Worship Experience

What a wonderful event we had last Saturday.  Kim Miller brought us great information and inspiration around worship practices and presentation.  She shared with us some wonderfully creative and innovative worship designs for both the elements of worship and the physical space in which worship takes place.  And while she serves in a setting with significant resources, Kim’s presentation offered us ideas on doing meaningful things on what she calls a “mud-&-spit” budget.  It was a good day as we thought about how to create more opportunities for significant “God experiences” in the lives of people already in our congregations and those visiting on any given Sunday.

All of it got me thinking about the work I’ve done as a District Superintendent over almost five years now.  As most of you know, I worship in a different church almost every week.  And as I do that I have experienced some wonderful worship.  Worship that was rich with meaning, clearly thought out and designed, worship that enabled me to easily connect with God.  I have experienced as well, what I would describe as good worship.  Places where folks offered an opportunity to engage with God, perhaps with some fits and stops here and there, but a good flow overall.  Places where it took a bit more work to stay focused, but where there was clearly effort and energy put into offering to God — and the congregation — something worthy and helpful in the Sunday morning experience.  But friends, let me be brutally honest, I have also been in some worship services that were just plain sloppy.  Clearly little effort had been put into connecting the elements together to provide a cohesive whole.  Worship was choppy and full of inside language and activity.  Music was bad and no effort was made to improve it.  The worship experience was a settling for that which was easy and routine.  And again, to be brutally honest, it was painful.

Even in some of our smallest settings, with the least amount of resources, we can pay attention to the details that make worship flow.  We can move beyond ourselves and think about the kinds of things that would help visitors connect with God.  We can give real time and prayer and energy to what we do on Sunday morning (or perhaps another day of the week), so that when we gather for worship we give our best to God, and we provide the richest opportunity possible for folks to encounter God at a deep level.

Worship is critical to the life of the church.  It is the centerpiece of what we do in the midst of a week of work and ministry.  It is an act worthy of our best.  There are great resources to help us do it better, to learn about what works and doesn’t work in connecting people to God.  I want to challenge all of us especially as we approach this year’s celebration of Easter, a huge opportunity to help people connect with God, to offer our absolute best….and then to do it again the week after!

Peace,
Bill

P.S. A few copies of Kim Miller’s books are available for purchase and pick up from the GR District Office following last Saturday’s dynamic workshops (first come, first served). Redesigning Worship and Redesigning Churches are $15 each or the pair for $25, which is well below the publisher’s pricing! Please contact Liz in the GR District Office to reserve your copies today (616.459.4503 or grdistrict@wmcumc.org).

It IS possible to stay relevant amid today’s changing culture!

I read this morning that Sears has put out a statement saying that they have “substantial doubt” that its company’s doors will stay open.  Other retail giants that have been main stays all my life, anchor stores in mall across the country, have been closing stores in many locations.  They’re not doing anything like the business they did just a few decades ago.

I wonder what folks would have said fifty years ago, if someone had suggested that these giants would close?  I suspect there would be a chuckle at the idea.  Sears was founded by Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck in 1886 for heaven’s sake!  It’s been a retail center in cities and towns across America for 130 years.  It will always be here would have been the natural assumption.

But then came Amazon.com as well as lots of other .coms.  Then came Walmart and Meijer.  I looked at my own Amazon account and realized that I made my first purchase from them in 1999 when they were primarily a book company.  I had three orders that year.  Last year I had 66 orders for everything from Altoids to computer parts, and clothes to vitamins.

There are other factors, I’m sure, that have affected Sears and other companies.  But the fact is the world of buying and selling is changing like so many other things in our culture, and some of those institutions that we once thought would always be there, are simply going by the wayside.

And the analogy to the Church is not a hard one to make, is it?  The world has changed and it is changing for us too.  There are many shifts that we could name.  Worship itself is one of them.  From the day of the week we offer worship opportunities to the location where we offer them, things are by necessity changing.

By the way there is a BIG worship training event on our District this Saturday with Kim Miller in case you hadn’t heard!!

Click → HERE ← for details!

Giving in the church has changed too.  If your congregation doesn’t offer at least automatic withdrawal from a bank account, if not instant giving on a web site; if you are relying only on people writing checks or putting cash in the plate,  then you are missing a significant portion of potential givers.

