Let’s Have Us Some Church

Two Great Privileges of Gathered Worship

Have you ever stopped to think about why we gather regularly as Christians? If you have been a Believer for long (and are honest about this) you would probably admit that sometimes the repetition gets things a little fuzzy. Depending on whose numbers you accept, somewhere between 20 and 40% of Americans are in church each Sunday.[i] A much more difficult question to get any clear reading on is, “Of folks who attend a local church, how often do they actually show up?” For the sake of our discussion let’s be generous and put the number at 2 Sundays every month. Just as an example—if you came to faith as a teenager, and are now middle-aged (or as my kids say—old), you’d have somewhere on the order of 30 years of church attendance under your belt. At the (potentially generous) average of 2 Sundays a month, you will have likely been in 750 or more services. That is a lot of pew sittin’, big hair (regionally of course), pulpit pounding, offering receiving, Tomlin singing, narthex[ii] coffee gatherings. So goes the program.

And all of this is to what end? Not that I am questioning the regular gathering of God’s people. Far from it. I believe that gathered worship is one of the very dear and great invitations and opportunities of the Christian life– nothing less than the chance to meet with God. But, as I said above, the fact that Sunday rolls around so very often, and that we tend to engage in familiar songs, text and liturgy can blur us to this reality. When this happens we move from wonder-filled engagement to passive attendance. So how do we keep our hearts fresh and fully involved in this greatest of spiritual invitations? I believe it has much to do with leaning into the two great privileges of gathered worship—to focus and to linger.

Prequel

To back up just one step before we dive in, let’s remind ourselves of the broader context of our No Small Matter model, or descriptor, of worship. We have been starting on the inside and moving outward—suggesting that this inward orientation might have two general components; reverence and affections towards God. And that these two components naturally find expression in three arenas—words, choices and actions. Finally, these arenas are present in the two Biblical venues of worship, both as we gather and as we are scattered back into the life of work, family, neighbors and community. Here’s the image we’ve been working with:

 

For a better general understanding of this model, make your way to:

https://worshipisnosmallmatter.wordpress.com/

It’s this first venue (gathering) of worship that we want to take some time with today. So let’s get started with…

Because God Says So

The first thought that might be helpful here is that the gathering of God’s people is really, simply put, His design. This regular dynamic of coming together is a significant and powerful part of the way that we identify with, grow into and encourage one another that we are His. In a very real sense it is a mark of a changed life, a new birth and our adoption as God’s very own. It’s a family gathering where in the very best sense we enjoy the presence and position of our Father, as well as one another. Like a healthy family gathering, we celebrate our past (God’s acts), our present (His provision), and a hoped-for future (His promises). Both Old and New Testaments call out, describe and even command this activity, and the last two millennia of practice stands as a testament to this basic understanding in the Church.

So, that leaves us with a “God says so”. While that is a great place to start, I believe there are some other really compelling invitations as well. If your heart echoes the words of my son Jacob at nine years old—“Do we have to worship AGAIN????”, then read on to what I really hope will be some awakening for you about what God has actually provided for us in these weekly moments. Let’s have us some church.

Focus: Calibration

I believe there are two great privileges that inform, sustain and shape gathered worship. The first of these is the idea of Focus.  Living in a fallen world continually leads us towards a life that is disjointed and unfocused. So, the first privilege we are talking about here is really all about the re-integration of our thoughts and actions into a Kingdom perspective. How often have you walked away from church and felt like, “Wow, I had been consumed  by and focused on things that don’t really matter all that much?” Hopefully, quite often. That is the privilege of focus in gathered worship. A helpful metaphor for me here is that of calibration.

Prior to making the jump into full time worship ministry, I worked in the social services field for quite a number of years, and then had a 3 year stint in the graphics design and production world. Where I worked, one of our print machines was used to produce large format pieces for our clients. This machine had to be calibrated quite often for its color output to be accurate. And accurate color meant the difference between profitable finished pieces or unrecoverable waste. It was, in truth, a nasty old machine. But if we treated it right, it would most often produce for us.

Calibration meant the adjustment of print parameters to an established standard. If we wanted a certain color of green that was the corporate standard for a client, we had to make the adjustments necessary for the output to be true (and valuable). See where I am going with this? Can you imagine what living the Christian life would be like without the privilege of regular re-focusing? Maybe some of the reason that the Church throughout the ages has braved loss of income, reputation, family and even life itself to simply gather together is because of the power of this privilege.

The privilege of Focus in gathered worship really affects both our thinking and our actions. With respect to our thinking, it is centrally about receiving again both truth and mission, expressed in various ways. We see this clearly in teaching, worship songs, creative presentation/communication, environment and sacramental acts such as communion and baptism. When we talk about its effect on our actions, we start to beg the questions: “How will we now respond as a result of being re-focused” and “What will this look like in our families, workplaces, community—and even here, before we leave this building?”

