Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 21, 2008

2008.09.21 “Worship: How Shall We Enter God’s Presence?”

Central United Methodist Church

Worship: How Shall We Enter God’s Presence?

September 21st, 2008

       Many years ago, I visited Cambridge University in England. I was two years out of seminary and there was, at that time, a famous professor of church history, Owen Chadwick, who taught there.  While exploring, I found a door with his name on it, and, thinking it to be his office, I went in to have a look. To my surprise, it was the door to his home, and there in front of me was Professor Chadwick and his family staring at me!  After an attempt at an explanation and with apologies, I managed to get out.

        I would like to use this story as an analogy for what happens at the beginning of worship. We enter the door of the church for worship on Sunday morning, distracted with the concerns of the week, and suddenly, we find ourselves in God’s presence.  How does that happen?  And how shall we enter God’s presence?

            This is the second of six sermons about worship, continuing the conversation about worship that we began last spring. Historically, as we have learned, there are four essential acts of worship: we enter God’s presence, God’s Word is read and responded to, we gather at the able of the Lord, and finally, we are sent forth to serve. Today we deal with that first act of worship, “How shall we enter God’s presence?” As we talk about his together, I invite you to think about how best you enter God’s presence.

        Of course we know that we are always “in” God’s presence, there is nowhere in the universe we can escape it. But what we also know, is, God is not always present to us. And so we do certain things to focus ourselves, to bring ourselves into God’s presence.  We use sacred spaces, sacred time, and sacred rituals, to “enter” God’s presence in a special way.

        You may find that you have to do the same thing at home, when you pray.  My guess is that most of us have a certain place, a certain posture, a certain ritual we perform, to prepare ourselves to pray, to “bring” ourselves into God’s presence.  It’s the same when we worship together. 

        It might be easier if we were Buddhists, for whom meditation begins with the ringing of a bell. Once that bell rings, meditation has begun, and you are neither to move nor speak for an hour or longer.  If you have every done any meditation, and are elsewhere and hear a bell ring, it’s like your eyes close and your mind shuts down.  (Did you hear about the Buddhist who ordered a hot dog? “Make me one with everything.” When he asks for change, the hot dog man says, “Change – change comes from within.”)

        But as Christians, especially Protestant Christians, we don’t begin worship that simply, with the ringing of a bell – at least not that kind of bell – what do we do?  How do we enter God’s presence?

        Even before we enter the sanctuary, a factor shapes our worship that we may not be aware of; which is, greeting our fellowship worshippers; for here, we do not worship alone.

        Have you visited any new church buildings lately?  Did you notice how large the gathering hall (narthex) to the sanctuary is? (The architectural rule now, if I remember it right, is that the gathering hall should be one/third the size of the sanctuary.  What’s going on with that?

        Here’s what: In times past (in many of our memories), the people who worshipped together in most small town and neighborhood congregations saw each other all week, in stores, around town, around the neighborhood. So, come Sunday morning, they didn’t need much “catching up.”  As a result, what size narthex did most churches like ours have? Right: only slightly larger than a phone booth.

        But now, people who make up a congregation – especially a congregation like ours – barely know each other and rarely see each other. As a result, there is the social necessity of much more visiting before worship, and the building of large gathering halls to do it in. Or, as we usually find, well into the prelude during worship. That’s why the organist, who may have worked all week on his/her prelude, as well as many worshippers who remember much more silence at the beginning of church, want to know, “Who was that who talked through the Prelude?” And I won’t even go into the older generation’s absolute of “no food or drink in the sanctuary;” versus the newer generation, who not only want their coffee during worship, but a Starbuck’s in the lobby.

        As we cross the threshold into the sanctuary of the church, those of you who grew up Catholics may note that we Protestants have lost some things from our Catholic tradition. What’s the first thing you see when you enter a catholic church: holy water for crossing yourself.  Some Catholics genuflect before entering a pew, and never pass the altar without acknowledging the Presence.  About the closest we Protestants come is constantly reminding our children: “How many times have I told you, don’t run in the sanctuary.” 

