talking about the Last Day. Even our strongest beliefs barely scratch the surface of what’s True.

In case those first two observations strike you as dissatisfying, here’s the last thing you notice staring at a baby blue folder embossed with the caduceus and your name in hasty yellow marker.

 A God who works by Resurrection is, by definition, a God of surprises- light from darkness and all that- and a God of surprises is, by definition not a genie in a magic lamp.

     The antonym of Resurrection isn’t Death; it’s Predictable.

Perhaps then that’s the best reason not to add to my familiar script and pose that question to mourners: ‘Do you believe this?’

Because even when the answer is in the affirmative, even where the faith is as strong if uncomprehending as Martha’s, ‘Yes’ is still a complicated answer. Now that the shoe gown is on the other foot body, I regret any of the times in those 100 plus that I might’ve implied anything other.

 

lightstock_98305_xsmall_user_2741517A folktale about worship goes thusly:

Once there was a rich man who fell in love with a maiden, who was beautiful in form and more beautiful still in character. The sight of her brought him much joy but also much grief, for unlike the maiden he was ugly outwardly and even more unsightly within.

Being so repulsive, he knew he would never win her heart so he struck upon a plan. He approached a mask-maker and requested a mask that would make him appear handsome to the beautiful maiden. The mask-maker did as he was asked. The mask transformed the rich man into a handsome man. In love with the maiden, the masked man did his best to summon the character to match his new outward beauty. He asked the maiden to marry him and ten years of happiness ensued.

But the masked man knew he was carrying a secret. Every day it weighed on him more. He wanted to know if his wife loved him. What’s more, he knew marriage should not be founded on deceit.

One day, filled with fear over what his decision would bring, the husband returned to the mask-maker’s door and made yet another request: this time to the remove the mask.

The mask-maker did as he was asked and the husband returned home fearful.

To his surprise, when his wife saw his unmasked face she showed no reaction whatsoever. No shock. No revulsion. No disgust.

Not understanding, the husband grabbed a mirror and looked only to discover that his face was handsome, not at all like he had once been.

He returned a third time to the mask-maker, looking for an explanation.

The mask-maker told him: you’ve changed.

You’ve loved a beautiful person and become beautiful too by loving her.

You’ve become like the one you’ve loved.

For Augustine, worship is the most important thing we do as Christians because it’s in worship that we adore God and through worship that we become more like the One we adore.

Thomas Aquinas always pointed out Paul’s teaching that when we pray it’s not something we do. We can’t comprehend God.

No, when we pray and worship it’s God the Holy Spirit do so in and through us.

We become what we love, what is loved through us.

This stress is woven into the very terms we use.
The word ‘worship’ is a combination of the words ‘worthy’ and ‘-ship.’ Worship is the practice of attributing ‘worthyship’ whereby we become more worthy.

The word ‘service’ that we use today to refer to the Sunday liturgy comes from the word ‘Gottesdienst’ meaning ‘God’s service to us and our service to God.’

Worship doesn’t name something we do.

Something’s done to us too.

Already beloved, we’re made beautiful.

lightstock_100102_small_user_2741517Details:

It’s 10:00 AM – 10:45 AM on Sunday, February 9

It’s at Island Creek Elementary School

Click here for map and directions.

I’ll be preaching a Valentine’s theme.

More awesome, the music will be provided by the acclaimed, world-touring Big Hillbilly Bluegrass Band.

We need your help too! Sign up here to volunteer for Sunday.

This is our ‘Preview Service’ aka: Dress Rehearsal before we launch in March. We’d love to have you and to have you give us feedback for how we can improve.

Anything you can do:

Word of mouth, forwarding this to a friend, ‘liking’ this on Facebook or giving me some Twitter love would be a huge help.

Find out more here.

Here’s the band:

Taize-Pine-Ridge-2013I’m spending the next four days at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota as part of the Taize Pilgrimage of Trust. I’m joined here by 3 others from my church along with thousands of Christian pilgrims 18-35 from around the world as well as the brothers from the Taize Monastic Community in Burgundy, France.

The Taize Community was started by Brother Roger Schultz, himself a Swiss Reformed Protestant, in 1940 as an ecumenical monastery that would in its life together embody peace and reconciliation in postwar Europe.

What started as a small band of brothers from Catholic and Protestant denominations quickly grew to attract over 100,000 ‘pilgrims’ every year for a week at time. These pilgrims come from all over the globe, are primarily youth and young adults and for 7 days seamlessly integrate into the community’s weekly rhythm of fixed hour prayer (worship), bible study, and work.

