church

What Does a Church Do on Sunday Mornings?

When people think of church often the main image they have is attending a “worship service” on a Sunday morning. Now there is plenty to be said about how there is much more to church than Sunday morning, but it is also important to explain what exactly Sunday morning is all about. I’ve written elsewhere about the reality that we all worship, whether you claim to be a “religious” person or not, but this post is about the worship that happens on Sunday mornings. As the great worship teacher/leader, Robert Webber, says, “Worship is the rehearsal of the Christ event through which one’s experience with God is established, maintained, and repaired.”

“Worship is the rehearsal of the Christ event…” Every week worship is to clearly show what God has done for the world in Jesus Christ. This is why the Church gathers; because God has done something in Jesus. Historically the way that the Christ event is proclaimed is through the reading and preaching of the Word of God and celebrating the Table of the Lord. Everything before that is a preamble to the main event, and everything afterwards is the resolution to the main event.

The way our “experience with God is established, maintained, and repaired” is through our response to God’s action. At Cobblestone we do the following.

God Calls- Call to Worship, Opening Prayers, Confession of Sin
We Respond- Prayers and Confession of Sin.

God Speaks- Assurance of Forgiveness, Reading of Scripture, Preaching of the Word
We Respond- Giving of our tithes and offerings.

God Acts- Communion. “Jesus… wants not just to influence us, but to rescue us; not just to inform us, but to heal us; not just to give us something to think about, but to feed us, and to feed us with himself. That’s what this meal is all about.”  (N.T. Wright)
We Respond - We take Communion together and rejoice in song. Closing Prayer

God Sends- Benediction and Dismissal
We Respond- We go and serve.

Something really important to notice here is that worship is about what God has done and then our response to his work. As another pastor recently put it, “When people sometimes tell me they don’t get anything from worship, I am happy to answer, ‘That’s great! Because its not about you.’ Our culture needs a place — we need a place in our lives — to tell us that not everything is always about us, about our personal happiness, our convenience, our frantic timetables, or shrinking commitments.”

Why do we need this space where it isn’t about us and more importantly it is about God? My old pastor used to say, “true worship occurs when we set our affections on God. Our affections are not merely emotions, but our motives – the things that drive us and that we truly treasure. If we do not worship God, we worship other finite things. We set our hearts on relationships, careers, money, accomplishments, approval, comfort, control – deriving our meaning and sense of self-worth from them. When we worship God, we pull our affections off those things and set them on God.” We need our affections turned to God because when we worship those other things we realize that they don’t give us life; we realize instead that they lead to our spiritual death.

One of the ways that our church, and many other churches, have tried to ensure that our worship keeps its God-centered direction is to do a similar form of worship every week. While some are of the opinion that this may make worship rote for them, we must remember that worship is not about us; it is about what God has done and our response to his work. In the same way that a husband consistently tells his wife that he loves her, either as a meaningless routine or a life-giving habit, the choice is ours. We decide whether worship becomes rote or does not.

Doing Good Work or Just Work?

In 1995 the New York City Police Department made a significant shift in how it assessed its work, which was previously measured based on arrests made, reports taken, and cases closed. Isn’t that what police do? They make arrests, fill out reports, and close cases? Instead, the NYPD commissioner at the time, William Bratton, made a big shift in the department’s outlook, deciding that their success should be measured by lowering the crime rate of the city. He made this shift because he realized that while police do make arrests and close cases, that is not their purpose; their purpose is to serve and protect, and Bratton realized that the way to measure their purpose is to make their goal be to lower the crime rate, rather than number of arrests made. What Bratton saw is that arrests are an input that helps them reach their goal, but they are not the goal themselves. The church also has a similar challenge as the police. Many think a church is doing well if the pews are full and the budget is balanced, but is that what it means to be fulfilling the purpose of the church?

