Friday, September 30, 2011

Expendables - The Worship Experience

Having established the groundwork for rethinking church activity/methodology, I wanted to jump into an element of church which has both bothered me and enriched my life throughout the years. This element is what we have commonly come to know as the Worship Experience. The tradition really goes back to the book of Acts, I believe, where it is said that the early followers of "the Way" sang songs of praise together. It goes back further than that, of course, but in terms of documented history of the Christian tradition, we might as well say it was there at the beginning. People sang together in worship to God.

This could be a touchy subject for many people. I have known of not a few Christians who have left churches over a change in worship style or simply because they disliked the music (I am not arguing here that this is a bad reason to leave a church - that is a different discussion entirely - I am simply pointing out that the worship experience seems to be very important to a lot of people). Lots of people go into the worship experience (ie. congregational music) with certain expectations. Some want to feel a sense of reverence, like they're coming before God himself, in awe and trembling. Others may want to feel reassured and calm. Still others prefer to pour their hearts out in thanksgiving, or petition, or even self deprecation. For the most part, people are looking for a certain kind of experience, a certain kind of feeling, and most seem to want to reach this experience in a certain way.

These desires people have for pouring out their hearts, or for reassurance, or for trembling awe, or whatever else one might look for in worship music, are often laudable desires, and the experiences they have are often positive and healthy (not always, but often). What troubles me about them is, first, that they are for most people static, unchangeable expectations, and second, that they are treated as ideals in themselves in place of the highest ideal of living in love, faith, and hope through Christ. Again, this is touchy. I will concede that drawing closer to a very real God is perhaps the essence of living in love and attaining to these qualities, and furthermore, I see the value in these experiences towards reaching these ends. The problem is once more that we've treated the method, and even sometimes the style, as the essential element, as the weight-bearing, indispensable pillars.

As I have fleshed this out, the essential element of the Worship Experience is drawing closer to God. After all, I think we can admit that the whole point of being a Christian is to have God in our lives. Thus, we want to be able to come before him, to talk with him, to worship him, to pray to him and to experience him. But the Worship Experience, as can easily be seen, is only one mere method of this, not the essential element. There are many ways to draw near to God. There are many ways to experience him. Singing songs of praise is a very good way, but it is not the only way, and it is only good if it is done in light of our true essential element. Too often, people practice the method for the express purpose of getting out of it what they've experienced before: an emotional high or a feeling of excitement. Granted, there is nothing wrong with these things, but without placing them in the proper context of drawing near to a very real and personable God and learning to live in love through a humble encounter with him. If we forget the essential element, we might begin to enter a worship experience with a sense of self-importance or pride in our abilities, even pride in our own humility.

There are many ways to draw near to God, as I have said. Singing songs of praise is one, Prayer is another. Service, camaraderie, and virtually any good thing can bring a person before God's presence. And here is what I think is the most important point throughout this whole conversation I seem to be having with myself: Churches need to act according to their spiritual needs, not according to strict methodology. Perhaps the same thing will be effective for a long time in some contexts, but without the essential elements of our meetings together, how can we even know? If we don't have our eye on the goal, on what it really means to live life together in the way of Jesus, how can we even begin to measure whether our teaching or our worship is effective? People can argue all they want about the merits of one teaching style over another, or of one worship style over another, but unless a church learns to be malleable in its application of activities, it will always and only be a specifically catered, production-oriented, Sunday Morning Show. Our activities should be a reflection of the spiritual needs of our community. If the people in our congregations need to learn to be humble, one approach might be to give a sermon on humility. This is a step in the right direction, but even further is to lay down very careful thought about the most effective way to teach people to be humble. Perhaps taking everyone to a homeless shelter for Sunday morning would help teach humility. A sermon may still have an important place for many contexts, and I admit it is the easier choice to facilitate, but our church communities need to be growing not just watching. What if what your congregation really needs is a time for everyone to come to church and be silent for an hour and a half? What if what they really need is a whole morning devoted to getting to know one another? What if they need to sing songs all morning? A church methodology must be designed to fulfill needs, and nobody's needs are static. A person might need reassurance one day, humility the next. One might need to pour their hearts out one morning and listen to a thoughtful sermon the next.

In closing I will say this: an effective and meaningful church needs to be a goal-oriented church, and it needs to know what the most important goals are and direct their energy and activity toward meeting those goals. Know what the essential elements are of reaching those goals, and you're that much closer to being able to think outside the box, and to establish a community that is growing and learning together.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Expendables - Sermons

Having laid out an initial framework for thinking about how we "do church," I'd like to explore further the kind of changes that can or should be made and the kind of "sacred cows" that many churches keep, refusing to let go, even though they want to do things differently.