As I tell people, think ‘Woodstock crossed with a Medieval Monastery.’

Every year the brothers of Taize take their community on the road in order to reconnect with former pilgrims and welcome others who might not be able to make the trek to rural France.

I’ve been to Taize a couple times in the past. The following are my journal reflections from my first pilgrimage.

Taize 2008 016

One of the brothers here yesterday described the community here as the hub or the spoke around which the entire world revolves. ‘We think of our community as the engine that keeps the world running’ he said.

And by ‘community’ he meant the the community’s rhythm of thrice a day prayer and worship. That if they stopped worshipping the world would cease spinning. Their worship, he believes, is what they owe the world.

It’s their vocation.

My first gut reaction to hearing him describe the world and worship this way was to dismiss it as so much pious speech.

That this was my first reaction I feel exposes something, a deficiency, in or about me.

As any good seminary student learns early on, ‘liturgy’ means literally ‘the work of the people.’ The work of the laos NOT the clergy. I don’t know if I’ve ever really grasped what this means until I came here.

Too much or too often our worship is not work (even though it can sometimes feel like work to endure a worship service). Seldom though do we think of our worship as work- as something we do for another.

What I mean is: our worship is most often driven by what people in the pews like or want. We evaluate worship based on its utility, based on what I want, how it makes me feel, whether it ‘feeds’ me or I got something out of it.

And just because I don’t sit in the pews doesn’t mean I’m not guilty too. I cater to that same utilitarian impulse with topical sermon series meant to get people’s attention while other pastors pack secular wisdom into the guise of sermons with series like ‘5 Biblical Principles for a Better Marriage.’

The unspoken goal of most worship is the experience it creates in the worshipper; liturgy becomes instead the work of the clergy for the benefit of the laity. Worship is to serve the needs of the people there. Why else would ‘performance’ be such a strong element of worship be it the choir standing up front as they would in a musical or a band playing on stage as they would at a concert?

What would it be like for a congregation to believe as firmly as Brother Whathisname that if they stopped regular worship their surrounding community would cease to exist? What would it be like for a congregation to gather every Sunday morning in the conviction that ‘this is the work we do on behalf of our little patch of the world?’

The worship here at Taize shouldn’t be so appealing to so many young people.

While all the chants sung here, which make up almost the entirety of the worship, are dated from the late ’50’s on (making them more contemporary than most traditional hymns) the sound is decidedly ancient.

There are no song leaders, no visible cantors, no choir or band up front to lead us. Nothing sounds remotely like anything you’d hear on the radio and yet thousands of people younger than me are sitting on their butts for nearly 5 hours a day singing strange, archaic-sounding music.

The appeal, I think, is the brothers’ conviction that the world needs their worship as much as a body needs water.

 

A sermon for All Saints based on Ezra 3

On Thursday afternoon this week, I found myself in what you might describe as a ‘sour mood.’ Or, as my wife likes to put it, I was ‘man-strating.’

First, early on Thursday I received an email from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named here in the congregation, my own personal Caiphus. For some reason, he felt the need to email me to dispute Dennis’ sermon from last Sunday.

You know, the sermon that was written by and preached by NOT ME. I mean if I’m going to start getting blamed for Dennis’ sermons too then he’s got to step up his game. Specifically, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named wanted to dismiss the Pew Trust statistics Dennis shared with you, about the percentage of people in their 40’s and 30’s and 20’s for whom church is not relevant to their lives at all.

His email was succinct: “I come to church every Sunday. If other people don’t that’s not my problem.”

That’s when I started manstrating.

Right after reading his email, I got in my car where I discovered that every single radio station was playing a campaign commercial, the kind explaining how this Tuesday is the most critical date in the history of human civilization and unless Barack Obama/Mitt Romney wins the earth will stop spinning, America will cease to exist, and the Death Star will reach full operational capacity.

Driving in my car, my mood worsened.

When I got home Thursday afternoon, my phone rang. And rang. And rang…don’t you love phone calls this time of year? Barack Obama’s campaign called me 3 times, asking for my vote and my money. Mitt Romney’s campaign called me 2 times, asking for my vote and my money. George Allen and Tim Kaine followed with robo-calls of their own, asking for my vote and my money.

So when my phone rang for the 8th time, I was full-on manstrating.

 

‘Is Jason Micheli there?’ the voice on the other end inquired.

