Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 14, 2008

2008.09.14 “Worship: Why It’s Important”

Central United Methodist Church

Worship: Why It’s Important

September 14th, 2008

        When I first began preaching, there was a man in my home congregation who was a fan of mine, who used to come to worship, even when he shouldn’t. The problem was that Charlie had a serious heart condition, and his doctor had gone so far as to tell him that he shouldn’t come to church, because it made him too emotional, and stressed his heart.  So I’d be preaching, and Charlie would start popping his nitroglycerine tabs to ease the chest pain.  I tell you, it put a preacher in an awkward situation.

        Charlie is long gone. (As far as I know, he didn’t die in church)  But the older I get, the more I understand why worship was both good and bad for Charlie, and more importantly, why worship has such power to move all of us.

        Ever since the response to our worship survey last spring, I’ve been thinking about a sermon series on worship, in order to continue the conversation we’ve already begun. Worship is important to me, and judging by your responses, it’s important to you, too.

        I’ve come to find, in fact, that on the rare occasions when I get a chance to sit in a pew and worship, if the service is halfway decent at all, in some way, it usually gets to me.  And I’ve found that to be the case whether I’m worshiping in a small church or a large church, whether a village church in Africa, a church like ours in Washington, or a cathedral in Paris.

        Most of you know this too.  During a hymn, in the words of a prayer, in a moment of silence, during an anthem, during communion, – yes, even during the sermon – something gets to us.  That’s when we know we’re reaching not just our head, but our heart – the tender edge of our lives.

        Likely, you’ve discovered that sometimes, during difficult or stressful times in our lives we may even avoid worship, because we know we can’t handle it, and we’ll embarrass ourselves by our tears.

        Having said that, let me also say that – like you – I’ve also been to churches that have made me want to cry for other reasons.  The service was so dull, so boring, so uninspired, that we wanted to cry all right, while checking our watch through our tears.  If there is any influence that mega-churches have had on smaller churches, it’s that they’ve raised the bar of excellence: people expect quality when they come to church.  And if people don’t find what they’re looking for, they’ll go elsewhere.

What makes it more difficult is that some come wishing worship were more relevant, more exciting, more dramatic, more casual, louder, more spontaneous, and more fun; while others who come wish it were quieter, more reverent, more traditional, more ordered, and more dignified. Shall our worship be liturgical, traditional, contemporary, blended, or emerging, some of the most popular styles practiced today? In changing times, generations, and styles of worship, what’s a church to do?

        Well, one thing we can do is talk about why worship is so important to us, and go from there toward changes we need to make.  So today I begin a series of six sermons about of worship, which will give us an opportunity to discuss many of the things you commented on in the worship survey. 

        Today, I believe that worship is important to us because of two major reasons: because of what uniquely happens here, and secondly, because of what worship does for us.

        First of all, what uniquely happens here in worship: God is praised, God’s Word is read and responded to, we gather at the table of the Lord, and finally, we are sent forth to serve.

Occasionally, someone (usually a man), will say to me “Pastor, I worship God while I’m out fishing Sunday morning.  I expect that’s true, but I’m fairly certain the Scriptures are not read, an offering’s not taken, communion is not celebrated, fellow Christians are not greeted and encouraged.  I’m sorry to say, this is also true in regard to TV preachers.  Joel Osteen, to name one among several, will never come to your home, never visit you in the hospital, never serve you holy communion.

Amazingly, the elements of worship have been consistent since the beginning. While there are no instructions or even a complete description of an early worship service in the New Testament, around the year 153 A. D., a Christian named Justin Martyr described early Christian worship.

        What happened was that as Christianity spread, many Romans responded with fear, confusion, or hostility. Rumors spread that Christians had secret meetings in which they ate flesh and blood and kissed their brothers and sisters, leading to the idea that Christians were incestuous and cannibals. So Justin wrote to set the record straight. 

They met on Sunday, the first day of the week, which Christians called “The Lord’s Day.”  It continued the practice of the 4th commandment, “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy,” but on the 1st day of the week rather than the 7th.

        They read the Scriptures aloud. The average person could not read, so hearing the Scriptures read aloud were the primary way of learning the Scriptures.

The congregational leader gave a sermon.  (I don’t know if it had three points and a poem.)

The congregation stood and prayed together. In the early church, a person kneeled or prostrated themselves to express humility, repentance, and confession of sin. Standing, on the other hand, was a sign of joy and boldness. Early Christians stood when they prayed because they believed that as God’s children they had the freedom and privilege to come boldly into God’s presence through Christ.

And, get this: they kissed each other, a sign of brotherly and sisterly love.  In the surveys, many of you hated the passing of the peace, so I look forward to talking more about this.

They set apart bread and wine. The leader gave thanks to God in a prayer of thanksgiving, (in Greek, “eucharisteo”) from which we get the word, “Eucharist.” The congregation said “Amen.” (Hebrew for “May it be so.”)

The bread and wine were distributed. Deacons carried the elements to those who were sick at home or unable to be present.

Those who wanted to, gave money.  Unlike the “dues” of clubs and private associations common in the Roman empire, Justin emphasizes that the Christians’ offerings were entirely voluntary – a free gift. The money went to benefit widows, orphans, the sick, prisoners, and strangers.

So from the beginning to now, the same elements they make up worship have been present. We may do them in different languages, styles, and with different emphases, but underneath, the core essentials are the same. We enter God’s presence; we hear and respond to God’s Word; we gather at the table of the Lord; and we are sent forth to serve.  These elements of the service are what I will be dealing with specifically during the next five weeks.

The second reason worship is so important to us, is not just because of what uniquely happens here, but because of what it does for us.

