Coming back to the heart of worship: church on what basis?
Suddenly on 22nd March there was just Chris Barnard and I in church and I was talking to a computer screen. The following week it was just me in my dining room trying to be the all singing, all dancing pastor. After a couple more weeks we began to evolve and develop as we settled into lock down.
Along with churches across the country, we were thrust into doing and being church in a new world and a new way. We had no experience; I wasn’t interested in broadcasting; I didn’t particularly want to see myself broadcast and avoided social media like the plague. Now along with the church I was thrust into its depths!
All churches were and still are asking the same questions:
How do we do church now?
How do we fellowship?
How do we look out for people?
How do we keep people together?
What is church anyway?
And there is a recurring mantra among church ministers/pastors/leaders: we can’t go back to the old normal. At the moment there is little chance of that happening, and even with the limited opening we could have, it is not church as we know it. In fact, going back to normal – if that is ever going to be possible in the foreseeable future – is too easy an option. It’s like trying to go back to Windows 7 when you have the latest Windows 10.
The series for the Autumn has a song title each week. I’m not preaching from the song but the Bible; however, these are songs that we sing or have sung quite happily and have been popular; they also reflect something of what church should be. I believe we are always learning more about what church should be: we have been doing so for about 2000 years. The song this week raises these questions:
What have we made worship?
What is the heart of worship?
How do we grow as the worshipping body of the church?
What have we made worship?
Health warning: we deal with the negative first but we will rise from it!
Bit of a history lesson. As non conformist Christians back in early 17th Century, Baptists came into being and like others wanted to break free from the established church. Worship had become a ritual; being Christian was what you were and in anycase, you were supposed to attend church each week and if you worked for people with power and influence – whatever your position – you didn’t have any choice. Church had become interwoven with government, with King making, with power and influence. For hundreds of years and even into 20th Century, church was a career path and gave you social standing. Worship was about Jesus in the sense that communion was the central act, but it had really become about the glory of the building, the art work, prestige, power and influence. This was what non-conformists reacted against as they read the Bible and why Thomas Helwys told King James 1 that he had no right to dictate to people where and how they worshipped and no authority to appoint the church’s leaders. For doing this he spent the rest of his life in prison.
Why is this important to know? Because even non-conformists settle down into conformity. We have seen a reaction to this in the Pentecostal movement and the emergence of what used to be called the para-church movement but has now become established as denominations suchs as Vineyard, New Frontiers, Hillsongs, RCCG and so on.
We have also moved into a phase of worship being about performance and celebrity. Worship has become about the style of music we use to praise God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. It has become about being fast paced, fast moving, and being innovative in order to be ‘relevant’. Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t be any of these things and just be dull and boring, but we run the risk of just adopting popular culture rather than being distinctive. I have even seen a church using yoga positions as a means of preparing for worship.
Church has become about my preferences as we buy into the consumer culture – and that is reflected across the age groups. This has been exacerbated by the move to being online, because from our sofas we are church hopping to find the best experience, and even going to different churches each week. Church has become about the hour we meet on a Sunday and then nipping off to do our own thing. We want it there because we are Christians, but don’t want to commit to more than turning up on a Sunday.
Ok this is all very cynical and depressing and we have hit the bottom and are now on our way up! Let’s turn to the passage Janet read to us.
What is the heart of worship?
We have found ourselves in a position where all has been stripped away and in spite of settling into broadcasting, there is still uncertainty about what the future holds. I have chosen this section of Ephesians, but do read the whole letter because Paul in his writing points us to the heart of worship throughout.
The opening fourteen verses of the letter immediately point us to the heart of worship – and as the song says, it’s all about Jesus. The letter is about the grace of God in Jesus Christ towards his creation. In these opening verses Jesus is mentioned approximately fifteen times, because the heart of worship really is all about him. Let’s do a whistle stop tour:
1. V3. God is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and in him we receive every
spiritual blessing. What are they?
Chosen to be holy and blameless before our God – and Paul points out in
chapter 2 that this is by the grace of God in Christ.
Predestined to be adopted as children of God, again through Jesus.
We are redeemed through his grace and receive forgiveness, through Jesus.
We are united with all things in heaven and earth through Jesus.
Our purpose is to bring praise and glory to Jesus Christ.
We only have to believe and receive the Holy Spirit – the guarantee of our adoption, our acceptance.
