Thoughts on "The Jesus Enterprise"

I’m concerned about a book about the church that uses the word enterprise in the title, a word borrowed from business. But I sure want to reach the unchurched. Thus I read The Jesus Enterprise: Engaging Culture to Reach the Unchurched (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004), by Kent R. Hunter. Here are some quotes from the book that caught my attention:

Landa Cope, in her excellent book Clearly Communicating Christ, says it this way:

[A] dynamic aspect of [Jesus’] communication was His servant
approach.

At some point in history the Church forgot this. We became focused on
our message rather than on serving our audience. The burning question wasn’t,
“Where are people hurting? How can we apply the Gospel to meet those needs?”
Instead it became, “Are we being faithful to Scripture? Is that the exact
meaning of those words? Are we communicating in balance with the whole of the
Bible?”

…Jesus didn’t come to defend the message. The message of God’s
eternal truth is just fine, thank you. It stood before the creation of the
earth, and it will stand when all heaven and earth have passed away (Matthew
24:35). It’s people who are in danger! God so loved the world.
pp. 30-31

[The gospel is not simply about meeting my felt needs. Sometimes Jesus
gives me needs I never had until Jesus met me!]

…When asked why they return to a church they visited, most people respond that they did so because it was a friendly church and the worship services seemed relevant.

…On the front end, they are more interested in knowing if Christianity
works. In other words, they want to know if God makes a difference in your life.
p. 32

[Friendliness? A faith that works? Is this all that Jesus
Christ is Lord means?]

An enterprise ministry can be
defined as: identifying and meeting felt needs in the culture, genuinely caring
for others, building relationship bridges, and communicating the gospel in a
relevant way.
p. 33

[Sometimes the gospel sounds as if it is ‘irrelevant’ when it is simply
true. We live in a culture of deceit so sometimes we don’t know what’s
‘relevant’ until the gospel tells us. We are not the ones to judge what our real
needs are or what’s truly ‘relevant’ to our lives. That’s God’s business.]

Is it just me? I find all of these statements extremely problematic in the light of the biblical witness. True, I’ve taken these out of context but they seem to me to be dangerously, exasperatingly out of touch with the Christian faith. We are to reach people, not just in order to sign the up for our volunteer organization, but we reach people in the name of Christ, reaching them to be part of a countercultural, divinely initiated community called church. The purpose of the church is not friendliness, or meeting my needs, the church is not a means of getting what I want but Gods appointed, created means of getting what God wants.

The church is God’s enterprise, if you must use that language. It is not the result of our savvy communicative technique but a work of a triune God who is determined to have a people.

William H. Willimon

Christ Means Change

Easter keeps happening, even though we are now four weeks after Easter, every time someone is converted to Christ. The Christian life comes neither naturally nor normally. Little within us prepares us for the shock of moral regeneration that is occasioned by the work of Christ among us. What God in Christ wants to do in us is nothing less than radical new creation, movement from death to life. This means that ministry among the baptized tends to be more radical, disruptive, and antagonistic than we pastors admit. We are awfully accommodated, well situated, at ease in Zion , or at least disgustingly content with present arrangements. We reassure ourselves with the comforting bromides of a lethargic church: Everyone in Mainline Protestantism is in decline, everyone has become geriatric, even the Baptists are losing members, people can’t change, you can’t teach old dogs new tricks. Sociological determinism has got us. What’s to be done?
Despite our settled arrangements with death, as an African American preacher friend of mine puts it, the gospel means, “God is going to get back what God owns.” C. S. Lewis spoke of his life before his conversion as “before God closed in on me.” Conversion, being born again, transformed, regenerated, detoxified, is God’s means of closing in upon us, of getting God’s way with the world, despite what that reclamation may cost God, or us.
Deep in my Wesleyan once warmed heart is a story of how a priggish little Oxford don got changed at Aldersgate and thereafter. John Wesley’s life was well formed, well fixed by a host of positive Christian influences upon him before the evening on Aldersgate Street. Yet what happened afterwards has led us Wesleyans to see his heart “strangely warmed” as nothing less than dramatic ending and beginning, death and birth, a whole new world.
Such a story, fixed deep in our souls, challenges a church that has become accommodated to things as they are, the cultural status quo. It stands as a rebuke to a church that has settled comfortably into a characterization of the Christian life as pleasantly continuous and basically synonymous with being a good person.
Scripture enlists a rich array of metaphors to speak of the discontinuous, discordant outbreak of new life named as “conversion.” “Born from above,” or “born anew” (John 3:7; 1 Peter 1:3, 23), “regeneration” (John 3:5; Titus 3:5), “putting on a new nature” (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10), and “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). Paul contrasts the old life according to the flesh with “life according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:1-39). Baptism tries to tell us that the Christian life is at times discordant, dissonant, and disrupting. When one joins Rotary, or the League of Women Voters, they give you a membership card and lapel pin. When one joins the Body of Christ, we throw you under, half drown you, strip you naked and wash you all over, pull you forth sticky and fresh like a newborn. One might think people would get the message. But, as Luther said, the Old Adam is a mighty good swimmer. A conversionist faith is so disconcerting, particularly to those for whom the world as it is has been fairly good. Those on top, those who are reasonably well fed, fairly well futured, tend to cling to the world as it is rather than risk the possibility of something new. For all these economic, social, and political reasons we pastors tend toward the maintenance of stability rather than the expectation of conversion.


New Creation

Paul was stunned by the reality of the resurrection — the way God not only vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead, but also thereby recreated the whole kosmos. In Easter, an old world had been terminated and a new one was being born, so Paul was forced to rethink everything that he had previously thought, including ethics. Much of what Paul says about Christian behavior was formed as his testimony to the resurrection, an event that he had experienced within the dramatic turn around in his own life. Whereas Jesus did Easter at the empty tomb, Easter happened to Paul on the Damascus Road.

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed
away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to
himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.
(2 Cor.
5:17-18)

Verse 17, in the Greek, lacks both subject and verb so it is best
rendered by the exclamatory, “If anyone is in Christ – new creation!”

Certainly, old habits die hard. There are still, as Paul acknowledges so eloquently in Romans 8, “the sufferings of the present time.” It makes a world of difference whether or not one knows the resurrection. Thus, making doxology to God (Rom. 11:33-36), Paul asks that we present ourselves as “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” by not being “conformed to this world” but by being “transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). All of this is resurrection talk, the sort of tensive situation of those who find their lives still in an old, dying world, yet also now conscious of their citizenship in a new world being born. Our lives are eschatologically stretched between the sneak preview of the new world being born among us in the church and the old world where the principalities and powers are reluctant to give way. In the meantime, which is the only time the church has ever known, we live as those who know something about the fate of the world that the world does not yet know. And that makes us different.
Crucified Jesus has been raised from the dead – and in our continuing conversion, he takes us along with him toward new life.

William H. Willimon

LESSONS WE CAN LEARN FROM JACK WELCH

The Cabinet and I have been pondering our role as personnel officers of the church. It is our job to recruit, evaluate, and to place clergy. We believe that there is much that we can learn about personnel matters from those in business or other organizations. Hal Nobel, Superintendent of the Northwest District, has recently read Jack Welch’s book on leadership, Winning. Welch is the turn around king of American business. Hal shared with me some of the insights that have relevance for our Superintendents and as pastors:

Think of yourself as a Gardener, a watering can in one hand and fertilizer in the other.” This is what I am doing here in my District and I understand you to be saying in Cabinet meetings. There are some great metaphors about gardening, watering, fertilizing in the scriptures. And then there’s Jesus’ parable of the unproductive fig tree that speaks of grace as cultivating, watering, fertilizing one more year, and then if there is not fruit, cut it down.

These are the one-liners in the book that excite me:

1. Leaders relentlessly upgrade their team, using every encounter as an opportunity to evaluate, coach and build self-confidence.

2. Leaders make sure people not only see the vision, they live and breathe it.

3. Leaders get into everyone’s skin, exuding positive energy and optimism.

4. Leaders establish trust with candor, transparency and credit where credit is due.

5. Leaders have the courage to make unpopular decisions and gut calls.

6. Leaders probe and push with curiosity that borders on skepticism, making sure their questions are answered with action.

7. Leaders inspire risk taking and learning by setting the example.

8. Leaders celebrate the achievements of others in the organization.

Here are some quickies from the sub-heading “On Hiring-Inspiring”

  • Hiring good people is hard. Hiring great people is brutally hard. Yet nothing matters more in winning than getting the right people on the field, then guiding them on the right way to succeed and get ahead.
  • Before you even think about assessing people for a job, they have to pass through three screens:

1. Integrity – People with integrity tell the truth

2. Intelligence – Candidate has a strong dose of intellectual

3. Maturity – The ability to handle stress and setbacks, and enjoy
success with equal parts of joy and humility.

  • Then the passion – a heartfelt, deep and authentic excitement about work.
  • When you actually interview somebody for a job, make sure every candidate is interviewed by several people. Over time, you will find that some people in your organization have a special gift for picking out stars and phonies.

    Will Willimon

KIERKEGAARD ON PASTORS WHO ARE SERVANTS OF THE TRUTH

One of our talented young candidates in ministry, Christopher Barnett, is at Oxford University writing a dissertation on Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard, the “Solitary Dane,” had some tough things to say about pastors of his day. He firmly believed that pastors are not called to run errands for members of the congregation or to be the freelance therapist for everyone in need. Pastors are, in Kierkegaard’s words, primarily “servants of the truth.” We must cultivate an attachment to the truth, which is Jesus Christ, and to speak that truth no matter what.

Here are some of S.K.’s demands for pastors. I’ve been meditating upon them this week and have found them helpful, and sometimes painful!

  • Pastors who can split up the “crowd” and turn it into individuals.
  • Pastors who are not too much occupied with study and have no desire whatever to dominate.
  • Pastors who, though able to speak, will be no less able to keep silent and be patient.
  • Pastors who, though they know people’s hearts, have no less learned temperance in judgment and condemnation.
  • Pastors who understand how to exercise authority, through the act of
    sacrifice.
  • Pastors who have been prepared, trained, and educated in obedience and suffering so that they will be able to correct, admonish, edify, move, and also constrain not by force, anything but that, but rather through their own obedience; and above all will be able to put up with all the rudeness of the sick person without letting it upset her any more than a physician allows herself to be disturbed by the curses and kicks of a patient during an operation.

– Soren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard, trans. Alexander Dru (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1959).

THE MAIN THING

“The Main Thing is to keep your eye on The Main Thing.” That’s what I heard a distinguished business leader say awhile back. It is so easy, when you are in a leadership position, to be overcome, swamped with trivialities and distractions and to lose sight of “the main thing.”
How do we keep at ministry, amid the myriad and deep demands of the pastoral ministry? I think there is only one way – with a deep conviction that God really is present in our ministry, doing more than we can think, say, or do. Bill Easum confirms this with this affirmation of the need to keep our pastoral focus on “the main thing” – the mission of Jesus Christ in the world.

My experiences with the “deeps” have taught me much about myself and how God works. What really separates authentic leaders who soar from those who do not is a vision or mission worth dying for. Those who have this kind of vision or mission are able to go in the face of impossible odds. They are able to focus on the goal so fully that it must happen.

My “deeps” have taught me that my little successes in life have little to do with me and a lot to do with the gracious gift of a mission from God. The mission is what saves us and drives us on – not our ability. The mission is what both drives us down and brings us up. People with a vision don’t burn out, they just keep on going and going and going in spite of it all.

— From Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First: Rediscovering Ministry, Bill Easum, with Linnea Nilsen Capshaw, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004
p. 18.

William H. Willimon

I hope to see you at the Inaugural Bishop’s Lecture in Faith and Ethics at Birmingham-Southern College on Tuesday, April 17 at 11:00 a.m., in the Norton Campus Theater. Dr. Carol Newsom, Charles Howard Candler Distinguished Professor at Emory University, will speak on “Three Ways of Imagining Good and Evil: The Bible’s Internal Conversation”.

The Last to Believe in Easter

Preparing to preach on Easter I note some curious truths. The first to experience Easter, and the first to preach Easter were women (take that, those who think that women preaching isn’t “biblical”!). And to whom do the women preach the resurrection? The disciples of Jesus.

Preachers and lay leaders of the church please note. The disciples don’t believe the women. They think they are hysterical. The disciples dismiss their news as “an idle tale.” As Kierkegaard noted, how curious that those who were closest to this event, those whom Jesus had been carefully preparing – his own inner circle, the disciples — are the least prepared to believe. Those who were the most prepared, who had a front row seat in the class – Jesus disciples – were as dumb as anyone, dumber, actually.

People who teach in theological schools take note: Even the two Jewish religious groups who at the time were the most sophisticated in thinking about resurrection, who were working the most diligently from the Scriptures to prepare an adequate theological foundation for the resurrection – the Pharisees and the Essenes – missed the whole thing. As Karl Barth once said, when it comes to the gospel, everybody is an amateur, everyone a beginner.

Luke makes the intellectually marginalized – in this case, women who were denied participation in the educational systems of the day – play so prominent a role in perception of resurrection. Mary Magdalene – maybe the most marginal of any of the early followers of Jesus – is the chief resurrection witness and the only person to appear in all four accounts. All we know about Mary Magdalene before she joined Jesus is that she had previously been possessed by “seven devils.” The “seven devils” could refer to an utterly dissolute moral life or to an extreme form of mental illness. Either or both of these pre-Jesus conditions, coupled with being a woman in a patriarchal society, put her at the far edge of marginality.

If you were Luke and trying to convince people of the truth of the resurrection, would you make your chief endorsements come from those whom the majority of people are least likely to believe? Given the importance that we in our society gives to celebrity endorsements, it’s more than a little disconcerting that the main witness to the resurrection is a woman on the margins.

Unless that was exactly how it happened. Here is a God who tends to work the margins rather than the center, who does not limit divine revelation to the “in crowd.” You can’t get much more in the center of the “in crowd” of the church than being a bishop, and a male bishop at that.

I think in this early testimony to the resurrection that we read in the gospels, a parable is here for those of us, all of us in the church, Jesus’ closest friends, the Jesus “in crowd.” We may be the slowest to apprehend the full, frightening, wonderful truth of the resurrection. We may have to listen to the testimony of those whom we don’t consider to be on the “in crowd.” We may have to admit that the resurrection is both our hope and our judgment as followers of Jesus.

Happy Easter. He is risen, he is risen indeed.

William H. Willimon

The Violent Bear It Away

Maundy Thursday
Tonight we begin the enactment of a story, Jesus’ last hours. I don’t know what most impresses you about the story of the arrest, the trial, the crucifixion of Jesus. What impresses me is its sheer bloodiness, the violence. I pray to God that I’ll never get so hardened of heart, so inoculated to the violence, that I cease to flinch as Jesus is nailed to the wood.
It’s a very violent story. Jesus foretold this night in a parable (Mt. 21). A man had a vineyard. He improved it, built a wall around it, a tower too. He leased his vineyard to some tenants, allowing them to collect and keep the fruit of the vineyard, never charging them rent. One day, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect the rent that was due. The wicked tenants beat the servants, killing one, stoning another half to death. The owner thought, “Unbelievable! This time I’ll send my own son to collect my rent, that will surely shame them, or bring out the best in them.”
The owner failed fully to reckon the depth of wickedness, the potential for violence among the tenants. They say to themselves, “Well, here comes the son, the heir to the vineyard. Let’s bash in his head, kill him, so that it will be ours.”
And Jesus says, the Kingdom of God is just like that. He who never one time used violence, or even self-defense (wouldn’t let us use our swords tonight to protect him), was the cause of violence. He, who embodied the best, brought out in us, the worst. The gospel is a violent story.
So is ours. We are a violent people, we tenants of the vineyard, and most of the stories about us, if they are true, are bathed in blood. Historian Stephen Ambrose says that 1945, the year before my birth, may have been history’s bloodiest year. In every corner of the world, the sight, says Ambrose, of a half dozen teenaged boys, walking down a street, would strike fear among the people. They were armed to the teeth, young killers in uniforms provided by old men in government. I was born one year later, the year of the last lynching in the South, in my hometown. I was conceived in blood.
And weren’t we all? Creation is but six chapters old, says Genesis (6:11), when God notes that something had gone terribly wrong. The earth that God intended to be filled with birds and beasts and humanity, is “filled with violence.”
And hasn’t it always, at least our part of the earth? A few years ago was published a three volume, Violence in America.[1] A brief perusal proves it really is as American as apple pie. We were born in blood, what we call “The Revolution,” others call it the genocide of the natives. 168 people killed by a young man, U.S. Army trained, in Oklahoma City. The crazed Unabomber, a Harvard man. Most of our children have seen something like a thousand TV murders by the time they are ten. And so many of our heroes, Kennedy, King, Lincoln, assassinated by their fellow citizens. I confess I only made it for about twenty of the encyclopedia’s nearly 2,000 bloody pages.
And he gathered us, the night before he was whipped, beaten and nailed to the wood. And taking the bread said, “This is my body, broken, for you.” And then the cup, “This is my blood, shed, for you.”
For you. Because if there were not some blood to it, some brokeness, it wouldn’t be for me, for you.
“We don’t really believe that the cup actually contains the blood of Christ, do we?” he asked. Well, why not? What did you think it meant when it said, on Christmas, that “the Word became flesh and moved in with us”?
“I will, having failed at all else, send them the Son,” said the Father, that will bring out the best in them, shame them, change them, surely.” Well, tonight we see that, he came into the world, the world (in the words of Genesis, “filled with violence”) and brought out the worst in us.
Any Savior who wants to save us, must be willing to get bloody in order to get to us, for our story is one of broken bodies and shed blood.
Earlier, in Matthew’s gospel, when they came and told Jesus that John the Baptist had been arrested and was awaiting execution (Mt. 11:12), Jesus commented that, since the first days of Creation, since Genesis, since John, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent try to take it by force.
What’s new? Well, what’s new is this night, that the kingdom should come to us, the violent, not by violence, but by One willing to turn his cheek to the smiters, to shed blood, body to be broken, for us, for us.
[1] Violence in America: An Encyclopedia, Ronald Gottesman and Richard Maxwell Brown (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2001).

The Point of Pastoral Ministry: Lay Ministry

Bill Easum, our consultant in ministry in North Alabama, has a provocative word about the need to empower the laity to do ministry:
“You know, one of the issues here is that everyone relies too much on the pastor to do all the ministry.”
Before I could finish the man blurted out, “I’m aware our pastor needs help, but we can’t afford to hire any more staff.”
I couldn’t let that one go unanswered, so I responded, “I’ve never met a pastor who needed help. You don’t need more staff. All you need to do is equip your congregation to do ministry.”
For a brief moment the man looked at me dumbfounded and perplexed. Then with a hint of sadness in his voice he uttered the most despicable statement a Christian can make: “But we’re just laypeople. We’re not called to the ministry and we certainly aren’t professionals.”
(From Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First: Rediscovering Ministry, Bill Easum, with Linnea Nilsen Capshaw, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2004, pg. 14)
One of the regrettable results of our United Methodist stress on careful preparation for, and collegial accrediting for our pastors is that there have been a steady “professionalizing” of ministry. Easum makes the flat, direct statement, “I’ve never met a pastor who needed help. You don’t need more staff.”
We pastors ought to see ourselves, not as the “ministers,” but rather as coaches and equippers of those who are called to the ministry of Christ – the laity, the People of God. Years ago, my friend John Westerhoff said, “If you are a layperson and you are spending more than fifteen hours a week at church, you are wasting your time. That is not your ministry. You are not to run errands for the pastor at church, you are to join in Christ’s ministry in the world.”
Westerhoff continued, “And if you are a pastor who spends more than fifteen hours a week working in the world, you are wasting your time. The work of the laity is too tough for them to do that work without being equipped and enabled to do that work. Your job, as pastor, is to equip them for their baptismal work in the world.”
So that implies that the test for our pastoral ministry is not, “How much have I been able to accomplish at my church?” but rather, “How much have I enabled the laity to accomplish at their church.”

William H. Willimon

The Dream of Pastoral Leadership

Most contemporary accounts of leadership imply that the leader is the one who asks questions, moves toward answers, and clarifies where we are and what we are doing. However, Lewis Parks and Bruce Birch note that the Christian leader may be the one who helps us live with mystery, to follow the Dream, to find meaning and direction, even when our final destination is left up to God:

By most contemporary accounts the leader should ask the sort of questions that clear up the fog and reveal a clear path forward to a specific destination. What traits do I need to be successful? Where are the models of excellence? What information must I process? What corporate culture must I penetrate? Where are the landmines? How accurate is our feedback system? What nostalgia is holding us back? What vision will propel us forward? What may we extrapolate from the present to prepare for our future?

According to the books of Samuel leadership is not about clearing up a fog or, to use a preferable word, a mystery. Leadership is about learning to accept that mystery and to live well within it. In the fecund language of William Cowper’s 1774 hymn on providence, leadership means being absorbed by the questions arising from one overriding fact: “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” Are the ominous clouds on the horizon actually “big with mercy,” and will those clouds “break in blessings” on our heads? Can I stop projecting the fears of “feeble sense” on the Lord long enough to glimpse the “smiling face” that lies “behind a frowning providence”? Am I strong enough to break rank from those who “scan his work in vain” because of their unbelief? Will I allow God the courtesy of interpreting what God is up to because I hope that one day God “will make it plain”?
Leaders are normally consumed by action. By one well-known contemporary account the daily activities of a chief executive are characterized by “brevity, variety, and discontinuity.” Barely half of their activities engage them for as long as nine minutes. They may average 583 activities in an eight hour day, mostly collecting, processing, and transmitting soft information; negotiating potential or actual conflict; and attending the rituals and ceremonies of the organization.Only 10 percent of these activities will last as long as an hour.
Yet every leader carries some ultimate interpretation of who they are and what they do. It is a portable inner vision of self in the world. It is the stash of the pieces of their lives and the weaving together of those pieces into a narrative that gives perspective to the relentless daily practice. For some church leaders the interpretation of self in the world is still beneath the surface of speech. All they know for sure is how much they are not like the persons being described in some of the most popular literature of leadership and management. They hunger for an interpretation that has more to do with mystery and drama than those glib profiles of success.
For most leaders the interpretation of self in the world is a positive exercise of the imagination, even if only carried out at the edge of consciousness. It has the character of what one prominent writer on leadership calls “the Dream,” a vague sense of self in the world that generates energy and a sense of life as adventure. The Dream is “more formal than a pure fantasy, yet less articulated than a fully thought-out plan.” For the church leader this might mean viewing herself or himself in such a character as a rescuer, defender, mover and shaker, midwife, wizard, gardener, or coach.
For church leaders the Dream must be placed within a narrative of providence, the fabric of God’s larger purposes and movements. The Dream is more than a self-referenced project of determination and action. The Dream is a gift of experience and reflection that arises out of the drama of leading the people of God. It is God who gives to church leadership its integrity, and God’s actions in real time that give to church leadership its weight. To be a church leader is to theologize; to lead well is to theologize incessantly. The books of Samuel have modeled the practice throughout. What power behind the stars responds to social chaos by sending a leader? Who ultimately calls leaders and coaxes them toward their futures? Who finally judges leaders when they err and holds them to account when they repent? From whom do leaders receive their visions for a just society and their inspirations for compassion? How shall leaders manage their hungers and order their loves? [Here] we raise the God question once again, this time as the ultimate factor in the practice of church leadership.

— Excerpts from Ducking Spears, Dancing Madly: A Biblical Model of Church Leadership, by Lewis A. Parks and Bruce C. Birch, Abingdon Press, 2004, pp. 149-151.

Blessings upon all you pastors as you attempt to help God’s people to live the dream.
William H. Willimon

Meeting and Being Met by God

Two people meet one another on the sidewalk. Their eyes meet. Will they greet one another, encounter one another, or only pass by silently?

One person extends her hand, the other responds. They shake hands, embrace.

“How are you getting along?” he asks.

“Fine,” she responds. “And you?”

The handshake, the embrace, the traditional words of meeting are a ritual that enables us to meet one another. Without the ritual, without the familiar, predictable pattern, we might not risk the meeting. We would not know how to come into the presence of another. The ritual helps us overcome the distance between the distance between us. It ends the separation.

The church also has a pattern of familiar words and actions whereby we are enabled to meet both other people and God. You might think of our Sunday morning worship pattern as a drama, a drama of meeting. On Sunday we follow a script–a pattern of words and actions that begins, moves from one act to another, and then comes to a conclusion.

Who are the actors in this drama of worship? The minister, the choir, the organist or pianist, and the ushers? This makes the congregation the audience. Is that the way it ought to be? No. The congregation are actors in this divine-human drama. We are not to come on Sunday morning as if we were going to a movie or play, as if we were coming to passively watch the stars act their parts. We are there to join together in prayer and song. We are the actors rather than the audience.

Our worship leaders, like your minister, choir, organist, and ushers, are to help us worship, not to worship for us. They are there to invite us to sing, to cue us when it is time to kneel or pray or speak, to lead us so that we can all join together with one heart and voice in the praise of God. When we experience Sunday worship as a time to walk in, flop down in our seat, and passively watch someone else meet God, we have not experience the fullness of Christian worship.
Why do we have a set pattern for our worship services? Why do we often print an order of worship in our bulletin that you follow on Sunday morning? Why does your church usually worship in much the same way every Sunday? Because it is easier to gather for worship if we have some predictable pattern, some familiar pattern that brings us together.

If you sing a solo, you can “do your own thing.” You can sing in your own style and temp. But if you are in a choir, if you want to make music with more than one voice, you must get together. Everyone follows the same set of notes, sings the same words. Private, solitary meetings with God have their place. But congregational worship, usually Sunday mornings, is a group time, it is a time for meeting, gathering in the body of Christ, joining together with one voice and coming before God.

To that end, we sing hymns together because it is fun to join our voices in shouts of praise. We pray together because our deepest needs and highest joys are generally those we share with others and so we now join with others in sharing those needs and joys with God. We listen to God’s Word together because the gospel is not simply addressed to us as solitary individuals but as the body of Christ. We respond to the Word by saying a creed because our beliefs are not simply the private thoughts of our hearts but are nurtured, corrected, expanded, challenged, and supported in fellowship with other Christians in the church. This is why we generally find it helpful to have a pattern for our Sunday worship–so we can get it all together.

You hear your voice, raised with others in the congregation, singing the hymn. Now, you feel that a veil has been thrown back. You see what you were unable to glimpse in your work-a-day, Monday through Saturday world. It is as if heaven comes very close to you and a new, wondrous world has been opened to you. You are able to say with your wondering ancestor Jacob, when heaven’s ladder was lowered to within his reach, “Surely the Lord is in the place, and I did not know it.” (Gen. 28:16).

So much of the time in church is spent using words like “should,” and “ought,” and “must.” Sunday, we keep a burden of greater responsibility on your shoulders, the day when we gather and the preacher tells us what we ought to do.

The “service” that we offer to God, but worship is also the service that renders to us. While we are busy praising God, God is responding to us. Faith is a gift, not our achievement. As we are praising God, we are being formed into God’s people. We are practicing the presence of God in way that, as God becomes more apparent to us on Sunday; God is surely more available to us on Monday.

Why do we do it? We do it because we are in love. The modern world teaches us to ask, of every event and relationship, “Now what good will this do me?” The modern world teaches us to make ourselves the center of the world. We have no more important project than ourselves.

Christian worship is counter-cultural to all this. We do it, not primarily to “get something out of it,” but to give something to it. We do it because we are in love.

Try this example. You are walking hand-in-hand in the park on a beautiful spring day. At some point, you lean over and kiss the one with whom you are in love.

Now, if someone asks you, “Now what good does that do you? What good do you get out of it?” It would be stupid question to ask. Gestures like kissing, hugging, are the actions of lovers. We do it out of love. We do it, not “to get something out of it,” but rather to offer something to the one with whom we are in love. Christian worship is a lot like that.

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:44-47)

“This is the day which the Lord has made.” (Psalm 118:24). Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the lands!Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him, bless his name! – Psalm 100:1-2, 4.

William H. Willimon

Be sure to register to attend “Costly Discipleship” with The Rev. Dr. Peter Storey at Canterbury UMC, March 23, from 10:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m!