Sunday, February 16, 2014

Phil Kniss: Worship: A high-risk occupation

Church matters: Worshiping
Romans 12:1-2; Luke 18:9-17

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I’m sure you’ve all heard the term, “Worship Wars.”
    It’s a real thing.
    Like other wars, it does real damage.
    It tears some congregations apart.
        Causes pastors to leave, wounded.
        Causes churches to split.
        Undermines the church’s witness.
    Some churches establish an uneasy truce in the worship wars.
        You might say, they sign a treaty to lay down their arms,
            by agreeing to have two services,
                one traditional and one contemporary.
                However that’s defined.
        Often they give these two services catchy names—
            the traditional one is called “Classic worship” or “Heritage,”
            and the contemporary one is called “The Connection,”
                or “Ignite,” or even, “Caffeinated Worship.”
        Names like that make it sound like there was no worship war,
            just a forward-thinking missional strategy.

We haven’t really fought that war here at Park View, thankfully.
    It’s not that we don’t care about worship here.
        We care, a lot.
        Some of us have strong feelings about worship and music.
        And we don’t all have the same feelings.
    We have had many worship discussions.
        Some impassioned conversations.
    But the “worship wars” per se, have not yet landed on our shores.

You might ask why not?

Well, a cynical person might answer,
    “We are so well-entrenched in our own worship style,
        we don’t give a fair hearing to voices wanting change.”
    There could be some truth in that, maybe a kernel—small kernel.

A realistic person might answer,
    “There are lots of options in this town.
        We do what we do well.
        Those who like what we do, tend to come, and tend to stay.”
    That’s a true statement.
        If you like a modest blend of musical traditions,
            that emphasize congregational hymn singing,
                both acappella and with a variety of instruments,
            and a bonus of having the best choir and organist in town
                (in my unbiased opinion),
            then Park View is your kind of place.

Those are two potential answers,
    to why we don’t have worship wars—
        one cynical, one realistic.

I think there could be a different explanation altogether.
    At least, there should be.
    And I think this explanation is at least partly true at Park View.
        I just wish it was completely true.
        I wish it was the only answer I could give.

That answer is this.
    We don’t go to battle over our preferred styles of worship,
        because we know doing so would be utter non-sense.
    Because we get it,
        that worship is not even something we do for our sake,
        that worship is not about us to begin with.

Now, let me put my own cards on the table.
    I much prefer singing from hymnals,
        than from words projected on a screen.
    I am more often moved to tears,
        and more often transported to a place of deep joy and awe,
        when I am here singing with you,
            out of our rich storehouse of church music, old and new,
        than when I worship elsewhere,
            sometimes feeling more disoriented than worshipful.
    That’s just me.
        I can imagine some people feel the opposite,
            when they come visit us in worship.
        I understand that.
        I don’t criticize that.
        It’s actually a good thing
            to use culturally appropriate and understandable language,
            when we gather as a community to worship.
        And music is a primary language.

I have no problem with choosing worship language,
    including musical forms,
    in a way that connects with who we are.

But, here’s my problem—
    it’s when churches strategically plan their worship program,
        entirely around what people want.
    You know, when church members fight each other
        over electric guitars and drumsets,
        or how many hymns are too many,
        and the leadership tries to appease everyone,
            by planning two services around two styles
            to hopefully make the maximum number of people happy,
        that church has already lost the worship wars.

    That church has just reinforced a badly mistaken notion
        about worship—
        that the purpose of worship
            is to make worshipers happy and comfortable.
        This notion that the more we adapt our worship style
            to changing market preferences,
            to make our worship “relevant,”
            to attract and keep the maximum number of attenders—
                the more faithful we are being as a church.

Believe me when I say,
    I am NOT thinking of any particular church here.
    I know there are churches who offer choices in worship services,
        who are not motivated by conflict,
        and are, in fact, trying to be faithful and mission-oriented.
    But I have a hunch that many, perhaps even most,
        churches who divide their worshiping body into two parts—
            around differing worship styles,
            are doing so to call a truce in the worship wars,
            and trying to make as many people as possible happy.
        It’s natural.
        It’s human.
        And it’s not the way a church should think.

