Andy Langford, Pastor, Concord Central United Methodist Church, Concord, NC
One thing needed for church renewal is worship that transforms the lives of the people who gather in every congregation. Worships stands at the heart of a renewed congregation. No other ministry, no other activity, and no other focus is more important.
I have been formed by the liturgical theology of John Wesley. In his sermon, “The Means of Grace,” Wesley defined worship this way: “By ‘means of grace’ I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby God might convey to all people, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.” In his writings, Wesley included among the means of grace the Word of God, prayer, the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, fasts, and Christian fellowship that included music. All of these activities communicate the whole grace of God that most Christians experience at least weekly in congregational worship. All of these means of grace have the divine potential to change the lives of every woman, man, and child present.
Unfortunately, too many pastors have adopted a perspective that worship is first and foremost about God. We use the images from Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and others about God being the audience and the people of God being actors on the stage offering a performance that pleases God. I fundamentally disagree. In the Wesleyan/Arminian tradition, worship first and foremost offers everyone the grace of God for the transformation of human lives and renovation of the world.
Too many pastors and worship leaders agonize over whether their worship is historically accurate, theologically sound, and faithful to established prayer books, all of which are valuable perspectives. Often, however, the principal audience consists of the pastors and musicians. Yet, if the gathered congregation leaves worship – having heard the Word of God read and preached, prayed, sang, and celebrated the sacraments – and are still the same people, the worship leaders have failed.
Persons come to worship hungry to be in communion with one another and God. Spiritual seekers yearn to catch a glimpse of a different vision of reality. God’s children are thirsty to experience the preventing, convicting, justifying, and sanctifying grace of God that changes who they are. If we send them home hungry, visionless, and thirsty, worship leaders have missed the opportunity to serve God’s people and our God.
How can we shape our worship to offer the full riches of God’s grace to persons? A few ideas may spark the interest of worship leaders.
When pastors choose, or are chosen by, the Word of God to read and preach, they should prepare the Word read and spoken with the needs of their specific congregations in mind. They should then let that Word determine every other act of worship. When they read the Bible, they should do so with conviction and power and let the living Word speak. They should choose hymns, prayers, and acts of worship that respond to that Word. When they preach, they should specifically address real and immediate needs of the congregation through the lens of the Word. Before they compose their sermons, they should write out a specific list names of people in their congregations who need to hear that Word. If the list is blank, they should start the sermon anew.
When they pray, pastors should ask the same question: who in their congregations needs this prayer this day? The answer “everyone” is never sufficient. Let the prayers be clear, specific, and be a Word of God for the people of God.
When pastors choose music for worship, they should ask whether the music is for the transformation of the singers and hearers? Do the words match the Word? Does the music match the tone of the Word? When we sing, we pray twice. Make sure the music touches the soul.
When pastors share at the Holy Table, they should do so in ways that communicate by word, action, and sign, the holy mystery that brings the living Christ present in the congregation. How the presiding officer stands, speaks, and uses his or her body often communicates more than the words that he or she utters. How people receive the holy elements can be either mechanical or a true call to grace. Choreograph the sacraments in such a way that everyone participates.
In summary, pastors should let the worship in their congregations offer the full riches of the grace of God. Do not waste your time or that of your congregation by throwing together a hodge-podge of acts that do not have content or direction. And when your “worship works,” the whole congregation will be brought into the presence of God, the holy dance of salvation experienced, and the Church renewed.
This site is a resource for church renewal offered by United Theological Seminary.