In The Missional Leader, Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk describe the crises that many churches are experiencing as “the reactive zone”. In the reactive zone, ‘battle lines form around issues other than those that are critical to the life of the system. People take dies and demonize each other over secondary issues, which further reduces the system’s ability to address the real crisis” (p. 52 -53).

Ten years ago, in Confessing The Faith, Douglas John Hall wrote about the metamorphosis that was happening in our churches.  He acknowledged that it causes some anxiety for laity and for tenured theological academics.  However, he pointed out that it is the clergy who ‘find themselves on the biting edge of this cold front’ (p. x).  It is the clergy who are the most vulnerable when the church enters into the reactive zone.

Have you have heard of a friend or a colleague in ordered ministry who has been badly wounded or damaged in a church fight? Do  you know more than one such person?  Do you know this person personally? What did you do when you heard about it?  Did you call?  send an email?  invite that person to go for a coffee? Did you speak out when you knew there had been some injustice?

How many of these people do you consider to have been eminently suited for ministry/church leadership but who have now left ordered ministry because of the anger, hurt, frustration, or despair?

If you are in ordered ministry, do you think it could not happen to you?

Roxburgh and Romanuk note that ‘a leader who wants to innovate missional change must learn to deal with change and transition (Missional Leader, p. 162).  This leader must be creative and take bold risks.  However, when they talked with a group of actual leaders in churches, the authors were struck by the low morale of the leaders–  their sense of discouragement and their lack of hope for their congregations.  They concluded, “Without addressing this malaise among leaders and congregations, there will be little innovation in missional life.” (p.16)

I have been on a quest to discover resources for ministers to survive and hold fast while their churches are in the reactive zone.  Increasing numbers of congregations are there.  Nothing in my seminary training prepared me for living in that zone.  That was thirty-three years ago.  As far as I know, it is still the case that very little is done to prepare people in ordered ministry to lead congregations that are in crisis or dying.

When ordered ministers respond to the treatment they receive either by leaving ordered ministry or by going on long-term disability, the initial response of the governance structures has sometimes been to say that what is needed to improve the discernment process for people wanting to go into ordered ministry.  The implication:  If better people were going into ministry the church wouldn’t have these issues to deal with.

Part of what makes ministry such a dangerous vocation is the conflict that comes with the territory.  It is not just that missional leaders must take bold risks that will sometimes get them into trouble.  It is also that there can be no change without conflict.  When that is added to the normal conflict that is an inevitable part of human relationships, congregational leaders find themselves in the eye of a storm.

A few years ago, my spiritual mentor was talking with another retired minister about yet another situation in which a minister was being ‘bushwhacked’ by his congregation.  Said the retired minister, “In over 30 years, I’ve never seen it this bad.”

There are many reasons why it’s ‘this bad’. Among them is the paradigm shift that is happening in our culture and in our churches.  Many of the structures with which we currently function were created to deal with different realities.  We try to function in the gap that is created by this, but often issues don’t get resolved.  Then, the issues escalate into problems.  Then, the problems escalate into crises and things get ugly.

On top of that, many people generally are anxious, confused, and distressed by the effects of the world shifting under their feet.  Some people are emotionally immature and some have toxic ways of relating with others.  They bring those characteristics with them into the church which has somehow conveyed the message that ‘being loved’ means they will not be confronted.  Then, for some reason, when the church itself is under stress, these people can gain a disproportionate amount power and influence, wreaking havoc.  And, for some reason, good people who should and could speak up, remain silent or walk away.

This is a part of the church’s life that is often unacknowledged in helpful ways.  Life in the reactive zone is full of deep valleys that are full of pain, hurt, frustration and even despair.  A lot of collateral damage happens there.