        Once seated and in the sanctuary, there are basically two schools of thought, often breaking between generations, about what the mood at the beginning of a worship service ought to be. I think they might be characterized by two Biblical verses:  the first is, “Be still and know that I am God,” The second might be reflected in the Psalm we read today, Psalm 100: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord . . . Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into God’s presence with singing!” The first mood is more somber and reverential, the second more celebratory and joyful.

        Associated with these two opposite moods, which I’ll discuss more in a moment, were also two different styles of worship:  the first is most commonly referred to as more ordered or “traditional”, and the second as more free-form, or as most commonly referred to now, “contemporary.”

        In a traditional style of worship – which my guess is most of us grew up with, and still the most common form of worship throughout America – there was generally four elements: a prelude, usually played on a organ, during which everyone was supposed to be silent; some kind of invitation or call to worship, some kind of prayer or collect, usually followed by the singing of a single hymn, in varying order.

        Oh, yes, and the Announcements? Where do you put the Announcements?  I once went to a worship seminar where that was the one thing that stumped everybody: where do you put the Announcements? At the beginning, like we do? In the middle, which functions like an intermission or 7th inning stretch in a worship service?  Or at the end, running the risk of a huge anti-climax for whatever you’ve achieved in worship? Another possibility for churches with projection is to put them on a looping slideshow at the beginning of the service.  The only consensus at the worship seminar was that there is no perfect solution.

        I think you would agree with me that the traditional approach to entering God’s presence in worship – like all styles of worship — can be – on varying occasions – both good and bad. 

Organs, organ schools, and organ music (unfortunately) are upon hard times in America. Even though the king of the instruments, they are very expensive, difficult to play, and, let’s face it, not many people drive around in their cars listening to organ music (as opposed to me, whose first car out of seminary was a 1976 white Olds Cutlass, which my Senior Pastor used to call the “Bachmobile.”)

And, while we at it, if we hoping to get the non-religious back into church, why should we use language they don’t understand?  If you’ve been around church for awhile, you know what “prelude” means (literally, “before the reading”). Why not just say “Gathering Music”?  And the Psalter, what is that?  Is there a “Pepperer” too?

 At worst, the call to worship is sometimes perfunctory, the prayers bland, and the hymns either archaic and unsingable, or, perhaps worse, the greatest hits from another century. What irks me about the traditional approach to worship is that it is often so cerebral: rote reading of text, read prayers, hymns sung verse by verse and finished with. It’s orderly, alright, but also sometimes boring; reaching the head, but not so much the heart.  We all know too well: the entrance into God’s presence is never automatic, never formulaic: do this, do that, and there is God. Fact is, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes our spirits are so distant, so weighed down by the burdens of life, that we need something more to bring us into the presence of God.

Having said that, let me also say what’s good about a traditional approach to worship. At its best, the traditional form of worship can be classic; like traditional wedding vows, hard to improve on. It doesn’t take week-by-weed innovation or “top this” production.  Consider the Opening Prayer we used today, written by Thomas Cranmer for the Book of Common Prayer for the Anglican Church, first published in 1549. Could there be a better summary of what we wish God to do for us in worship?  And, after all, our entrance to worship is only the vestibule; not the house itself.  Its purpose is to move us into God’s presence, where the real encounter with God takes place.

        But such a form of worship is, in some ways, like fine wine, a cultivated taste, and by the 1960’s, there were some seismic shifts that began to take place, on two fronts.

        The first thing, less seismic but significant, was a wave of liturgical renewal, which affected both Catholic and Protestant churches.  It was a return to early and ancient forms of worship, and it became clear that the tone of those was more celebratory, and less somber and penitential. In the Catholic church, Vatican II (1962 – 1965) redid the Mass:  no longer was it in Latin, but the language of the people; no longer did the priest preside with his back to the congregation. In Protestant churches, worship (and Holy Communion) became more celebratory, less reverential and penitential.  So that even for churches that used a traditional form of worship, entering into God’s presence became joyful, rather than somber and penitential.

