June 6, 2021
Today I am going to move away from a lectionary base for the sermon. This does not mean what I will share do not have a Biblical base. It simply means the scripture readings from the lectionary are not necessarily my starting point.
For the month of June, I want to move to a more topical approach to our time together. I have several themes I would like to address. These themes emerge out of my experience of working with churches during the interim but also generally out of my experience as a pastor or of 47 years. These themes will include worship, its practice and where it appears to be going, (this is for today). Next is Christian education, which will focus on the religious education effort and its demise, and how to respond to this reality. Finally, evangelism and the issues of member retention and recruitment, and then some words about ecumenical relations and their importance to the life of the church.
By not using the pulpit and sharing this with from a lectern on the floor of the chancel, I also want to communicate and more relaxed style of presentation. It also allows me to speak more directly to you and hopefully more personally. I plan some other format changes for the summer and will share those with you later.
I want to begin with a confession about my difficulty in this topic for today on worship. I am reminded of the joke about the mosquito flying over the nudist colony who said to himself, “I know what I want to do. I just don’t know where to start.”
My concern is the topic of worship is vast and extensive. After all, it is what churches have been doing so their inception. Worship is the central act of the church. It is the primary activity which defines who we are and sets apart from all other human institutions. Only the church, and I mean here in the widest sense of a religious body, is a worshipping organization. Without it, our efforts would be more like a school or a social work agency. Worship defines us as no other activity can do.
But worship is also the defining activity of membership in a church. While it is the defining activity of the church as an institution, it is also the defining activity of membership. A major criterion of a healthy church is the number of people who participate in worship. Most studies I have read state that the criteria for healthy church should be a participation rate in worship of 25-30% of the official membership. Participation in worship then becomes not only a marker of identity but also a criterion for its overall health. It would be the equivalent of blood and temperature. A warning here as to have less than the announced number in worship does not mean you are a failing church, just as most of us do not have blood pressure and temperature matching medical standards for age and gender. You remain a living and functioning human if your temperature is either lower or higher. The issue is there is a range which determines the factors of your health. It is suggested as a reality to think about as we look at our own church life here at Hain’s.
Another reality is churches exist within a context, both historical and social. Whatever judgment we might bring to bear in our evaluations about our church or any church cannot be done fairly without taking these two important facts into consideration. Historically, churches are the products of time and antecedents of habits, teachings, and practice. Churches did not appear ex nihilio, or out of nothing. They did not drop down from the sky from a heavenly edict. Just as faith is the distillation of time and experience, so also churches. One of the ways to think about this faith process, and the church, is to image a funnel. At the top, the widest part is the faith of ancient Israel—Abraham, Moses, the Exodus, David. Next is a layer of the prophets—such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel. This is followed by the life and ministry of Jesus, his death and resurrection. Then comes the period of the apostles such as Paul and then the early church fathers, the writers and shapers of the church’s theology and practice such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Justyn Martyr. As the funnel becomes narrower at the bottom is the historical reality of the Roman Catholic Church which functioned without challenge until the time of the Reformation in the 1600’s, the last layer, before whatever comes out of the funnel. The reside, which finally emerges, current day Protestants.
You cannot, therefore, speak about the church in its current form without considering that it is a developmental process, not a fixed institution. Worship has its origins in all the items in the funnel. It is, no doubt, heavily influenced by the Roman Catholic Church, from which the form of worship, its liturgy we call it, emerged. Though we share in a familial way our heritage with Jews in terms of worship, the historical Catholic Church was the most important influence the way we worship, its structure and order.
But the Reformation was the most enduring and continuing influence on how we worship. This was due to changes in theology about the role of preaching, for example, and how communion was to be understood. For Catholics, the Bible was communicated through the interpretation of the church, not by individual believers. Luther challenges changed all of that and made the Bible accessible to all. It also made preaching the center piece of worship as its explanation by the minister became critical. Thus, Protestant places of worship have as their central focus, the pulpit, not the communion table. Further, communion was not the central way to faith and the maintenance of faith as Calvin and Zwingli defined communion as symbolic where Christ is present at the liturgy, but Christ’s body and blood are not consumed through transubstantiation. In the United Church of Christ, the outcome of the merger between the Evangelical and Reformed and the Congregational Christian Church, we share in this heritage from Luther and Calvin.