When we do not speak about those realities, we give them even greater power than they already have to shape our churches in destructive ways and to wound and even destroy those who are in ordered ministry.  “Unspoken feelings and anxieties act like a powerful, dominating control mechanism.  They are like the unpredictable chaos out of which anything can emerge not as relationality but as dominance and control.”  (The Missional Leader, p. 88)

We are on our way to something new.  I haven’t yet seen the promised land.  I haven’t even  seen the Jordan River.  But I have seen one or two of the birds that circle overhead when water is near.  We can call it a paradigm shift, rapid discontinuous change, the transformation of the church, a time of exile or wilderness wandering.  Whatever name we give to it, “the passage will almost certainly be stormy, disruptive, disorienting” (The Missional Leader, p. xiv)

If we witness to the newness that God is bringing to birth among us, there will be opposition.  We live in a world that ‘yields most painfully to change’, as Robert Kennedy once said in a speech in Capetown, South Africa.  The clergy may find themselves silenced, exiled and threatened by the keepers of the status quo.  Some of those leaders will be acting merely to preserve their own power.  Some will be acting out of jealousy when they see new life and do not know how to be a part of it.  Some will simply be scattering their own emotional baggage – a different kind of missionary activity, if you will.

When you read the literature on the missional church, some of it gives only a slight nod in the direction of the opposition and conflict that clergy encounter.  Some will offer one or two strategies to deal with it.  However, they often tend to suggest that such conflict can be easily resolved simply by learning appropriate conflict management techniques or by the leader maintaining a non-anxious presence.  A Field Guide for the Missional Congregation gives the example of a congregation that had decided to begin a new contemporary worship service.  This decision also meant that the traditional worship service would move from 9:00 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.  When a member of the congregation complained about this to Carol, the congregational president, Carol explained, in a non-anxious way, that this was a way to reach youth and visitors.  The complainant listened to Carol then said, “I never thought of it that way.  I guess that’s important, isn’t it?  I can come early.”  (p. 71)

It may be that easy.  It may not be.  Those who resist change can be determined and persistent.  They can exercise their power in abusive ways.  It is  the minister who often gets caught in the cross-fire.  In such situations, the clergy lose hope and energy.  Sometimes they also lose their jobs.  Some even lose their vocations.

On one level, most ministers are not surprised.  When we signed on to follow Jesus, we knew that a cross came with the package.  We who have died and risen with Christ in baptism know that it is going to cost us something.  There will be scars.  That doesn’t make it easy.  It does not mean that we are equipped to deal with the challenges.  It does mean that, if we are going to stay in this terrible, glorious vocation and even lead some of God’s people through the wilderness, we shall need to find resources to hold on, to endure in the face of resistance, conflict, opposition and sometimes, abuse.

Mostly what I have found so far has been helpful advice – tools and techniques– for dealing with conflict and managing change.  These have largely been adopted from the business and social services worlds.

  • Maintain a non-anxious presence.
  • Establish healthy communication styles.  Don’t allow rumour, gossip, third-party comments, anonymous input
  • Face conflict head-on
  • Insist on truth-telling.  No secrets.  End the ‘confidential’ meetings
  • Work on your own emotional maturity and become a person of integrity and courage – a leader worthy of the trust of people

Much of it is good advice.

We had better learn all we can about systems theory, conflict management, organizational skills and abusive behaviours and how to stop them. We had better work on our own emotional baggage and character formation.

And we need to be on a very intentional journey of spiritual formation, opening ourselves to the transforming work of God.  Get a spiritual mentor.  Find a team of peers who will keep you honest and accountable but who will also provide a place to vent and will support you through the tough parts.  Develop deep and robust practices and disciplines of praying, indwelling scripture and keeping Sabbath.

One of the most helpful things that my spiritual mentor said to me was that I needed to recover a sacrament that Jesus had given to his disciples.  It is one that we have neglected but it was commanded by our Lord when he sent the disciples out into the villages and town to proclaim the arrival of the Realm of God.  If they were not welcomed, they were ‘wipe the dust of the town off their feet’.  And they were to say as they were leaving, “Nevertheless, know this:  the Realm of God has come near to you.”  Then, Jesus said, “I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town,” (Luke 10: 12) which can be a very comforting assurance when the hurt is new and fresh.

