The congregation I serve is facing a challenge these days, “How do we stock the choir with singers?” We still have plenty of folks in worship. (We average about 85 on a given Sunday if you add both services together.) Of course, in the days before Christmas and Easter, we jump up over 100. For our size of church in this day, we are still blessed with a fair number of folks in the pews. But the choir loft is another matter. And so, the elder in charge of our services has gotten a bit creative of late. She has asked people from the congregation to come forward for the anthem. The first time, it was all the mothers for Mother’s Day, and this past Sunday it was all people related to someone in the military for Memorial Day. Without taking anything away from choirs, which I truly believe stir the heart more frequently than the pastors do, the fascinating thing to me is that on those two Sunday, instead of the group’s singing being like a bandage, it felt incredibly authentic to me.
Beyond acts of personal or family worship, our first glimpses of communal worship in the Bible come from the Exodus.
The people built a Tabernacle to take with them. Tabernacle means “tent,” “place of dwelling,” or “sanctuary.” It is a word related to ‘tavern,’ a place to dwell. It was a sacred place where God chose to meet God’s people. It was the place where the leaders and people came together to worship and offer sacrifices. It was a mobile tent with portable furniture that the people traveled with and set up wherever they pitched camp.
“…make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8).
“Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God. They will know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them” (Exodus 29:45-46).
After God’s people established themselves in the Promised Land, King David first collected materials for a temple, and Solomon built it. And, I would argue that we’ve been building “temples” ever since. Modern Jews try to remember the tabernacle whenever they build a synagogue, but I would argue that just like the Jews do now, we tend to build permanent structures. We do not take the worship to where the people are. We build multiple public structures, all with slightly different nuances, and compete to get people in the doors. And in the past fifty years, we have seen worship participation declining across North America using this model.
In the late 20th century and in the first years of the 21st century, the push was made in worship to make Christian worship more “contemporary”: introducing modern music (a problematic and expensive step for smaller congregations) and visual instruction (also problematic for smaller congregations). Also, the idea of putting in seating more comfortable than pews came into vogue.
Yet, if we had millions of dollars, and could refurbish every sanctuary in America and put contemporary bands on retainer for each and every one, do we really think that would cause a religious revival in our nation? Is our real problem that we don’t have enough money, the right “band,” comfortable seating, or is it something else?
What if our whole concept of traveling to a house of worship, sitting for an hour, and primarily listening to other people sing and other people talk, and where sacrifice is usually just associated with giving a financial offering – is something that the average 21st century person has trouble connecting with “the Holy” (much less the “Holy of Holies,” to borrow a little of that Tabernacle terminology)? What if people need to have an experience that is a little more interactive today? What if people need to feel that they are worshiping in the presence of God more than they need to feel that they are coming to a presentation by others?
Friends, I am not specifically critiquing Parkway Presbyterian – far from it. I love our congregation. I find moments in our services to be powerful and our prayers heartfelt, and the mission we engage in changes lives. Our music program put on two superb programs this past Christmas and Easter, too. We have two worship services right now – one is a creative venture that focuses on prayer, communion, and the Gospel proclaimed by a lay leader. It also breaks the norm of worship services having to last an hour. (Where is that in the Bible?) We usually take about forty minutes for that one. Our traditional service taps into the rich roots of Presbyterian worship and follows an order that folks have been following since the days of the Reformation. The music is rich. The fellowship and friendships are genuine. Still, even with all of the above, I genuinely wonder if even our children will worship in these same ways in the years to come.
At Parkway, I am trying to start a dialogue on what worship might look like in the future, where we might try something new, and how we might make that happen. We live in a city where portable food trucks are not only a tradition, but they have expanded. We have public parks abounding, and we have coffee shops galore. As a local pastor pointed out, “People like getting together in our city.” How can we invite people into participatory worship that is more than getting more creative with responsive readings or setting up a PowerPoint?
If you are interested, I hope you’ll join in a dialog with us online. If I get enough responses to this post, I might create an online bulletin board or forum where we can discuss it. Or if you are local, come to Parkway this Sunday. After our traditional worship and fellowship, we are going to have a discussion on this topic and other worship topics (around noon).
God has called us to share the Good News in this time and place. How do we think we can do this most effectively?
Until next time,