Worship and evangelism is a broad subject. The entire service or worship of the people is the Church active in society, but I have chosen here to reflect upon our formal congregate worship.
Recently I listened to Murray Haar, who teaches religion at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He reminded me that Lutherans are grounded in a theology which, regardless of its diverse and lovely cultural and historical accompaniments, has at its core three unfailing truths:
- God reaches us because God is for us.
- Because of Jesus’ redemptive work, we are forgiven.
- We can act by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
These three are the main course, all else are side dishes, prepared to taste, made with love, using the wonderful ingredients of our own storehouses, informed by the God Spirit. This is my beginning hypothesis.
We live within different contexts. Within each are storehouses from which we pull our worship and sharing of God’s love for all. The appropriate tongue for our message is that understood by both stranger and friend among us. The appropriate formal proclamation is with ritual and music familiar to the people we need to reach. We are surrounded by hungry sheep. Our context informs the methods we use. The constant is that to reach these hungry sheep we need evangelism.
There is a huge mass of people needing the Word of God spoken relevantly. These people hunger for ritual as well. They try to satisfy this hunger with orders of consumerism and ritualistic entertainment as well as by a proliferation of forms of “god-knowledge” marketed by “spiritualists” and others of that ilk. We must offer them God’s better way. We need to be clear ourselves about what this better way is and is not.
The better way is the message of God’s love to all through Jesus’ redemptive work. It is not singing particular hymns, or moving in just-so-fashion, or speaking in any one tone or dialect. (I am amazed we still have sermonizers who use a different voice from the pulpit than in their everyday conversation.) The better way is to choose lives which serve God’s creation. It is not in setting one, two, or three of the worship book.
Written orders of worship direct us as smaller parts of a larger community of believers. While they are seen by some as ways to “do worship right,” they are more properly used to serve God as a means of feeding God’s people and reaching those who are seeking the presence of God in their lives.
As to whether the liturgical order of worship is detrimental to evangelism, I quote a former colleague: “We could worship in Greek, but if we love, people will come. Love is known in all languages.” For my colleague it is not our order that matters most, but the way the stranger is received. Equally important is whether the way to and of God is clearly stated, not only from the pulpit, but in our orders and rituals.
The simple truth is that the hour of time we normally allot for worship leaves us little time to waste. Since some of us have to be literally wrestled to the ground before we grow, we must, in that short time, allow for God to actively pursue us, surprise us, and even leave us as disjointed as Jacob.
A story from a parish I served: Gladys lived in a group home. This Gladys one Sunday came to worship just as the interim began his homily. Gladys sat in the front pew and began to accompany the sermon with “Amen!” and “Preach the Word, Preacher!” At the conclusion of the sermon Gladys stood to bear witness to God in her life. As she spoke ,the mood of the crowd went from tolerance to alarm. This was not how things were done in this church. Since I was the one who knew Gladys, the ushers asked me to get her out. We did our exit arm in arm, Gladys witnessing all the way.
In my office, Gladys spoke more. I was spellbound and deeply fed by God’s action in this woman’s life. Outside my office, worship concluded as prescribed. Days later I was congratulated for handling a difficult situation. I had saved worship.
For whom was Gladys sent? Some might say she was sent for my edification, but that would miss the vital connection that exists between people and their context. There were three group homes within walking distance of the church. Was there not a purpose for the members of the congregation that Gladys was the one who visited us? Was God not using her to disrupt things and to wrestle us all to the ground for a blessing?
Having learned a bit about sheep and shepherds in my undergraduate studies, I find the shepherd metaphor helpful. Our roles as worship leaders are clear. Unless we select and clear the pasture, sheep would eat thistle. Without wise and healthy direction a particular field becomes the sheep’s destination even if it has been eaten bare. It is also true that sheep do not readily receive strange sheep into their fold. A visitor like Gladys always gets shoved outside.
Another metaphor may make this clearer. We are called to feed the holy flame within the baptized. This flame directs and burns into all of us in ways we would not always predict or choose (“My ways are not your ways.”). Without a discerning openness to God’s creativity, specifically in formal worship, we miss these Gladys-opportunities more often than we can bear.
As leaders of worship we are to be open to the creative lead of the Holy Ghost as it comes in sermon preparation, in selecting the order of worship, and in preparing the music.
Have you ever been moved by that Spirit, but then just before the Sunday worship, you took out something too foolish or strange? Tell me, was it as strange and foolish as people preaching in diverse tongues and appearing drunk on the first Pentecost of the Church? There’s a story of evangelism and worship!
Spirit inspiration can come from the outside, beyond the control of the leader. This intervention is harder to discern, and by my limited experience, appears to happen when such is the only route left to God’s Spirit. Yet a love-based reception of such providence produces blessings for the entire community.
The Spirit’s inspiration comes in different ways in different contexts. This poses problems for those who cling to the goal of “doing it right.” They might look at things differently holy as exotic, quaint, alternative, or “not quite Lutheran.” Without a receptiveness to God’s creativity, we classify. We come dangerously close to nonsense when we compare ourselves to one another rather than to God’s standard, Christ (2 Corinthians 10:12).
May we never allow ourselves to be divided by our congregate worship of the one God! May we grow and prosper in God’s wisdom and light. May God’s sheep in our care grow fat from feasting upon the good things of God, that, even when shorn, they are seen to be sleek and well fed. May such be our record as shepherds and leaders.