Friday, October 28, 2011

Club or Community of Faith?

A good friend and I were conferring over his cup of coffee and my mug of tea, pondering the current condition of the Church of Jesus Christ.

To make a long conversation short, the consensus was that, at least in terms of the Church evident in churches and congregations of which we have personal knowledge, there is a real problem: Christians seem to gather in clusters that look much more like clubs than churches.

This is to say that Christians these days tend to assemble around common interests and tastes. They look for a church where most everyone looks like they do. Some would prefer everyone to be registered in the same political party.

There are even those who select their church on the basis of whether their company higher-ups belong. They look for standing and status.

When it comes to church programs, they want the best care for their kids, a good social group for their own age range, and someone to visit their elderly friends and relatives.

Worship, for these folks, should be, above all, entertaining. When the music is super, especially the children’s music, they will applaud. The prayers shall hold up before the Almighty the needs of everyone in the room. And the sermon at all times must be short and sweetened with good humor. Worship is to be designed to make them feel good so they could go home happy and contented.

Of course, who is pastor is critical. She or he must meet all criteria of every person, offend no one ever, especially not in a sermon, and be ready day or night to respond to any need. In short, as a friend of mine once said, “The pastor is really supposed to be a spiritual concierge.”

Okay, that’s an overstatement. Admittedly this does not apply to every congregation, even if it does come frighteningly close in some. Sure, there are in every local church at least a few who know better and are looking for a very different situation.

My friend and I remembered thankfully those people we’ve known who filled the bill. For them, the church was not a like-minded club, but a diverse community of faith. They did not seek recognition for their piety or purity, but were offering themselves with humility. They wanted education, faith-formation for themselves as well as their children—not just babysitting or socializing—and they’d visit anybody who was lonely.

These are the people who’d come to worship to receive the support of the community so they could be good Christians when they left. They’d seek forgiveness, renewal and refreshment for their souls. They’d be inspired and stirred in their hearts by the prayers music elicits for them, and they’d want to be challenged by the word proclaimed, and fed at the Lord’s Table.

In fact, worship has a great deal to do with whether someone sees their congregation as a club or a community of faith.

Some examples:

I was chatting with members of a congregation that had branded itself as “nondenominational, evangelical Christian church,” and the conversation turned to worship. When I asked about their prayer of confession, I was told that they did not have one—and did not need it. They were secure in their salvation. Of course we all need confession as the antidote to taking God’s grace for granted.

I visited a service in a congregation where the “prayers of the people” consisted almost entirely of petitions on behalf of people who were members or friends of members—almost no prayers about the ailments of the world and society around us. Prayers are down-payments on actions, commitments to do something to alleviate the situation we pray for. We might reasonably assume we’d help friends and relatives who need it, but how about the poor and homeless and outcast and oppressed?

In some places the Lord’s Supper is so often done with such efficiency that it seems everyone is in a rush to get out of the building. Perfunctory is the word that should be applied. Yet the Lord’s Table is set in the midst of the world, and sharing the meal Christ set for us commits us to sharing what we have with those who have nothing to share. It is, or could be, a powerful experience.

Music, far from being simple entertainment, has the capability to touch us at our depths. Music accompanies our prayers, lifting them heavenward. Melody and song carry liturgy along the journey of worship. In so many unexplainable ways, music makes faith sing in our souls, sending us forth with enthusiasm and joy to meet the challenges of following Christ.

We come together to serve God in worship on Sundays, and go forth to worship God by our service to others the rest of the time. The Christian congregation is not a club—it is a community on a mission with Christ.

Do you have a prayer of confession in your Sunday service? What evidence do you see of “clubbishness” in your worship? What do you see that points to serving God in the world?

Sunday, October 16, 2011


Every once in a while, it helps to take a look at Christian worship from a slightly different angle. When we’re busy planning a particular service, every act of worship is important, and they all tend to rank about the same. So it is worth looking at what we do in worship to lift up those things that we would classify as “essential”.

This is not an effort to “minimalize” worship, to see what is most important as a way of finding out how little we can get away with and still call it worship. “Essential” means “what we cannot do without”. Other less than essential acts and words may be desirable as well.

