Why I’ll Be in Church This Sunday

Inside_Church_view

Inside Church view at Water Baptism. Photo by Agapeoc [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia

There have been a flurry of reports and articles about the decline in church membership and attendance. The only category that seems to be rising is the “nones,” those who claim no affiliation, even if they would consider themselves “spiritual.” My work takes me into a number of different congregations, and my own sense is that there are more empty seats in recent years, bearing out what these studies are saying.

I could speculate about the causes, and many have, but I have no clue what is happening, to be honest. Maybe you do and can enlighten me. It also strikes me that it would be easy to throw programs and gimmicks at this. I’m not sure this would help. Gathering for worship is probably one of the most voluntary acts in modern life–one that comes more out of reasons of the heart than any effort to compel attendance. I may have to show up for work, or class, or weekly book group, or music rehearsal. Not so for worship in most cases.

So why will I be in church this Sunday?

Some is simply a matter of habit. I’ve been in worship most Sundays since I was probably about five years old. But habits are not necessarily bad. Habits of self care are good for my health and hygiene. I have to admit that I don’t always enjoy exercise. But exercising has become a habit. A habit with good consequences.

Gathering for worship has the good consequence of reminding this person who can all too often consider himself the center of the universe that God is, as well as the wild truth that the God of the universe is crazy about us pea-brained human beings. It is a relief to go to a place where you discover again and again that you are loved “just because….” The readings, the hymns and songs, the prayers, the confession all remind me of these bedrock truths that ground my life.

A statement out of Fleming Rutledge’s Three Hours grabbed me. “There is no other way to be a disciple of Jesus than to be in communion with other disciples of Jesus” I decided, maybe surrendered to relentless pursuit is a better word, to follow Jesus many years ago. Ever since, Jesus has been pulling me out of my propensity to go it alone–self-sufficient and self-protecting. Gathering with people, I would probably no more choose than the family I was born into, pulls me out of myself–to teach a class of giggly elementary school girls and rowdy boys, to pray for someone’s aunt I’ve never met, and to go through all the good and rough seasons of life with people who in time become dear brothers and sisters in Christ, and no longer just that person so different from me. It is odd how showing up with others, and for others over a few decades can change us.

I actually believe, when I recall it, that worship is about God coming and speaking to his people each week. It can come through a hymn or song, or a prayer. Often it comes through a pastor’s message. Maybe we are more blessed than we know to have a pastor who I believe tries to listen to God and what God wants said from the scripture for the week. Often, I discover that there is a sacred sense that is quite different than the common sense I live by.

Incidentally, I think showing up can encourage the pastor. I’ve been on the other side of the lectern and a room full of attentive people encourages one’s heart. Each of us matters. In some ethnic communities, there is a sense that the sermon is as much the congregation’s responsibility as the preacher’s. That’s what “call and response” is all about.

Also, I believe a church is a group of people on a journey together. Sunday isn’t just about listening for some personally inspiring thought. It is also about listening to the One who wants to help us navigate the journey together and knows the road. Church is about listening for what the Guide would say to us. This pulls me out of what I want for this group into what God wants.

In a society that seems to increasingly lodge its hope in political, media, business, or sports heroes, all of whom sooner or later are shown to have clay feet, worship reminds me that there is a kingdom that is not of this world, a perspective that comes from somewhere else, and a time frame of eternity that ought shape our lives.

Finally, gathering with other Christians in a local congregation reminds me of all the places this is happening around the world, and that “love one another” has a much larger scope that transcends national boundaries, and ethnic groups, and social classes. This past Easter Sunday, I arrived at church stunned by the bombing of Sri Lankan churches, and concerned for the safety of two Sri Lankan friends. I was reminded of the global family I was part of who were gathering time zone after time zone across the planet, and in this moment, sharing in the grief of Sri Lankan believers.

That solidarity in our community results in practical partnership with a collection of other local congregations, teaming up to host a community garden, food pantry, medical clinic, and to collect supplies for school children, infants, and even pets in low income households. Together, these churches and other community groups saved a local wetland from developers. Gathering Sunday by Sunday moves us to pray globally and act locally each week.

For these reasons, and perhaps more, I will be in church this Sunday.