        But the second big change was seismic, and it practically occurred in our own back yard. In the sixties, the boomer generation dropped out of church.  Part of the problem was that the generation brought up on rock and roll could no longer take music without a beat, and found older forms of worship boring.

Enter Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek in Barrington, who decided to actually ask non-churched people what they would desire in worship, and on the basis of their answers, designed a new form of worship, which came to be known as contemporary.  Mostly it was a new generation who wanted worship to be more relevant, more exciting, more dramatic, more casual, louder, more spontaneous, and more fun.

Now of course free forms of worship had existed before, in evangelical and pentecostal circles, and the African-American church has always had a “call and response” worship form, reflective of their African roots, but those styles of worship never really spread out of those subgroups. And it wasn’t only Bill Hybels, it happened here and there throughout the country. Suddenly, even for small mainline congregations (two words usually synonymous), the religious landscape changed. 

Now, not only was worship celebratory, it was done with guitars and drums and worship choruses that went on forever, the moving of bodies and the waving of hands, previously unthinkable for most churches. Sanctuaries had no traditional symbols, but introduced into the sanctuary, as technology made it possible, screens and projections images. I tried to illustrate that today with the Chris Tomlin music video, as an example of how it is possible to enter God’s presence in a different way.

And everything changed. It started what some have called worship wars in congregations of all sizes throughout the country, which has been waging ever since. Because once people experienced the bright lights of modern worship, six verses out of the hymnal of “Just As I Am” on an out-of-tune piano are never going to be the same.

“Where am I on this?” you might ask?  Well, let me say that I believe how we enter God’s presence in worship – like so many other things in our life – is a matter of personality, background, and spirituality. Some of us are shy people, like Garrison Keillor’s Lutherans; we just do not hold hands or show emotion well in public.  The passing of the peace is a trial to us; not to mention the waving of hands. Others of us are extroverts, and yes, they love it. (Just keep away from me.)

And then there’s background. There is a theory that wherever you have your primary spiritual experience shapes your worship preference:  Pentecostals tend to become Anglicans, and Anglicans Pentecostals.  You’ve sat in a deadly boring service for years and one day you go to a charismatic or contemporary church, and thereafter, that’s the only way to do it, God’s way.  Or vice versa; Pentecostals burned out on emotions, who discover an Episcopal service to be the most ordered and beautiful service they’ve ever experienced.

Truth is, both can be done badly or well. I’ve been to traditional services – even Gregorian chant services – that have brought tears to my eyes. I’ve also been to some traditional services that were deadly boring from the Prelude onwards. I’ve been to contemporary services that had me on my feet clapping, and others in which I thought, it’s going to be a long service. In one church, I thought the Praise Band was bland, but the Youth band terrific.  And, in college I was a communications major, so I’ve wanted the use of communications technologies – like projection and movies – in worship, long before the technology was even available, or at least, before I could afford it.  Because you learn twice as much when you see, but only half as much when you only hear.

The truth is, no one size fits all, and we need a variety of approaches – all the tools available to us – to help move us beyond our sometimes mundane lives into God’s awesome presence. There are times when we need order and clarity; and other times when we need to blow order and clarity away with spontaneity and spirit.  That’s what happened at Pentecost.

So I’ve come to believe the best approach to worship, and how we enter God’s presence, is a blending of the two: tradition, but with technology; contemporary forms, but with ancient roots. I like the term others have used, worship which is “ancient/future.” But also, in our case, our worship also has to be “local/global”: celebrated in this place, yet reflecting the many places from which we have come.  ONLY white Northern European worship just won’t do.

I invite you to talk to me about this, and join with me and the Worship Team as we work together to find a way that works the best for us, that takes us into God’s presence, and prepares us to hear and respond to God’s Word. That will be my sermon next time.

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