Strength Training for Worship

imageWhat were you thinking about on the way to church last Sunday? Was it the songs you were going to sing? The topic of the sermon for that day? Were you even thinking about the service or were you busy listening to the radio, talking to the family or embroiled in an argument that started back at home? Don’t feel bad, you’re no different from the majority of modern day churchgoers. Going to worship on Sunday morning is a habit that practice as Christians but for most, we have lost the anticipation factor of the event. If God actually condescended to descend into the midst of our casual worship, most present would run in horror to the exits.

Worship is a part of our lives but it is not a priority in our lives.

“If the Lord is to be Lord, worship must have priority in our lives. The first commandment of Jesus is, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ (Mark 12:30) “ Foster. If worship becomes a priority, that is, our first love, we will be in a state of anticipation believing with all of our strength that God will make His presence known, felt, and real when we worship alone or with our community. Appearing before the altar unprepared will no more cross our mind than we would take the starting line of a marathon after sitting in our offices all winter.

To prepare ourselves for worship is to worship individually. We need to know the Shekinah in the our hearts. Start now. Stop reading and open your heart to God’s presence. Praise Him for this moment and the next breath and seek His presence. Don’t give up until it is real. God does not want half-hearted seekers. He wants His people to desire to know Him above all else. Make this a habit so that you know when the Lord is present. Build up the ability to wait for the Glory to descend on your waiting heart, whatever it takes.

If each member of the community worships on their own, the expectancy of God’s presence on the corporate gathering will grow in our hearts. We will seek to be with others who are prepared to know the Glory together, to have it multiplied by all of the hearts open and ready to receive it. The Glory will be manifest in the Church and Jesus can use it to draw others to himself. People will come from far and wide to see what the fuss is about.

Going to church is not the same going to worship. We can continue to go for social purposes, to hear a nice talk, and to go through the motions of watching as someone else sings some songs. Or we can move worship into a priority position in our lives and commit ourselves to a program of intentional worship, always wanting to know a greater and greater presence of His unmatchable Glory.

Grace and peace to you.

image Stephen Burch

You, Theologian

image I’ll move right to the conclusion. You and I, if we are followers of Christ, are called to be theologians. We, as Christians, have a tendency to assign this title only to a small sampling of our community, perhaps to pastors or scholars but this is wrong. To be a theologian has little to do with academic achievement or vocational calling. Rather, it has everything to do with processing all of our thoughts and actions through the filter of what we understand it to mean to be a Christian. To put this another way, our decision to speed a little on the way to work should be processed not only through the filter of civil law but through the notion of what it means to be a Christian who is disrespecting civil law and representing Christ as you do so. The witness you and I present to the world in the course of our daily lives reflects our understanding of the faith. We are not given the luxury to compartmentalize and separate life from life in Christ.

Theology is not some arcane art, to be grasped by a select few who have made the epic journey across the wild and unforgiving seas, fighting dragons as we go. Theology is the knowledge and understanding that you and I have of God. Theology is dual-faceted and it encompasses our doctrine and the resulting practice that comes from applying that doctrine. Doctrine can be generally defined as our beliefs about the nature of God and His actions, who we are as His created beings, and what He has done to restore our damaged relationship with Him. To the extent that we find our understanding in line with those of historic Christianity is the degree of our orthodoxy. The behaviors that result from this understanding are the external display to those around us of what our doctrine is. Orthopraxy defines our allegiance to our doctrine through the act of daily living. Say and do are not separated in theological reflection.

The tools of theological reflection are within the grasp of all Christians. We find our content in the sixty-six books of the Bible, the revealed word of God to and for His people. We bring to this content an assent to our personal biases and suppositions and are honest in admitting how they might tint our reflection. Finally, we bring our faith to bear on the whole of the endeavor. We believe in God who has revealed Himself to us in numerous and varied ways yet remains elusive. We have yet to be privileged to see Him face to face and so we trust. Here, we come full circle. Some have described theology as faith that is seeking understanding and this is is an excellent baseline definition. To understand what you believe and why you believe it and then apply this structure to your life, this is the task that you are called to Theologian. Godspeed.

 

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We’ve Had an Epiphany!

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The changing of liturgical colors from White to Green signals a change in the seasons in the Church, just as it will in a few months as the snow melts and spring makes its first appearance. Epiphany is a season of new hope and new growth enabled only by the light emanating from the Savior. We can mark the first day of the season by allowing this light to invade our being, revealing that which needs to come to the surface and filling the spaces with illumination that can only come from a personal epiphany. The divine manifestation is more than a historical event for us to mark, it is a complete shift in the relationship between heaven and earth.