But I’m not letting us off the hook so easily at Park View,
    just because we didn’t go that route.
    We are prone to the same temptations,
        of making Christian worship a consumer product.
    We are susceptible, at every turn.
        We do the same thing,
            if we get in a grumpy mood,
            when we sing a song we don’t particularly enjoy.
        We do the same thing,
            if we find ourselves puffing up with pride,
            at how good we do worship here,
            at the outstanding quality of our performances,
                the proof of which is
                our strong Sunday morning attendance numbers.
        If lots of people keep coming,
            we must be doing it right,
            so let’s keep doing it this way, or even better,
                so we can attract even more people to our worship.
            That is the prevailing consumeristic mindset
                of the American church today.
                And we are influenced by that.
                I am influenced by that.
            And that is a problem, theologically.

Because worship is most assuredly not a consumer product.
    Despite the 100s of worship product websites out there.
        On one worship retail website I saw we could buy
            an applause meter to put right into our PowerPoint,
            to, in their words,
            “really get your congregation pumped up.”
    Worship is not entertainment.
    Worship is not even something that church leadership provides,
        for the benefit of church attenders.
    Worship is aimed at a different audience.
        An audience of one.
        One God and Lord of all.

We talk about liturgy in the church.
    Being “liturgical” has nothing to do with how formal
        or high-church our worship is.
    Liturgy is a just a term meaning worship.
    But what the word itself means, if you translate it literally,
        is “public work.”
        Liturgy means, “the work of the people.”

By definition, when we come together to worship,
    we come together to work—
    we work together on a public good,
        on a cause much bigger than
            satisfying my personal style preferences.
    We have work to do that God has ordained for us,
        to fulfill our calling as human beings.
    Humans were created to give God delight.
        To give glory and honor and homage to God.
        To offer sacrifice to the One to whom we owe everything.
    So we come to worship to be shaped, as a people,
        by this collective, communal bowing in submission
            to our Creator and Lord of all.

You know why we call this a worship service?
    We are here to do a job.
        To perform a service to God.
        The service we engage in here . . . together . . .
            is just as significant to God and God’s kingdom
            as the service we engage in at other times and places.
        Or it should be.

The apostle Paul said it perfectly in Romans 12:
    “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters,
        in view of God’s mercy,
        to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,
        holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.”

    So worship is laying down, as sacrifice,
        my personal agenda,
        my preferences,
        my desires,
        my will,
            in an act of public submission to a greater good,
            the mission and purposes of God,
                the only one worthy of such an act of devotion.

This is in direct contrast to how pop Christian culture looks at worship.
    We’ve been shaped by this Christian culture
        to see worship as an event intended to meet my emotional needs,
            to minister to me and to my spirit.
    That is not the biblical view.
        In Old and New Testament alike,
            worship was a collective act of the community,
                designed to honor and serve God,
                and to reshape the people into their rightful story.

    Worship was designed to make clear that the people of God,
        those gathered together, in community,
        lived by a different reality than the nations around them.
    Worship was a time to rehearse the story of their origins.
        To remind them of who they were.
        In Deuteronomy 26,
            the people of Israel are given a liturgy,
                an order of worship,
            which specifically included retelling the story
                of their ancestor Abraham,
                a wandering Aramean.

        They were to tell that story so they wouldn’t forget,
            now that they were settled in the land,
            and living among people of other nations,
                who were also settled and landed.
        God wanted the Israelites to remember
            they originated from a nomad, Abraham,
            who said yes, when God called him to pick up
                and leave his homeland
                and go to a new place.
        God knew that having land would make his people
            more cautious, less risk-taking.
        So God put that story of pilgrimage right into their liturgy.

    So in a sense, worship is like a political gathering, in the best sense.
        It helps define a people socially,
            how they will live together,
            how they will organize their body politic.
        Worship shapes the identity of the people.
            It helps them differentiate between their own true story,
                and all the false stories that tempt them daily,
                stories that shape the society they live in.

