Reflections on how Christians help each other to grow and mature in loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbor as themselves.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

If It's Worship Then Stay in The Pulpit

     We received a good sermon this morning. The preacher did a good job and conveyed a message that challenged the congregation to live as though God mattered.
     However, half way through the sermon I had to close my eyes and listen. The preacher was moving around so much on the chancel that I was beginning to get dizzy. His constant movement from one side of the chancel to the other was distracting. It was too much of an effort for my brain to follow both his message and his body. I suspect that much of his movement was nerves.
     The pastor of our congregation also insists on preaching away from the pulpit. He does not move around as much as the young man who preached in his place this morning. He tends to stand beside the Lord’s Table and sometimes steps down from the chancel into the congregation. I find this practice to be more of a distraction than a help to conveying the message.
     My experience has caused me to reflect on the importance of the pulpit. I suspect that the compulsion to step out of the pulpit is driven by the confusion about worship and evangelism that exists in the church today. This confusion has been with us for many years.
     One of the consequences is that many church members now regard Sunday morning worship as a performance for them. They are the audience. The pastor, choir, choir director, organist/musicians, and liturgists are all the performers. The purpose of the performance is to make the audience feel good enough about themselves and their experience to return for more the following week. Many people come with the expectation that they will “get something” out of the worship experience that will inspire and sustain them through the coming week.
     It makes sense then that the preacher would feel compelled to step out of the pulpit and make himself or herself more visible to the people. When people go to a concert the performers never stand behind a lectern or pulpit. Also, the entertainers are the center of attention, they are the reason the audience has purchased their tickets. Consequently, when the preacher steps out from the pulpit he or she makes himself or herself the center of attention in worship. The audience is impressed because their preacher is preaching without the benefit of notes or manuscript. This gives the impression that the preacher is speaking directly from his or her heart, inspired by the Holy Spirit. We certainly hope this is the case.
     This state of affairs reveals a church that has seriously confused worship and evangelism. What I’ve just described is practices that would be perfectly appropriate for an evangelistic event. Such an event would be completely aimed at the audience. It’s purpose is to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ so that it is good news to those who hear it. If we think about the message of evangelism in grammatical terms, the subject of the event is the people who attend. Everything that happens in the event is planned and placed to tell them about God’s good new for them in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The only expectation of the people who attend is to be receivers of the message. We should not expect that they will sing hymns or praise songs, say a creed, or pray a prayer of confession, or come to the Lord’s table. We hope that one of the outcomes of such an event would be that some people would respond to the invitation to commit their lives to Jesus Christ and to accept him as their savior and Lord.
     If we apply the same grammatical illustration to worship, the subject of the sentence becomes God. Everything that happens in worship is directed toward God. The congregation is the “performer” and God is the audience. This is why liturgy that is well planned and lead helps the congregation to actively participate; to play their part in the worship of God. They participate through prayers of confession, praise, petition and thanksgiving, singing hymns, reciting a creed, and coming to the Lord’s table to be fed and sent out to serve and witness in the world. Worship is the work of believers who know God and who are seeking to grow in loving God and those whom God loves.
     Because the center of attention in worship is God, and God’s might acts of salvation in Jesus Christ, the Lord’s table should always be prominent at the center of the worship space. The pulpit and lectern are located on either side of the table. The lectern is where the Scriptures are read. The pulpit is where the Scriptures are interpreted and proclaimed. I’ve become convinced that preachers should preach from the church’s pulpit. This is so for at least three reasons:

  1. The pulpit keeps the preacher in her or his place. The preacher’s task is to help lead the congregation in worshipping God. He or she should not be the center of attention. When the preacher stands in the pulpit he or she is appropriately to the side. This prevents the temptation to walk or stand at the center of the chancel, in front of the Lord’s table which should always be the center of attention.

  2. The pulpit represents the preaching office of the church. It is not intended to be a barrier. Rather, it is a symbol of the power and importance of the word. Preachers need to claim the authority, power, and responsibility of their office as heralds of God’s word and good news for the world.

  3. The pulpit allows the preacher to use an outline, notes, or manuscript to guide her or his preaching. This will keep the message focused and minimize the tendency to wander and ramble and unnecessarily lengthen the sermon. Not only does the pulpit help to keep the preacher focused on the proclamation of the word, it also helps to keep the people focused on the word and not on the preacher. This is so because the pulpit minimizes the preacher’s movement and is less of a distraction. The word becomes more important than the preacher.

All of the best sermons I’ve heard were preached from a pulpit. When God is the subject of our worship, it makes sense to me that preachers should do all in their power to prevent from putting themselves at the center. When the event is evangelism and the subject is the audience and eliciting a response from them toward God then get rid of the pulpit, jump up and down and do what ever it takes to get that response.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

How Would Today's Christianity be Different If Women Had Been Given an Equal Seat At The Table?

