Today we finish our series on moving together into the future as the United Methodist Church. We've looked at what won't help us, discussed the problems we're facing, de-bunked the idea of "saving" the Church, and now we look forward. Two weeks ago, we focused outward in mission. Last week, we focused inward on spiritual formation. This week, we focus "upward", so to speak: on God. First, let me begin by reminding us that God really isn't "up" in the sense that God is not always far above us, far removed from our lives. God is with us always, wherever we are, and in the person of the Holy Spirit, dwells within us. But I say we are focusing upward because in worship, we become aware of a transcendent Reality that is greater than ourselves.
There are lots of reasons to worship, but one that is important for the purpose of this discussion is that worship is usually the first environment in which new folks encounter our church. It's likely all that others will experience of who we are. Different churches do worship in different ways. And we have noted that using a particular worship style is not a silver bullet for our problems. So what are the traits that our worship services can embody that might help us as we open ourselves to the future? I propose three:
Excellent worship is invitational. Worship that is invitational easily welcomes folks who come in and draws them into the life of the church. Newcomers find a clear blueprint of the service and easy access to hymnals and Bibles to follow along (or a professionally done, well-executed PowerPoint) to lead them through the service. But being invitational doesn't just mean being user-friendly. Regular attenders are invited to become more committed in their spiritual lives and church involvement. And everyone who comes is drawn into the presence of God.
Another element of excellent worship is that it's done genuinely and from the heart. The service is not contrived and participants don't seem like they're putting on a show. The church represents itself as itself, and folks are genuinely friendly and welcoming. Members neither tackle newcomers with enthusiasm not put them on the spot or in a situation in which they feel scrutinized or pressured. At Harvard-Epworth, we ask those who are present for the first time to introduce themselves, but we do not require it, and we use language that makes it a low-pressure exercise.
One reason why I think this trait is so important as we move into the future is that members of my generation can smell fake a mile away, as this blogger illustrates well in her Letter the The Church From My Generation. We can tell when folks are putting on a show or trying to show us a certain persona in hopes we will accept them. Let me reassure you that people my age are not coming to church so we can judge you; actually, we're hoping you won't judge us! We're not looking for perfect. We're just looking for who you really are. When I discussed the Church's credibility problem, I noticed the differences between what the Church teaches and what its leaders do. Friends, you don't help matters if you act differently just to try to impress people! After all the trainings borrowed from mega-churches in which we are told do to this or that in order to attract people and get them to come back, this can be hard to believe. But seriously, be yourself.
The last attribute of excellent worship is the it is beautiful. Beauty naturally draws people into God's presence because it emulates God's perfect beauty. Beautiful worship is a small foretaste of the Divine on what would otherwise be an ordinary day. And it doesn't have to be a big production: beauty is often found in simplicity. Worship, when done well, can be beautiful regardless of the worship style used.
This guy makes a case that traditional churches should stick to traditional worship. His argument is that it takes a lot of resources and talent to do contemporary worship well, and half-baked, poorly executed attempts at it distract worshipers. Rather than transport worshipers into God's presence, services of any type that are not done well actually make folks so uncomfortable that they can't worship. I've been in many a service like this, and I have to say I agree. Think of how awkward it would be if a pastor of a laid-back, contemporary service attempted a traditional service without the gravitas and liturgical background to execute it well. Whatever the worship style used, it should be done well. Even if I go to a church that has a different worship style than what I prefer, if worship is done well, I can appreciate it.
Whether worship is casual or formal, traditional or contemporary, simple or ornate, it can be done well with a little forethought and attention to detail. Notice the deportment of those who are in front of the congregation. Do they stand up straight and move with purpose and intention? If they are reading something, are they using good vocal inflection and pace? Do the parts of worship flow together well, or do the transition moments seem disjointed? A little attention to how the parts of the service are introduced and carried out can make a lot of difference in the quality of a worship service.
Whatever the qualities of the service and faith community, worship can be excellent in any congregation. If it's invitational, genuine, and beautiful, your church's worship service will attract new folks. And it will help you to keep your own Christian life in perspective as you go out to do God's mission in the world.
So there you have it: how to save the UMC (well, not really). In case you haven't noticed, my prescription for fixing the Church is BEING the Church. As long as we do what we're here to do, and try our best to thoughtfully grapple with the issues of being the Church in this new society, we will survive. Better than that, we will survive- eventually. There may be a difficult road ahead of us, but we know that Christ is on that road with us every step of the way, and we are on this road together as a people of God. Church, it's gonna be OK.