So in Romans 12, right after Paul instructs the church,
    to present themselves as a living sacrifice, as an act of true worship,
    he writes this:
    “Do not conform to the pattern of this world,
        but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
        Then you will be able to test and approve
            what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

That’s what worship does.
    It puts our will, our agenda, our needs,
        on the altar to be sacrificed,
        in favor of God’s will, God’s agenda.

That’s why worship is hard work.
    It’s why worship can be dangerous work.
    Worship is not a pleasant and comfortable evening dinner party
        with our favorite music always playing,
        and our favorite people always in attendance.
    Worship is our day job,
        and a high-risk occupation, at that.

    It’s an unsettling thing, or should be,
        to walk into the midst of a church gathered in worship,
            and lay down my desire to have my needs met,
            and instead hear the unsettling story of our peoplehood—
                our shared story as a people who follow a God
                who cannot be managed or controlled.

We ought not to approach worship,
    expecting to get our status quo reinforced.
    We ought rather to expect to be transformed.

Jesus told a story of two men who went into the temple to pray.
    It was our Gospel reading today from Luke 18.
    One went in to be reassured of his own righteousness.
    The other went it to repent and be changed.
        Only one of those acts of worship was acceptable to God,
            Jesus said.

If you know a little church history,
    you know how we got to where we are.

There were plenty of problems with Christian worship
    before the 16th-century Reformation,
    I’ll grant that.
        Corruption. Abuse of power.
        Magical thinking about the rituals of worship.

But the Reformation didn’t fix everything.
    Especially once it got exported to the New World.
    Here in America, with freedom of religion,
        various Protestant denominations took root, and grew.
    And then they divided, and grew, and then divided again, and so on.
        Now there are 100s of denominations to choose from.
    And people moved from small towns, into cities,
        and the automobile and public transportation,
        allowed any person to choose between
            countless options of churches
            within minutes of where they lived.
        The days of the town church, and the town parson,
            were long gone.
    Every church was competing with every other church
        for members and dollars.
        They had to position themselves to bring in numbers.
    In just the last couple generations,
        it has become perfectly acceptable for churches to talk about
            marketing and branding.
        One well-known church actually sued another one in court,
            for having a logo that looked too much like their own.

Is it any wonder that for the church in late Christendom,
    worship has become just another consumer product?
    And that church attenders have come to expect churches
        to cater to personal preference?
    It’s no wonder to me.

But I call us to something different.
    Something deeper.
I call the church after Christendom to reach back to it roots.
    Something closer to the worship we find in scripture.

I call us to worship like Abraham and Sarah,
    who said “Yes,” when God said “go to a place I will show you.”
    To worship like Elijah,
        who was willing to put his life and career on the line for God,
        even when he thought he was only one left who would.
    To worship like Mary,
        who said, “Let it be to me according to your word.”
    To worship like the tax collector,
        who said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
    To worship as Paul challenged us to,
        presenting our very bodies as living sacrifices.

    Every time we walk into this sanctuary,
        or into any worshiping body small or large,
        to join our hearts and voices in worship,
            we take a risk.
    Because we declare our loyalty and undying devotion
        to a God who is beyond our control,
        a God who we know only in part.
    We throw in our lot with God,
        even though we don’t know what God’s next move will be.

But that’s worship.
    It’s not for the faint of heart.
    It’s a high-risk endeavor.

The Mennonite hymn-writer, S. F. Coffman,
    with roots in this community,
    wrote a hymn over a hundred years ago,
        “In the holy place we bow.”

In it, Coffman seems to be saying
    this experience of worship is not about me.
    I am in God’s presence.
        The appropriate action is sacrifice.
        The appropriate attitude is gratitude.
        The appropriate posture is bowing.
            Letting go.
            Depending on God alone.

Let’s sing together, #2 in HWB.

—Phil Kniss, February 16, 2014

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