 

‘No, he’s not here,’ I lied, ‘can I take a message?’

 

‘My name’s Matt. I’m calling from Princeton Seminary.’

 

‘Oh,’ I said, ‘this is Jason.’

 

‘But I thought you said…’

 

‘Never mind what I said. How can I help you?’

He then explained that he was a seminary student and that he was calling on behalf of the Bicentennial Campaign, soliciting gifts…and testimonials from alumni.

He tried to grease the sale by telling me all the new things going on at my alma mater, and then he asked if I would make a gift to the campaign.

I said sure. He said great. I said okay. He asked how much.  I told him.

And he said: ‘Times are tough, huh?’

That’s when my mood turned truly foul.

‘Look kid, maybe no one’s told you yet what you can expect to make as a pastor but I’m not Bill Gates. Besides, you should’ve called earlier. I’ve already given money to Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, George Allen, Tim Kaine, NPR and the Rebel Alliance.’

He sounded confused.

‘Well, um, would you like to share any thoughts about how your seminary education prepared you for ministry? We’d like to compile these and publish them in the alumni magazine.’

And instantly my mind went to that email from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, sitting in my inbox, still waiting for a reply.

And I knew this was one of those moments where a grown-up could choose to bite his tongue and not resort to petty sarcasm. But I’m not one of those grown-ups.

‘Sure, Matt, I’d love to share my thoughts. Here goes: Princeton Seminary prepared me exceedingly well…to maintain a church for church people.’

I could hear him typing my response.

‘In fact, Matt, why don’t you suggest to the trustees that they can slow down, delay the Bicentennial for several decades, because based on how Princeton taught me to do ministry it must still be 1950.’

‘That’s not the kind of feedback we were looking for’ Matt said.

‘Of course not, but its what you need to hear.

Princeton Seminary taught me to pray the kinds of prayers church people like, to preach the kinds of sermons church people like, to plan the kind worship services that church people like, to manage the kind of church that church people like.

 

But seminary didn’t teach me how to do any of those things in a way that makes church relevant and life-changing to an unchurched person.

 

And that’s the future, Matt. And the clock’s ticking. It’s ticking faster than any one in church wants to believe.’

 

Those Pew statistics Dennis shared with you last week- about how with each new generation the church plays an ever-shrinking role- those aren’t just numbers.

They’re people with names and stories. People God loves.

 

That’s why this week I sent our youth director, Teer Hardy, out into Alexandria and DC, to find some those people behind the numbers and hear their side of the story.

 

I wish I could show you the video he shot. If we were in the National Cathedral, I could show you the video. But since we’re in this sanctuary, you’re just going to have to listen. Here’s one of the responses (Cue Audio)

 

My name is ___________________. 

I’m 33. I’m married and have a 1 year old boy. I work full-time.  

As a 30-something, how relevant is the Church to you in your life? 

At this moment, not very much. I guess it’s been almost five years since I worshipped in a church, besides a few weddings. Some of my earliest memories are of going to church during Advent. 

I miss that element in my weekly life, of worshiping and belonging to a community. Part of me would like to have that resonance of faith in my daily life, but most churches don’t seem to have someone like me, someone my age, in mind. Your question could easily be turned around, couldn’t it? How relevant is someone like me to your church? 

When you hear the word ‘worship’ what comes to your mind? 

The word ‘worship’ doesn’t immediately lead me to think of institutional religious practices. 

To worship, to me, is to reframe my attention away from everything I typically pay attention to as a full-time working mother, and turn to God, experience awe, gratitude, connection to other humans. I could attend a formal church service and never experience any of those things, but I do experience them in other ways and places.  

What assumptions or habits do churches have that are an obstacle to someone your age? 

I think there is a risk of the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction. I think churches sometimes try to pander and make themselves appear relevant to a young audience. People my age and younger are a lot savvier now. We’re marketed to all the time; we can tell the difference between a sales pitch and a genuine interest in us.

 

This is someone who grew up in church and is open to being a part of another one.

 

But did you hear what she said?

 

People like her won’t return to what they left if it’s the same exact thing they left before.

 

Now it’s easy to write people like her off. You can say ‘it’s not my problem.’

I could steer you towards plenty of people who would agree with you.

 

You know where they’re all at this morning? That’s right, in dying churches.

 

And Methodism’s got plenty of those. Churches who love their way of doing things more than they love their mission to reach new people.

