Monday, October 1, 2007

Painful Worship

I have discovered why the mainline church is in decline. I have made a revolutionary discovery! I have uncovered the problem that, if solved, could reverse the drain upon local church attendance and return them to vitality and effective ministry. The problem is painful worship.

There was a time, even before I was a minister, that I had the philosophy that I didn’t “have to go to church,” I “got to go to church.” That worship was the most exciting and empowering part of my week. To gather with a body of believers who were radically devoted to following Jesus, who sang songs of praise with passion and intensity, who listened intently as the Word was preached with integrity and interest caused my heart to leap. I knew that my life would be challenged, my soul stirred and my eternal perspective restored allowing me to face another week as a disciple. I am afraid that those days are gone.

I have visited literally dozens of churches, mostly United Methodist and almost all mainline. In nearly every one of them worship is simply painful. Either the music is so bad that earplugs should be issued upon entrance or the people so distant and internally focused that it felt as though I was invisible or the preaching so disjointed and disconnected it could not possibly be called a sermon. My most recent experience was to hear a twenty minute (which felt like an eternity) lecture on being prepared for a disaster. That I should have six months of income in my savings account, gallons of water in my basement and lots of canned food on hand in case of emergency. I spent the entire message waiting for it to come back to the scriptural text or relate to living life as a faithful disciple but it didn’t. Richard Lischer of Duke Divinity School always said make sure you know how you are going to end your message, then you will always know where you are going. This preacher (dare I say he was preaching?) just abruptly stopped, no conclusion or challenge, just lurched to a homiletically disconnected ending about like slamming on brakes in the middle of the highway. It is a good thing too because I was just about to fall asleep.

So how do we overcome painful worship. I have a few suggestions that you can take with a grain of salt.

1) Do what you do well. This sounds obvious but at church we insist on doing things we do badly, over and over again. If your music isn’t strong, limit it. If you can’t do children’s messages, then don’t. We all have strengths and weaknesses. We spend way too much time trying to become average at our weaknesses when we should focus on becoming excellent at our strengths.

2) If you preach poorly, preach briefly. How do you know if you don’t preach well? Have somebody you trust will tell you the truth to evaluate you (not your spouse or your mom, they will lie!). We are not all great preachers and that is okay, we all have different pastoral gifts. If preaching is not your primary gift, find ways to make it bearable for your parishioners. Focus on the text, preach the Word clearly and succinctly. The Word will not return void!

3) Do not embarrass guests. I could not believe that the pastoral team wanted my wife and I to raise our hands so everybody would know who the first time guests were, as if they didn’t already. In this small church we had already been visited by both pastors, the president of the United Methodist Men, a representative from United Methodist women and four other random people. It was clear that we were outsiders. Then, from the pulpit during announcements, they wanted us to raise our hands. I am a church person and I don’t like being pointed out, can you imagine what it would feel like for somebody just test driving their faith to be singled out in a group and pointed to? Most people want to blend into a crowd the first time, not be given special attention. Acknowledge the with personal contact not impersonal pointing!

4) Watch the “Metho-speak.” My wife was raised Roman Catholic and still has trouble translating into Methodist language or “Metho-speak.” The bulletins at the churches we have visited were full of it. Women’s groups called “circles,” charge conferences and interior names for committee meetings. If you are going to print it, explain it. If you don’t need to print it, then don’t. Please do not fill up fifteen minutes with self-serving, internal announcements. Nothing turns an outsider off more than the feeling of being an outsider.

We are killing ourselves by unawareness. We are dying the death of oblivion. I do not think fixing these obvious problems will suddenly cause massive United Methodist revival, but I do think they will keep us from scaring away the people who want to learn more about us. Worship should not be painful! Worship is the time when we set aside time to gather with God’s people and enter into God’s presence. It should be a time of awe and inspiration, not aggravation and napping. God forgive me for all of the painful worship services that I may have planned without taking time to consider the eternal consequences that the service might have upon those in attendance. I remain:

Consumed by the Call,

Gracious God, who calls us to gather, give our praise, bring our sacrifice and worship you fully, grant that we who are given charge of your precious children may take seriously their care and devote ourselves to helping them encounter you faithfully and frequently in worship. In the name of the one we worship and adore, Jesus, I pray. Amen.

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