These are just a couple areas where our world is different than it was in the past, and if we don’t pay attention and move with the shifts we may well find ourselves ─ someday soon ─ putting out our own press release indicating our “substantial doubt” related to our ability to keep the doors open. And more importantly to carry out the mission of sharing Christ’s love in a broken and hurting world.

Peace,
Bill

“Field Preaching” then and now!

“About this time some disputes took place in the Fetter-lane society as to lay preaching; and Mr. Charles Wesley, in the absence of his brother, declared warmly against it. While his brother was still at Bristol, he had also a painful interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who objected to the irregularity of his course, and hinted at proceeding to excommunication. This conversation was to him the occasion of great perplexity of mind, which being observed by Mr. Whitefield, he urged him to preach in the fields the following Sunday, and thus commit himself almost beyond the possibility of retreat. He followed this advice, and preached, on June 24th, to nearly a thousand persons in Moorfields. At Oxford, the Dean dealt severely with him in regard of field-preaching; but on his return to London, he resumed the practice in Moorfields, and on Kennington common; and many were aroused to a serious inquiry after religion. On one occasion it was calculated that ten thousand persons were assembled to hear him.”

I read this passage out of John Wesley’s journal’s this past week.  I had to smile because I sometimes believe that there are new things!  But this text reassured me that at least in terms of human relations in the context of the Church, there is very little new under heaven!

In case you are not aware of the issues Wesley is addressing, there was a brand new practice that Wesley and his friends were engaging in called “Field Preaching.”  Field Preaching was basically preaching outdoors.  Gathering a group of people in a place where people were and sharing with them the Good News of Jesus Christ.  As Wesley’s journal indicates identifying a gathering of a thousand people at Kennington common, who were “aroused to serious inquiry after religion,” Field Preaching was working.  It was reaching people in significant ways.  It was making a difference.

But there was significant pushback against it.  It was viewed by the religious elite as “vulgar.” It was not a “proper” expression.  Worship was to take place in a sanctuary with specific liturgy and written sermons.  Those in power even threatened to excommunicate Charles for his actions.

Wesley was perplexd at their resistance.  To him the church was being the church.  People were being reached with the gospel, lives were being changed.  How could anyone be against that?!

And most of us who look at it from our vantage point today side with Wesley and scoff at the religious elites too.

But friends as I go from church to church and we talk together about mission and vision for today’s world, as we look at how we might be the church that sparks revival in our day, I too, often hear similar responses to what Wesley received. It’s shared in lots of ways from worship style preferences to the use of the pastor’s time.  It shows up in the focus of energy and money inside as opposed to outside the current congregation.  The struggle is alive and well today.

So, there is nothing new under the sun!  But the same principles and values of outreach that created the Wesleyan revival in the 1700’s can create new revivals today.  May we always be those who look beyond protecting to investing, from us to them, from religion to Spirit!

Peace,
Bill

The Paradoxes and Ambiguities of Faith

During the Ash Wednesday service in Muskegon last week, Bishop Bard shared with the congregation some paradoxes of the Christian faith in his sermon entitled “A Liminal Lent.”  It was a rich sermon and I appreciated it greatly, and as all good sermons do, it has caused me to continue to think about it since.

There have been times in my life when I have struggled with paradox.  I understand that struggle is by definition a part of the nature of any paradox, but the bishop in his sermon invited us just to hold some of the Christian paradox’s we experience in tension and live with them, maybe even celebrate them.  I don’t always do that well.  Being the age I am I have lived most of my life within the context of “modern” thinking.  That is, this is right and that is not right.  Modern thinking is dualistic.  It is one or the other, either or, right or wrong.  And so I have struggled with paradox and situations that seem to invite a “both and” reality.  But I’m grateful for the ways that is beginning to change.