The Reformers agreed that the true church was to be defined by two things: Proclamation of the Word and Celebration of the Sacrament (Eucharist). This definition was itself based on centuries of historical experience and testimony.

Certainly Proclamation of the Word is indispensible. Yet we’re not always sure what that includes.

For example, I preached recently in a church where they have two Scripture readings, one Old and the other New Testament. Not bad, so far. But what happened to the Epistle, the witness of the Early Church? Missing. If the Word is to be proclaimed in its fullness, the texts need to reflect over a period of time the fullness of the biblical message. The pattern used in the New Common Lectionary helps cover the territory.

The other part of the Proclamation of the Word is the sermon. Preaching, however, needs to find its firm foundation on Scripture. I have heard sermons preached (even some in so-called Bible-centered churches) where the only Scripture used was a snippet which served as a springboard from which to launch the homiletical address.

The sermon rarely, if ever, stands alone apart from the Scripture—especially in this day when biblical homework by the pew-sitters is not done with diligence. To preach without scriptural context made clear is to invite problems, one of which is that the preacher is not held accountable to the Word revealed in the full biblical witness. The message is not always comforting, and it is crucial to have the biblical origin of challenges clearly identified.

Another problem is that such abbreviation of Scripture lessons welcomes the “personality cult” of the preacher whose manner and style eclipses the message. Mind you, I like compliments as much as the next preacher, yet when I get them, I often feel like I should respond with, “But did you hear what I was saying?”

The Eucharist – also known as Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, Breaking Bread—is another “essential”. This is the most problematic, because it is largely ignored by segments of the Christian community, notably the Presbyterians, who ought to know better.

Infrequent and arbitrary communion is an ecumenical liability. Those who place the Eucharist in the “essential” category by virtue of their celebration every Lord’s Day, look down on those who demean the sacrament by a cavalier attitude toward it. It’s bad enough that we neglect it more than half the time in most Protestant churches, but even worse that we celebrate it willy-nilly on a certain Sunday each month, as though that fulfills some obligation.

Presbyterians need to brush up on their Calvin, and so do some theological education of decision-makers, theology professors, and pastors—and lay people as well—to ensure a more faithful observance of the mandates given by Jesus himself.

When the sacrament of Communion is missing, the worship experience is truncated and incomplete. In the Proclamation of the Word the message of the risen Christ present with us is spoken; in the Lord’s Supper, the same message is acted out. If either is given short shrift, an essential has been compromised and basic Christian worship jeopardized.

What other “essentials” might you add to the list of critically important aspects of Christian worship? Does your Sunday worship include the full set of Scripture readings? Is the sermon based on one or more of them? How often does your church celebrate Communion? Why?

Sunday, October 9, 2011


Why don’t Protestants make the sign of the cross?

This is a question that comes around more often these days. Maybe more Protestants are showing curious interest in the action, and wonder, “Why not?”

The simple, but not always satisfying, answer is that making the sign of the cross as a physical gesture was one of the casualties of the Protestant Reformation. Superstition was rampant, and the Reformers saw the incessant signing that went on as a kind of magical action done to coerce divine action. If that’s all there is to it, that would be enough.

But there’s more—it is a relevant question for our time. For example, the baseball player stepping up to the plate signing himself with the cross—is he calling on the Almighty to put lightening in his bat? Or could he be making a gesture of faith, thanking God for the ability with which he is graced?

What about the prize fighter, standing in his corner of the ring ready to do physical combat—is he soliciting divine power in his punch? What if both boxers sign themselves—on which side is the Lord? Or, is it possible that one or both might perform the sign as a prayer for a clean bout?

Probably for most of us such signings are chalked off as superstitious, and ultimately silly. God does not have a batting average, nor is there divine intervention to empower or pull boxers’ punches in any way.

So what about making the sign of the cross in worship—why don’t Protestants?

Well, some do: Episcopalians, some Lutherans, and even some Methodists and Presbyterians.
But for the most part, Protestants do not, and for several reasons.
They agree with Calvin and his ilk—it smacks of superstition, and we’re too rational (not necessarily too faithful) to go for it.
They don’t know how to do it, because there is no one to teach them how in their church.
They’ve tried it, and it feels awkward.
If the Catholics do it, then Protestants shouldn’t because it’s catholic. (As in so many other ways, we let those with whom we disagree about some things to influence our opinions on everything uncritically.)