Psalm 97 1-9
The LORD reigns, let the earth be glad;
let the distant shores rejoice.
Clouds and thick darkness surround him;
righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. 
Fire goes before him
and consumes his foes on every side. 
His lightning lights up the world;
the earth sees and trembles. 
The mountains melt like wax before the LORD,
before the Lord of all the earth. 
The heavens proclaim his righteousness,
and all the peoples see his glory. 
All who worship images are put to shame,
those who boast in idols—
worship him, all you gods! 
Zion hears and rejoices
and the villages of Judah are glad
because of your judgments, O LORD. 
For you, O LORD, are the Most High over all the earth;
you are exalted far above all gods. 

 

The celebration of Epiphany commemorates two events in the life of the Lord, the recognition by the Magi that the Lord had come and their subsequent worship (Mt 2:9-12) and Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan and the voice of the Father commending Him as His son. In both Christ manifest as humanity is revealed to a world desperately in need of salvation. As this season leads up to Lent and Easter, we shall focus our worship on the incarnation of God as man. Our Savior put aside his crown for our benefit though He would have been justified in allowing us to continue on in our own desires.

The perfect expression of love was manifest.

Vision Casting in Hindsight

DSCF4827EBW_MThe end of one year and the initial days of a new one often find churchgoers hearing a new vision for the church over the coming year. Some pastors will place the imprimatur of God on their statements, saying “God has directed us in this direction” while others will be less humble in their choice of pronouns, suggesting ‘I’ or ‘We’ view this direction as the way forward for the body. All well and good, whichever attribution is selected. Charisma or at least enthusiasm in the voice can deliver the message effectively.

As long as no one looks back.

If the pastor is delivering an annual vision for the upcoming year shouldn’t it be preceded by a review of the results of the previous vision. How did it turn out? Have we arrived at the destination you pointed us toward? What went wrong? If I am hiking through the forest on a trail that was previously mapped out for me and someone comes up to tell me he sees a new way to reach our destination, shouldn’t I ask how he arrived at my location? God is consistent. He has set things in motion and the story has remained the same as far back as we have kept track. Looking back to see where we’ve been should be the first action before a step is taken.

Vision casting is risky. Vision casting in the Church is riskier. To say that the Lord has given a new vision for this year or this pastor or this incarnation of His church should always be more than an impression. To say that He has forgotten the old vision in favor of the new should always cause us to stop and ask if we were faithful to the last one.

Fear of the Church Calendar

imageWhile many liturgical churches retain the celebration of the various seasons of the historical church calendar, it seems to have lost favor among much of the modern Church. Christmas and Easter are certainly recognized but the preceding weeks of Advent and Lent have fallen from the consciousness of churchgoers and worship leaders. When was the last time your church celebrated Pentecost? The loss of the calendar for our worship serves to ultimately weaken our worship and worse, it allows the events of the world to dictate our schedules.

The idea behind the calendar of church life comes from God in creation. In six days he marked each new aspect of creation and then rested on the seventh showing us the pattern for different times of life having their own purposes. In the Old Testament the Jewish year revolved around three feasts (Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles).

“Three times a year you are to celebrate a festival to me.- Exodus 23:14

Christians soon added Easter and the Christmas celebration to the calendar along with the seasons of piety (Lent and Advent) that preceded them. More milestones were added during the passing of year creating what are known as ‘seasons’ within the liturgy. These seasons served a specific purpose that is needed more than ever in our modern worship and that was/is to remind Christians over and over of the major events of God’s story. Be recognizing the period of the calendar in which we live and share life together we gain a greater sense of our place alongside all of the saints who have preceded us in history and those things we all share in common.

Birth of the Savior ~ Christmas

Rebirth and Second Coming of the Savior ~ Advent

Death of the Savior ~ Lent & Holy Week

Resurrection of the Savior ~ Easter

Coming of the Holy Spirit ~ Pentecost

Christians that recognize their own calendar separate themselves from the time keeping of the world. The calendar reminds us that God remains in charge of time and that everything occurs according to His schedule. When we recognize the seasons of worship that we pass through we begin to see and recognize the false idols of the world that attempt to infiltrate our lives for their own selfish purpose. No longer will we be susceptible to the Christmas decorations that begin to appear at the mall before All Saints Day in an attempt to purge our wallets of treasure. We will trust in God to bring the season as He deems appropriate.

Since the Reformation, there have been repeated movements to rid the Protestant church of anything that appears to Roman in its structure and the liturgy and calendar have been victims of these purges. Worship leaders and pastors especially should consider carefully what has risen to replace them in leading of God’s people. We have no reason to fear the calendar and every reason to restore it to its proper place within God’s Church. Pray on it…

[Originally published at Worship Craft]

A Word for My Brother & Sister Pastors

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Prophetical-Priestly Ministry by Darius Salter

It’s fascinating how things fall into your lap when you least expect them. Serendipity is the word often used to describe favorable circumstances like this when you discover something grand has come your way unexpectedly. Christian sagacity trends not towards luck though, but instead, toward an understanding of the work of the Father and Spirit in concert. Salter’s book landing in my hands was just such an event.