That said, if we are going to find the resources to endure the struggle, we need something beyond all that.  Douglas Hall contends that the only resource strong enough to help us endure is theology.  We shall need to live into this theologically.  And that ‘living into it theologically’ shall need to be at some depth, not just shallow proof-texting (p. x).  We shall need to find what Newbigin described as ‘some kind of faith that [will] fortify us… against apathy and despair” (Weston, Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian, p. 2)

It is this deep theological reflection that I have found missing in much of the literature about the missional church.  It may be simply that I haven’t been reading the right books. However, I took great comfort from one of the ‘Haynerisms’ that Steve Hayner used to say:  “It is more important to ask the right questions than to have the right answers.”

So, I want to ask three questions about living theologically in the reactive zone:

The categories that commonly occur in the missional church conversation provide good places to start.

1)  Missional churches are Incarnational.  What does it mean that the Jesus whom we follow is a crucified Lord?  Sometimes our crucified Saviour is hard to recognize in the heady promises that pepper the missional church conversation:  that if we just ‘sneeze’ into the right conditions, the gospel will travel like an unstoppable virus into all the world (Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways); that a non-anxious presence will turn around a floundering church in short order to the great acclaim of all the leadership in the church; that if you just put the proper structures and processes in place, your congregation will thrive.

Many authors writing for the church that is emerging are bravely venturing into new territory and trying to find the way as best they can. They will not always get it right, but at least they are trying to find a new way. For that, those of us who are following behind, can be grateful.  However, where they seem to be driven by a need for success (whether that is defined as big churches or as many little church sites), we lose sight of Jesus who left his disciples with the closing words, “the world will hate you for it” (Walter Brueggemann, Peace, p.157)

Most of the churches I know are not models of success and competence.  They struggle and stumble and fall.  Many of them are broken and will not easily be fixed.  Does the Incarnation also have something to say to such congregations? Can we only be ‘missional’ when we look successful?  Is there not a word of grace in our brokenness and in our failure?  What does it look like to believe that, even when we do not succeed, when we are the broken Body of Christ, God is at work?  What if our mission in a world addicted to competence and control is to demonstrate what God’s kingdom means when we are not capable and successful?  What if that is the way the world will experience what grace really means?

2)  The mission of God is the reconciliation of the world.  The work of the church is to witness to the shalom that is God’s purpose for and work in the world.  As the Body of Christ, we are a foretaste of the end (telos) God intends for all people.  Meanwhile we live in an age that is becoming more and more prone to choosing violence as its way to respond to conflict.  The way we navigate conflict within our churches becomes part of our witness to such a world. The way we navigate the crises can be the way we incarnate the peace that Jesus comes to bring. What does this mean for the way we deal with conflict in our midst? In many of our churches, even the existence of conflict is denied and hidden.  It goes underground and festers.  We shy away from telling each other the truth because we are afraid of confrontation. What does shalom look like when there are deeply held and/or irreconcilable differences?  We had thought that caring was enough: that, if we all just cared enough, things would all work out.  Things don’t all work out.  Out of our ‘caring’ for one another, we end up telling lies to one another, not wanting to confront each other with the truth, fearing that the truth will hurt and so we shall not be ‘caring’.  I once asked Stanley Hauerwas how we go about living in a Sermon on the Mount kind of community.  He said in his usual pastoral way, “Don’t lie. It’s the lies we tell each other in the name of love that are killing us. Peace requires confrontation. We have to love each other enough to tell the truth to one another. Don’t lie.”

3)  Hospitality to strangers is an elementary practice for missional churches.  That presents challenges for us when we consider the strangers outside our walls.  What does ‘hospitality to strangers’ require of us when the stranger is the person sitting next to us in worship?  when the stranger is the person who opposes everything we propose at the Board level?  when the stranger is actively at work to undermine us?