Amy-Jill Levine is one of my favorite New Testament scholars. She’s written an excellent essay title “Stereotype vs. Scripture: How would today's Christianity be different if women had been given an equal seat at the table when Christianity was formulated?”. She does a beautiful job of illuminating the important roles women play throughout the whole of Scripture. Check it out at

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Let Worship be Worship and Evangelism be Evangelsim

     How do we distinguish between worship and evangelism? Marva Dawn provides a helpful analogy in her book A Royal “Waste” of Time The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World. She writes about how she would tell a group of people all about what a wonderful person her husband, Melvin, is. She would tell them that he is a gifted and compassionate elementary school teacher, a wonderful gardener, and a patient listener. She would tell that that she loves him very much and how her love for him and his love for her has changed her life; how the relationship she shares with him has transformed her life and fills her with joy and hope.

Such an interaction is very different from the conversation and time she spends with Melvin when she returns to their home. In those times Marva tells Melvin all about her day and listens to him as he tells her about his day. She is in awe of him. She shares her life’s stories with him and immerses herself in his life and his love. They also share times of loving silence. Marva simply enjoying being in the presence of her beloved.

The first example, of Marva telling others about her husband and her love for him, is an example of evangelism. This is the work of the whole people of God, sharing their experience of God as they have come to know him in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. Evangelism is primarily introducing Christ to people who do not know him in a way that he is good news to them and to their lives. This work is not unlike how Marva would introduce Melvin to a crowd who has never met him.

The second example, of Marva enjoying time and sharing herself with Melvin when they are together, is an example of the dynamic of worship. Worship is for the whole people of God, the baptized disciples, who know Christ and are seeking to live lives that are faithful reflections of his good news for the world and the coming reign of God. It is the people of God coming into God’s presence as a community to offer themselves completely to the service of God in praise, confession, word, prayer, and sacraments.

While evangelism and worship certainly overlap one another, neither should be overly burdened with the other. They each have their own integrity. The church would be much better off if we understood this and became faithful practitioners of both.

People who are not regularly fed on the word and table of Christ cannot be expected to live in the world as faithful evangelists. In like manner, seekers who respond to the good news will not receive the nurture they need if they are not formed by regular participation in worshipping God through word and table.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Worship is not Evangelism and Evangelism is Not Worship

     The “Wow Factor” in worship is a prime example of the current confusion between worship and evangelism. The contemporary “church growth” movement has managed to convince the church that the purpose of Sunday morning worship is to attract visitors and seekers. Using examples like Willow Creek Community Church we are encouraged to downplay liturgy, get rid of the hymnal, remove Christian symbols from the worship space, and employ multi-media techniques like PowerPoint and video clips to draw people in and keep them entertained so that they will want to become members. The focus of worship is shifted from God to the audience.
     I use the word audience here rather than congregation deliberately. When we become concerned about making sure that the Sunday morning gathering is filled with “Wow” moments we are then putting on a show for an audience. It is no longer the “work of the people” in the service and praise of God. The purpose of “Wow” is to connect with the wants and desires of individual members of an audience who come to consume a commodity. We want to leave them wanting more so that they’ll keep coming back for more. In this sense, Wow Worship is not even good evangelism. It is lacking in evangelical content because the focus is upon getting the right response out of the audience rather than proclamation of the good news of God in Jesus Christ. Faithful proclamation of this good news often brings about feelings of crisis and grief because people are awakened to their own sinfulness and need for forgiveness and healing. This is not the desired response of the Wow factor.
     Marva Dawn describes the confusion between worship and evangelism in her brilliant book A Royal “Waste” of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World

“Worship is the language of love and growth between believers and God; evangelism is the language of introduction between those who believe and those who don’t. To confuse the two and put on worship the burden of evangelism robs the people of God of their responsibility to care about the neighbor, defrauds the believers of transforming depth, and steals from God the profound praise of which he is worthy” (page 124).

She goes on to point out that the Sunday morning events held at Willow Creek are not intended to be the church’s worship. Rather, Sunday morning at Willow Creek is evangelistic outreach to seekers. Worship for those who have made the commitment to follow Christ in the world is held on Wednesday evenings. Unfortunately, however, far too many United Methodist congregations have attempted to imitate the Willow Creek (and other) model of Sunday morning evangelism. The problem is that the people of God are denied opportunity to truly worship God. In so doing, our efforts to make disciples of Jesus Christ are severely handicapped.
     It seems to me that we, as a denomination, need to do some major remedial teaching and learning about worship and evangelism. We need to stop confusing the two. When we can be clear about these two essential elements of our life together and our responsibility to the good news of God in Jesus Christ, we will be able then to do justice to both.