 

Churches where perpetuating how they do things is their mission. Churches who feel no urgency until the day comes they can no longer pay the bills.

 

But, just in case there’s still some of you who want to dismiss the statistics and not be bothered about the strangers in the street who don’t think Jesus can change their lives, we solicited some other interviews too.

 

Cue Audio:

My name’s _____________________. I’m 24 and work full-time.

 

What about how churches do worship fails to resonate with you? 

 

I think everyone is at a different place in their lives and everyone has a different perspective. I know that my ideas and opinions about things have changed, and I would be amazed if they didn’t change again. Sometimes it feels like churches want new and younger people so long as we don’t come with our own opinions and needs. We’re expected to sign on to exactly how they like to do worship. In that sense, it’s not much different than children’s church when I was a kid.

 

It’s difficult for me to accept someone else’s preferences if I don’t get the feeling that they’re open to someone else’s way of doing things too. 

 

This other response come to me by way of Facebook:

 

My name’s ____________________. I’m a Graduate Student.

 

I think my faith is in a transitional phase. In college, I found Christian groups to be radical and extreme and it made me doubt the beliefs I had learned my whole life in church and youth group. It left me feeling that the Church just isn’t all that relevant to real life. 

 

Worship sometimes feels like a passive ritual to me. You show up, listen, then go home.  It doesn’t impact my day to day life. 

 

 

Those two people. Guess where they came from?

They grew up here at Aldersgate. They’re ours. Yours.

So, even if you think we don’t have a responsibility to reach as many new people as we can, at the very least you should agree that we have an obligation to people like these two.

After all, you’ve made promises to them.

Remember? When they were baptized- you promised to do whatever it takes to nurture their faith.

 

If we’re not willing to create the kind of church that will be relevant to them when they grow up, then, frankly, we should stop baptizing them when they’re babies.

 

If we’re not willing to adapt how we do church, we should stop baptizing children.

 

Because every time we baptize, we vow to do everything it takes to make them a saint.

 

Shirley Pitts can tell you- John Wesley understood this.

Remembering the saints is something we do. Once a year.

 

Producing saints, Sunday after Sunday, day in and day out- that’s our Christ-given great commission.

 

 

This is what you need to remember.

 

Dennis and I- one of our three goals for the coming 18 months is to raise the number of people in worship by 10%.

 

Round it up to 100 people if you want.

 

Before you nod your heads and say ‘that’s a great idea!’ remember the Ezra chapter 3 catch:

 

We can’t say we’re going to build a new temple and think we can do so by replicating how we’ve always done things before.

 

Because how we do things now will net us what we have.

Now.

 

We’re making worship our number one focus this year and our goal is 10% more people worshipping God with us.

 

To get to that goal, we’re going to have to be creative, take risks, value people over preferences, we’re going to have to examine all our assumptions, we’re going to have to get more basic/more essential, and change.

 

And if you think I’m talking about worship style or music style, you’re missing the point. For example:

 

Most of you would be very reluctant to invite an unchurched friend to worship with you. I understand that reluctance, but it’s got to change.

 

Many of you can’t talk about Jesus or use religious language in a normal conversation with your peers. I was like that; I understand that, and we’ve got to change that.

 

Many of our members are involved in all kinds of activities in the church without ever worshipping with us. I understand that’s an ingrained part of the church culture, but it’s a part of the culture that’s got to change.

 

Other than acolytes, we don’t have our children or youth involved in worship, serving communion, reading scripture, helping to plan, leading prayer or ushering. I understand that might sound chaotic. It’s still gotta change.

 

Many of you don’t know the names of the people you sit near in church every Sunday. I DON’T understand that and it’s definitely got to change.

 

Many of you think worship is something Dennis or I or Andreas or Jason or the band or the choir offer you, and you receive- rather than something we collectively offer our larger community on behalf of God.

 

And more than anything, that mindset has to change.

 

Look, I know change bothers people.

I’ve been at this long enough to have habits I’m afraid to change.

I understand.

 

But what I want to bother you more, what I wish I got emails complaining about, what I wish I got emails complaining about, is how our community is filled with lost coins, lost sheep, lost children and how we’re not laser-beam focused on getting them here so they can embrace a Father who’s waiting for them.

 

I want that to bother you because Jesus made it very clear: it bothers God.

 

I was still on the phone with Matt from Princeton when another call beeped in.

It was probably another campaign calling me for my vote and my money.