 

 

Review: Expository Exultation

Expository Exultation

Expository Exultation, John Piper. Carol Stream, IL: Crossway Books, 2018.

Summary: Contends that the purpose of preaching is expository exultation; that preaching is integral to worship in the preacher’s work of making clear and exulting over the text of scripture as it reveals the glories of God.

This is one John Piper book that I can unequivocally endorse. While I might differ with him in other matters, I found myself saying “Amen” again and again as I read this book. The reason for this is that he recovers and articulates as well as anyone since Martyn Lloyd Jones and John Stott the glory and high calling of preaching. His central contention is that preaching, properly done is “expository exultation.” What does he mean by this?

“The title Expository Exultation is intended to communicate that this unique form of communication is both a rigorous intellectual clarification of the reality revealed through the words of Scripture and a worshipful embodiment of the value of that reality in the preacher’s exultation over the word he is clarifying. Preachers should think of worship services not as exultation in the glories of God accompanied by a sermon. They should think of musical and liturgical exultation (songs, prayers, readings, confession, ordinances, and more) accompanied and assisted by expository exultation–preaching as worship.”

Piper offers a helpful correction to the mentality that says worship is over when the music ends, where the message is kind of a letdown or a time for the mind to wander.

The remainder of the book is an unpacking of the above statement. He begins with a discussion of how fitting it is for the people of God to gather for corporate worship and then shows how preaching as expository exultation is integral to our corporate worship and rooted in the persons of the Trinity. The following two parts of this work focus on both the supernatural and natural aspects of expository exultation–the work of the Holy Spirit and the proper use of our skills to communicate with clarity and logic the reality of God and his work revealed in the biblical text.

The next part of this work was perhaps one of the most illuminating parts for me that explained why much biblical exposition falls flat. We may say what the text says, even individual words, and what it means, and how it bears on our lives. But Piper contends that we often do not clearly communicate the reality to which the text bears witness as we direct attention to the text so that people discover that reality for themselves, not by hearing us, but by seeing that this is what the text says. Good preaching shows how reality shines through the text.

He then turns in the next part to the central realities to which he believes the biblical text bears witness. They are the glory of God, Christ crucified, and the obedience of faith. Piper would contend that all three run through scripture and ought run through our exposition of it. Then in the following part, he shows how these three central realities run through even the Old Testament. He concludes by reminding the preacher of the high calling and indispensable importance of expository exultation in the life of the church. And he speaks personally to aspiring preachers:

“But he who called you is faithful. He will do it. I testify from forty years in the ministry of the word, through the best and the worst of times, God loves to help the preacher who is desperate to make the word plain for the holy happiness of his people, by the blood of Christ, for the glory of God. He will help you.”

So much preaching seems disconnected from the glories of God and the work of Christ we sing and celebrate in music, liturgy and ordinance or sacrament. Too often it seems merely to be an inspirational message to help us engage another week, or a series of marching orders. Piper articulates a vision of preaching consistent with the rest of worship–that God is the glorious hero of the scriptures we preach, that the decisive act in the story was the life, death and resurrection of the Son, and we are invited through the regeneration and empowering of his Spirit to participate through the obedience of faith in this great venture of God in his world. Those are the realities we make clear from the text of scripture and over which we exult and lead God’s people in joyous exultation both in corporate worship and lives of worship. No wonder Piper has been at it forty years and continues to preach and write with such passion!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Subversive Sabbath

Subversive Sabbath

Subversive SabbathA. J. Swoboda, Foreword by Matthew Sleeth, MD. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2018.

Summary: An extended argument showing how keeping sabbath is a counter-cultural, subversive practice in every area of life.

Apart from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic, The Sabbath, I would consider this the best book I have read on Sabbath. In a world focused on relentless doing, Swoboda challenges the Christian community to take the sabbath commands as seriously as we do the other nine, observing it is the only command speaking of something as “holy” to the Lord. His argument is that to begin to take this seriously is a subversive act, and perhaps one of the most significant way the church can bear witness to the transcendent reality of God. He writes:

“How is the Sabbath subversive? The truth remains that Sabbath will be challenging for anyone to live out in our busy, frenetic world. Sabbath goes against the very structured and system of the world we have constructed. Sabbath, then, becomes a kind of resistance to that world. Such resistance must be characterized as overwhelmingly good. In other words, if Sabbath is hard, then we are doing it right. It is never a sign of health or godliness to be well-adjusted to a sick society….Relating to our world of death, ‘going along’ is a sign of death. Living fish swim against the stream. Only the dead go with the flow” (p. xi).

