I experienced some backlash this week after sharing a Patheos article on Facebook. The article, “How Offering Different Worship Styles Contributes to Church Decline” by Jonathan Aigner has made the rounds recently.
One commenter referred to the article as “toxic waste,” said I was wasting my time, and claimed I was starting a “worship war.” I found it hard to understand why there was such fiery backlash. Most of the objections were because they felt the author was invalidating any style of worship other than his personal preference. They seemed to think that the author was advocating for one, and only one way of worship.
To be upfront, the author is coming from a Baptist, evangelical framework which could be a reason for some of the backlash. And the author did take some potshots at contemporary worship: “Sentimental worship is just as toxic as contemporary worship.” Perhaps it was because I was just skimming the article, but when I read I tend to skip over the less helpful parts and focus on the things I think are said well. For example, one of the highlights for me was this excerpt:
“When we tell our people that we’re here to connect them with God through their own preferences, we are telling our people that worship is about their story.
When we suggest that corporate worship is about fitting everyone just right, we are telling our people that worship is about their story.
When our strategies for church growth hinge on making the worship life of the church fun, entertaining, and easy, we are telling our people that worship is about their story.
When we design worship services to flow seamlessly like a theatrical production, we are telling our people that worship is about their story.”
I have long questioned whether offering multiple styles of worship within one congregation is all that helpful. Is it a quick fix, a patch job, any easy way out of the slow, painstaking work of building a community that actually appreciates one another and puts their needs second to their neighbor?
Can we really claim to be surprised when church members act immature or self-centered after we have programmatically catered to their whims and preferences?
There are good reasons to offer multiple styles of worship. I think you could say that a church in a metropolitan, or ethnically diverse suburban area is being contextually faithful by offering multiple styles. But do we lose something by not learning each other’s songs? Are we missing a depth and richness of our song when it is stylistically monochromatic?
The real worship war is not about musical style or preference. The real worship war is about narrative. Who gets to be the main character in our worship? Whose story is the reason we assemble in worship?
Next Sunday (Sept. 24) I will have the opportunity to preach at church. This is something I have done before, although not very often. As a seminary student working toward being a pastor, these are opportunities that I really look forward to. Preaching a sermon is like exploring an undiscovered territory. There is so much to learn, try, and experience.
The first lesson for 16 Pentecost A is the end of the book of Jonah (3:10-4:11). Since I’m planning on spending some time there, here are some of my first thoughts on this well-known story:
- Jonah is a whiny brat. His behavior reminds me of my children when they are at their most unpleasant.
- Do I think that there was a real person named Jonah who was swallowed by a fish for 3 days? No. This story is more of a prophetic parable. Besides, it doesn’t matter if it really happened or not, because the story contains truth.
- Everyone knows that Jonah fled from God’s plan. But the truth behind Jonah’s 180° turn is less obvious: he hated the Assyrians. His prejudice against them ran deep. Jonah’s preference would be for the whole city of Nineveh to be damned. And it makes sense. Assyria had invaded and defeated Israel.
- Jonah fled from God’s plan because he knew that God was too gracious. Jonah knew God’s love was bigger than Israel and he didn’t want Nineveh to know it.
- I love how the book ends, “and also many animals?” Whereas Jonah’s prejudice against Assyria won’t even allow him to acknowledge they are worthy to receive God’s mercy, God’s concern is so profound that it reaches past the Assyrians all the way down to the animals. It’s that deep.
- The lesson picks up with God changing God’s mind. It reminds me of another time when God changed God’s mind. Moses was receiving the 10 commandments on the mountain and the people were at the bottom making idols. God, insulted by the idolatry, tears down the mountain after them, ready to teach them a lesson. But Moses stops God, and intercedes for Israel. And it says that God changed God’s mind. Maybe Jonah had that merciful episode in mind when he decided to go the other way?
One of my favorite hymns is “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” There is a depth to this hymn that expresses a longing for healing and wholeness. It acknowledges that there is a wellness in Jesus Christ that goes beyond physical healing and reaches into our very souls and even the entirety of creation.