Much is being written today from a variety of corners of the church about non-dualistic thinking, the idea that things need not be either this or that but may very well be both…or even more than just the sum of the two!  Many are exploring how we might value the seeming tension of paradox or live into an understanding that few things really need to be as clearly delineated as we have made them out to be.  Engaging this perspective, while sometimes difficult for those of my certain age, is, at least for me, remarkably freeing.  For when we begin to let go of some of our dualism, our often-tight fisted definitions of what is or should be, it opens us up to a whole new world of possibilities.  God begins to be removed from the small confining boxes into which we have placed God.  There is a new breadth and depth to theology.  Bible Study and life itself begins to abound with new prospective.  We move from being guardians of truth to a joy filled journey of exploration led by God’s Spirit into places of learning and discovery.  We become much more comfortable with paradox and ambiguity, and we live much more comfortably in the tension of that which we don’t know rather than in the old warm blanket that having everything all figured out once provided.

I’m not suggesting all this is what the bishop was saying last Wednesday!  But like I said, good sermons always put you to thinking and praying, contemplating and celebrating and that’s what I’ve been doing.

I don’t know where you are as we enter this second week of the Lenten season, but I invite you to allow the Spirit of God to blow through your life in these days.  I invite you to become more and more comfortable with the paradoxes and ambiguities of faith and trust that God who loves you and me and everyone – with an incredible love – will hold us safe even as we allow ourselves to navigate all the new currents the Spirit moves us upon.

Peace,
Bill

Lent is a time for sorting

I have been cleaning out files on my computer.  It is amazing to me how fast files and folders — designed to make life more efficient — can become unruly!  I’m certain I had a plan when I set up a given file structure.  I had a purpose and an understanding of how that structure would work and benefit me moving forward.  But somewhere along the line I forgot what I had done, and I started a new folder with a different file system in another place that made sense in that moment!  Consequently, as I’m working my way through the cleanup process this morning, I’m discovering that there are four locations of folders that should be in one place, and sometimes multiple copies of the files in each of those areas!

I think I’m getting a handle on it and I’ll probably have a much cleaner structure soon ─ at least for a while!

As I’m doing this work, I’m also thinking about the worship service tonight that begins the season of Lent.  Through the years I have engaged a number of different practices during the Lenten season.  Sometime I have removed things from my life to allow a deeper focus on God.  Other times I’ve added things with the goal of enabling a richer connection during these weeks.  Lent is a time for sorting. It is a time for evaluating where we are, and what in our lives has gotten perhaps a bit unruly and needs cleaning up.  It may be that as we take stock, we will discover that we need to become more involved.  Maybe we will find that our level of commitment to our faith and path of discipleship needs to be enhanced by activity.  Maybe we’ll discover that our life is filled with too many activities, even at church, and what we need to do is create some space for God to speak.

Whatever it is that you sense God calling you to this Lenten season, I pray that you will choose to follow and discover the richness and renewal God longs to give.  May God bless all of us as we give ourselves to this year’s Lenten journey.

Peace,
Bill

Representing Jesus through acts of love and kindness

“Through this campaign, we hope to send a united message from the Jewish and Muslim communities that there is no place for this type of hate, desecration, and violence in America.” “We pray that this restores a sense of security and peace to the Jewish-American community who have undoubtedly been shaken by this event.”

Tarek El-Messidi, who created the campaign with fellow activist, Lindo Sarsour, said when he saw the news about the vandalism at Chesed Shel Emeth Society cemetery in the St. Louis suburb of University City, he was reminded of a story about the prophet Muhammad, who stood when a Jewish funeral procession passed. When asked why, he said, “Is it not a human soul?” (Read the entire article HERE)

What you have just read are two paragraphs from a story about a group of Muslim’s who are raising money to care for Jewish head stones damaged by vandals in a St Louis cemetery.  I read this story last night and it brought a deep sense of warmth to my soul!  I hope it does the same for you!!

In contrast to groups like ACT for America an organization that believes “regardless of whether it’s al-Qaeda, or CAIR (Council for Islamic Relations, an organization that promotes Muslim civil rights), or the Islamic State, they just have different methodology for the destruction of Western civilization,” we see these people reaching across this divide to offer love to people hurting and in need.

It is this kind of human activity that will help us move forward in these days of polarization.  And we who represent Jesus, must be on the forefront of this kind of activity.  We must be the ones who stand with all people for the benefit of humanity.  We must be the ones who stand against the lies of fear and bring them into the light.  We must be the ones who live in such a way that glimpses of the Kingdom of God show up on a regular basis.  Like Lindo and Tarek who are working to care for damaged and broken head-stones in a Jewish cemetery, let us surprise the world around us with love.