We have the future redemption of the deposit of the Holy Spirit – pointing towards the resurrection considered last week.
2. 2:5-10 Paints a picture of resurrection. We have been raised because of
forgiveness and we will be raised to be with him. For now we are God’s
workmanship called to do the works he wants us to do and through them bring
praise to his name.
3. In 3:6 Paul talks about the mystery of the gospel. We as Gentiles are part of that
mystery because through Jesus we have been made heirs with the chosen
people and made part of the body.
Music is a natural medium through which to praise God our Father through the Lord Jesus Christ. It expresses our emotions, our feelings, our worries and cares. It lifts us and inspires us and as the hymn says we can become ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’ but it is not the heart of worship. Literature and poetry are a natural medium for expressing our praise. Personally I love using the prayers of the church that have been read and prayed through the centuries, but they are not the heart of worship. Art can be a natural medium for expressing our praise and drawing people in worship. There are some amazing works of art that express the glory, wonder and mystery of God, but they are not the heart of worship.
Buildings have been an expression of worship in past centuries, making a statement about the glory of God and can be a means of drawing us in worship. I have said in the past how I appreciate the historic churches and cathedrals we have, but I am also thankful I am not responsible for their maintenance. They can also become the object of worship rather than the God for whose glory they built in the first place.
Paul makes it plain that the heart of worship is the Lord Jesus Christ and the place of worship is the body of Christ, which can be where two or three are gathered, one hundred or one thousand gathered.
In the passage we read, Paul prays for the Ephesians – and the prayer can be applied to us as well. Applying it to us, he prays we will be strengthened through the Spirit living in us; that through the Spirit we may be rooted in love which we experience through Jesus; and through this we may know the fullness of God. This is experienced in its fullness in the body of Christ, the church. It is experienced when we are committed to the body of Christ in love and service.
Commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ and his body is counter-cultural. It is also a challenge in the particular circumstances under which we are living. However, Paul reminds us that we are called to live a life worthy of Christ in the body of Christ because we are united through our faith, through our baptism and through our God and Father who is over all. The heart of worship is not about us and the things we do, but Jesus Christ and our love and service for him.
How do we grow as the worshipping body of the church?
So we come to the third question I raised. As a leadership, this question is constantly raised and I will be discussing it with leaders across Gravesham churches as well in order to discern God’s will for us as part of the body of Christ.
I think we can learn from Christians where it is difficult and dangerous to be followers of Jesus, as well as places where church is not as sophisticated as we have become in the West. When we look to this part of the body church is not about the things with which we are often preoccupied. It is about a passion for the Lord Jesus Christ, a desire to meet with fellow believers and a desire to see him glorified. This seems to me to be a good starting point from which we re-evaluate how we are church so that when we can begin to meet together with fewer restrictions we just go back to Windows 7, but are Windows 10 plus – and that doesn’t mean have more technology!
Let’s look at what we have at the moment and use that to grow where we are.
1. We can meet in worship together through Facebook. In actual fact up to six people can meet to share in worship on Facebook, so that people are not isolated. You must be able to socially distance and maintain the Covid rules. Also the group shouldn’t be changing each week. It may be that in the future we will become a church of small groups, encouraging, praying, supporting one another, challenging each other.
2. We can meet together through Zoom – and here we have an expression of small groups.
a. There are the monthly communion and prayer services in which we can talk with each other, share in communion together and pray for the church.
b. There are the weekly prayer and Bible study meetings through Zoom which again enable us to connect with each other.
c. We have monthly Songs of Praise which can be a time of testimony to encourage one another.
3. We can take responsibility – as many are doing – for calling those who are less
able to connect through the internet or even do doorstep visits or get shopping.
4. We are still able to meet socially distanced in public spaces or to go for coffee or
lunch. Small groups of two or three could do this – and I know some do.
5. The need for support through Foodbank will be rising as people lose jobs and
furlough payments come to an end. With autumn and winter comes the need to
support those who are homeless. Is this something you can be involved with
through Churches Together? Make Lunch will be happening – can you help out?
6. We can meet in small groups at the church for prayer or simple services. How do
you think that could be facilitated and would you be able to help make it happen?
This time does not need to be a time of stagnation and just waiting for the reset button to be pressed. It can be a time of growth and change for us a body as together we seek the mind of Christ. In all things remember our heart is Jesus Christ, our focus is Jesus Christ and it is him we are serving.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.