Fleshing out what kind of church the world needs

One of my seminary professors recently asked this question. What a fertile question. It gives us a chance to consider the needs of the world. What is the status of our world these days? Where are there hatred, violence, and chaos? Where are there famine, disease, and scarcity? Where are there hopelessness, illiteracy, and neglect?

Our world is filled with these things. Some of them are right under our local noses. Surprisingly you don’t have to drive far to encounter some of these needs. So what kind of church is needed to face the needs of our world?

I think you could say lots of things. You could go lots of different directions and still answer this question in a satisfactory way.

The world needs a church that is loving, so loving that it sees every living thing as part of God’s holistic creation and takes every chance to embody God’s love for the cosmos.

The world needs a church that is adaptive, ready to abandon the old, tired ways of organizational thinking for new ways that bring life and vitality.

The world needs a church that is Christ-centered, focused on the words and ministry of Jesus and how they can bring transformation to our world today.

The world needs a church that is compassionate, never using our status or position in the world to bring harm, but only to bring healing to those who are over-looked.

The world needs a church that is self-sacrificing, willing to give away property, buildings, and money so that others can be better off than they were before.

The list goes on and on. I hope you have your own way of answering the question, because it is an important one. Because really, the question is not about the church, the question is about you and I. What kind of person does this world need? How do I live my life more faithfully for the sake of the world?

My heart always goes back to the sacraments and the assembly. So my answer would be: “The world needs a church that continually gathers around God’s story and table, and then embodies that story and food for the life of the world.” I think telling a better story and sharing food is what the world needs from us the most.

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Weekly Worship Thought – Food

photo-1448794363755-de84d6a770bcLuke 14:1: “Now it happened that on a Sabbath day he had gone to share a meal in the house of one of the leading Pharisees…” One of the centerpieces of Jesus’ ministry was eating. Over and over again, Jesus shared food with people. Jesus shared food with his friends, the disciples. Jesus shared food with those who opposed him, the Pharisees in this story. Jesus shared food with people that got him in trouble with the Pharisees: the unclean, the prostitutes, and the tax collectors. Jesus shared food with people by way of miracles that fed thousands. On the night before he was crucified he shared a Passover meal with his disciples and gave us a new commandment to love one another. Even after the resurrection, Jesus was still sharing food with people. He cooked breakfast for the disciples when they had returned to fishing. He appeared as a stranger to the two on the road to Emmaus, explaining the meaning of God’s plan of restoration, and then when they sat down at the table, he was revealed to them. The reason why we eat bread and drink wine every Sunday is because Jesus’ life was mostly about eating with people. Jesus still eats with us today.

The Future of ELCA Worship

The Future of ELCA WorshipOn October 19-21 I will be in Chicago for a trip to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s churchwide offices. It is an honor to be asked by Rev. Kevin Strickland, Director of Worship for the ELCA, to participate in the Consultation on the Ongoing Renewal of Worship in the Church. We will be discerning what the continually unfolding renewal of worship in our churches might look like in the years ahead. As I prepare, I have been reflecting on what I long for in my own life and in my own ministry context. Where do I need to experience growth in my pilgrimage as a disciple following along the Jesus path? In what ways do I want to see the worship I design and lead stretched and deepened? Here are three areas I want to discover and grow into the future – both personally and corporately:

  1. Learn to Worship – I realize that stating a desire to learn to worship can sound bizarre coming from a professional church musician. Perhaps a better proposition would be that I desire for all my assumptions about worship to be challenged. Asking the right questions can peck away at our engrained assumptions about worship. Where is my understanding of worship one-dimensional when in reality it is three-dimensional? When am I distracted from truly worshiping in the midst of the assembly? Why don’t I make room for quiet and stillness? Where is God present when I assume God’s absence? How do I faithfully prepare my heart for worship before every assembly? Why do I suppose the living, breathing, moving God of heaven and earth is restricted to my preferences and tastes? What would a Sunday without music or speech look like? Where have adiaphora taken place of the central things? Renewing worship means asking critical questions about why our worship is the way it is.
  1. Learn to Feast – I have long felt that communion is more feast than funeral. Yet we more often than not connect the weekly Eucharist to Jesus’ last supper, betrayal, and subsequent execution. What about every other meal Jesus ate? What about the food with tax collectors, and the miraculously expanding fish and loaves, and the meal with two disciples at Emmaus, and the post-resurrection fish breakfast tacos? Jesus was doing something significant in reconstituting the Passover, no doubt. Christ is our Paschal Victim/Victor. But I think there is something important beneath it all: Jesus ate with people. Our celebrations around God’s table are connected to every meal Jesus ever ate – including the everlasting meal to come in God’s eternal Kingdom. What does the ritual action of feasting look like? How can communion become more feast than funeral?
  2. Learn to Converge – We are trapped by the need to clearly label and categorize our worship. Using worship as a tool to target a specific group of people produces consumers, not disciples. Instead of being preoccupied with the copyright date of the songs we sing (as if church music had an expiration date), we should be singing the best and broadest types of music from God’s people in all places and times. In doing so our worship becomes countercultural (perhaps counter to the surrounding culture, perhaps counter to the prevailing church culture). Liturgical action teaches us self-denial and humility, where the surrounding culture may teach us to get ahead and have it our way. Through singing broad types of music we also become cross-cultural and can see God through the artistic offerings of cultures besides our own. This is the heart of convergent worship. Convergent worship is not a style. It is a mindset. Convergent worship is the coming together of the historic and the contemporary at every level of worship (not just the music) to create maximum opportunities for engaging worshipers with the presence of God. Convergent worship expresses a willingness to reopen all questions about worship and to learn from the entire worshipping community. Convergent worship has a healthy respect for the past while maintaining an absolute commitment to contemporary relevance.

These are the areas where I see a need for growth in my own personal and corporate worship. What about you – what does the future of worship look like to you?

Fellowship Belongs

Transcript:

  • Acts 2:42-47
    42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
  • Robert Putnam wrote a book in 2000 called “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” In this book, Putnam puts out a simple premise: “Americans need to reconnect with one another.” He chronicles that many of the civic organizations that were started and thriving in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s have begun to collapse. Bowling leagues and garden clubs that had popped up and continually been replenished with new members, suddenly stopped growing. In the last 20 years, many of these groups have ceased to exist. The church hasn’t been immune either. The days when it was assumed that everyone would belong to a church somewhere are gone.
  • However, in the passage from Acts 2 we hear the story of the early church – the followers of Jesus that formed communities immediately after Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This passage presents a paradigm for church membership that includes four main actions: the teaching of the apostles, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer (v. 42). These four main actions are expounded on in the verses that follow (vv. 43-47). These four main actions synthesized the new faith of these Jesus followers.
  • The first action was that they “remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles” (Acts 2:42). The teaching is specifically related to how the apostles worked “many signs and miracles” (v. 43). In the modern mindset, it can be very difficult to link these two things: teaching and miracles. The Western, Post-Enlightenment, rational mind tends to view teaching favorably and miracles with questioning. However, in ancient Eastern cultures, as well as in many developing cultures today, miraculous events are seen as modes of authentication.  At one time in the church’s history, theology was naturally linked to miracles, spirituality, and mystery.
  • The next action that the earliest followers of Jesus remained faithful to was “the fellowship” (Acts 2:42). The Greek term used is koinonia which is also translated as “the community.” Specifically, the fellowship practiced by the early church is elaborated on by their familial sharing of possessions. They “owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and distributed the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed” (vv. 44-45). Actions such as these were the signs of a deep connectedness and humility toward one another. Jesus’ teaching that one should “lend without any hope of return” (Luke 6:35) was being actualized.
  • The third action that the early church committed to was “the breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42). This action is expanded on with the description that they “met in their houses for the breaking of bread; they shared food gladly and generously” (v. 46). It is worth noting that the Eucharistic practice of the early church occurred during the sharing of a larger, common meal (known as the agape). When the early church had communion, it wasn’t in a continuous assembly line! It was in the context of the common meal the blessing and thanksgiving over the bread and wine would take place. Eventually the practice of the common meal fell out of use and the rite of giving thanks that Jesus instituted remained.  It is clear from the language in Acts 2:42 that the common meal was the practice in the context of Jerusalem. The sharing of food generously speaks to the context of the larger agape meal. The breaking of bread, however, is more specific language that Luke previously used when Jesus shared a meal with some disciples after the resurrection (Luke 24:35). When the disciples broke bread together, it was more than an ordinary meal. The breaking of bread recalled the death of Jesus, the mighty acts of God’s salvation fulfilled in Jesus, and the hope of his return. For Jewish believers, recalling Jesus’ death through the breaking of bread was more than detailed memory. It was the truth, fully alive and come to life before their eyes.
  • The fourth action to which the disciples committed themselves was “the prayers” (Acts 2:42). The disciples’ faithfulness in prayers related to how “they regularly went to the Temple” (v. 46) and “praised God” (v. 47). Just as the final parts of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem took place within the context of the Temple, so the apostles and early church continued to gather there for prayer. Despite the persecution and uncertainty that surrounded them, the early church was characterized by their praise of God.
  • These four main actions of the early church remain essential in the church today. It is vital to remain connected to the apostolic teaching and witness to Jesus’ life and ministry. Being bonded together with other Christ-followers in fellowship and commonality is also important today. Continually remembering, giving thanks, and looking forward to Jesus around the table are still central symbolic actions in the church. Jesus has also established his church to be a house of prayer and continual praise. These four actions provide the framework for membership in the New Testament church. These four things are still central to our church here at Faith today.
  • Today we are honing on one of the four actions from the early church in Acts 2: Fellowship. In our church we say, “Faith belongs.” The word “belonging” is such a fascinating way of thinking about fellowship and membership in the church. When we join a church – or I would suggest instead of saying “when we join” it is actually “when the Spirit draws us into a church” – it is more than signing your name on a line or attending a class. You are actually belonging yourself to a group of people. They belong to you, and you belong to them. And that is something that the world and culture around us is thirsty for – an authentic community. There is a brokenness in our culture, and it stems from our individualism. We prefer to close ourselves off from the rest of the world. We wear earbuds everywhere (work, shop, and exercise), we’ve got man caves (private dens of testosterone), we work in cubicles (usually wearing headphones). We see our world through an individualistic lens. Lead actors and actresses. Sports stars. Solo artists. Top chef.
  • Now compare that with Scripture. Start with the Passover. God rescuing his people Israel from the bondage and slavery of Egypt, delivering them to freedom and new life. Think about how the Passover is celebrated in the Jewish community. The central episode in Hebrew history is celebrated, not in a synagogue by priests, but in the home, by parents around a table set for an evening meal. Its been said that if all Christian churches closed their doors today, the faith would crumble. But if all the synagogues closed their doors, the Jewish faith would carry on as if nothing had happened.
  • The transformative aspect of a church community is not only the religious practices, but the friendships that are nurtured there
  • The new covenant that Jesus established – Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, opening the gate for belonging to the people of God (no longer race-related, no longer born into it, but available to everyone/everywhere) – The new covenant was instituted and is renewed in the context of fellowship, specifically in the act of table fellowship.
  • New research from Robert Putnam: He suggests pastors: “Spend less time on the sermons, and more time arranging the church suppers.” In a new Gallup-Healthways poll with more than 676,000 participants it was revealed that the more church friends a person has, the happier he or she is. “Church friends are super-charged friends, but we have no idea why,” “We have some hypotheses, but we don’t know for sure.” The researchers found that non-church friends do not provide the same benefit in terms of well-being, and that other measures of being religious — like belief in God or frequency of prayer — do not serve as a reliable predictor of a person’s satisfaction with life.
  • A meal is a real, valuable act in a church. It takes attention, the food has to come from somewhere, and it all has to be planned, prepared, and afterwards cleaned up. There is really good work, as Putnam indicates, for pastors (and other church leaders) to do in arranging church suppers, both for the act of fellowship and the friendships that will be nurtured around the table.
  • “People who frequently attend religious services are more satisfied with their lives not because they have more friends overall but because they have more friends in their congregations,” And churchgoing alone without making friends does not improve well-being, they found.
  • Putnam said, “In short, sitting alone in the pew does not enhance one’s life satisfaction,” Only when one forms social networks in a congregation does religious service attendance lead to a higher level of life satisfaction.”
  • The transformative aspect of a church community is not only the religious practices but the friendships that are nurtured there. Or perhaps it’s that developing friendships is a religious practice. There is a spirituality to being woven into the fabric of community. Sharing life, sharing possessions, sharing joys and sorrows.
  • Let me encourage you: Don’t be a “lurker.”
  • Belong to Faith – find a group of people that you can belong to and that they can belong to you – Faith Family Fun Days, Learning Groups, Congregational Events/Meals, service opportunities.

Worship Breathes

One could picture the fourfold model of worship as a pattern of inhalation and exhalation. As we gather together as the people of God and then hear the Word we are taking in the breath of God. As we give thanks at the Table and are sent out into the world we exhale (share) the breath of the God with the rest of the world. I like the imagery of our worship “breathing” for three biblically rooted reasons.