There is a consistent purpose for God’s people throughout Scripture. When Israel is saved from slavery in Egypt by God, He says to them that they are his treasured possession and that they are to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19). Peter echos this reality in his second letter in the New Testament when he says that the church is “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

The idea of priesthood is common in both testaments and is understood to be central to the purpose of God’s people. Unfortunately when I hear the word ‘priest’ I think of some of the abhorrent scandals of recent history. Rather, a priest is simply someone who brings the world to God and is to bring God to the world. To do this well the priest must know the world, must have their hands dirtied and bloodied by the world, to bring all of it before God in earnest prayer that, as we pray every Sunday, God’s will would be “done on earth as it is in heaven.” This prayer moves us to action to bring God to the world.

Our example in all of this is, of course, Jesus. Jesus is the one who continually ate with those who had it the hardest. He heard their stories, he participated in their lives, and at times he wept over cities because of the pain that he saw. He also healed those who were sick, pronounced forgiveness of sins to the outcast, and gave food to the hungry. When Jesus ascended into heaven he left on this earth a small community of followers. This community of followers were to carry on the work of Jesus by doing two things: regularly meeting together in worship, being nourished by the body and blood of Christ, and following the Spirit’s leading to do the work that is placed in front of them.

The leadership of Cobblestone has done our best to discern the leading of God’s spirit to understand the way in which we are to be priests in this part of the world. We have made the goal to do 10,000 hours of service to those who are not members in one calendar year. This is what we have to keep in mind when trying to determine our ‘success.’ We are not being successful when more people come to the church, or when our budget is better balanced (these things obviously help), but when we serve more people. The more we do that, the more we are fulfilling our purpose and not just doing work, but actually being the church.

Life After Easter

Easter Sundays are always really great. Everybody dresses up a little bit nicer. More people are in the pews, which makes the singing fill the whole sanctuary. Many have family in town and are eager to go home to a delicious Easter dinner.

 

As a minister it is also a tricky Sunday because you know that it is your one chance with some of those in attendance. I know that some of you who come on Easter will not come again until maybe Christmas Eve or the following year. With this being the case, I, along with many other pastors, always feel the need to talk about the historical truth of the resurrection. I said, as many others have, “Either the resurrection is true and it changes everything, or it is not true and none of this matters.” This is a true statement, but there is more to Easter and Christianity than that. As one writer put it, “The crowning evidence that Jesus was alive was not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.” I want to briefly look at the early church and how their lives gave evidence to the risen Lord and ponder what that means for us today.

 

“How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries” is the very long subtitle of a book authored by Rodney Stark. Stark wrote the book at a time when he would not have considered himself a Christian, though he does today. He wrote it as a sociologist using social sciences to show what the early church actually did that helped spread the movement.

 

One point that he highlights throughout the book is how Christianity grew because of its response to the chaos of living during the first three centuries. Some of the chaos is from two huge epidemics; one beginning in 165 A.D. and the other in 251 A.D. It is unclear about what exactly the diseases were, but they wiped out a third to a quarter of the entire population throughout the Roman empire. In response to these epidemics, Christians willingly helped those who were sick more often than their pagan neighbors. As a letter from bishop Dionysius dated around 260 says, “Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy;... Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.”

 

Stark points out that because Christians believe that “God loves humanity, Christians cannot please God unless they love one another. Indeed, as God demonstrates his love through sacrifice, humans must demonstrate their love through sacrifice on behalf of one another…and [this love is] extended to those beyond the bonds of family and tribe.”

 

This care and love had the great effect of helping people survive these plagues. Stark highlights that “modern medical experts believe that conscientious nursing without any medications could cut the mortality rate by two-thirds or even more.” Stark then does some hypothetical math and shows that a city would go from a ratio of about 1 Christian to 249 pagans before the plagues to a ratio of 1 to 4 after them.

 

Stark makes this grand statement about the good that Christians brought to their communities in those first few centuries, “To cities filled with the homeless and the impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity.”


The question for us is how will we respond to the chaos of living in the Capital District? How can we love sacrificially as God has loved us by giving up his Son for us?  Have we been more concerned with getting people ‘in here’ than caring for those outside of our walls?