All of this depends on what our true goal is. In my opinion, the goal is for God's people to live in love, faith and hope through the Spirit of Jesus Christ. That goal could be embellished some, but that is at the core, since these are the core lasting qualities of God's goodness in the world. So, previously I likened the walls of a structure to the method of how we do things. The support beams and the weight-bearing studs are the essential elements. We don't necessarily need all the walls in place for the structure to stand, but we can do anything without the essential elements. These elements must only be gleaned from our goal, not just from personal tastes, what we enjoy better, or what makes a better show. These factors might influence the method, but they should never influence the essential elements, and if they do, then we have a problem.

Therefore, we have to answer the question: what are the essential elements?

Well in order for anyone to do anything, they have to at some point learn to do it. Thus I will start with an element every church seems to cherish: Teaching. This element might better be called "Learning," since that is what is really at stake, but it could also be called "Discipleship." After all, the real question isn't whether or not there is teaching going on, but whether or not people are learning anything. So, I think we can agree that Learning is essential. Without Learning, we tend to stay much the same people we used to be, and that is counterproductive to living in love and faith and hope.

The problem with Learning is that the church has morphed the essential into the classic "Sunday morning Sermon." It is important that we don't confuse the essentials with the methods. There are many different ways of learning and many different kinds of things to learn, some action-oriented, others thought and feeling-oriented. A "sermon," or in other words, a "lecture," is only one way of teaching someone. But in fact it is not really the best way of teaching anyone, it is simply the easiest for the teacher. Very little interaction and accountability, very little personal investment is involved on the part of the audience to a sermon. In this case, much of the church has invested loads of energy into what I would call a "sacred cow." They've turned the sermon, the lecture, into the primary activity of the church, into one of the most revered elements of the "sunday morning show." If you don't think people regard this as sacred, try suggesting that we do without a sermon on a sunday morning. If it is a special event, that might be fine, but too many people consider it one of the most important parts of church. They've confused it with the crucial support beam of learning, they've misplaced the load-bearing studs of discipleship, and set up what might really be a rather inconvenient and ineffective wall inside their structure.

In many ways actual learning, actual discipleship and changing of a life, becomes secondary to the method. For many people, I think this is just a lack of insight: it's just a default position. Sermons on Sunday morning are what we know. To many of us, that's simply what church is. When they talk about doing things differently, they think of changing the Sermon somehow, to make it more interesting, more exciting, to get people to like it more, and yes, many people want to get the sermon back to actually making disciples. But not very many people will think of it as expendable, just like many homeowners often don't think of any of their walls as expendable. If you don't have strong remodeling experience, you might want something different, but not even realize that big changes are possible. You might be very unsatisfied and even conclude that the only solution is to sell your house and trade it for another.

Many people don't realize that most methods have been handed down to us by human beings. The essentials are God's area: discipleship, connection, unity, growth, service, humility, joy. We can't confuse the methods that have been handed down to us with the essential elements of the Kingdom of God. We need a firm foundation, and some steady pillars, and many people don't recognize the difference between these and the methods and systems in place throughout the church.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


When people have talked about reforming church, it used to be that they reformed doctrines or teachings or possibly just teaching styles. Sometimes its a change of focus from one Christian theme to another. More recently, people have tried to "do church different," and to me it has seemed that this means merely trying different things, maybe adding some liturgy or planning more outreach events or service projects and sometimes changing up Sunday morning activities.

But I have noticed that even among churches who want to do things different, there are certain "sacred cows," and there are activities that we still regard as central and essential to our existence. It is my belief that a lot of these are simply default choices, based on what our impressions are of what church is supposed to be, and how it is supposed to go, but in my opinion, these activities still do little to get us away from the "Sunday morning show" dilemma. We say we want an interactive, engaging time at church, but we tend to stick to the old models. We take the old worship time and we update it with the latest technology and musical styles, powerpoint, sound systems, etc., but it is still the same model. We take the old teaching times and we update them with innovative media encounters and we spice them up a bit, but in general, they are the same model.

I am not suggesting that there is something wrong or inferior with old models. However, there is a problem if we treat these models as the core essentials of church in and of themselves. Church reformers of today will get nowhere unless they understand fully what the essentials are, and begin to treat everything else as what it is: decorative. If a church believes in teaching, then they need to understand that the learning and discipleship are the essentials, while the "sunday morning sermon" is the decor. It is merely the structure around which you choose to organize the essential element of teaching. There are other ways to teach and learn.

I prefer to liken it to a house: A house has certain essential support beams. It has pillars and beams that cannot be knocked out without upsetting the integrity of the structure. But many of the walls can be torn down, while new walls can be added. As long as the pillars and support beams are in place, then with a little work, you can make your house look however you want to suit your needs. Unfortunately, many people look at their house and try to change the way they organize the room, putting chairs in different corners, when what they really want is to knock out a wall or add a new little room or expand a bathroom, whatever it is that would really suit their needs. A church who wants to do things differently must take a look at the structure of their meetings and decide if the house is designed to suit their true goals. In order to this they need to know what their true goals are and they need to know what the essential elements of reaching their true goals might be and then restructure the walls to meet the needs of an ever changing population.