I do not know the answers to many of the questions.  Indeed, I probably do not even know yet the right questions to be asking.  But I trust that giving voice to these issues and asking the questions that they raise will lead to the next step on the journey toward God’s future.  In that spirit, I finish with a quotation from Doug Hall in Confessing the Faith:

To be a Christian today, and more particularly to be in some office of Christian leadership, is in my opinion an infinitely more interesting, challenging, demanding, and also, of course, often unnerving, lonely, and frustrating sort of venture than anything drawn from the long past of ‘business-as-usual’ Christianity… the church is in a state of crisis.  ‘Crisis’ krisis, means judgment.  None of us escapes this judgment; there is pain in it, and much uncertainty.  But when we consider the ‘face’ of the Judge, we know that the pain is only the pain of truth, and that the uncertainty can be borne because it is only the other side of trust (faith).  (p. xi)

Wherever else God may send us, our ‘context’ — the context that determines all the rest — is the abiding, steadfast love and faithfulness of God.  This God meets us in Jesus Christ, claims us as God’s own, and sends us into the world in the power of the Holy Spirit to be servants and witnesses of the good news of God’s Reign.

The Turn Toward the Formative in Contemporary Worship (5)

This is the fifth in a series of reflections on a seminar at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s Symposium“The turn ‘toward the formative’ in contemporary worship. The seminar was moderated by John Witvliet. The presenters were: Miranda DodsonAaron NiequistGlenn PackiamJeremy Zeyl.

One of the topics for the day focused on the “Frames” we use in crafting worship services. Leaders frame worship through the words and actions they use to “focus the attention, stimulate the imagination, shape the perceptions, or form the interactions of worshipers” (John Witvliet in the Introduction to Frames, Deborah Knapp, p. ix). The frames are often made explicit in simple, beautiful ways of expressing why the congregation is doing what it is doing.

In his writings, Robert Webber has suggested framing worship as a ‘dinner party’: you being by greeting all who have been invited, you move into the conversations whereby you catch up with what has been happening with each other, you serve a meal, you depart into the world. Worship moves through  the Acts of Entrance, the Service of the Word, the Service of Thanksgiving, the Dismissal. (Blended Worship: Achieving Substance and Relevance in Worship)

Johnathan Dobson, Lead Pastor at City Life Church in Austin Texas, frames worship as an alternative to the secular liturgies that seek to form us all week long. “These messages, rhythms, and values create a certain kind of heart posture and longing that drives us away from Christ — individualism, materialism, experientialism, consumerism” (from the handout at the seminar).The gospel’s liturgy focuses us on God instead of self and on the church community instead of the individual. Dodson also notes that their worship attends to the church scattered out in the world. The frame, then, of their worship is: God, Gospel, Community, Mission.

One presenter talked about the basic pattern of Christian living that Jesus gave in the meals he shared: we are a people who are taken up into God’s adventure, blessed, broken, and given to the world. Another described the shape of the journey as ‘singing our way into God’s preferred future” where all God’s children are welcomed home. The introduction to the eucharist could be given as, “This table will one day be a great feast where all people come from north and south and east and west”.

Aaron Niequist mentioned that in Willow Creek’s experimental service, “The Practice”, they do not use a projection system. They hand out paper bulletins. They explain (frame) it this way: We offer you a ‘tactile, analogue experience’ so that you are holding something real.

A way to frame worship intentionally is to ask in the planning process, “What journey are we going on together this morning?” That journey is shaped by the scriptures for the day. The songs and rest of the worship service help move the worshipping congregation through that journey.

I have introduced the Passing of the Peace by reminding people that there are very places in our lives where we are aware of Christ’s peace being offered to us. Then, I would say, “As you pass the peace of Christ to one another, be aware that some people’s lives are so filled with struggle and anxiety that this may be the only peace that they receive all week. What you are going to do is holy work.”

It would be helpful, perhaps revealing, for your worship planners to look at the pattern of your worship services and ask the question, “What is the shape of the journey that happens in worship in our church?”  In what ways could that journey be made more explicit so that your worship is a richer and fuller experience?

A sermon for Transfiguration Sunday based on: 1 Peter 2: 1-10; Psalm 42; Luke 9: 28 -36

One of the abiding convictions of Christian faith is that God often works in hidden ways. God is alive and active in human history. God is working salvation in our world. We don’t always perceive it.

