My wife and I along with our oldest daughter and her family are looking for a church to attend/commit to. I have been a pastor for 43 years and consequently have never had to embark on this kind of journey until now. We moved from urban St Paul to the northern suburb of Arden Hills. And this meshes with Moundsview, Shoreview and New Brighton. So there are a fair number of churches to visit but now at the age of 70, and being denominationally unaffiliated, we have become more selective in our hopes. Our criteria have been the following:
*How corporate worship unfolds
*The expressed and evident value of community
*A reasonably clear missional engagement with the area
*reasonably substantial preaching and teaching
So as I write this all down it feels quite snobby on one hand. Wouldn’t it be better to pray and seek the Lord for the place he wishes to place us and then use our gifts and receive his people in that place at whatever level they have arrived? Or is it legitimate to rightly perceive the preferences we have come to over the years and look for a place that more closely “fits” those acquired preferences? Or can we simply be open to a combination of those two approaches?
However, yesterday I visited a new church plant in our new suburban area of the second tier of the St Paul suburbs. This one is called Pursuit Community Church and they meet in a community center. I had already met with the planting pastor (Mark Allen) previously for coffee. Good young guy. I like him. But today I just want to talk about my experience of Pursuit’s corporate worship and what I think is largely missing in most evangelical and charismatic corporate worship.
And let me add one more element to this critique. At yesterday’s service was a man, Abraham, and his mother Mary who come from the tradition of The Church of the Brethren. And here are a few of their distinctives:
*All singing is a capella
*The preaching or sharing of the Word is largely a community effort
*Because they are quite clear that every believer is inhabited by the Holy Spirit and consequently hearing the word of the Lord hopefully on a very regular basis, they make room explicitly for individual members to share what the Lord may have put on their heart. Two or three may share for 5-10 minutes before an elder speaks for 30-40 minutes on a prepared text. The others might be more spontaneous or thought through earlier in the week. The value of this is apparent-the whole congregation is “on call” for sharing the word of God and they are quite clear that they are part of a gifted body of believers that are to bring forth God’s word to God’s people. They are central to the Liturgy (Greek liturgia– the work of the people). And it derives very clearly from Paul’s exhortations to the Corinthians in chapter 14 of the first letter: “When you come together, you all have a lesson, a revelation, a tongue etc”). They were led to believe that every time they came together they could expect the presence of the Spirit who would use the whole body of gifted believers to minister to the whole body.
So after the service I talked through all these things with Abraham and Mary who deeply yearn for that biblical reality to be engaged once again. And I understand their desire.
In 1992 I planted a church in St Paul (Christ Community Church) and that was part of our liturgy. A good 15-20 minutes was separated for “Sharing” from the congregation. We tried to have a 90 minute service but more often it was closer to 2 hours. Sometimes a bit beyond. And I’m sure that the length eliminated a few folks. Maybe a lot! But our thinking was built on what we perceived as a dearth of spiritual impartation by the body to each other. And many complained and thought that could be better met by a system of small groups. In fact, one couple that visited thought our service was more like a big small group, which they meant largely as a critique, but we felt that the trade-offs were worth it.
Over the past 10 years I have talked to a worship leader in Brazil named Simon. And I would consider Simon the most skilled worship leader I have met in the world. The first time I watched and heard him lead worship was an amazing personal event. Simon is very small of stature and he took his guitar and turned his back to the congregation/audience and proceeded to lead us in music that was rich toward the Person of God and circumvented most of the “how I am feeling about God” lyrics that have dominated so much of modern evangelical worship.
Time for a brief caveat. Many of the psalms are certainly located on how David or the other psalmists felt about God and neither I nor Simon would say that any music like that is lacking. Some of it is for sure. Just as some hymns and choruses lack substance or scriptural validity. But it seems to me that a preponderance of modern evangelical music lands in that zone. And it appears to me that the focus of worship drifts toward how I feel about God rather than the explicit virtues and character of God that deserves my attention and dare I say, Worship.
I have increasingly had a good number of these conversations and it is easy for me to come off like a curmudgeon. And for sure, I have crossed that line more than a few times. There is a Latin saying that goes “De gustibus non disputande”–translated it means “as to matters of taste, there is no dispute”. In other words, if you like it then you like it. A few years ago I went to Napa and Sonoma valley with friends who had a well developed palate for wine. And as we traipsed from one vineyard to another for wine tastings, most of them swirled and sipped and found all kinds of “notes” (chocolate, oak, leather, berries, squash, sweet potatoes, and zucchini; yes, zucchini!!) And I do not doubt them. Mostly my response was that these tasted “good”. And arguably I have an undeveloped palate. And I do not disbelieve my friends. But almost every vintner said this:
”If you like it, you like it and vice versa.”
And though that works with wine, I would argue that worship music is subject to a higher criterion. And I would add that I am sure that real spiritual encounter occurs often with music that I would consider lacking in both theology and emotional balance. And of course sermons would be in the same arena. God has used poorly constructed and delivered sermons to convict God’s people and help them in their pursuit of Jesus. I have absolutely proven that little maxim!!
One more thought about sharing in worship services. If we do not provide a venue for the general sharing of the body in a worship service or small group, we run the risk of creating an elite that alone can speak the word of the Lord. And that is not to dismiss gifted preachers who should indeed be handling the bulk of preaching and teaching, but there must be a place for the larger body to bring their unique perspective into the mix of a worship service. And as I share these sentiments, I am also personally aware of pastors and friends who would consider these thoughts anathema. And there are decent reasons for so thinking. There are a lot of ways for this to go off the rails. But if there is sufficient teaching and healthy leadership during the worship service that can be minimized. We did this for 18 years at Christ Community Church with far more blessing than weird off- key expressions.