“Balm of Gilead” was an aromatic medicinal ointment. Jeremiah 8:22 asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” The refrain of this African American spiritual answers the question: “There is a balm in Gilead.” At first blush that seems like a strange answer, because the stanzas seem unconnected to it, until you realize that they tell you where the balm is located.
It is not in Gilead or in any place in this world where horrible things like oppression and lynchings happen. No, it is the Holy Spirit who “revives my soul,” and it is Jesus who “is your friend” and “died for
This means that if you know where hope is found—namely, in God—the balm is paradoxically precisely in Gilead and in every other
place in this world. Or, as James Cone said when he cited this spiritual, “Hope, in the black spirituals, is not a denial of history, [but] the belief that things can be radically otherwise than they are: that reality is not fixed, but is moving in the direction of human liberation.”
Like many black spirituals, the origin of the text and tune for “There Is a Balm in Gilead” is difficult to track down. Many of these songs
were anonymously handed down through an oral tradition. The song was probably formed in the early part of the nineteenth
century. The first appearance of the refrain was found in Washington Glass’s 1854 hymn “The Sinner’s Cure.” The complete spiritual appeared in Folk Songs of the American Negro in 1907.
(excerpts from Paul Westermeyer, Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg Fortress, 2010, p. 454-455.)
Every third week or so, I get to teach the lesson at our Day School at Faith Lutheran. It’s a lot of fun to attempt to teach 80 preschoolers about Jesus. It makes it easier knowing my 2 kids are out there. I just write like I’m talking to them. Here is the “Fourth of July” chapel talk I gave the kids yesterday:
Who knows what holiday is tomorrow?
That’s right tomorrow is the Fourth of July, which is a holiday in our country – the United States of America. Sometimes we also call the Fourth of July “Independence Day” because it is the day that our country decided to be its own nation.
Tomorrow is a holiday for most people. Your parents probably don’t have to work. You might get to have some fun tomorrow, maybe see some fireworks, or have a BBQ with hotdogs.
Our country is a very special country. We have lots of things that other countries don’t have. We can freely go to parks, and swimming pools. We can go to school and learn. We can go to doctors when we get sick and they can help us feel better. And your parents get to pick the people who lead our country.
But every country is special! There are lots of countries all over the world. And they are all made up of different people. Some countries have people with dark colored skin, and some countries have people with light colored skin. Sometimes people have medium colored skin too. And God loves all countries the same! God made all the people in the world, and he loves them all equally. God does not love some countries more than others. God cares about all the people of the world. And we should too.
One time Jesus’ disciples were having an argument. One disciple said, “I’m the best.” Another disciple said, “No, I’m the best.” And the other disciple said, “You are not! I am.” Jesus heard them arguing and said, “Why are you arguing?”
The disciples’ faces turned red, they looked down at the ground. No one said anything, because they knew it was wrong to argue about being the best.
Jesus stopped, sat down, and invited the disciples to sit down with him. He wanted to teach them about being the best. He picked up a child onto his lap. Jesus said, “If you want to be the greatest, then you have to serve and help everyone else.” Jesus told them, “This little child believes in God and can serve others. It doesn’t matter how big or strong or smart or fast you are. Anyone can serve and help others if he or she tries. Then you are truly great.”
Let us pray:
Dear Jesus – thank you for America – and for all the countries of the world – help us to serve others – in everything we do. – Amen.
Every week I get to sing songs and tell Bible stories with the kids at Faith Lutheran Day School for their chapel service. It is a highlight of my week. Here is a story I did on Isaiah 6, retold so that preschoolers can understand:
Today we are going to learn about a person from the Bible. His name was Isaiah!
Isaiah lived a long time ago, even before Jesus was born. Isaiah was a prophet. A prophet is someone who is sent by God to tell God’s people where they need to listen to God.
God had a special plan for Isaiah – he wanted to use Isaiah to tell God’s people an important message. God met Isaiah in a very special way to give him the message.