        First, worship connects us with MYSTERY. As long as there have been humans, there is that irreducible part of life which we cannot understand, which we cannot reduce to “nothing but”, which we bow before and acknowledge in worship. The religious scholar Rudolph Otto called it the mystery (mysterium) that is both terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating (fascinans) at the same time.  Religious people associate it with the spiritual, and God. 

        Secondly, good worship, as I’ve already acknowledged, touches our EMOTIONS. This occurs through symbol and ritual, through Scripture, in silence, and especially through music.  Worship best does this when it is multisensory: engaging us not just through sound and sight, but also smell and touch; through text, but also through music, and image, and film. 

        A few years ago when I visited Church of The Resurrection in Kansas City, one of largest United Methodist Church, Pastor Adam Hamilton shared part of his sermon series, “How to Make Love Last”, which by the way was one of his most well-attended series.  They used film clips to interview couples in the congregation who had been married the longest, and how they managed to make their love last.  As you might imagine, not only were these funny, they were powerfully moving; I doubt there was a dry eye in the house. That’s just one example of what can now be done.  Today, the stained glass of old can now be projected on a screen, not just seen in the windows.

Thirdly, good worship also engages our MINDS. One of the reasons I am thankful to be a United Methodist is because when I enter worship, I do not have to check my brain at the door.  I do not have to have a 1st century B.C. worldview, think the earth is flat or created 4,000 years ago, think that Adam and Eve walked to church past dinosaurs, believe that kings have divine rights or that slaves should be forever enslaved. (Thank God!) Good worship, takes the Bible seriously, not literally.

        Fourthly, good worship renews our SPIRITS. Let’s be frank: it’s a hard world out there. We work day and night, we suffer losses and get depressed, we worry and we fear. On any given Sunday there are people sitting in the pews who have lost loved ones, suffering depression, fighting addictions, are in lousy relationships, even wonder if there is a God. The church, week by week, is not a cruise ship, it is a rescue ship, and we’re all about to go under.  No wonder weekly worship is so important to us.

        Fifthly, worship joins us in COMMUNITY.  Do you know the two major reasons people come to church? Spirituality, their relationship with God; and Community, their relationship with others. So when we come to worship, we do not worship privately, but collectively, with other Christians for support and encouragement.  Of course we could worship privately at home, but that will not give us the support and encouragement of other Christians that we need to make it. As John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once said, “There are no solitary Christians.”

        Finally, worship challenges us to DISCIPLESHIP and SERVICE.  Even when we do not disagree, we talk about important issues – spiritual, moral, and ethical issues – where faith meets life.  Someone once said, “The Christian faith is like riding a bicycle, if you don’t ‘go on’, you go off.”  At the end of the service, we’re not asked if we feel better (which we often do), but we are sent forth to serve.  Sometimes with a burden and a mission which God has given to us. In worship, as with the prophet Isaiah’s experience in the temple, God is still saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  And our response is:  “Here I am, God, send me!”

What I’ve tried to say is that worship is important to us because of two major reasons: because of what uniquely happens here in worship, and secondly, because of what it does for us.

Let me put it another way. Professor and preacher Thomas G. Long, in his excellent book Beyond the Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship, sums up what the high expectations of worship:

Vital and faithful congregations:

– make room, somewhere in worship, for the experience of MYSTERY

– make planned and concerted efforts to show HOSPITALITY to the stranger

– have recovered and made visible the sense of DRAMA inherent in


– emphasize congregational MUSIC that is both excellent and eclectic in style and genre

– creatively adapt the space and ENVIRONMENT of worship

– forge a strong connection between worship and MISSION,  expressed in every aspect of the worship service

– maintain a relatively stable ORDER of service and a significant repertoire of worship elements and responses that the congregation knows by heart

– moves to a joyous FESTIVAL experience toward the end of the service

– have strong, CHARISMATIC pastors as worship leaders

        But my favorite worship story of why worship is so important is this one, as told by the Rev. Michael Steward, in the Interpreter magazine, eight years ago.  It is the true story of Mrs. Coffee, who, since she was born Aug. 26, 1900, has gone to her righteous reward.

When her pastor asked church leaders to park a block away from the church to free up nearby parking space for newcomers, Mrs. Coffee dutifully parked off the premises and walked uphill with cane in one hand and Bible in the other.

She drove her own car to church until she was 97. Her pastor assured her that being 97 years old entitled her to park her car as close to the church as possible. She said, “I thought a visitor might need that parking space.”

One Sunday, her pastor incorporated the newly formed praise team into the traditional 11 a.m. worship service, naively thinking, as pastors sometimes think, that this would be a good way to introduce people to contemporary worship.

When the guitars, drums, keyboard and hand clapping started in the chancel, Mrs. Coffee covered her ears with her hands. She later met her pastor at the church door with tears in her eyes.

        “I cannot stand that loud music in our church,” she said.

        He started, as pastors sometimes do, to explain and defend.

“But Tyler has come back to church,” Mrs. Coffee continued, eyes glistening. “He is going to play guitar with that band. My prayers have been answered.”

        Tyler is Mrs. Coffee’s thirty-something grandson. Raised in the church, he had slipped away as a young adult.

        “I cannot worship with all that noise,” she admitted to the pastor. “But I am so glad we are doing it for those who like it.”

Mrs. Coffee knows what every United Methodist congregation needs to know in the new century: We do not exist for ourselves, but to connect (or reconnect) others to Jesus. The gospel doesn’t change, but the ways we tell it will always be changing.

On August 26, 1999, the congregation at the traditional service sang “Happy Birthday” to Mrs. Coffee. She accepted the honor, but was much more interested in greeting new college students seated two pews in front of her. She wanted to be sure they knew about the contemporary service with the guitars and drums.  (“What 99 Years Has Taught Mrs. Coffee About Being a Christian,” by Michael Stewart, the January 2000 Interpreter, p. 15)


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