Peace,
Bill

Heavenly Worship

We were watching the 80’s movie “A Field Of Dreams” the other night.  If you know the movie you may recall the first time shoeless Joe Jackson comes to the field built for him and his “Black Socks” buddies, he asks if the field is heaven?  Ray responds, “No, this is Iowa.”

Now I must confess I have not been to Iowa.  I have flown over it lots of times, but I don’t think I have ever been there on the ground.  I know several people from Iowa including our former Bishop, Bishop Kiesey.  Now I don’t know if Bishop Kiesey considers Iowa heaven or not.  I suspect her sights are a little higher.  But I love the idea that heaven is for one person a great gift, for another even a hint of heaven, may be just ordinary and routine perhaps even, in some cases, distasteful.  All of us have stuff like this, on both ends of the spectrum.  I have friends who call the Upper Peninsula “God’s country.”  I have been there four times and I laughingly tell people, that was three times too many!”

These things happen in all kinds of ways and venues.  Some people like the out of doors, some enjoy the view from the hotel balcony.  Some find images of heaven in travel and meeting all sorts of people from all sorts of places and others bask in the warmth of home all their lives.

The same thing happens in the church.  Everyone has their idea of what ideal worship is like.  I see it all the time.  People tell me all the time what church should be like.  They share what constitutes the perfect worship experience, they share with me their vision of just what the perfect church is according to their wants and desires.  And too often like all these other things I mentioned just about the time they share their vision of what “heavenly” worship is all about another person scowls and proclaims something very different as their supreme image.  Sorting through those differences and trying to address the needs of every person is impossible.  That’s why we have a variety of worship styles and a variety of churches.  And it’s also the source of far too many battles over the “right” way to do and be the church and worship God.

Ultimately though the worship that is actually “heavenly” worship is spelled out pretty clearly in Scripture.  “Those that worship God must worship in Spirit and in Truth.”  You see it has nothing to do with style or content or anything else except our hearts offered faithful to God.  May that always be our “heavenly” worship.

Peace,
Bill

I Believe in Miracles

I gave up about four minutes into the third quarter.  Why not?  The Patriots were down by 25 points and no team, in the fifty-one-year history of the Super Bowl, had ever come back from more than a 10-point deficit.  In my mind it was over and I didn’t care to watch my team go down to their inevitable defeat over the next hour and a half.

So, I went upstairs and settled into the show my wife was watching in our bedroom.  Thankfully, I turned on my laptop after about hour later. Because when I did I discovered that while I had given up, the Patriots hadn’t!  There were two minutes left in the game, the Patriots had the ball and they were just 8 points down.  I rushed downstairs to turn the game back on!  And I watched as Brady led them down the field, and after a pass interference penalty took the ball to the one yard line.  White scored on the next play with fifty some seconds to go.  But they needed a two point conversion to tie.  No problem, with three receivers lined up to the right Brady threw back to the left and Danny Amendola caught the ball and broke the plane of the goal line for the tie.  After winning the coin toss for the overtime period the Patriots, once again methodically went down the field and won the game on another two-yard run from White.  It was far and away the greatest comeback win in football history and it won’t be topped soon if ever … and I almost missed it!

There are probably a hundred, maybe a thousand applications to what I just shared with you.  There are stories of congregations that were down to seven people in worship that came back and became thriving centers of ministry again because of a decision that was made, or a leader who had new vision.  There are stories of people with significant illness where all seemed lost, and then inexplicably a new treatment is introduced ─ as a last-ditch effort ─ prayer is offered and the illness responds to treatment and health is restored.  There are stories of individuals whose lives are a mess.  They have burned every bridge and their families are well beyond tough love efforts to help them.  And one day they show up at the door cleaned up and whole.  There are a hundred exceptions to the regular story and this Sunday’s game brings us to the remembrance again that just because it has never happened doesn’t mean it can’t.