The last reason, of course, is the primary one. So much for the Ecumenical Movement and understanding among Christians.

The implied question in all this is, “Is it appropriate for Protestants to sign themselves with the cross?” The answer can only be, “If they find it appropriate for themselves.” Many Christians, other than Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and Orthodox, find signing themselves to be an affirmation of baptism and a recollection of Christ’s redemptive death in a most personal way. As a liturgical gesture, this can be an authentic expression of praise and commitment.

Do you know of Protestants who cross themselves? How about Protestant clergy who make the sign of the cross over their congregations? Or at baptisms? Or clergy who cross themselves during worship? Are there any Protestant congregations you know where it is acceptable for people to cross themselves?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The "Third Sacrament"

Fifty years of experience as a preacher of the Gospel have taught me a few things, as one would hope.

When I started out, I was very diligent in study, careful in exegesis, and thorough in crafting each sermon. I was not above letting the hearers of the sermon know of the diligence, care and craft that went into the sermon’s creation.

I soon realized, however, that there was a time for Bible study and in place of the sermon at worship was not the best. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be Bible study related to the sermon. On the contrary, biblical study and education are the firm foundation under every pulpit preachment. Not only should the pastor put in effort to dig out the richness of the text, but the congregation should do their “homework”, either literally, or in regular and on-going classes.

For the pastor to deliver a Bible study in lieu of a sermon falls short of what preaching needs to be in this day and age. Such an effort externalizes theology and objectifies what Christians are called to be and do to the point of abstraction and irrelevance. Faith becomes a matter of the intellect, and the sermon an exercise in logic—which is all right as far as it goes. But it needs to go further.

Essays pretending to be sermons are not much better. Bristling with quotes and references to people and events beyond the reach of some, many, perhaps most of the people in the room, such discourses, whether interesting or boring, miss the mark. Too much is “out there”, something talked about but not necessarily experienced.

When the preacher makes it personal, it doesn’t help much. The preacher’s experience is rarely typical of the average pew-sitter. Making that connection is a shot-in-the-dark. Too many sermons I’ve heard and read indulge in individual reflections with not nearly the significance to the listeners that they have to the speaker. They also often slip off into mere sentimental sweetness.

Communication of the Gospel from person to person must be more than in the head—it must also be spoken from and to the heart. The idea of a sermon is not simply, maybe not ever, to convince someone to believe, but to lead them to faith. This happens when the sermon becomes an experience of believing.

Over the years I have come to recognize the sermon as being decidedly “sacramental”. Just as we recognize Christ in our midst when we gather at the font and at the table, so we should come face-to-face with him in the preached word. Word and Sacrament have come, in a sense, to be two different terms for the same thing—experiences of the Living Lord.

It’s one thing, however, to let the words of the liturgy guide us and open our eyes to see Christ here and now, but it’s quite another to say that my words as preacher will do the guiding and eye-opening. That puts a considerable burden on the mere mortals who climb the steps to the pulpit and look out to the hopeful faces awaiting an introduction to the risen Christ.

I’ve come to believe that if I rise up so brazenly to preach without a knot in my stomach and knocking of my knees, then I do not appreciate the utter awe of the responsibility. But the knot and the knocking seem to persist, so I keep working past it.

Here’s where my experience of preaching leads me to call it “sacramental”. The Spirit is there in the act of preaching, just as the Spirit is in the baptizing, and again in the breaking, pouring and sharing. The end result is the same--the Spirit introduces us to Christ.

So I get up to speak, all nervous and jittery, and a calmness comes as the Spirit joins in. In my own weakness somehow I nevertheless am strong. In my jumble of words somehow the Word comes through—and I know full well, it isn’t me, but beyond me.

I’m full aware that this is a dangerous affirmation to make, because it can skid right into arrogance. Yet it is most humbling to be aware that one is the instrument of grace, the broken vessel by which God conveys Good News, the stammering voice chosen to tell God’s Story again and again. Just as a water-bath can become a new birth and the beginning of life with Christ, or breaking bread and passing cups of wine can nourish the soul and make strong and healthy disciples to follow Jesus, the sermon’s the Spirit’s work, not the preacher’s.

In what ways do you find preaching “sacramental”?