In fact, we can go for long periods of time largely unaware that God is present. Sometimes, our life is so filled with sorrow and suffering, that we cry out in anguish, “Where is God?” What is even worse, says the Psalmist, are the taunts of unbelievers who point to the suffering of the innocent, or to a horrific tragedy, and then jeer at God’s people, “Where is your God now?” In all of that, we are experiencing what someone called “God’s holy hiddenness.”

Those are not just poetic words that cover over the anguish. They give voice to the longing in the deepest part of our being for glimpse — just a glimpse — of God’s unmistakable presence in our midst. We thirst for a sign that God is healing the world’s brokenness; that God is healing our own brokenness.

The Bible does not answer the question, “Where is God?” directly. It asks the question often. Newly liberated Hebrew slaves find themselves in the middle of a large desert without food and drink. They ask, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Job loses his home and his family and his healthy in a cascade of tragedies. He asks, “Where is God? Let God show Himself and I will confront Him with the injustice of all that has happened to me!” The Psalmist cries out, ‘My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” The question echoes from Jesus’ lips as he hangs on a Roman cross. The Bible asks the questions many times. It does not give a direct answer.

What the Bible does is tell stories. Those stories draw us into God’s presence in the world. In the stories of Israel, Jesus and the early Christian Church, we become participants in God’s actions — healing, saving, transforming, comforting. Even in situations where God seems most profoundly absent, we are drawn into the surprising actions of God.

Today is Transfiguration Sunday. It is the last Sunday of Epiphany’s light before we enter Lent’s shadowed time. Just before this morning’s scripture, Jesus has told his disciples that the Messiah — the one anointed by God to be Saviour of the world — was going to suffer and be put on trial and found guilty and killed and, on the third day, would be raised up alive. The one who had come to save the world was going to be destroyed by the powers he came to destroy.

The disciples are still reeling from this incomprehensible juxtaposition of “Saviour” and “suffering”, of “Lord” and “killed”, of “sacrifice” and “salvation”, when Jesus pushes them even further. Those who want to belong to him, who want to participate in God’s saving work in the world, he said, will be led into a life of suffering and sacrifice as well. You can imagine that the disciples had more than a few questions — fundamental, profound questions, not least of which would be, “Where is God in all of this?”

The reply Jesus gives is to take Peter, James, and John up a mountain to pray. Actually, Jesus prays. The disciples sleep. Jesus’ appearance becomes dazzling bright and two great figures of the faith — Moses and Elijah— join him. They talk about Jesus’ departure, Jesus’ exodus, that he was about to complete in Jerusalem. The disciples, jolted awake, find themselves in the midst of glory.

Peter, always the one to blurt out what everyone else is thinking, says, “Let’s build a shrine. Let’s mark this as a holy place of God’s presence.” Before the disciples can start a fund-raising campaign or call an architect, they are interrupted by a cloud (which in the First Testament is a sign of God ’s presence) and by a voice which says, “This is my Son, the Chosen. Listen to him.” There is divine confirmation that, in spite of all that is going to happen that will seem to deny God’s presence and saving power, Jesus is to be trusted and obeyed and adored.

Then, it is over. The glory fades. Jesus is standing there alone. The disciples are left speechless, not knowing what to make of what the have just seen and heard.

Most of us do not often receive such a blinding vision of God’s glory. We do not often get such profound assurance of God’s guidance. We may long for it deeply, but most of the time, we are left with only our deep longings. I suspect that, most of us, if we were to be given such an epiphany, would be like Peter. We would want to capture the moment. We would want to memorialize it in some way. We would want something we could hold onto to so we could keep God’s presence near and certain. Then, in those long stretches when God seems absent, we could go back to it and find God there the way we did once.

