The church I attended as a child and teenager was (and is) firmly rooted in the tradition of 20th century revivalism. Every part of the Sunday morning worship service pointed to one event-- The altar call. The majority of hymns centered around giving (or re-giving) our lives to Jesus. Sermons were about conversion and rededication. If someone missed church for whatever reason, the questions they asked about the service inevitably centered around a version of "Did anyone 'walk the aisle'?" (Other variations of this question were "How many decisions were made," "Who 'went forward' this morning," or "Did anyone get saved?") The first church I was a part of after graduating from high school was influenced by the neo-charismatic tradition. The "altar call" was also the central aspect of the worship services at this church, but it took on a different significance than conversion or the making-of-a-decision. For one, although there was a specific time dedicated to "coming forward," we certainly weren't limited by that portion of the service to come forward-- we could do it anytime. (The really spiritual and "broken" people (which was considered a good thing) actually came forward at the most unorthodox times.) But mostly, the difference was this: Going to the altar was less about making a decision and more about allowing the Holy Spirit to do "work in your heart." (To be fair, the revivalist services of my childhood also allowed for the Holy Spirit, but the main point was "the decision.") In fact, every part of the service was about the Spirit's effect on our lives and, more specifically, on the moment we were in. The questions asked of these services was "Did God do anything big today," or "Did the Spirit move?"
Other churches I have been a part of have focused more on the mind. Cognitive acquisition of facts about the Bible was of primary importance. To be sure, the goal was to make a decision, and the Holy Spirit was an influence on what was happening, but folks usually left these services saying "I learned so much today!" The songs were highly doctrinal and the sermons came complete with a fill-in-the-blank outline. Sunday Worship was God's School. The idea was that if we just got all our facts straight, and responded to God based on these orthodox beliefs we had acquired, then "true worship" had occurred.
And then there were the churches and ministries affected by the "Passion Movement." Infused with the theology of John Piper, worship services became all about God's Glory. The idea is that corporate worship, like real-life discipleship, is solely about self-decrease and God-increase. Phrases like "God's fame and renown" and "my unworthiness" were the operative buzzwords of song and sermon. There were decisions made, the Holy Spirit moved, and information was disseminated, but each of these were in service to the elevation of God and de-elevation of ourselves. "Was God glorified?" became the question de jour about these worship services.
These all represent very important streams of Christian thought and are essential elements to the life of any worshipping community, along with many traditions that I have not mentioned. But there is a fatal flaw in each of these manifestations of Christian Worship: There is too much expectation wrapped into every Sunday morning for something to happen. We create mental checklists of success and require a "C" average, at worst. If we fail one or two Sundays at checking off the required boxes, that is ok, we'll work harder the next week to make everything come out ok. If on the third or fourth Sunday we don't have any salvations or the Holy Spirit doesn't "fall" or the sermon doesn't "resonate with us," then we start to sense something is wrong. By the fifth Sunday a meeting is held of the church leadership to see what needs to be done.
All of this perpetuates (and is perpetuated by) a very nearsighted view of Christian community that sees the life of Corporate Worship as nothing more than a series of disconnected events, productions really, that need to be "successful."
This has also created a multiplicity of churches designed solely to resonate with a particular demographic of people, beliefs or leanings. Churches now are formed (in the Bible Belt, anyway) based on what "resonates" with a group that does not find resonance elsewhere. If you want to go to a church that has numerous weekly conversions and baptisms, I've go the church for you. Looking for a church where the Holy Spirit moves? I've know the perfect place for you to be. Want doctrine, missions, artistic worship, God's fame? Go here, here, here or here.
(Don't think I have missed the irony of me, a pastor at UNIVERSITY Baptist Church, writing such things.)
I think the difficulty here is one of perspective. Namely, a perspective of time. This is especially poignant in a college town like ours where every fall we ask students to visit around a few churches, "give them a look," and decide which is the "right place" for you. As if you could possibly discern the heart of a church in a couple of visits.
This places incredible burden on churches to "put on a good show" for new people. (And old ones as well.)
In the role I play in leading our worship services at UBC, my hope is that something is created that is not a show meant to get decisions, feelings, knowledge-acquisition, etc. (though these are all important.) My hope is that we, as a worshipping community, can repeat the Words of Life so often that slowly, over time, we start to believe them. And eventually, with much grace, that we begin to live them.
"This is the Word of the Lord-- Thanks be to God!"
"Christ has died, Christ is Risen, and Christ will come again!"
"As we approach this week, may we love God, embrace beauty, and live life to the fullest."
The reality is that worship never simply happens in a service, it happens in a life. And, more specifically, it happens over a lifetime. And even more specifically, it happens over all the lifetimes of individuals that make up a community of faith. As we speak and sing the words that matter, we become a worshipping community.
Wendell Berry tells a story about an old bucket hanging on a fencerow of the property his family has lived on for generations. On one of his daily walks he noticed something peculiar happening-- soil was being created in the bottom of the bucket. Leaves had fallen in the bucket, as had snow and rain. Birds had left their droppings and squirrels had hidden nuts. The moisture from the rain has rotted the materials in the bucket. These processes have happened and repeated themselves for decades, producing a thick, life giving layer of fresh soil at the bottom of the bucket. Berry says...
However small a landmark the old bucket is, it is not trivial. It is one of the signs by which I know my country and myself. And to me it is irresistibly suggestive in the way it collects leaves and other woodland sheddings as they fall through time. It collects stories too as they fall through time. It is irresistibly metaphorical. It is doing in a passive way what a human community must do actively and thoughtfully. A human community too must collect leaves and stories, and turn them into an account. It must build soil, and build that memory of itself—in lore and story and song—which will be its culture.
This accumulation is what happens in Corporate Worship. On most Sundays something small lands in our bucket. But not always-- There are extended periods of drought and inactivity. Occasionally a significant collection of raw materials finds its way into the bucket and on rare occasions, (maybe a handful of times in a decade?,) manna from heaven falls and it is undeniable that something important has happened. All of these collected materials are important, but none are more important than the lifetime of accumulation that they have brought about.
So when someone asks a question like "What can I expect to experience when I attend one of your worship services," I am inclined to reply-- I'm not sure. Ask me at the end of my life, and I might have a somewhat decent answer for you. In the meantime, why don't you come worship with us. Stick around for a few decades and after singing, hearing and reciting together that ancient, magnificent story in the midst births and deaths, periods of conflict and moments of peace, days of joy and nights of grief, maybe then we will have a reply for each other.
But until then, let us sing...