The book consists of four parts, each with three chapters: Sabbath for Us, Sabbath for Others, Sabbath for Creation, and Sabbath for Worship. Beginning with Sabbath for Us, the first chapter explores Sabbath and Time, and the marvel that the first day life for Adam and Eve was a sabbath, where they rested along with God, and how hard it is for us to do the same. Sabbath and Work calls us to establishing rhythms of work and rest and challenges our worship of work instead of a reliance upon God when we do not work that carries into our work. Sabbath and Health speaks into how often we cannot say “no” when God says “no” and invites us for our health’s sake to rest.

In Sabbath for Others, Swoboda begins with Relationships, and how Sabbath practiced together may overcome the isolation of our lives and strengthen community. In Sabbath, Economy and Technology, Swoboda challenges us to think about how we prepare for the Sabbath in advance, and how we might do so in ways that others also enjoy rest, and how to manage our technology so we step away from our screens (he just went from preaching to meddling here!). He takes this further in Sabbath and the Marginalized, considering the implications of practicing the Sabbath so that the poor, the marginalized, the under-employed also find rest.

Sabbath for Creation begins by focusing on the intricate balance of creation and how Sabbath neglected is part of the the degradation of creation. He proposes that Sabbath is the string that holds everything together and that Sabbath-keeping is earth-keeping. Sabbath and the Land focuses particularly on how land needs sabbath to be restored, fallow periods every seven years that enrich the soil to enrich us. Sabbath and Critters (!) focuses on how we treat our animals, even to the point of suggesting chickens get a Sabbath from laying, and that all our animals need rhythms of rest.

Part Four centers around Sabbath as Worship, the ways we glorify God in community and in the world. It is Witness, setting us apart as this weird, contrast society that might be intriguing to tired, burnt out friends. It is Worship, and sometimes what we sacrifice rest for tells us what we falsely worship. It calls us into the trust that believes by not doing but by resting, we will experience God’s care. It is Discipleship that helps clear out what should not be in our lives, that exposes the noise inside us in times of silence, and helps us rightly order our lives into a new week.

While Swoboda interacts with a number of theological writers, literary figures, and others throughout this work, as well as the scriptures, his own stories of trying and failing and learning and pressing into Sabbath practice made this reader want to follow him into what appears a richer fuller way found by stopping and resting. He doesn’t present Sabbath as a cure all, but does propose that this command/gift is God’s way of liberating us from our hurried, distracted, alienated, consuming selves. Not only does this help liberate us from our false selves; Sabbath helps us to meet the true God. I will close with this:

“We worship the God who invented the weekend. This is why biblical scholar Al Baylis contends that ‘Genesis 1 is one of the most remarkable put-downs ever administered.’ The biblical creation account essentially served as a theological rebuttal of all the other ‘gods’ who never allowed anyone to rest. In a restless world, Yahweh required rest. Again, imagine what kind of first impression that would have given to an ancient person’s understanding of Yahweh. The God of Scripture not only rests himself but invites the world to rest with him” (pp. 9-10).

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Mission of Worship

The Mission of Worship

The Mission of Worship (Urbana Onward)Sandra Van Opstal. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012.

Summary: Worship and mission are integrally related; recognizing the greatness of God propels us into mission and mission involves inviting others across cultural boundaries to join us in worship.

Worship and mission were made to walk together, Sandra Van Opstal contends. For one thing, worship is meant to help us experience the greatness of God. And yet, our own cultural blinders often leave us missing dimensions of that experience. Worshiping with those from other cultures may open our eyes to these missing dimensions–lament, celebration, God’s power to bring freedom, to enlarge our vision of his greatness and majesty, to teach us to persevere in hope. This may lead us to personal transformation. Van Opstal writes:

“Our understanding of the church is transformed. As we worship crossculturally, we better understand our own worship as just a piece of a larger community. As we experience our differences we can more fully enjoy what it means to connect to the global church. Then we realize that we are a part of a bigger family. This helps connect us to the hearts of our brothers and sisters who live radically different lives than we live” (p. 18).