Peter does get to build his shrine to the glory of God shining in Jesus’ face. He does get to build a temple; he just does not get to build it on Mount Tabor. He does not get to build it with bricks and mortar. After the mountain-top experience, Jesus leaves the place where God’s glory shone out so clearly, and takes Peter and James and John with him down to the valley below. There, they encounter a boy in the midst of a convulsion, his distraught parents and the prayer-less disciples who are unable to rescue or help him. The road from that place leads to Jerusalem and to suffering and to death on a cross, just as Jesus said it would. The road led to Jesus’ cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”

That is the last time the question “Where is God?” is asked in the New Testament. It is asked over and over again in the First Testament. It is not asked in the New Testament. (thanks to Philip Yancey for this insight) It is not asked in the New Testament after the cross because Jesus is God’s answer to the question. Jesus, God-with-us, leaving the glories of heaven, entering into our suffering, experiencing our abandonment is God’s answer. Jesus, descending into the darkest place so that, when life takes you through the valley of the shadow of death, you will not be alone. Jesus has gone there ahead of you. He will meet you there. He will restore your soul with resurrection power.

Where is God? Not in some place you can point to. Not in a building we call the church. Where is God? The only answer we have is Jesus, crucified, risen and present with us through the Holy Spirit.

After the resurrection, God sends the Holy Spirit to the Church. Peter begins building a temple made out of people who want to belong to Jesus, who choose to worship and obey him with their lives. The cornerstone and foundation of this living temple is Jesus.

“Welcome to the living Stone,” he writes, “the source of life. The workmen took one look and threw it out; but God set it in the place of honour. So, present yourselves as building stones for a sanctuary vibrant with life, in which you’ll serve as holy priests offering Christ-approved lives up to God.” (1 Peter 2, The Message)

You and I are the temple of God. In our life together: in our caring for one another and for the world; in our speaking out against injustice and brutality; in our creating a space where the small and the weak are cherished along with the great and the strong; in a community where the gifts that each person brings are treasured and nurtured, where souls are nurtured and restored and made new, and where we learn together to walk in the paths of righteousness that lead to abundant living. In our life together, we are the temple of God. In our life together, we host God’s presence in the world.

“You are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God’s instruments to do God’s work and to witness to God’s goodness and to tell others of the night-and-day difference God makes for you — from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted.”

It is hard to believe, isn’t it? There are times when we are not very good at hosting God’s presence. We hurt each other. We remain silent when we should shout out. We look for easier ways to follow Jesus on his way to the cross. We try to get by with cheap and comfortable discipleship. Yet, for all that, God does not abandon us. God’s Holy Spirit calls us into worship in the company of God’s people. The Spirit stands us under these stories that tell of God alive and active and present in the most unlikely of circumstances. These are stories of God who marvellously works salvation in places that we are certain are utterly profane. In places that we are certain are utterly bereft of God, God is surprisingly bringing resurrection power.

So, week after week, we confess that we have fallen short of the glory God intends for us. Week after week, Jesus meets us in the emptiness that we offer to Him and He fills it with grace. We become again what He has made us to be: a holy people, a temple of God made to shine the light of God’s glory seen in the face of Jesus Christ.

We don’t deserve any of it. It is utterly a gift from our Holy God. When, in those moments when we do catch a glimpse of the glory of God, and in those stretches of time when we live by faith, we join with saints throughout the ages who, in awe and wonder, stammer out their praise. To God alone — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be all honour and glory and praise, age after age after age. Amen.

This is the fourth in a series of reflections on a seminar at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s Symposium“The turn ‘toward the formative’ in contemporary worship. The seminar was moderated by John Witvliet. The presenters were: Miranda DodsonAaron NiequistGlenn PackiamJeremy Zeyl.

There were a number of gems of insight and wisdom that the presenters offered in the seminar.

For instance, one of them offered this insight about communion:  You never take communion. You receive communion. “Taking” is what happened in the Garden of Eden. “Receiving” (life, salvation, healing, hope from the Triune God) is what will put the world back together.

Another: “Ministry is a work of the heart and we labour with a broken tool all the time.”

And: “God is most reliably present where you are experiencing the limits of your own power.”

From Ambrose: “You see with the eyes of your head. The really challenge is to see with the eyes of your soul”.

When considering changes in worship: “The deeper the trust, the sharper the turn you can make; however, the sharper the turn, the slower your speed needs to be.”