 

But at least it snapped me out of my rant and Matt said:

‘That’s a good point Mr Micheli, but transitioning a church into the future- don’t you think that’s your congregation’s responsibility too? Don’t you trust that God can equip your people with the necessary gifts?’

 

I told him he must get very good grades in seminary, and he chuckled gently.

 

And then the little jerk asked me for more money.

 

But he was right.

 

Building on our foundation for a new future is a gigantic, God-sized calling. And it belongs to all of us. Together.

 

Ezra says the leaders who build the new Temple after the exile are the grandkids of the ones who remember how things used to be.

 

Ezra says, at first, everyone thinks their idea to build a new Temple is a great idea.

But Ezra says some have a change of heart when they realize the new Temple won’t be the same as the old.

 

Some refuse to give their money to it, Ezra says.

 

Others opt out Ezra says.

 

But others, those who are old enough to remember what was 50 years ago, Ezra says they weep.

 

They weep, but they’re still there. They’re still there when the new Temple is dedicated.  They’re still committed. They’re still contributing. Because of what God did for them in the past, they’re still invested in the future of what God’s doing.

 

And sure when the new Temple is dedicated, Ezra says you can’t distinguish the sound of celebration from the sound of grief.

 

But that’s okay.

 

Because as messy as it is, that’s what it sounds like- celebration and grief, that’s what it sounds like- when God’s People take the next faithful step.

 

 

 

 

 

Worship Wars

Jason Micheli —  November 1, 2012 — 1 Comment

This weekend for our God-Sized Visions Sermon Series we’re focusing on worship: the rebuilding of the Temple in Ezra 3.

True Confession:

There are Sunday mornings where I absolutely love the organ.

In particular, I love the organ’s ability to make me feel incredibly puny and insignificant. On those mornings, I’m reminded of the organ in Princeton Chapel where, due to the all wooden Calvinist decor, my butt would often vibrate in the pew in time to the music. Only an organ has the power to approximate God’s sovereign majesty.

However, there are other Sundays when the sound of the organ makes me feel like I should be riding a fake blue horse on a merry-go-round or it makes me feel like Chewy or Han when they receive their medals at the end of Episode 4 (you know you can hear the music now) or it just makes me feel… bored.

True Confession:

There are Sundays when contemporary worship music hits just the right note between rootsy and soulful, where the plain speech works as well as an ancient chant and where the energy of the band feel incarnational.

There are other Sundays, though, when contemporary worship music strikes me as narcissistic (it’s all first-person, God’s almost always the object of MY desire), vapid and devoid of any catechetical power, and a poor imitation of better pop art.

In other words, I don’t have a genre preference.

Many Christians and many congregations, especially in the UMC, are still fighting the worship wars- contemporary vs ‘traditional- from the early 1980’s, which is funny since those contemporary songs are no longer even contemporary. I was like 3 years old then. Wham is no longer contemporary either.

It’s also an odd debate to have at all because it’s historically myopic.

What we so often refer to as ‘traditional’ worship was once ‘contemporary’ after all. 

King David didn’t worship with an organ. For that matter, St Thomas Aquinas didn’t worship with….anything.

That’s right, for all our talk of ‘traditional’ worship most Christians don’t realize that for the better half of the Christian Church’s history we didn’t worship with any instrumentation whatsoever.

The Gregorian chant was the musical mode until the 13th century. Thomas Aquinas himself opposed the organ and argued it would lead people to confuse Christians as ‘Judaizers.’ An unpleasant expression today but you get the idea.

Little known too is that even though Martin Luther wrote wonderful hymns and taught his own children music, Lutherans themselves didn’t introduce instrumentation into worship until a century and a half after Luther’s death- and then not without a fight.

In fact, well in to the 19th century worship music was congregational singing sans ‘machinery’, much like many Mennonites continue to worship today.

So when we talk about ‘traditional’ worship we’re often talking about a form of worship music that dates to the latter half the 1800’s, which is the very period whence comes a huge chunk of the UM hymnal. This is a period of time that, given the full expanse of Christian history, occupies a not much larger chunk than the one covered by so-called contemporary music.

All this shows, I think, that any robust understanding of Christian worship, one that learns from the beauty of the past but acknowledges that the Spirit is still working and creating, should include everything.

Authentic Christian worship shouldn’t have a genre preference. 

The true tragedy to so many churches getting mired in genre disputes, the ‘worship wars,’ is that in the meantime a whole generation of my peers and the generation after me are not being discipled at all.