Archive for the ‘Worship’ Category

Decline In Number of Americans Belonging To a Religious Congregation

April 5, 2021

The Gallop organization has conducted a survey of Americans for more than 60 years on the topic of belonging to a religious congregation. For most of the 60 years not surprising to most of the world’s observers, the percentage hovered around 70%.

This year, 47% of Americans say they belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque.

Having been in church leadership at times, I’ve heard many excuses. And many plans for church growth. There exist doctorate degrees with an emphasis in church growth. I know of one such graduate who grew a congregation from 650 to 250. MBAs and economists talk of negative growth rather than decline. I guess that sounds better.

Most blame cultural influences.

I’d suggest that church leaders seriously ask and answer the question, “What have we done to turn people off?”

One of the accepted spiritual disciplines is meeting with others.

But most of us just want to associate with welcoming people. Not divisive ones. Where meeting is more than attending a “rock concert and a TED talk”. Where, perhaps, we can have a cup of coffee or tea with others and share what living in the kingdom of heaven has meant this past week.

Two metrics seem to matter. And as we say in manufacturing, what gets measured gets managed. The metrics are attendance and money.

There is no metric for the status of people’s hearts. And that is what matters to Jesus.

In the pandemic, most of us are not meeting with many people. As we begin to ease out of the isolation, perhaps we look for small gatherings of seekers and learners and worry less about rock music, smoke machines, flashing lights, and a rocking sermon.

Spiritual Practice of Worship

February 12, 2019

Worship appears on the list of spiritual disciplines discussed by Richard J. Foster and Dallas Willard–my mentors in spiritual formation.

I seldom discuss this practice. Maybe because I grew up in a liturgical church. I suppose the liturgy was the worship. My wife grew up in an evangelical church. For her worship was singing hymns and having prayers and listening to the choir. Then the preacher used 40 minutes or more of the 60 minutes to exhort the people to come forward and be saved.

I don’t have national statistics for the US, but in my area which could realistically be labeled Bible Belt it would be a rare weekend for more than 25% of the people to go somewhere to worship.

Worship is tied to church membership in most minds and many GenX and Millennials shy away from all the negative images of church membership. In many ways I don’t blame them. I’ve lived the good and the bad. Sort of like an old child’s story, “When it’s good it’s very, very good; and when it’s bad it’s horrid.”

Psalm 95 refers to worship as joyful. Something that should warm our hearts as we acknowledge the existence of the creator God.

The psalm also warns us to beware of a hardened heart.

That brings me around to the core of the Gospel–it’s about the status of our hearts.

For Christmas, Jesus, I’d Like Your Presence

December 21, 2015

“Jesus, I want your presence for Christmas.”

That sentence appeared somewhere last week. I love plays on words. They often drive ideas home. Several books of the Bible are full of these word plays–especially Psalms and Proverbs. Sometimes I think Paul sneaked one or two in his writings.

Presence–Presents.

There are people who, as children, received few presents. Then they went to school and saw what some of the other kids got. Cue jealousy, greed leading to a life of self-absorption, narcissism, and/or greed. Even into late adulthood, they still crave presents.

Even as Christians, as self-professed followers of the guy whose birth we celebrate. They can’t help it. This most likely was not a decision. So many things we get blamed for by the Pharisees who still live amongst us are not really decisions. Just reactions reinforced by family or peer group becoming habits of self-thought.

Others of us learned from those “poor” beginnings that all the gifts really had little meaning. Open the present, check out the (most likely cheap) toy, play for a while, then it’s over.

What remains is experience. All the family gathered. Special church worship. People especially cheerful, wishing peace for everyone.

Me, I seek the presence. As a contemplative, I’ve had experiences. They are deep and meaningful. On the other hand, some of the best experiences of presence have come in service. Sometime just a helping hand. Or picking up a dinner check for some stranger spontaneously. Or working with orphans in international ministries. It can be in the same house or half-way around the world.

We celebrated the 4th Sunday of Advent in a church that celebrates diversity. In just about every way. What a welcoming group of people. The presence was felt.

I only wish that we could spread that presence of the one whose birth we celebrate.

Could I be more witness and less preacher? Seek and share the presence of Jesus.

Don’t Argue About Opinions

September 22, 2015

I’m traveling this week. Saturday and Sunday I was running along the Atlantic Ocean surf in South Carolina. Tomorrow I’ll be running in hot and dry northern California. From vacation to a software conference. 

We worshipped Sunday at a church whose denomination is one whose organizational rules I don’t agree with. We won’t go into details here. Doesn’t matter.

But the pastor presented a great teaching on 1 Kings 16-17. This is the story of Elijah. First he is instructed to leave the danger of the city and seek refuge by a brook away from cities. God fed him daily by using ravens to bring him food. He could drink from the brook.

When the brook dried up, Elijah called out to the Lord. The answer was to walk about 100 miles through dangerous territory to a city where a widow would feed him.

This was all training in reliance on God. The training came in handy shortly.

As an aside, I bet we all could use this trraining. Or, maybe we get this training and don’t realize it. How often does God present us with a teaching that we don’t get, so then he presents it again?