Worship rightly understood and lived out particularly transforms us into people who embrace the mission of God. Through worship, we enter a place where we may hear the call of God into the mission of God–to bring his good news through word and deed to those who in various ways are poor and oppressed (cf. Luke 4:18-19). Worship, when it is in the “heart language” of those to whom we go may itself be a powerful way of welcome and reconciliation that helps those we are seeking to reach to understand “this can be a home for me.” This is particularly compelling when it is accompanied by lives and deeds that seek justice for the marginalized people we may be trying to reach.

This brings Van Opstal to the conclusion of this short booklet. Just as we can only walk with two feet, so worship and mission must walk together. Worship sustains and empowers mission. Mission authenticates and incarnates worship.

Rarely do our churches exist in enclaves any more. They may be mono-cultural enclaves but I would suggest that one look at the community around the church would uncover great diversity in ethnic origins, religions and beliefs, economic status, and age. Even if the cultures represented on our communities are not yet in our seats, it seems a good principle that beginning to worship in some of the ways that these cultures might may both prepare us and propel us into our communities.

Van Opstal’s booklet is a concise argument for taking a look at our worship through a missional lens that a worship team, or whoever plans worship, might consider. Better yet, church leadership might read this to support the changes a worship team might introduce to move into a worship as mission mindset. The book even includes a brief appendix of further resources of songs that cross culture.

If this booklet whets your appetite for growing in crosscultural worship, Van Opstal goes into greater depth, and offers more resources in The Next Worship (reviewed here). Van Opstal draws on experiences ranging from her own congregation to leading national and international conferences to give us vision and practical help for leading worship that is not only a taste of the new creation, but that propels us into mission.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Worship in the Way of the Cross

Worship in the Way of the Cross

Worship in the Way of the CrossJohn Frederick. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Contends that worship should be “cross-shaped,” that communities who do so may be formed in service of God and each other. Addresses flawed assumptions, interpersonal relationships, and liturgical elements as these related to cross-shaped worship.

John Frederick, a musician as well as theologian, is deeply disturbed by much of what he sees on the contemporary worship scene. He argues that instead of performances that focus on a rock star worship leader, worship is about the story of Christ and his cross and needs to be shaped by that story to counter the destructive stories of our society. He believes that when this is done consistently bringing elements of music, liturgy, preaching, and Eucharist together, God’s people are formed in the character of Christ, growing in love for God, each other, and the world, expressed in service. He calls this “cruciformation.” and argues that as we encounter Christ in the elements of worship, we become more like the Christ we encounter.

As I noted, he can be critical of the ways worship is often framed. At points, he writes with tongue firmly in cheek, as when he describes the “Karoake Chapel” character of much of the contemporary Christian music scene, where one encounters the same songs sung the same ways in churches across the country. He pleads for artistic integrity and creativity within church communities, and that worship teams stop simply being “cover bands.” He touches on the monocultural worship of many of our churches, built around the homogeneous unit principle, although here, I would commend Sandra Van Opstal’s The Next Worship (reviewed here), which takes the theory of this book and incarnates it with years of praxis. Later, he is critical of “propositional” music and preaching. On this last I would agree these can be sterile, but I’ve also seen many instances, both musically and expositorily where propositions crystallize the sense of narratives, and narratives flesh out and bring to life propositional elements. I wasn’t that keen on him trotting out this hobby horse which just seems one more example of binary, either-or thinking that lacks the creativity and synergy I think Frederick actually values.

Many will find helpful the sections in which he fleshes out what cruciform relationships look like between those who lead worship, the congregation, and the larger pastoral and church leadership team. Also helpful are discussions of how liturgy, prayers, singing and preaching, and communion all help form us in Christ. He helpfully counters the resistance to written prayers and liturgy by observing that we usually do not make up songs or worship on the spot. While these can become formalized, so can “the spontaneous.”

