Sunday, June 16, 2013

Relevant Worship?

Recently a friend sent me an article from the Washington Post titled, “Seminary graduates not always ministering from the pulpit”. Here’s the gist of the article:

About 41 percent of masters of divinity graduates expect to pursue full-time church ministry, down from 52 percent in 2001 and from 90-something percent a few decades ago, according to the Association of Theological Schools, the country’s largest such group.

Americans, particularly young ones, are becoming less religiously affiliated, and many see churches as too focused on internal politics and dogma and not enough on bettering the outside world. Institutional religion doesn’t have the stature it once did, and pastor jobs are fewer and less stable.

The skepticism about religious institutions has led to a broadened concept of what it means to minister.*

Comments quoted from fledgling ministers revealed dissatisfaction with the gap between words and actions in the institutional church. One young man “thought that church institutions were hypocritical, talking about Jesus but not living like Him. They focused too much on personal salvation and not enough on caring for others, he thought, historically not fighting hard enough against segregation and slavery.”

This is a classic good-news-bad-news situation.

The good news is that young people are getting an education that builds a theological foundation for their “ministry” in a so-called “secular” calling. One woman, for example, would use her seminary training to support her work as a physician.

The bad news is that the institutional church is being abandoned by those it needs to have the most. If we talk about Jesus but don’t live like Jesus calls us to live in this world, then there is a failure in the way we worship. So the bright young people with fresh M.Div. diplomas are those we need in our churches to shape and lead worship that connects what we say we believe with what we do. Worship should prepare all of us for the ministries to which God calls us as teachers, filmmakers, engineers, doctors, contractors, sales people—whatever we do, wherever we are sent to follow our risen Lord.

In other words, Christian worship should be relevant.

The survey noted above suggests it’s time to check Lord’s Day praise and prayer on the “relevancy meter.” Just how well does worship prepare us to go out and be and do what God expects of us?

The problem is that in the culture of our churches there is a huge disconnect between what we label as “secular” issues and those which are “moral” or “spiritual” issues. For example, the recent (and continuing) debate about universal, affordable medical care is branded as political, and off limits for religious discussion. You probably don’t hear much about it from the pulpit. Yet you can quote chapter and verse about the ethical, moral, spiritual requirement for Christians to take care of the sick and the poor.

Nevertheless, it is sometimes difficult for us to be relevant regarding topics up for public and political debate. I discovered that when I retired, it became much easier for me to talk about these things. I had done so when a pastor, but in retrospect I realize I had sanded down the sharp edges. Now I was free to be more sharply accurate.

For example, I was the guest preacher filling in for a friend and the text was about Jesus healing the sick, and I connected that with medical care debate as a moral issue. After the service, as I was leaving, two members confronted me about the sermon. “I wish our pastor would preach like that,” said one, to which the other added, “We need to hear about those issues more often.” After saying appropriate thanks, I said, “Your pastor preaches relevant sermons. The difference is that you pay his salary and you don’t pay mine.”

Like it or not, there is a certain kind of intimidation that mutes the prophetic voice at least a trifle. Pew-sitters need to know this so they will encourage the preacher to be relevant, and make that faith-action, church-world connection sharply and clearly.

The same thing is necessary in the prayers we articulate in our gathered worship.

A good friend of mine, a neighbor rabbi, gave me this useful definition: “A prayer is a down payment on faithful action.” What we say in prayer is a commitment to God and ourselves that we will follow through.

Sometimes I’ve noticed that prayers in church are spoken as though the prayer itself is all that is necessary. Prayers for the sick members who are not present seem in and of themselves to suffice. I suppose it’s a “let God do it” mentality—if I pray for someone who’s sick, God will fix them, and I’ve done my good deed.

Our prayers are empty echoes without the means to act on them. What and who we pray for in our intercessions, and even our personal needs, must have opportunities provided to be carried out, to be made real. So our prayers are linked to mission efforts, educational programs, visitation plans, etc., whatever we need to act on what we pray for.

Worship in general is for “the equipping of the saints.” The hour or so we spend together to hear and taste God’s Word is supposed to prepare us to “Go out into the world in peace; have courage; hold on to what is good; return no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak, and help the suffering; honor all people; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.”

When that’s accomplished, worship is indeed relevant.

*Seminary graduates not always ministering from the pulpit, by Michelle Boorstein, The Washington Post, May 17, 2013

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