So, there is this denomination with which I disagree with its organizing principles. But…this pastor taught the Lord’s message faithfully and eloquently.

I have worshipped in many Christian churches. A few flavors of Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian (a few flavors there, too), Catholic. Even a couple of house churches.

Funny thing. They all taught Jesus death and resurrection. They taught the fundamentals of the faith. Sometimes the delivery was less than eloquent.

When Paul taught us in Romans 12 and 14 about love and not quarreling, I think he had in mind that I should be happy worshipping wherever. Even if I don’t like some doctrine they have or their organization. I should not worry about that. I definitely should not go in and quarrel with them.

When we worship and teach the basics of the faith, what else do we need.

We do not need to waste time arguing about opinions. We need to teach, learn, worship God.

Of God and Country

May 25, 2015

Today is Memorial Day in the United States. My great-grandmother always called it Decoration Day–a day to visit the graves of deceased family and place flowers. “Decorate” so to speak.

This confused me as a child because it was generally called Memorial Day–a day set aside to remember and honor veterans of the US military, especially those who died in war or conflict.

I grew up and still live in Middle America. The Midwest. It’s a place where, for at least 150 years, people blend God and country. A visitor, from say England or Zambia or wherever, to one of many church services would walk away confused if the people were worshipping God or worshipping their country.

It’s a complex range of emotions. And I know that that is not unique to Americans.

It’s interesting to watch the Wolf Hall series on PBS. It’s the story of England’s King Henry VIII and Cromwell, his “fixer.” The theme reflects the movement of political power, already begun in small ways, from “Rome”, meaning the Pope, to the country. You’ll hear Cromwell occasionally mention are you for England or for Rome. It bacame national.

I’m a disciple in that regard of Roger Williams who first proposed separation of church and state. That idea became a part of the US Constitution. I think that was because many of the Founders did not like the idea of the state collecting taxes from everyone that are spent in support of just one, state-sanctioned, church. They wanted the state out of the church business. I rather like that idea.
So, people like me have two buckets, if you will. There is worship of the one true God and loyalty to the country where I live. Today is where we exhibit the latter.
Or, we watch the Indianapolis 500 or CocaCola 600 auto races. Or, like me and thousands more who go to soccer tournaments. Or see it as a weekend for family gatherings and cookouts.

Whatever. I’ll not be critical. Except for the politicians who sent us into wars of pride and arrogance rather than the wars that truly protected the country. And remember those who died and those still suffering residue from those wars along with their predecessors veterans of the just wars. 

God bless them all.

The Glory of God Shone Brightly

December 23, 2014

Remember when Moses saw the glory of God? His face shone so brightly reflecting that glory that the Hebrews could not stand to see it. So they asked that Moses hide his face behind a veil.

The Glory of God was said to inhabit the Ark for years. At some point, evidently, the glory sort of faded away.

Solomon built a Temple so that the Glory of God could “rest”, that is inhabit, with the people. It was said that God’s Glory filled the Temple.

If there is one overarching theme to the Old Testament, it is that the people of God draw close to God and then abandon Him. This theme recurs often continuing over centuries.

Then with the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians and the second major exile of the Jewish people, God’s Glory was withdrawn from the land. Even with the building of the second Temple, there is no talk of God coming to dwell in it. This temple was not built with God’s blessing and instruction.

The conclusion of that cycle of glory and disengagement ended when God decided to “build” His own Temple. He revealed His glory, not through a stone building, but through a human being–Jesus of Nazareth.

Paul even calls our own bodies temples of God’s Spirit. That was, and is, a pretty radical statement. No wonder the Jews at the time beat him and stoned him.

Even so, we celebrate the return of the Glory of God to Earth at this time of the year. We participated in a wonderful celebration of the Advent Sunday with music, story, sharing.

Merry Christmas.

Paul Wants Unity Among Christians First

October 20, 2014

“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” Galatians 5

For some reason I’ll not understand, I woke up this morning thinking about this play on words–we Americans, we might live in the “United States”, but we’re not very united on much of anything.

In my study of Paul, I’ve been reading about how much Paul wanted his small groups he called ekklesia to be united in spirit. He wrote so much about that. About the hands and feet not battling each other, or the eyes and ears not trying to dominate each other in the body of Jesus.

Now he was writing to groups of maybe 10-15. They weren’t going to gather 500 in a house. Besides, if they did, the Romans would have pounced immediately.

But even these groups were in danger of splitting. A new person would come to town. Charismatic, with new ideas. Called Paul “out of it.”

People would gather for a holy meal in a somewhat small room (at least by contemporary American standards), yet would have all manner of problems–the wealthy wanting to go first, separating into smaller sub-groups according to wealth or status of one sort or another.

I remember talking with a woman about church many years ago. “Oh, I could never go to your church. The people are too wealth. They’d never accept me.”

But even more–instead of gathering to worship and praise God and care for one another, we criticize and gossip and break into groups. Leaders stop leading caring for other things. Or just their own status.

