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Worship: Party or Funeral? Let's do Funeral

       "It's Sunday morning," I happily announce to my wife, "What will it be today?  You want to go to a funeral or to a party?"
       "What do you think?"
       "Right.  Funeral it is then."

       Not a real surprise to admit that's not the conversation Linda and I had last Sunday.  But, even if it was, who'd want to go with us?  Who'd rather go to a funeral instead of a party?  We live in a party culture.  The more parties, the better.  And, as far as funerals go, the last time I checked they weren't really setting new attendance records.
       Parties are all about having a good time.  We gauge whether or not it was a good party based on whether we enjoyed it (or, if we were throwing the party, based on how everyone who came seemed to enjoy it).  In fact, the reason we go to parties is to have a good time.  Parties are for people who want to be happy.
       That's one reason we don't care much for depressed people showing up at parties - unless they're  good actors.  Happy people getting with other happy people to get even happier.  At many parties today these happy times are even happier when Jack Daniels and Mary Jane show up.
       What's as bad as depressed people is people showing up who are just too serious.  They can pretty much ruin a good party.  Nobody wants to go over the latest Federal Reserve Bank predictions.
       "Okay, people.  Listen up.  Let's talk about how the collapse of the Euro is going to bring about disastrous worldwide economic depression.  Now, give me a show of hands: how many of you have considered putting at least 25% of your portfolio into gold?"
       "Man.  Are we having a good time or what!?"
       The correct answer would be "what."
       No depressed people.  No morbidly serious conversations.  Don't mention cancer or death and, for goodness sake, don't talk about religion.  Church jokes are okay.  But steer away from atonement or death and the questions surrounding eternal judgment.  That would be like pulling the emergency stop lever.  You'll hear the place go from a cacophony of chatter and chuckles to the chirping of a single cricket in an instant.   Keep the tears and sobs and philosophical musings for when you're back home, if you don't mind.  Parties are where people go to have a good time.  No laugh-ee. No party.  Got it?
       Funerals.  Now there's a different animal.  I go to parties to have a good time.  I go to funerals because I  belong to a family or have close friends I care about.  Parties are about fitting in.  Funerals demonstrate we already belong.  Parties are about wanting to be happy.  Funerals are about wanting to show love.
       Then there's the matter of conversations.  At parties, telling jokes, teasing, and amusing facts will make you the center of attention.  Want to be a winner at your next party? Get a good book of jokes.  At funerals, telling family stories, both funny and serious, will draw people around you.  Want to make an impact at a funeral? Bring family pictures.
       Funerals are not all sad.  You already know that.  You've heard laughter at funerals.  Or, at least, at many funeral dinners.  You get people in the same room who belong together, who've shared life and loss together, and you'll likely hear explosions of laughter mixed with the softer sounds of weeping .  And, it's also okay to weep.  Tears.  Chuckles.  Smiles.  Sadness.  They're all there and all mixed together and all of them are okay.  At funerals, that is, not parties.
       At funerals people who normally seem shallow come off sounding reflective and deep.  Talking about how the Kansas City Royals are doing this season, although it does have similarities to a funeral, isn't what you hear.   Sports is replaced by talk about family and memories and even talk about God and faith.  If the gauge is shallow and amusing conversation, then parties are going to win every time.  If the gauge is changed to important and meaningful things being said, then funerals are going to come out on top.

       You don't have to be Einstein to realize what the writer of Ecclesiastes said centuries before Christ is as true today as it was then, "You're better off going to a funeral than to a feast." (Eccl. 7:2)
       It's true that in worshiping God, we are joyously recalling the incredible riches of His grace that has been lavished on us in Christ Jesus.  It's true that the gospel story does not end on a blood stained cross, but in an empty tomb.  It's true that angels rejoice when a single sinner comes home.  It's true that Christianity is a religion of singing, not angry dogma.  But, our decision to design and construct times of worship as a kind of weekly party is starting to show some serious strain.  It's like trying to keep a balloon filled that keeps getting a larger and larger hole in it somewhere.  We keep pumping it up faster and faster just trying to keep it from deflating.
        It's an odd kind of wisdom that looks at results over a couple of decades and confidently concludes that what the church has done for nineteen centuries can be abandoned and worship can be radically improved.  Want to make a modern American want to get close to Jesus?  Show a laughing and grinning Jesus bouncing happy kids on the knees.  Want to get people from other eras to feel drawn to Him, picture Him as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
       I suppose a good reason we won't plan regular times of reflection over personal sin or spend quiet slow minutes in the breaking of bread is it drags the party down.  Think about what you hope happens in a good party:

  • People happily entering, chatting away with small talk and friendly greetings.
  • Upbeat music that may get even more upbeat as the evening goes along.
  • And, if it's going to be a really great party, why not end it up with a stand up comic who can entertain, inform, and inspire.
  • Oh, and snacks.  Don't forget to have a little snack available for those who want it.

       Sound vaguely familiar?  Like, maybe last Sunday morning? The structure of worship slowly tested and forged over many centuries that continues to form its weekly framework in the worship of 8 out of 10 people on earth who call themselves Christians goes something like this:

  • Entrance singing and praying
  • Confession of sins and accepting mercy and forgiveness.
  • Celebrating
  • Hearing God speak in the Old Testament
  • Celebrating
  • Hearing God speak in the epistles of the New Testament
  • Celebrating
  • Praying
  • Hearing God speak through the Lord Jesus out of the Gospels
  • Listening as the pastor encourages and exhorts.
  • Affirming our faith
  • Praying
  • Breaking bread and sharing cup
  • And now we have worshipped: Thanks be unto God.

       This blog post is certainly not the first time you've read or heard someone suggest that our worship practices need some serious attention.  Even Neil Postman's insightful analysis of our culture, Amusing Ourselves to Death, should have been a wake up call for the church.  But few of us are willing to risk the short-term disaster of trying to take large groups of people addicted to the shallow rush of religious highs and trying to deepen them toward the richer things of worship. Most ministers know enough to be concerned.  But, the risk is just too great.  We just keep dancing as fast as we can, hoping we somehow manage to keep it all going until the band quits playing.


Josh Test said...

Amen. The liturgy you outlined at the end is exactly the one followed at the church my family and I attend now. It is a Reformed Presbyterian church so I suppose that is not a shock. We thought our children (7 & 11), grown up in a radically more contemporary approach to church, would violently protest this change. Guess what? They haven't complained once. In fact, our 11 year old recently told us (unprompted) he appreciates the order of worship much more than the other more contemporary one. My wife and I were blown away.

Thank you for staying on this topic Tom. It goes much deeper than personal preference. The way we worship and structure our services does matter. It's not about one style being better than another but about receiving God on his terms, not ours.

Tom Lawson said...

Josh - Absolutely. My son, Stephen, worships at a Christian Church that also follows the classic outline of worship. He feels exactly the same way. Structure matters.

Thanks for also helping to illustrate it is not a Roman Catholic versus Protestant issue. Many Protestant churches, as well as Eastern Orthodox and others, follow the basic structure, as well.

Grace and peace, my brother.