Monday, January 21, 2008

Worship: ‘ you tell me about me.’

Col 1:15-20

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth,
visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities;
all things were created by him and for him.
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning
and the firstborn from among the dead,
so that in everything he might have the supremacy.
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,
and through him to reconcile to himself all things,
whether things on earth or things in heaven,
by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

This passage, tucked into Paul’s letter to a struggling church, is an early Christian song of worship.

The Colossians were a church in crisis. It wasn’t like the Corinthians we talked about last week—where the Christian church was competing with other faiths—as much as they were divided among themselves about how to gather and worship and serve as a church. Paul begins his letter, after all the greetings and blessings, with a reminder of who Jesus Christ is.

A good friend of mine, on occasion, talks a lot about himself. Maybe we’re friends because we have that in common, I don’t know. Every once in a while, when he notices that he’s gone on for a while, he makes a joke out of it by saying: ‘Enough about me, now you tell me about me.’

That’s what our text does. God tells us a lot about himself in both nature and Scripture, but every once in a while it’s our turn to do the talking. Our text calls us to sing and pray and preach and reflect on who God is, on what he’s done, and on what that means for our understanding of him. The call to worship is God saying: ‘Enough about me, now you tell me about me.’

But what do we say? In communication between people, especially in couples, what we say is overshadowed sometimes by how we say it. Does that sound familiar? Heard that before? Married guys know this well: ‘It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.’

In worship we had another element to that communication blend: we talk about why we say and sing what we do. Any reflection on worship has to look at what we say, at how we say it, and ultimately at why we say what we do.

In the New Testament the word that is most often translated as ‘worship’ is the same word that can be translated as ‘service’. If you get a handful of English translations of the Bible, and check the first few verses of Romans 12, sometimes it will say ‘present your bodies as a living sacrifice, for this is your spiritual act of worship.’ But there are some translations that render the same passage as ‘present your bodies as a living sacrifice, for this is your spiritual act of service.’

That’s so important. Worship and service are linked—in many ways they’re interchangeable in the New Testament. The point here is that service and worship are not about us, they’re all about God.

In John Frame’s excellent book on worship music he writes:

“Because God is who he is, worship must be God-centered. We worship God because he supremely deserves it, and because he desires it. We go to worship to please him, not ourselves. In that sense worship is vertical, focused on God. We should not go to worship to be entertained, or to increase our self-esteem, but to honor our God who made and redeemed us.”

Is that how we understand worship here?

True worship should be:

1. An authentic expression of our belief
2. An equally authentic expression of our doubt or struggle
3. Nurturing to mature believers
4. Accessible to people who are visiting or exploring the Christian faith for the first time

True worship should accomplish four main things in our lives:

1. Teach us the discipline of focusing on God and not ourselves
2. Offer a sense of hope that God loves us and will keep his promises
3. Help us to see the needs of the world as our own
4. Draw us into service in God’s name

But still, none of that is very easy to do in our ‘please-yourself-first’ kind of culture.

Nothing will divide a church more quickly than tinkering with the worship style. The ‘Worship Wars’ are tearing churches apart in the States and even over here. One side tends to value preserving the traditions of the church, while the other claims to be closer to the heart of God. In my home church they’re arguing about how much to use the organ in worship—as if the answer to that question will mean anything about the ministry of that congregation.

One of the ironies of the worship wars is that they people fighting it are completely focused on themselves. True worship draws us out of ourselves and into service—into showing others what God’s love looks like and feels like.

Mark Labberton, the pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, wrote this:

“Vigorous biblical worship should stop, or at least redirect, our endless consumerism, as our free and faithful choice to spend less in order to give away more. Our community reputation, as Scripture suggests, should be that the church comprises those who pursue justice for the oppressed because that is what it means to be Christ's body in the world. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that it's enough to feel drawn to the heart of God without our lives showing the heart of God.”

Would that really make a noticeable difference?