We think it’s freedom to go our own way. Do our own thing as we said in the late 60s never thinking about how that would go on to corrupt our society.

Freedom, Paul says, is the ability to serve others. Don’t use freedom for self-indulgence. Use it to bring others into the group. To care for those in the group. To worship God with prayer and song and teaching.

Our Body as a Temple

February 18, 2014

I grew up in a German community in rural west central Ohio. Although by my mom’s generation, speaking the language was beginning to die out. My mom was from a “mixed” marriage–a German-speaking Alsatian and a woman of Welsh heritage. I don’t believe she ever spoke German.

But, I heard German spoken around town as a kid. We picked up words. But the words had no emotional impact. I learned later, much to my embarrassment during my first trip to Germany, that some of the words had great emotional impact. Sort of like dropping the “F-bomb” in church.

From that lesson, I learned that while reading the Bible or other works in translation I should try to be aware of the emotional impact of words on the first readers even when the emotional impact in me is slight.

John places the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple early in his Gospel. John transitions from a story about keeping the Temple–an emotion-laden word–pure to talking about the Temple as Jesus’ body.

Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, takes this concept (realizing he probably never read the Gospel of John, but he no doubt knew John and talked with him) further and talked about our bodies as the Temple of the Holy Spirit.

Paul talked about what goes into and what comes out of our bodies. He talked about the proper use of our bodies.

I’m like most of the people in America, I suppose. I keep saying I need to lose 10 lbs. But really what I wind up doing is maintaining my 175 plus or minus 5. I really should be 165 for my 5’10” frame.

So, while saying one thing, I’ll watch some sporting event on TV on Sunday afternoon and eat a bag of potato chips. Or order the big meal on a business trip. And convince myself I’m tired and cut my workout short.

There are others who do much worse. Sex with the wrong people. Greatly overeating. Drugs. Too much wine.

It is good to make the link back from our obsession with looks to Paul’s analogy of the Temple to John’s use of the word relative to Jesus’ body to Temple as the place to worship God. Our bodies are where we actually house the Spirit and worship God. Let’s keep it clean.

Experience God or Believe in God

January 14, 2014

Belief? Or experience?

I was brought up to believe in God. This word, belief, has long puzzled me. It means something like having confidence that something is true or something exists even though there is no empirical evidence that it is, indeed, true.

Faith also seems to me to be similar to belief.

I struggle with these words. They seem lacking. Not descriptive enough. What do you mean that you don’t know that God exists?

Do you ever wonder about this? Or wonder if God is real?

There is a group or community of people who have ecstatic experiences of the Spirit. We call them pentacostal or maybe other terms. I am not one, quite, but I know many. This is experiential worship. But many people are just not the right personality type for ecstatic worship.

I could say that I believe that people can experience God. But that sounds like a contradiction.

So, I’ve thought about all this for many years.

Then about 30 years ago, when I discovered that people really exist (as a science/engineering personality type, I was lost in a world of ideas for most of my early life), I started reading psychology. A lot. Freud. James, John Climacus. Jung.

Finally, an observation that seemed to fit my thinking as well as my experiences. Carl Jung, toward the end of his life of deep exploration of the psyche, was asked if he believed in God. “Believe?” he answered, “no, I don’t believe. I know.”

Pondering visionary experiences of God while contemplating John’s Revelation, brought back memories of my experiences. Yes, I know. God’s beyond belief. God is real.

Modern psychologists or English professors or the like would say that I am merely delusional. But they say that because they do not know! It’s not belief. I know God is with me.

Make Rules or Make Disciples

September 23, 2013

Division like fractals

Mandelbrot fractal image. From Wikipedia.org

We took a vacation last week. My wife’s family gathering. We worshiped in a church of a different denomination than the one we attend. It’s a southern-based, conservative off-shoot of another denomination.

Reminded me of the years I taught a course on American Baptist history. How there was Roger Williams, then Northern Baptists (now American Baptists) and Southern Baptists. And then they split like fractals.

Sometimes these divisions are based on worship style. Some like the solemnity and mystery of high Mass. Others prefer jeans and T-shirts, guitars and drums, hands waving in the air celebration. As for me, I like almost any of the styles.

Most of the divisions are created by rules. We created organizations called churches or denominations. They had to have rules. Then someone said, “I don’t like your rules. I want to make up my own rules.” And off they went. We still do that today.

It is as if Jesus said, “All power in heaven and earth has been granted to me. Go, therefore, and make organizations with individual rule sets around the world so that you can worship God with those with whom you agree.”

But, wait, Jesus didn’t say that. He never spoke about organizations other than to point out the problems with the one religious organization he knew–the Temple worship cult. And he didn’t like it.

What he said was, “Go…and make disciples. Teaching them what I have taught you.” Making disciples–that’s a one-to-one thing. Not a political thing. You model Jesus so that others can model Jesus by modeling you. It’ not rocket science. But, it requires intentional living.

And the organization thing–that’s a human condition. How many divisions of Judaism are there? Islam? Buddhism? Hinduism?

It’s time to focus on the Lord who showed the way. Not on divisions. Divisions detract us from placing our entire attention on God.