“The community is gathered around Christ first and foremost” (not around the leaders with a passive audience)

This is the third in a series of reflections on a seminar at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s Symposium: “The turn ‘toward the formative’ in contemporary worship. The seminar was moderated by John Witvliet. The presenters were: Miranda Dodson, Aaron Niequist, Glenn Packiam, Jeremy Zeyl.

Integrating traditional elements of worship into contemporary services or enlivening traditional worship with contemporary elements takes time and energy, as well as imagination and creativity. One of the participants in the seminar asked, “How does a pastor who is in a smaller congregation (and without a paid minister of worship/music) find the time to do this?”

Traditional worship tends to be ‘platform driven’.  A large portion of the worship space is reserved for the few: the preacher, the presider, the musicians. Most of those services have been put together by one or two people, usually the pastor and the music director. Some congregations, in an attempt to elicit more participation from the gathered community, include responsive prayers and unison readings that are printed in the bulletin or projected on a screen for everybody to read. There are other (and probably better) ways to make worship truly the liturgy, i.e. ‘the work of the people’.

Glenn Packiam suggested that a way to have greater participation in the Prayers of the People is to invite people to pray their prayers out loud, simultaneously. He tells them, “It’s okay. This is how God hears our prayers anyway.”

In a podcast (Faith and Life Lecture Series, “Faith and Imperfection” March 13, 2014), Nadia Bolz-Weber describes a practice in her congregation: after the sermon, there is a time of silence, reflection and prayer. During that time, the people of the congregation are asked, “What is that you, in this sacred moment, want to say to God about yourself, about someone else, about the world?”. They are invited to write their prayers on index cards which are then collected and brought to the front. During the Prayers of the People, two people take turns reading the prayers that are on the cards, back and forth. Nadia Bolz-Weber says that what you get are prayers that are really honest about what people are going through. When someone who is there is struggling with depression, hears a prayer such as, “God, I am really struggling with my depression right now. Help me to know that I am worthy of being your child and of being loved”, that person may be reassured that s/he is not the only one. You get to celebrate things together. You get reminded to pray the rest of the week for troubled situations in the world. The prayers really do become the prayers of the gathered people.

Another way to make the liturgy the work of the people is to include times of story-telling. Years ago, I replaced the traditional Advent candle-lighting readings with two- or three-minute talks by people who shared with the congregation an experience of the way the presence of Christ in their lives had brought them hope, peace, joy, or love. At first, I thought I would have a difficult time finding people who were willing to speak about their faith in such a public forum. However, I began by asking people whom I knew liked telling a story of their faith. Once others in the congregation had heard a few stories, they gained the courage and were willing to share their stories as well. The congregation was pleasantly surprised and richly blessed by the stories that they heard.

In another congregation, as part of a sermon series on growing in faith, I invited people to tell the story of someone who had influenced them in their faith. The first few people took a bit of coaxing. Then, others started volunteering to talk, eager for the opportunity to honour someone who had been important to them. We also went to members of the congregation who were in nursing homes (and couldn’t attend worship with the community any more) and asked them to share a story. Someone who knew them would read their story on their behalf.

The way we worship forms us as disciples of Jesus. One of the most common challenges ministers tell me that they face is that too many people in the church are merely passive consumers of religious services. They are at a loss as to how to get them more actively engaged. I expect that a place to start is worship. I expect that, as people do more of the work of worship, their discipleship in the world will get stronger and more confident as well.

The following are some quotations and reflections on a seminar I attended at Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s Symposium 2015. The seminar, “The Turn Toward the Formative in Christian Worship”, hosted four conversations: Stories of the journey, music, ‘frames’, and leadership.

Four young worship leaders and pastors offered their stories of journeying from a contemporary style of worship to a worship in which they were incorporating elements from more traditional liturgies. They were trying to ‘let the formative breathe and become expressive’. They were finding ways to lead people into participating in those traditional elements in a way that touched the deep experiences and emotions of their lives.