We talk a lot in church leadership about the hardest group to reach—the hardest group to draw into the organized church. Do you know what it is? The hardest demographic for churches to reach is the 25-40 age group—mostly professionals at the early and middle stages of their careers and family lives. There are all kinds of reasons why that’s true, but they’re not important right now. What’s important here is that there are two churches that I know of who are growing exponentially with people in those age groups—churches that are busting at the seams with single people and young married couples and mid-career professionals.

Here’s what’s important about these two churches: they’ve understood the relationship between their service of worship and their service to the community. Mars Hill in Michigan is led by Rob Bell and a team of ministers and lay leaders who have been able to reach out to people who haven’t darkened the door of a church in years. Their worship is style is blend of readings and hymns and newer songs—sometimes arranged into medleys that tell the story of God’s love for us in a new way. It’s an exciting, unpredictable and challenging form of blended worship.

The other church is Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. New York City—probably the only American city I can think of that can compete with London in cynicism and secularism, and yet they’re packed with people in that 25-40 age group—the age group that every church planter said would never attend church in New York. Redeemer is more likely to have a full orchestra leading worship than a band, and at least two of their services are jazz-oriented. They sing a little of everything, but even that’s not the point.

Mars Hill and Redeemer Church in New York draw people in by serving the community around them in God’s name. It’s not the show—whether it’s a band or an orchestra, a worship team or a professional choir. None of those are what make the worship experience at these two churches so effective. What makes these churches work so well is that they see their worship as an extension of what they do with the other six and a half days of the week.

What makes their worship dynamic is that it lives and breathes as a response to what God is doing in the lives of the people who are doing the worshipping. Both churches are active in working with the poor, in funding missions work around the world, in offering necessary services to the people in their communities. Both churches preach and teach the gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that is relevant and accessible and not watered-down at all. On that level it’s really not about music style at all.

Church music by itself doesn’t determine the life of a church. Church music and the practice of worship in a church are the fruit of what’s happening in the lives of individuals, in small groups and in the entire gathered community of faith.

When we can consistently engage in worship here that is lively, passionate and authentic, it’ll be because the spiritual life at this church is lively, passionate and authentic. If we can’t come together to join in a worship experience like that, no revolution in music is going to fix it.

We spend a lot of time teaching our children and reminding ourselves that substance matters more than style: Beauty is only skin-deep; It’s what’s on the inside that matters, not the outside.

Worship functions within the same set of values. It’s not the music style that matters: we could have the London Symphony or U2 leading worship—it’s still what’s on the inside that matters. Tony and Kate and I are in the midst of an ongoing discussion about our vision for worship in this church, and it’s great. We all come from different decades and training and cultural backgrounds. Southern California and Kansas might have less in common than Los Angeles and London, and we all bring those experiences into our discussion.

Here’s what’s not happening. We’re not arguing about what to do on Sunday mornings. I’m not secretly trying to install a rock band up here to lead our singing, and Tony isn’t trying to get me to use the Latin Psalter as our only hymnal. Either one of those would be crazy for this church as it is today.

Where Tony, Kate and I agree without question can be summed up in one sentence:

The worship experience at this church should reflect and energize the spiritual life and mission of this congregation.

In order to faithfully accomplish that objective, we’ve set a pretty aggressive goal for ourselves of introducing up to 20 new songs into our worship rotation in 2008. Some will be new and some may be older songs that have fallen off the map. Whatever they are, and whatever style they represent, the only measure of success we’ll use to choose them will be if they reflect and energize the spiritual life and mission of this congregation.

We invite you to participate in this vision for our worship. Bring us music that helps you in your own worship. More importantly, bring us music that you think someone else might need to hear—that might draw a visitor into this place where they can join in the life of this church. Bring us music that helps you articulate your own faith and your own call to service.

The worship experience at this church should reflect and energize the spiritual life and mission of this congregation.

My prayer for us in the coming year is that we grow in spiritual depth and service, that that growth would be reflected in the way we worship and serve our God and King. For Christ’s sake, and in his name. Amen.

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