Prophetical-Priestly Ministry was published in 2002 to little fanfare. A quick search for reviews of the book comes up short; it is ignored on Amazon and the single entry at ChristianBook.com is a restatement of the title. The silence is understandable. The book is not about how to grow your church, new ways of reaching post-moderns, or new secrets of the life of Jesus. These books fly off the shelves into pastoral libraries. Books that serve as correctives such as this are often ignored. And I believe, ignored at the peril of the pastor and their church.

Salter’s message to pastors is simple: return to your core responsibilities. Speak the prophetic word of God into the lives of your congregation rather than feeding them messages about how to have their ‘best life now.’ Stand as the priest for God’s people rather than their cheerleader or worse, their manager. He says “Prophet-priests specialize in diseases of the soul; sin, despair, depression, loneliness, alienation, anger, hostility, pride, greed, avarice, addiction and fear. The list is almost endless. Of course, these sicknesses eventuate in the systemic evils of ethnocentricity, nationalism, exploitation, oppression, and racism.” The message in this thin volume calls us back to the service of the congregation and gets us away from parading around selling books or conducting seminars on how to fill more seats in the sanctuary.

The author critiques the current ‘worldly’ ministry that he sees all around the American landscape (in 2002 and worsening since). The Church has gotten entrapped in the self-fulfillment culture and, in some cases, has moved away her first love. God is a second thought in the worst of these environments. The ministry has become enablers. We promise spirituality while allowing our people to remain in their materialistic, pluralistic lifestyle. The gospel becomes a casualty of the latest charity initiative or small group study topic.

I didn’t go looking for this book. It appeared in a weekly-specials email and something moved me to purchase it. Initially, it arrived and made its way to the book shelves to be read later. I picked it up after a time and was immediately struck by the message that the Spirit brought to bear through Brother Salter’s words. I was stopped cold when the Spirit brought my feeble ministry efforts up against those of Francis Asbury,

For the elect’s sake, Asbury ceaselessly uttered the Word through Scripture reading, prayer, exhortation, teaching, and family worship. Every overnight stay would involve spiritual examination of the residents and subsequent catechism. There would be no idle words. “My mind was powerfully struck with a sense of the great duty of preaching in all companies, of always speaking boldly and freely for God as if in the pulpit.” This included calling “the family into the room and addressing this pointedly one by one concerning their souls.”

One by one; when was the last time you (or I) sat even our immediate families down and questioned them concerning their spiritual welfare? Have we gone home by home and addressed these concerns with our faith families? Why not? Because we have succumbed to the Western individuality of the culture and we respect the personal nature of a person’s faith more than we do the calling we have received to be a priest and prophet.

Brothers and sisters, now is the time for a new awakening within the Church. Not the watered down awakening of “spirituality” in its myriad forms but for us to stand upon the walls ahead of our flock, intervening for them with God and speaking His word into their lives not matter how difficult. Find this book, read it, absorb it, and let the Spirit work it all out in your ministry.

It’s the Little Things – Christian Hypocrisy

image You lifted your hands in praise, eyes closed as you sang from your heart, reveling in God’s presence. As prayer was led, your head bowed in reverence as I’m sure you poured everything out to the Father. Your voice could be heard affirming the pastor as he preached the message and you were among the first to the Lord’s Table to partake of the bread and wine. Everything about you told the surrounding body how devoutly you take your faith and I’m certain that you are regarded as a model Christian within the congregation.

But the damage had already been done.

Did you stop to think before you drove into the church parking lot against the one-way sign? Sure, there was probably going to be little outgoing traffic at the beginning of service and if there was you could just pull to the side but that’s not the point. The polished chrome fish on your tailgate marked your allegiance for all to see out on the road. All the people around you on the busy boulevard also watched your shiny fish break the law just to take a shortcut into the church parking lot. They saw the real you and saw a hypocrite.

Sadly, you also made all of us out to be hypocrites.

You see, we proclaim a relationship with Jesus Christ that goes beyond the church walls on Sunday morning. We claim that our lives are constantly being molded and modified by the Holy Spirit. We claim to live in submission to others, sometimes boldly saying that we have a better way of life that we would like to invite others to share. We claim all of that and even try to live it out.

Only to have it destroyed by one small moment where one of us demonstrates that we’re really no different from the rest of the world.

When one of us demonstrates this in the small things (like following the traffic laws) it reflects on the whole Church in the larger things.

 

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