The caution of course is that most of the time it doesn’t.  A miracle is a miracle because it is not the norm.  So most of the time when teams are down by 25 points in the big game they lose…usually by 35!  Most of the time when churches have dropped down to an unsustainable place in worship attendance, they close.  Most of the time when the doctor tells us we have a terminal illness, we die.  And my faith is such that it does not insist on God performing miracles in order to be God.  I am so grateful for the ways that God works in the midst of the normal course of events unfolding.  I am so grateful that God is a God who leads us through the trials, the deaths, the losses with grace and love, and the ability to move through the most painful experiences of life not so much around them.  I believe in miracles, I have seen miracles, but I don’t require God to act in miraculous ways for me to be a person of faith.  My faith is in the presence of God and the grace of God, the incarnation of God into every circumstance, AND in resurrection, the reality of God’s love that wins no matter what!

I’m glad I didn’t miss the end of the game Sunday.  I’m happy I got to see that amazing comeback and win for my team.  I celebrate those extraordinary moments in life when miracles occur, but more than that, more than any of that, I am so thankful that God is consistently love and forever grace in every moment and experience of life.

Peace,
Bill

Trusting in God’s Goodness at 4:00 A. M.

I wake up almost every morning between 4:00 and 4:30. I wish I could say I did that with purpose.  I wish I could say I did this to exercise or to spend specific hours for various devotional practices.  But, that’s not the case.  I usually wake up with my mind racing.  I wake up with my mind running from one place to another.  And while on some mornings productive things do occur during that process, too often, if I’m honest, I spin my wheels.  It’s not that I don’t pray when I wake up with my work before me, I do.  The problem is, I believe I’m awake because I am not trusting as I need to.  What I mean by that is, I believe if I were trusting God as I ought to, I would sleep beyond 4:00am!  Instead many a morning as I glance over at the red glow telling me I’m awake early again, I chastise myself for my lack of faith.

I don’t know if I’m alone in this place, and if so, just ignore my post this week!  But my guess is, I’m not.  My guess is, too many of us ─ as clergy and as laity alike ─ have points in our life when we wake up early in the morning with concerns running through our minds.  And we struggle with letting go and trusting that God knows our needs, is concerned about our needs and will lead us forward through our needs, all the way to the end.

Pray for me and I will pray for you that together we might grow in our trust, that we might rest, let me say that again…that we might rest in the Lord and trust in God’s goodness.

I’m not suggesting that there are not many important things which ought to draw our attention.  I’m not suggesting that we ought to take lightly the responsibilities and struggles of our lives, and the lives of those around us.  I am suggesting that God has promised to guide us and be with us in the midst of whatever important stuff is happening in our lives.  In stressful times, it’s far too easy to forget that God is with us and to trust in that goodness.  I know it far too well…at 4:00 in the morning.

Peace,
Bill

Finding God’s Blessings in Life’s Good Times and Bad

I was thinking about blessings today.  I was thinking about it in terms of the weather.  For while it’s been grey and somewhat dreary this January, every day that I don’t have to drive on snow I count as a gift this time of year, and I celebrate it as one more day closer to summer!

Now I don’t know what blessings you might be experiencing these days.  I don’t know where the places are in your life where you are finding joy and hope and new life, but I hope those things are present for you.

And as I was reflecting again today on the many gifts present in my life, I was also recalling how sometimes I have heard folks approach gifts and blessings with some level of hesitation.  Instead of giving thanks and enjoying the positive elements of life and receiving them as a gift, there is this apprehension that, as some put it, “they are waiting for the other shoe to drop.”  There is this understanding that if things in our lives get going too well, “look out,” there’s trouble around the corner!

I’m not suggesting that life doesn’t have its troubles of course it does.  There are tragic things that come into our lives, there are heartbreaks and griefs that are real and cause us significant pain at times.  But friends there is something wrong with a theology that expects trouble whenever things are going well.  There is something wrong with a theology that struggles to receive and bask in blessing because of the dread of what bad thing is coming down the pike.  There is something wrong with a theology that lives in fear.

Again, I am not suggesting that life is a bed of roses, that there won’t be days when we have to drive in the snow, but for goodness sake, God is good!  God’s blessings are new every morning and even when those troubling days arrive, the blessing of God’s presence is always there.  So, give thanks this week with joy, with celebration, with an overflowing heart for all that God has done and is doing, and don’t fear what’s behind the next door.

Peace,
Bill