This historical reference is not a static one. It is a dynamic one as church forms and even the foundations of worship have shifted throughout all of history. The history of worship can serve as a reference but not as a look back to a settled permanence which never existed.
Here is where the social forces come into play. They have often been the drivers and the change agents for worship. One of the best examples comes from the work of Charles and Samuel Wesley, major personalities in the formation of the Methodist Church from their early days at Oxford. When they came to America, they discovered the difficulty of using classical or orthodox hymnody. These hymns required reading and the congregation was largely illiterate on the American frontier. Additionally, buildings were scare and so were hymn books. To adapt, they decided new music with easy to remember tunes and words were essential if their message was to survive. This was not new to America as Charles Wesley had used the same technique in England working with the miners who, like the frontier folks, could not read. Wesley went on to compose over 6,00 hymns. Social realities forced change in worship and cemented until the present hymn singing as a part of worship to teach theology, the bible, and communal bonding. Says James F. White of Wesley’s hymnody contribution, “What people sang became the theology they learned, and what they learned shaped their lives.” (James F. White, Protestant Worship, Traditions in Transition, p. 157)
It is these social forces which are driving a new phenomenon within Protestantism, particularly America, though as noted by Lester Ruth, “…it has become a thing globally. Travel around the world and one can hear references to this phenomenon’s name…” (Lester Ruth, Essays on the History of Contemporary Praise and Worship, pp. 2). The most often used descriptive term to speak of this is “Contemporary Praise and Worship”. Two narratives according to Ruth, can be delineated in the rise of contemporary praise and worship. One factor is identified as “the growing influence of culturally derived forms of pop and rock music…” (Ruth, p. 4) Another narrative has music as a central feature of the historical plot line but places it within a larger framework of the church’s desire to be attractive to youth. The impulse for this narrative came from the perception of the mid-twentieth century that the future lay with the youth and a concomitant fear that older generations and their ways had lost touch with youth. (Ruth, p. 4)
Underneath these new directions lay theological understandings which gave them credence within Protestantism [Praise and worship was often associated with Pentecostalism and contemporary worship more with mainstream denominations.]. For example, Ruth notes the contemporary praise and worship moniker had two distinct theological thrusts. “Praise and Worship” Ruth states, saw this kind of worship as a fulfillment of the revelation of God…focused on experiencing God’s presence through praise.” (Ruth, p. 5) This kind of worship became the way of “encountering the divine.” By contrast, the other stream, contemporary worship, emerged from an assumption that “societal and cultural changes had caused the church’s worship to be out of sync with people and sought to overcome the gap that many believed had developed between culture, people, and prior forms of worship. (Ruth, p. 6)
This history, I hope, is helpful as we move forward in finding ways to allow our worship to speak to a wide range of ages, cultures, and experiences. One approach is not “better” than another. The issue of motivation is key—are these forms being adapted because they provide new ways for people to experience God or are they only a means to an end to fill the pews with younger folks? I suggest this is not an either/or choice but a resource and way of worshipping which can help us restore our membership to former “days of glory” but also make some doors and build some new bridges to those who have yet to find a place and a people in which they can find their voice of God speaking to them.
In conclusion, whether we call it praise and worship or contemporary worship, all worship which gives praise to God is appropriate. God’s revelation is not limited by time, space, or circumstance. Praise is not captured in a one-hour service but is as the Psalmist declares in Psalm 34 a continuous attitude: “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.” (vs. 1) It moves from our souls to the shared experience with others “O magnify the Lord with me and let us exult his name together.” (v. 3) The result is righteousness observed and experienced. Salvation is shared and received. Justice and mercy for every soul. O let us praise the Lord! Amen.