Isaiah saw God sitting up very high on a throne. God had a robe that filled up the room. Isaiah saw angels flying over God. These angels had six wings. Two of the wings covered their faces (cover faces) – two of the wings covered their feet (cover feet) – two of the wings were flapping as they flew in the air (flap wings).
The angels were talking to each other! They said – “Holy, holy, holy is God! The whole world is filled up with his glory!”
Then Isaiah heard thunder and saw smoke. Isaiah became afraid! He thought he was goner. Isaiah said, “I am not good enough to see God, but I can see him here, the King of the heavens!”
While Isaiah was still trembling in fear, one of the angels came down to talk to him. The angel had a hot piece of fire in his hands, holding it with tongs. The angel took the fire and touched Isaiah’s mouth with it. The angel said to Isaiah, “You don’t have to be afraid anymore, your sin is taken away.”
Then God spoke. God said, “I need someone to go tell my people a very important message. Who will go for me?” And Isaiah shouted, “Me! Me! Me! Here I am! Send me!” And Isaiah went and told God’s people the important message.
God wants to use us just like he used Isaiah. God has a special message that he wants everyone to hear. God wants everyone to know that Jesus loves them. And you and I can go tell people that Jesus loves them. Can you tell people that Jesus loves them? Good – lets pray:
Dear God, thank you for Isaiah, thank you for your angels, thank you for your love. Help me share, the love of Jesus, with everyone I see. Amen.
(from the August 2011 Mountain Mover Newsletter at Faith Lutheran Church)
Every time the church gathers together for worship it does God’s story. God’s story is that epic narrative that we can see unfolding throughout the Bible. When we step back and look at the big picture that the total Bible paints we can see a three-part story unfold. The three parts are creation, incarnation, and re-creation. Every time we gather for worship at Faith we do God’s story.
The story of God begins at the story of creation. God, existing as a Triune community, created human beings to participate in the community of God. Unfortunately the idyllic community didn’t last forever and corruption and evil entered the picture. But God sets in motion the plan to redeem and fix everything that went wrong. Out of the desolation of the desert the line of Abraham is established to begin the process of bringing back the peace once found in the Garden. God kick-starts the plan of redemption.
The incarnation of God is witnessed in the person of Jesus. Jesus was God’s response after centuries of being nothing more to us than what we thought God should be: angry, insecure, and the vengeance-seeking tyrant we would be if we were God. In Jesus, God’s loving desire to really be known overflowed the heavens and was made manifest among us. Jesus’ humble mission was to become the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world. God comes to us and accomplishes for us what we cannot do ourselves: salvation.
Re-creation is what the Holy Spirit brings about through the work of Jesus. Re-creation is the work of salvation healing all the broken areas of our lives. Re-creation is the new life we find as people born of water and the Spirit. Re-creation is the Jesus-garment that we put on when we become new creatures. Re-creation is the power of God to redeem everyone and everything. Re-creation is a new heaven and a new earth, where sorrows find their end and Jesus is the only light we need. Re-creation is the Garden restored.
The story of God is the story that our worship does. How? Every time we lift our corporate prayers we acknowledge God as the Creator of every good and perfect gift. Every time we invoke the name of the Holy Trinity we recognize that God was before creation came to be. When we bring our gifts and offerings to God we realize that as the Creator, everything is already God’s. That is how our worship remembers creation. Every time the Word of God is read and the Gospel of peace is proclaimed we hear Jesus. Every time the bread and wine are shared at the Table God’s love is experienced anew in the community of his Body. That is how our worship remembers and experiences incarnation. Every time we prepare for the meal and hear the words “until he comes again” we anticipate the feast to come. When we share the peace we experience the reconciliation that comes from being new creatures. Every time we celebrate at the baptismal font we are connected with the death and resurrection of Jesus that brings us new life. That is how our worship experiences and anticipates re-creation. When you step through the doors on Sunday remember that we are doing God’s story!
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!