This morning we began looking at some ideas that could help renew evangelicalism, or at least the weekly worship service aspect of many evangelical churches. I want to continue this discussion, but first a couple more observations.
First of all, we must must must remember that the focus of the service is Jesus, not me. Not my “felt needs” (which is purely manipulative from a marketing standpoint). Not my purpose or destiny. Jesus. In many of the services I’ve attended Jesus is an afterthought, if a thought at all. From the call to worship to the benediction, Jesus must be front and center. If a church service does not focus on Jesus in every element, then it is simply there to entertain and amuse. I can think of a lot better uses of my time than to sit through another Christless church service.
Chaplain Mike asked in a comment to part one if perhaps the reason there is no longer very many liturgical elements in evangelical services is because of ignorance rather than a deliberate shunning. I agree that some are ignorant because they have grown up in evangelicalism and have never been exposed to liturgy. Yet there are many others who, upon their conversion, decide to leave the church they grew up in and attach themselves to the “happenin’ church” in their city. They are told they are now “free to worship in the Spirit” as opposed to “bound up by traditions of men.” (And I have heard this said many, many times.)
Dennis and Robin Bratcher write about the evangelical aversion to liturgy better than I can.
For many evangelicals there remains a visceral aversion to even the mention of the word “liturgy.” Many evangelicals, especially those who have grown up in more conservative or fundamentalist traditions, immediately associate “liturgy” with Roman Catholic, which evokes the religious prejudice that opposes “Catholic” to “Christian.” For many in those traditions, to do anything “Catholic,” which becomes a prejudicial label for anything different then how we do things, is the equivalent of abandoning Christianity.
And yet, as many of those same evangelicals mature in their Faith they are attracted to the aspects of worship that are lacking in their own traditional worship experiences. These include the elements of mystery in liturgical worship, the sacraments, the communal dimension of worship, the longing to move out of sectarianism and be part of the larger Church, the focus on Scripture and prayer, even things like incense and making the sign of the cross as a testimony to their own Faith.
As a result, many evangelical churches, even from very low-church traditions, are increasingly seeking to incorporate aspects of liturgical worship into their own worship. But this in itself has created somewhat of a dilemma, since many pastors and church leaders are not familiar with liturgical worship. There is some sense, beyond the bigotry, that they really do not want to become Catholic or Anglican. Yet, there are aspects of those traditions that are increasingly seen to have value in ministering to people in a contemporary culture and to fulfill the longing of many in evangelical churches for deeper worship. (Dennis Bratcher and Robin Stephenson-Bratcher, www.crivoice.org)
One last observation. Not all evangelical churches are alike. Not all are focused on me me me. There are many pastors who are actually pastors—shepherds—who want to lead their flocks to green pastures, and know that the path to get there includes much more than providing an entertainment experience on Sunday mornings unlike any other. There are evangelical churches that practice the elements I’m suggesting, and do them very well. But these churches typically fly under the radar. The majority of evangelical churches follow a model of entertainment and of meeting felt needs. They are driven by modern church growth techniques (read: marketing and manipulation) in order to pack in the most wallets per service as possible.
If evangelicalism is to be renewed, drastic change must occur. And the weekly worship service is as good a place to begin as any.
This morning we looked at the call to worship, the song service, and reciting the creeds. That brings us to …
The announcements. This is the time in the service when an amateur comedian gets up to practice his standup act by telling us things that are happening in the church in the coming week. Or when a member of the staff reads to us what we could read ourselves. I have known the announcement portion of the service to be longer than the sermon. Do any other denominations/movements within Christianity place such emphasis on announcements as do evangelicals? And can evangelicals no longer read? Why not print upcoming events in the bulletin and let those interested read it for themselves?
My suggestion: Do away with the announcements all together, unless somehow you can show me how they help me focus on Jesus. (Good luck with that one.)
And the announcements lead us straight in the collection of the offerings. In the Baptist church in which I was raised as a believer (I was born into a Presbyterian church where my father was an elder. Woody Harrelson and I were in the toddler class together. He was not nearly as funny then as he is now…), the pastor did not want to interrupt the service by passing plates to collect the offering. So he had two chests—called Joash Chests—constructed and one placed by each door. Tithes and offerings were dropped in there. He claimed that giving increased greatly after the church went from passing plates to the chests. A note was always in the bulletin explaining how the church received offerings, and what they were used for. Sometimes the pastor would make a brief mention of this just before his message. Very little time was spent on money.
I’m not sure this is the best way to receive offerings. In one way it’s a good alternative to the mini-sermons on how God will prosper you if you give to the church. But in another way, I would like to see giving as a true act of worship. Make this a fun time. God loves cheerful giving. But—once again, here is my refrain—keep the focus on Jesus. This is not about me and how my needs will be met and how God will open the windows of heaven and pour out on me. This is about making a joyful sacrifice of what I have earned and giving it gladly to the Lord. If there is going to be any entertainment in the service, this would be the place for it. A song by the band. A video about a recent missions trip. Only … keep the focus …
For a people who put so much emphasis on the Bible, don’t you think it odd that very few evangelical services incorporate Scripture reading? I don’t mean the verses peppered throughout the message (if even then). I mean a reading from the Old Testament and a reading from the New. It doesn’t even have to follow the lectionary. But a formal reading—even a responsive reading, if you like—from the Book of Books surely should not be out of place. So faith comes from hearing, that is, hearing the Good News about Christ. Yet many churches resist because, well, it is not spontaneous.