Miranda Dodson set the Apostle’s Creed to music (http://mirandadodson.bandcamp.com/track/apostles-creed). She explains: “Apostles Creed is an attempt to bring a sing-able melody and corporate unity to a creed that most of the Christian world professes. The aim is to remind the church of their belief in the triune God and his work by collectively proclaiming it in song. I tried to stay as close to the original Creed as possible while taking a few liberties for the purposes of congregational worship. For instance “I believe…” I changed to “We believe…” in order to unite the Church in these common beliefs.”

One of the presenters spoke about using the traditional elements but ‘changing the setting’ so that ‘the brain thinks again’. Putting quiet music under the prayers can do this. Or, inviting the congregation to face each other for the prayer of confession (which is followed always by a vigorous proclamation of God’s grace in our lives). Someone suggested leading the prayers of thanksgiving by inviting people to turn to the person beside them and to name what they were thankful to God for. The time of prayer led into a singing of “Great is Thy Faithfulness”.

Someone reflected on the impetus for working with the tradition to make it speak into the lives of the people who are gathered together in worship: “We were serving the same meal every Sunday and wondering why we weren’t getting healthy.” Worship that does not ask anything of the worshipper, that leaves the congregation as a passive audience of worship that others perform, not only leaves the people caught in the culture of consumerism; it also does not help people to grow in maturity in Christ. People’s spirits need exercise: they need to participate and to respond in ways that touch their hearts and take them deeper into God’s grace and love.

Crafting that kind of worship takes time, of course. Some participants in the seminar wondered how they could add that in to their schedules that were already too full. We were reminded that “liturgy” means “the work of the people”. We need to be looking for ways genuinely to make it the work of those who gather. More on that in the next post.

Yesterday, I attended a seminar at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s Symposium. It’s title was “The ‘Turn Toward the Formative’ in Contemporary Worship”. I had thought it would be about the ways in which the various aspects of worship form us as people. It was, rather, a discussion among some worship leaders and pastors whose congregations are discovering that ‘contemporary worship’ (a music segment and a preaching segment) is not rich and deep enough to carry them through times of crisis. They are integrating elements of traditional worship into their contemporary services. They are rediscovering the riches of celebrating communion on a weekly basis and how that meal nourishes the Body of Christ. They are rediscovering the gifts of confession and, tied with that, the blessings of God’s grace that frees us from the weight and pull of our sinfulness. They are rediscovering how the ancient creeds of the Church connect us to a story that is larger than ourselves and a purpose that is large enough to be worthy of giving our selves to it.

Lester Ruth told us that, what we now call a ‘contemporary worship style’ began to emerge in the late 1960’s. It’s intention was for worship to be creative and innovative. Worship leaders sought to discover, create and express new things in worship. The result was worship that had more life in it; however, it also was worship that had come unmoored from its sources.

Contemporary worship sought to be ‘fitting and authentic’ to the worshipper. It made worship accessible; however, it did not ask the Christian to deny him- or herself (and so left him/her caught in a consumeristic way of life) and it did not ask what kind of worship was most fitting and authentic to the Triune God who is revealed in Jesus Christ.

It was an interesting experience (and I shall share more insights from the seminar in the next few days): many congregations whose worship is already highly liturgical are trying to incorporate a more contemporary worship style, hoping that that will attract new, younger people. Listening to these young worship leaders talk about the riches that they are discovering in liturgical forms of worship is a reminder once again — there is no ‘magic fix’ for what ails our churches. There is only the long, slow, challenging, heart-shaping work of taking the gift of the gospel and letting it move deeply into our lives. If we genuinely open ourselves to the creative work of the Holy Spirit, God’s life will flow in and through our worship, whatever forms we use. That’s what people are looking for, whatever their age.

It’s not about the external forms we use in worship. It’s about the Triune God, changing our lives with grace and mercy and love; it’s about living a life that is centred deeply and honestly and responsively in Jesus Christ; it’s about letting the Holy Spirit flow through us. That’s much harder than changing our worship from traditional to contemporary (or blended worship). It is also what is desperately needed in our churches today.


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