As we lean into this powerful privilege, maybe we’ll begin to see and appreciate anew what God has provided for us here. In the face of just another Sunday with all the attendant stresses, struggles and disappointments—I would encourage you that there is much, much more.

Linger: Connection

In addition to Focus, I would suggest to you that we also have the great and amazing privilege to Linger as we gather. I wrestled over using this word in particular to try and capture this second idea, but have settled on it for a couple of reasons. In part, it’s because the concept is just so counter-cultural. No one needs to remind you that the pace of life in 21st Century North America is out of control. The very fact that scheduling tools are so prevalent in print and digital form should tell us something.

Many folks have expressed a fear of our popular, entertainment culture invading the sacred space (and for very good reasons). I also fear the encroachment of a business/boardroom mentality into our gatherings as well. Has church become one more thing to check off on my Outlook task list? And worse, do I subtly (or not so much) walk through the service order noting, mentally or otherwise, as we “achieve” each element? Lingering is our antidote here.

When we are talking about our gathered times, lingering is not about the gathering itself; the elements, order, or environment. It’s really all about deepening the two relational spheres present when we gather—our connection with God and each other. Let me say this again because I really think we need to get this. Lingering is all about relationship. We can experience being together with God, or we can get things done. If the things that make up our gatherings don’t lead us towards this first reality, we are missing the mark terribly.

Just like the metaphor of calibration helps us understand the privilege of focus, the idea of connection illustrates our need for lingering. There is a real and powerful difference between the ideas of communication, and connection (or communion). What is it that I really want and need?–the latter. My wife and I can communicate with one another and still completely miss the deeper level of connection. This only happens with intention, time and openness. If we are thinking of our gathered times as simply an exchange of information (at its best—truth), we still aren’t leaning into all that God has provided for in the finished work of Jesus and the indwelling, both individually and corporately, of the Spirit.

We need to learn more how to answer the invitation to linger, as well as protect these few precious minutes we actually have each week to enter into this pathway. After all, both Moses and Jesus were great lingerers. It is not as if God is an angry shopkeeper, telling us to get out if we aren’t going to purchase something quickly. Nor is lingering equivalent to laziness, no matter how much our production-oriented culture might want us to believe it. The Father’s invitation to us, gained at nothing less than the great and awful expense of His Son, is to dwell deeply and at length in His presence.

When was the last time in church that you found yourself so immersed in the goodness, character and presence of God that you actually forgot about the clock? This is a priceless gift—one that our souls need to unwrap on a regular basis.

A second aspect of lingering in our gatherings is the question of how we might capture this time to linger with one another. How is it that we could utilize this opportunity to care for, pray for and encourage each other? Lingering implies more than a surface or casual engagement. Maybe some of our current paradigm for services doesn’t allow for this very easily. And maybe this is where the role of small groups really takes hold. I was asked by a fellow staff member here at our church a little while ago how our services help facilitate real community. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a very good answer. Certainly something to think about.

Closing

The gathering of God’s people together in His presence is an amazing spiritual reality. To actually meet with God and one another is something we should never underestimate, never take for granted. We probably do.  May that change radically as we choose to engage in the wonder of the invitation to both focus and linger when we gather.


[i] For a great summary of research and links see: http://www.religioustolerance.org/rel_rate.htm

[ii] For an interesting historical and evangelical take see:  http://churchthatmoves.wordpress.com/2007/05/01/narthex/

2 thoughts on “Let’s Have Us Some Church”

  1. Hi Wayne … My daughter (Melodi Jack) passed this on to me. She assumed you wrote it. Great thoughts! The important concepts of Focus and Lingering while gathered to worship are indeed refreshing. Your comment on being asked about effecting “community” intrigued me. I’ve seen an inviting approach toward this at least twice … both in large churches. Both involved having time/s of corporate prayer right in the midst of the corporate worship time. One experience was while visiting at the Brooklyn Tabernacle church. It was several years ago, and I’m having difficulty remembering details. But, I do remember a time where all stood and many (most?) prayed (simultaneously) out loud (quietly) and others just listened or prayed to themselves. Granted, this is a church where the largest attended corporate service was the Tuesday evening prayer time (i.e., their people are accustomed to prayer). So, not sure we could just do this (corporate prayer during the service) without some thoughtful preparation. Thanks for the article. Bob Mann

    1. Thanks Bob. Yeah, seems like the congregation’s level of experience or comfort is definitely one of those important factors. We are planning some significant corporate prayer time on January 2 in services. Praying that this would be a great initial step for us and that we can help facilitate it well.

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