The author has two different voices in this book. One is rather “hip,” witty, and often quite engaging, for example when he interviews a former pastoral team on which he worked about how they worked together, or when he is characterizing the “Karaoke Chapel.”  The other voice feels to me a bit like that of the seminary student displaying facility with the theological jargon of the guild. Yet my sense was that this was not written for academics but for those who lead worship in the church. Consider this short paragraph toward the conclusion:

“Thus the paradigm of redemption by which the cruciformed church is called to bring about the cruciformation of the cosmos is a guiding principle and pattern, rather than a particular application or approach for the renewal of all things. The particular applications of cruciformissional ideation rely on the pneumatic discerning of the Spirit from the heart of the local community and the local church rather than on a pragmatic dictating of successful ministry strategies.” (p. 177)

I found myself wondering how many worship teams would have the inclination to wrap their minds around writing like this (no criticism of the intellectual capacities of worship teams intended!). In addition to a fondness for making up new words (cruciformation, cruciformissional), the language felt abstract and obscure. Another example in the section on liturgy is “the ecclesio-pneumatic ideation of Jesus Christ.” He even invokes the cool-sounding name and work of a German scholar, Wolfgang Iser. He actually is making quite an important point in this in talking about how the church (“ecclesio-“), through engaging the texts of liturgy, music, and scripture (ideation), by the power of the Spirit (pneumatic), encounters and is shaped by Christ. I’m hoping that others will make it through the thicket of language to get the point he is making.

I make this criticism because I think Frederick has a contribution to make in moving worship beyond the banal sameness of much of contemporary Christian music and the cult of the superstar worship leader. He wants us to focus in all the elements of worship on Christ and he is passionate about this because he is convinced it will transform people to be more like the Christ they worship together. I hope that he will work on writing in the way of the cross, which may mean putting to death some scholarly prose to make these important ideas more accessible to those who lead worship in our churches.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Story-Shaped Worship

Story-Shaped Worship
Story-Shaped Worship by Robbie Castleman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Robbie Castleman contends that worship that is pleasing to God is worship that is shaped by the story of God–a story where God, and not me (or us), is the hero! What she sets out to do, and accomplishes, in this book is to explore the resources in the Old and New Testaments, and in Jewish and Christian practice through the centuries that may inform the shape of our worship today. How worship shaped by God’s story appears may look very different in different times and cultures but there are some underlying contours that distinguish between God-pleasing, and human-centered worship.

The first part of her book explores the biblical pattern for worship. She begins in Genesis with God, creation, fall, and what she calls the first “worship war” between Cain and Abel. She goes on to explore worship patterns, the matter of sacred space and the importance of sabbath in Israel’s worship and identity. She then identifies a seven-fold pattern of worship that emerges in the liturgical patterns of ancient Israel that she believes has continuing relevance to story-shaped worship: God’s call, praise of God, confession, declaration of the good news of our forgiveness, the Word of the Lord, responding to the Word, and Benediction. She proceeds to talk about worship by the book, that we are not free to improvise any way we wish or turn worship to other purposes than the glory of God. Worship is to reflect an obedience grounded in the grace of God. She concludes this first part with looking at the rise of the synagogue and the pattern of readings and prayers that was carried over into Christian practice.

The second part considers structures of worship in the patristic, reformation and contemporary periods. In the patristic period the church worked out in its liturgy what it was clarifying in many of the early battles around the Godhead, the person of Christ and his work. The reformation was a period of both confirmation and correction–reaffirming patterns that were true while modifying practices of the eucharist (and baptism) around differing understandings of the meanings of these ordinances. In the contemporary period, the issue is avoiding falling into a subjectivism of worship where everyone does what is right in their own minds, while adapting the resources of scripture to develop God-honoring worship that is faithful to his story.

Each chapter includes a “workshop”–a series of questions that may be used by worship leadership teams. The book concludes with a chart of the Christian year showing how this is another way of shaping worship around God’s story. An extensive glossary and bibliography is also included.

Robbie Castleman is a former work colleague. A personal memory of Robbie is her strict commitment to spend time speaking to and listening to God before she participated in any other conversations in her day. This passion for God, and God’s story runs through this book, which offers helpful resources for the theology and practice of worshiping God for any who share her passion for God.

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