First, breathing reminds us that the Holy Spirit enables everything we do, especially our worship. Genesis 1:2 tells us that in the beginning when God created heaven and earth there was a divine wind sweeping over the waters. The Holy Spirit was the divine breath that activated the words that spoke everything into being. The most ancient recorded liturgies of the church describe how the priest would breathe on the baptismal waters in blessing, recalling the Holy Spirit’s presence at creation. Just as God breathed life into Adam and Eve, the Holy Spirit breathes life into the words and actions of our confession and thanksgiving to God.

Second, every living, breathing thing was created for the purpose of praising God. Psalm 150:6 says, “Let everything that breathes praise God.” Every day we wake up because God graciously gives us the breath for another spin around the earth. Every breath, therefore, is an opportunity to return praise and adoration to God for who he is and what he has done. No one flawlessly seizes every available breath to praise God, and some people ignore God their whole life. But we have confidence that every breathing thing will acknowledge Jesus (Philippians 2:10-11).

Third, as believers we offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God. Romans 12:1 says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” The idea of a “living sacrifice” is an oxymoron. Something that is sacrificed is killed. In God’s original design for worship, death was synonymous with sacrifice. Something always died in a sacrifice. The paradox of a “living sacrifice” is created through the reality that in Jesus we are new creatures. Death has been defeated in Jesus, and now our worship is a living sacrifice of praise. In other words, the breath isn’t taken out of our worship. Our worship is left alive, to breathe.

God's Meal & Table – Alternate Preparation for Eucharist

On Sunday at Theophilus, I improvised some words as we prepared to celebrate God’s meal together. Someone asked me to re-share what I said, so I wrote it down in an email. I’m reposting it here, just in case anyone else would like to reflect on it more:

Now is the time in the service when we celebrate God’s meal together. I want to share 4 stories from the Bible that included meals:

  • In the story of God’s people in the Old Testament, there was an event called Passover. It was the time when God freed his people from bondage and slavery in Egypt and gave them a new home. It included a meal. And in the meal God’s people were supposed to eat unleavened bread, which is bread that didn’t sit and rise. After God’s people were rescued from slavery, they were to re-commemorate the event every year by eating this meal. And when they ate the unleavened bread it was a reminder that God’s mercy and redemption were going to come quickly, and there wasn’t time to wait for the bread to rise.
  • Jesus, the night before he was handed over to his death, ate a meal with his closest followers, his disciples. And that night he got on the floor and washed his disciples feet. And he told them that he was giving them a new commandment – that they were to love one another. Jesus was teaching his disciples that power and leadership doesn’t come from beating people down with violence or intimidation, but it comes from humility and service. Jesus’ followers were going to be known by their love, not their hatred or violence toward others.
  • After Jesus’ death and resurrection, a couple of his followers were on the road walking. They were discouraged and confused about what had happen to their teacher. A stranger came alongside them, and began explaining to them what had happen to Jesus and why it was necessary. Jesus’ followers stopped and invited the stranger to eat a meal together. When they sat down, the stranger took bread, broke it, and gave thanks for it. And suddenly the disciples recognized something they had heard before. And then it clicked – and they realized it was Jesus with them, risen from the dead! And instantly he was gone.
  • The final meal that Jesus eats with his friends is yet to happen. It will be the meal that we celebrate with Jesus for eternity in the new heaven and the new earth. This meal is the feast that every tribe, tongue, and nation are invited to. And Jesus will be there with us, face to face.

This meal that we celebrate today is a reminder and a foretaste of all these stories that include meals. Everyone is welcome – come to the feast at God’s table!

Len Sweet wants you to help him write a book

What are the 100 words that make us Christian? When you boil Christianity down to its essence, what are the words that remain?

In a very open-source move, Dr. Sweet is allowing people to submit ideas for this book project. Here was my submission:

MEALNot only do many Christian events include the “potluck”, but it is the central symbol that Jesus left us to remember Him by. The meal of Passover. The meal atop Sinai. The meal that became a miracle and fed thousands. The meal with the wrong kind of people. The meal on Thursday night before His crucifixion. The meal after the resurrection in Emmaus. The meal on the beach. And the meal that believers gather around a table to share every Lord’s day. God’s invitation to “eat and drink freely.”

You can join your ideas at the 100 words website.