Which brings us to the main event. Ladies and gentlemen, if you will direct your attention to the center ring, it’s time for …
The sermon. In other expressions of the faith—Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Orthodox—this is no more important than any other part of the service. It is certainly shorter than any card-carrying evangelical preacher would deliver. In most evangelical services, everything else is simply leading up to the sermon. It is the sermon where the Gospel is presented (if at all). Thus the emphasis on “dynamic” preachers. This, of course, is translated into “entertaining” preachers. The evangelical sermon must be entertaining, if nothing else. We want to keep ’em coming back, after all. And if your message is not fun and easy to hear, the next ten churches down the way have their doors open.
Michael Spencer wrote about Christless preaching. Since he wrote that, I think the landscape has only become more littered with motivational speeches masquerading as sermons that build the faith. Here are things that need to be removed from messages if the evangelical service is to be renewed.
- Jokes. Come on, you are not that funny. Really, you’re not. And I didn’t come to be entertained. I came to see and hear Jesus. I’m not saying Christians shouldn’t laugh and tell jokes. But don’t try your standup routine on me from the pulpit. Please, don’t. And especially don’t read jokes that have been passed around in the internet since Al Gore invented the thing.
- Top Ten lists. See the above.
- Clips from movies or TV shows. I know I will get a lot of push-back on this one. Yes, I believe movies can illustrate the Gospel, often better than the sermon can. But if you cannot find words to use, then just show the whole movie and stay in your seat.
- YouTube videos. Please. I know you are paying good money for a “communication director” to be on your staff, and he is young and is enamored with all that is available on the internet, but is there anything on YouTube that I need to see during a worship service? The answer is no, there isn’t.
If you don’t take the message seriously, then why should I? Again, this doesn’t mean you can’t smile or perhaps make us laugh. Frederick Buechner says if we don’t see the Gospel as one big joke then we really don’t get it. I think Capon says something similar. But I want to see Jesus, not your creative genius at work. Show me Jesus in Scripture. Don’t try to answer all of my questions. Instead, help me ask the right questions. Then stand back and let the Holy Spirit answer them over time for me.
What should be in the sermon? Stories. Jesus spoke in parables. That seems like a good way to go to me. And Jesus didn’t use parables to teach life principles. He told stories to make people think. Then he left it up to them to figure out what he meant. I know—I used that word again. Think. How dare I?
Scripture. Did you know that studies show when Christians are reading a book and come to a passage of Scripture they more often than not skip over it? It’s true. It’s because we think we’ve read it and heard it already, so it’s not that important to read again. And others studies show the incredibly small percentage of those who call themselves “born again” (one of the definitions that go along with “evangelical”) who actually read their Bibles. I mean it is embarrassingly small. We need Scripture read to us over and over. We need it taught us by those who themselves have studied and wrestled with it.
Law and grace. Every time. The Gospel: Law and grace. Without law and grace, you are just flappin’ your lips. Christians need the Gospel preached to them constantly. Every week. Every sermon. Every time.
Hand-in-hand with the Gospel preached is the Gospel given in communion. “Communion” is how evangelicals refer to the Eucharist. I have no problem with the term “communion.” It implies an act done in community, as it should be. We need to erase every aspect of individualism that we can from our services, and here is an act that requires at least two: the one serving, and the one receiving.
The thing about Catholicism that attracts me the most is the daily mass. To think I could receive the body and blood of Jesus daily is amazing to me. I grew up in a Baptist church where it was served quarterly. When I went off to college, there was a Friday evening communion service that I loved. I loved having it available to me much more frequently. I need this constant reminder that I can do nothing for the forgiveness of my sins but receive what has been given. Yet so many evangelical churches offer communion once a month at best. I asked our pastor why we only receive communion once a month, and he said he thought that helped keep it special. “Do you only have sex with your wife once a month to keep that special?” I asked. Wouldn’t you hate to be my pastor?
Do we have to keep communion infrequent so we have some kind of special feelings when we partake? Think about your daily meals. Aren’t most of them simply routine—the cooking, the eating, the cleaning? Yet they are necessary whether or not they feel special. Why not offer the table of the Lord each week, even if off to the side following the conclusion of the service for those who want to receive?
And the conclusion of the service is the perfect place for a benediction. This is simply the pastor conferring a blessing of peace upon all present. There are several good ones in the Bible. Use those. No need to get super creative here. But confer a blessing rather than just say, “You’re dismissed.”
One last word. I’m not saying that every evangelical church should implement all of these changes this Sunday. Too many changes and you will chase everyone away. Try one, like a benediction, and see how that goes. Then try another. Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid to mix it up. Just don’t be afraid to try.