Give Them Good News
I wrote yesterday the matter is not how we argue, or who gets to speak or not to speak on the floor of General Conference. The matter is the future of the United Methodist Church. How do we present our distinct voice so it is heard in the cacophony of noise in our society? How do we offer Good News to our fellow Americans who, in increasing numbers, no longer understand a need for Good News? How do we offer the possibility of transforming our world – without power, without the presence of media stars, with only the sweat and toil and callouses and blisters on our hands and feet, our willingness to embrace the unembraceable – to a generation that no longer believes it possible to alter the fundamental balance among the powers of this age?
The first thing we do is we offer them the opportunity to come and worship with us. More than that, we have to have a reason to make such an offer. While the so-called “worship wars” of the previous couple decades seem to have resulted in bifurcated worship – traditional versus contemporary – it has not altered the basic reality that Christian worship is, or at least should be, the place to start to build together a relationship with God.
My current congregation, Christ United Methodist in Rockford, IL, offers three opportunities to worship on Sundays (four, if you count the separate worship center in another part of the city). The earliest service is what I would call “casual-traditional” – no praise band, but the offer is there for more casual dress, a more relaxed atmosphere, and the sacrament is celebrated each and every Sunday. Then there’s the “traditional” service: organ playing, choir singing, handbell choir performs, hymns from The United Methodist Hymnal, and there’s communion the first Sunday of each month. Finally, there’s the “contemporary” service. Again, dress is casual, there’s a praise band of midling quality, the congregation sings lyrics projected on to a screen, and the Lord’s Supper is offered every Sunday. I attend the last, contemporary, service, because it is later in the morning, and because that’s when my daughters go.
Yet, I cannot offer a reason to others to attend worship, in particular the “contemporary” service, at Christ as opposed to any similar service at other large churches in Rockford. “Contemporary” worship, as indicated above, looks an awful lot like that 1970’s peppy group Up With People. Most of the music, as I’ve found with many contemporary style services, becomes limited to a handful of favorites, most of which written by Chris Tomlin, the performer in the video above. Our Contemporary Worship is as generic as soft-serve vanilla ice cream, and as lively as calisthenics at a nursing home. As much as I love my church and the people in it, we offer nothing, no hint, no liturgical distinction, little theological finery, to let people know that attending worship here, at this church, offers an opportunity to begin a journey that can transform lives, bring peace and health where there is now war and sickness. While some argue over how polite we should be with one another on the Internet, we are ignoring the fact that our churches are cookie-cutter; interchangeable worship styles; sermons heavy on the personal, psychological battles of a stressed white middle class; and music so bland, and songs played so frequently, as to become Muzak.
We have two thousand years of liturgical resources from so many traditions. I once attended a high mass at a Greek Orthodox Church. They used an order of service and mass written by St. Gregory of Nyssa in the Fourth Century. I see no reason why we people called United Methodists, with Wesley’s love for the Eastern Church and the Eastern Fathers, could not utilize such things. Then there is the hymnody from the 18th and 19th centuries, the heyday of Methodist Holiness, of declarations of the distinctiveness of our proclamation of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, individually and collectively, to bring about the Kingdom of God. Finally, there is the hymn-writing explosion, first, in the Roman Catholic Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council as well as in Protestant circles, especially in the 1980’s and 1990’s. These hymns use contemporary idioms, contemporary images, and a wider variety of ways of speaking and singing praise to God. There are hymns from other countries. And, my bugaboo, there are “non-Christian” songs that can still work in a worship setting in particular circumstances.
Our worship should center on God, not the congregation. One way to make our invitations have an impact is to offer people the opportunity actually to worship God. People who have never been to church, who do not understand the vocabulary of worship or are unfamiliar with the message of grace of the Bible will, I believe, nevertheless be impacted by worship that offers a vision of the people gathered to praise God, mixing and matching musics and liturgical elements to suit the specifics of the Sunday, of the message, of the season. When the Word is proclaimed and the sacrament offered, a first-time visitor, one wholly unfamiliar with the practice and language of worship should nevertheless come away not with a sense that “this church offers me something”. Their impression should be “this church offers God something”. We cannot do that if we copy what every other church is doing; we cannot do that if we do what we’ve always done; we cannot do that if we forget our distinctive Wesleyan heritage of grace, of holiness of heart and life, and the call to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
The future of the United Methodist Church lies in a willingness of local churches to be daring, to be bold, not to have “open doors”, but to get people to be willing to invite others to come and worship and find out what it is to be a United Methodist Christian. If all we do is offer them Up With People with songs by Chris Tomlin, the offer of psychological solace in an age of discomfort, and no challenge to invite someone to come and worship who has never done so before, we are entertaining an ever-older congregation. This isn’t a matter of “relevance”. On the contrary, I see no reason not to use our whole Christian history and multiple heritages as resources for each and every worship service. “Relevance”, I believe, has resulted in our current bland mediocre worship services that offend no one, challenge no one, and may well be no more uplifting for God than they are for us. We must offer our ever larger number of Americans who have no religious up-bringing, familiarity with the practice of worship or the vocabulary of faith reasons to come and worship God. We must trust in God’s grace to lead them through the experience, to have the scales fall from their eyes, to unstop their ears, and soften their hardened hearts to the possibility that being a Christian, being this type of Christian is meaningful, is purposeful, maybe even revolutionary. We cannot do that if we are no different from everyone else. We cannot do that if we aren’t willing to offer worship, the first stop for any non-believer, that praises God without bowing to fashion.
Here’s your challenge for the day: Listen to both of what follow, and hear – really hear – the similarities despite all the glaring differences: