5 Practices of a Fruitful Congregation
Exodus 8:1; Psalm 84:1-2; Luke 10:27
There is this crazy thing that happens to people when they get excited about a certain event. Some people go as far as dressing from head to toe, in things seen and unseen, ready for the big day. Others cannot wait for the day to arrive and try to hurry it along by gathering together to with friends beforehand. Of course you may have guessed what I am talking about already but let me give you a few more clues. Some people will brave any weather outside to participate in this event, some go as far as painting themselves and acting like four years old when things don’t go their way. Of course I am talking about Football fans. As we step into the middle of this year’s NFL season I am reminded how crazy people get about sports. Just look at this poor guy…
No I understand crazy fans. I was one of those silly students on the floor of Cameron Indoor Stadium. For us graduate students we had to camp out for a whole weekend to be eligible for the lottery to then hopefully win season tickets to Duke Basketball. I have been to one Duke/UNC game in Cameron and even though we lost that game, it was one of my favorite memories. Plus I made it into Sports Illustrated that year too! Cameron Crazies will do about anything to make sure their team wins. There is a Divinity School student that became famous and known as Speedo Guy. He is now ministering a church but look up Speedo Guy on YouTube and watch his story. But whether it is football, basketball, soccer, tennis, baseball, badminton, golf, or hockey [wait never mind they aren’t playing] we, as humans, will worship a certain team and we will really get into it.
What is worship? Why are we here? What is the point of coming here every Sunday? Some people may say that we are here because the Bible says to be here. Well the Bible does say that we need to worship God but it does not say we can only worship God or that we HAVE to worship God on Sunday mornings. But that is culturally where we arrive at worship. Some have a distinct vision of what worship is. Some people think of contemporary when they hear the word worship. They think hands in the air, saying Amen, clapping along to songs and singing God’s praise. When others think of worship they might think of sitting in the pew and sitting quietly in order to reflect, be rejuvenated and filled. Others see this as an opportunity to see family and friends, to catch up and enjoy the fellowship of the people closest to them.
Let’s walk through what the Bible says about worship. In Exodus we learn that worship was one of the main reasons that the Hebrew people wanted to be free. Exodus 8:1 says, “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and tell him: This is what the Lord says: Let my people go so that they can worship me.” In the Psalms it says, “How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord of heavenly forces! My very being longs, even yearns, for the Lord’s courtyards. My heart and my body will rejoice out loud to the living God!” This says that we earn to worship God because it is what we are designed as humans to do. As followers of Christ we are commanded to do it. Jesus reminds us of the Old Testament command that “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Not only is it in our DNA as humans but it is also who we are to be as Christians. It is not a choice and it is a choice, thank you for choosing to be here this morning.
Here is the complete title of Marva Dawn’s book which talks about worship; A Royal Waste of Time, the Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World. In this book Dawn is attempting to argue how we can easily slip away from the true nature of worship. True worship is a royal waste of time in her opinion. She explains this by saying that by engaging in worship we don’t accomplish anything useful in our society’s terms. Many people don’t come to church because they don’t feel like they get anything out of it. They don’t see it as productive or purposeful.
But this is not the reason worship is a waste of time. Worship is a waste of time because nothing we do in this service today or any other time changes God. No matter if I preach the best sermon ever, or the choir sings an extremely moving anthem, or if we have someone share a powerful testimony, or if we actually all sing a hymn together, we won’t change God and we cannot change the love God has for us. Dawn says, “It is totally irrelevant, not efficient, not powerful, not spectacular, not productive, sometimes not even satisfying to us.” (p.17) Yet that is because, what is the point of worship?
The point of worship is not us. We are not the point of worship. You, the congregation, and me, the preacher, are not the reason for worship. God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is the point, the reason, the purpose of worship. The Lord and Savior we love and the one who loves us is what it is all about. The songs we sing, the prayers we pray, the offerings we give, everything we do points to God and brings him glory. Worship is a response to God. It is a response that offers praise, thanksgiving, discussion, inner struggle, pain, release, joy, excitement, love, prayer, confession, adoration…and I can go on and on. But no matter what you do or do not do here in this place each Sunday still does not change how God feels about you. You are wasting your time if you think God is doing a role call every week and if you have enough checks by your name you are going to get into heaven. Attendance does not equal worship. True worship is immersing ourselves in the glory, presence, and splendor of God. It is coming together as the Body of Christ each week in order to be true community.
The truth is, what you put into worship is what you get out. There is this idea among most American church goers that a worship service is like everything else in the USA. They approach a worship service from a consumer perspective. They interact with a worship service like they interact with the X Factor, American Idol or the Voice. I don’t know if you do this or not but as I am watching reality talent shows I am always critiquing that performance. I am thinking to myself, “Well that was horrible, he will be going home this week.” Or, “I really liked that song, she interacted with the audience well, and really connected with the lyrics. She did a great job.” Many people come to worship and they look at it the same way. “That service was horrible because that last hymn was too slow, the kids were too loud, the preacher said there were three points to his sermon and I heard seventeen. That service wasn’t good for me.” Sometimes people around the lunch table will say, “That was a great service. The preacher’s sermon struck a cord with me, the choir did a good anthem, and my prayer request was lifted up, I was fed and I am filled.” There are times I am at home at 11:15 am thinking, “Man I tanked that sermon, I messed up that children’s moment, that illustration worked just like I hoped or man it was nice to hear the special music today.” The truth is they are all the wrong perspectives because worship is not about entertainment Remember the point of worship is not about us, it has nothing to do with what we get out of it. It is about what we have offered God.
What you get out of worship is not the point; it is what you are putting in. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians he is reminding them of the right attitude to have. He says, “So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective.” How many times do we participate in worship with our eyes to the ground, shuffling through the service, and trapped within the foot of space around us? Instead, we are told to be active participants in worship. We should look up and “be alert to what is going on around Christ.” We have to make sure we are present for the whole hour we are here.
A Sunday School teacher asked her children a question as they made their way to the sanctuary, “And why is it necessary to be quiet in church?” One bright little girl replied, “Because people are sleeping.” To be present means you have to work. It takes work to put yourself out there to be open to God. That means you have to stop thinking about the time because God may not be limited to an hour and it has been proved that the Holy Spirit can work past noon. That means that talking to your neighbor about where you will be going to lunch or to your spouse about the list of chores that need to be done during a hymn is not making yourself present. Being present is not sitting there counting the number of window panes, or ceiling tiles. Being present is not sitting up here and worried about the number of people who are here, if I am making sense, or if people are listening. Being in worship means putting yourself completely IN the moment. If you walk in with the right attitude, in the right frame of mind, you can be open to see what is going on around Christ.
I have heard many people say this statement about a church’s worship. “I just don’t feel fed.” Then I heard another preacher explain something I thought was vitally important for me to remember. He said that ministers/preachers/worship leaders are merely the chefs. We work hard to prepare the feast. We use our talents and gifts to create something that should be delicious to God. But we don’t feed people, people feed themselves. There are many people who approach worship with the attitude that they are toddlers and the worship leaders have a spoon and they are saying, “here comes the airplane, open up the hanger, swooooshhhh!” But the truth is it is the congregation’s job, the individual’s job to feed themselves. Will you get something out of every aspect of worship? Probably not. Could you get something out one piece of it? Yes, if you put yourself into the moment and opened yourself to God’s Holy Spirit who is at work in this place today and every time we gather together.
Paul gives the early Christian church some advice on how to live and worship more holy. He says, “Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing your own thing. And cultivate thankfulness. Let the Word of Christ—the Message—have the run of the house. Give it plenty of room in your lives. Instruct and direct one another using good common sense. And sing, sing your hearts out to God! Let every detail in your lives—words, actions, whatever—be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way.”
When we are here, worshiping together, we need to “let the Word of Christ – the Message – have the run of the house.” We need to make room for the Spirit to work and to make ourselves open to be touched by the God. I was reading an article one day about how the author wished church was more like a musical. In a musical an event happens and people, EVERYONE, breaks out into song and dance. The author thought that should happen more in worship. The preacher should be so into his sermon that a song erupts from his mouth. The congregation should be so in tune to the Holy Spirit that they break out into a choreographed dance. What would worship feel like if that happened? What would worship be like if it was just like Grease or Glee? What if we approached worship like we do a football game, basketball game, or baseball game? What would it be like if we came with that much excitement, passion, and anticipation?
Today is World Communion Sunday. It is the Sunday that the world comes to God’s table and we rejoice as Body of Christ together. It is very humbling to think about those of us here taking communion along with those across the pond in England, or on the bases of our military in the Middle East, or in the largest United Methodist Church which is in Korea, or in the small hut where a congregation of 20 gathers in Kenya, or in the Philippines, or in South America. Everywhere, in all denominations we are supposed to be coming together to the Lord’s table and getting a taste of the heavenly banquet. Today as you approach the table I want you to be in the moment, 100% present in it. Come with your hands reaching out and ready to accept the gift that is given today. We have a God who is passionate about his love for us and as we gather in this place each week we should give thanks, sing praise, and offer up our worship in an equal passionate way. I want to end with another quote by Marva Dawn because I think it reminds us once again why we are here. She says, “No place in the Bible, no place, does it ever say worship the Lord to attract the unbeliever. It always says worship the Lord because he is worthy, or because God is holy, or worship because God deserves it, or worship because this is what God did for us. So God is the subject and the object of our worship.”
And all God’s people said…Amen.