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The Magic Story

“And it was right then,” the old man continued, “that I saw magic.”
You could feel the room grow quiet.  Even people who knew what was coming couldn’t wait to hear it again.

“I saw it.  Real honest-to-God magic.  Not the sleight-of-hand we’ve all seen at parties.  I’m talking about actual magic.  No fooling.  Something that’s just downright impossible.  But, I saw it.  Saw it with my own two eyes.”

You could have heard a pin drop.  Everyone held their breath, waiting to hear the rest of the story.

Killing Relevance

“The temptation to be relevant is difficult to shake since
it is usually not considered a temptation, but a call.
We make ourselves believe that we are called to be
productive, successful, and efficient people whose words and actions show
that working for God’s Reign is at least as dignified an occupation
as working for General Electric, Mobil Oil, or the government.”
– Henri Nouwen

Relevance is something we hear a lot about today.  We want to make the message relevant.  We need to show people a Jesus who is relevant.  A good deal is riding on the automatic assumption that relevancy is always a good thing.

What if it's not?

Dining Alone: A Eucharistic Prayer

Dining Alone

Some people say he’s hidden
   In chalice prayer and bread
Substance transformed like Eden reborn
   In part the whole is fed

Listening to God in Worship

Before Scripture is read in private, it is heard in public - Rowan Williams

At first impression, reading certainly seems a higher order of communication than listening.  After all, children listen.  Adults read.  Listening requires no particular skill.  Reading, however, comes as the result of  years of intentional education.  Reading takes focus.  Listening is seemingly easy and natural.

I say seemingly because, just like reading, listening takes effort.  

A Community Called Atonement

     Well known author and New Testament scholar, Scot McKnight, was on our campus this past week.  The focus of much of his attention over the past several years has been on forming the framework out of which a more gospels-centered (that is, Jesus-centered) understanding of the Christian life might be formed.  His recent bestseller, Jesus Creed, is one example of this.

     But, it is his best known work, A Community Called Atonement, that continues to impact students, pastors, and laypeople that I want to talk about here.  Many of us have been raised to think of the work of Jesus as almost entirely centered on the act of dying for our sins.  Because of that, many of us focused far more on the epistles than on the gospels.  I look back on my own epistles-dominated preaching emphases back in the 1980s, and I understand why John Piper, who still champions this approach, can speak of  "the religion of Paul" as theological shorthand for Christianity.
     Today a large number of preachers and teachers and scholars are challenging these ideas.  Some are challenging the whole notion of penal substitution (Jesus' death as a punishment from the justice of God offered in our place).  Some, are questioning the traditional doctrine of hell.  At least some of this is the common phenomenon present in reactive theology: what my grandmother called throwing out the baby with the bath water.

The Chameleon Pharisee

There he stands.  Pompous.  Full of himself.  Arrogant.  Self righteous.  He is the stuff of Christian legend.  The Pharisee.  In our shared imagination, he is a thoroughly distasteful fellow.  Face in an almost constant scowl.  Over sized phylacteries prominently displayed.  We smile as the story Jesus is telling continues.

"I thank Thee, Almighty God," the man prays.  

Perfect.  He's using King James English.  A sure sign of a Pharisee if there ever was one.

"I thank Thee that I am not like that sinner over there," he intones, pointing to the pitiful tax collector cowering off in the shadows not far away.

"I fast many times ever week.  I study Thy law.  I keep Thy commandments."

What a sap.  Keep His commandments?  Yeah.  You pompous jerk.  I bet you're running around on your wife and ripping off little old ladies at work.

And then Jesus turns his story toward the sad sobbing Publican.  

A Litany for Worship: You Have Left Your First Love

I have written previously about the need to bring regular times of facing and acknowledging our sins int out primary* Christian worship.  There are, of course, a number of ways this might be done.  One way, though not always the most effective, can be through music.  The song "I'm Sorry" by Paul Wright (from the album Kingdom Come) is an example of such a song.

A Litany of Confession

In all the major traditions of Christian worship until the arrival of free church Protestant worship, early in the time of worship the celebrant would lead those present in a time of confession of sin, seeking the mercy and forgiveness of God, and then celebrating that forgiveness (usually with the Greater Doxology: Gloria in excelsis Deo).  Since the typical Litany employs liturgical dialogue largely foreign to American Evangelicals, the one below revises it to be more usable for those who do not typical engage in liturgical dialogue.

Pentecostals and Dead Ritual

David was what we often call a "non-traditional student."  If you are not familiar with the term, it had nothing to do with David's tastes in worship.  It simply refers to an older student.  Someone who, years after high school, decides to enroll in (or return to) college.  Like many older students, David was a hard worker and brought a good amount of life experience into his college work.  Also, like many, David was already serving as a local church minister.

The fact that David was not from a Stone-Campbell church is also not unusual.  Most Christian colleges of the Stone-Campbell (or "Restoration") Movement, even those focused exclusively on training church leaders, have many students who come from, and remain in, other denominations.  What was slightly less common was that David was the pastor of a classic Pentecostal church.  He had participated in a course I taught on worship, often bringing good insights and diligently studying the books and materials used in the course.

It was at one of the final school banquets, just before graduation, that he took the time to search me out and talk to me.  He wanted to share something and then give me something.

Inflexible Worship

"Let's sing number 319 instead of the one in your bulletin."

In 1970, the phrase would hardly have raised an eyebrow.  In an era when less planning and work went into the music portion of worship than went into mowing the church's grass, it was not unusual for song leaders to make on-the-spot changes.

There's a lot about those good old days that weren't so good.   Mediocre was perfectly fine.  An exceptionally well-planned song service meant the music might, if you thought about it long enough, actually be on the same theme as the sermon.  It really was all rather stale, at least on most Sundays.

Still, that sentence, "Let's sing number 319 instead of..." is worth remembering.  And not just because it reveals churches used hymnals.  What is really shocking is that anybody could make that big a last-minute change in the worship music.  

New Research on Mega-churches (link provided)

"Interviews with 470 megachurch members revealed a repeated theme of belonging, with congregants emphasizing how welcoming and 'unpretentious' the churches are."

Research coming out the University of Washington on the growth (now more than 1,200 in the US) of megachurches (2000 and higher typical attendance).  The study, cited in a Sept 2, 2012 Huffington Post article, suggests several reasons why, at a time of declining faith, Americans are increasingly flocking toward mega churches.

Megachurch Study Suggests Big Congregations Make Worship 'Intoxicating' Experience

The Things Shoes Can Tell You

The astute Worship Minister develops skills in learning to assess the subtle nuances needed to adapt Christian worship to various recognizable groups.  Worship in a Korean congregation is not the same as worship in rural North Dakota.  The skills needed to analyze the makeup of a congregation to allow for those minuscule adjustments in scripture readings, musical styles, and song selection can make all the difference between "That really helped me out," and "We'd like to help you out -- where'd you come in?"

In The Field Guide of evangelicus americanus, noted author and researcher Dr. Frederick von Hultmann gives the modern worship minister the tools needed to quickly and effectively assess who is out there staring back at them.  The following is an excerpt from Chapter 12, Assessment by Shoes.