Worship: An Audience of One

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Isaiah 6:1-8

[The sermon opened with a brief description of a recent experience of worship at the Montreat Worship and Music Conference.]

When I think about worship, my mind goes back to my childhood and what it used to be like. I grew up with three ministers with varying visions of worship.

For Dr. Kissling, the minister of Riverside for 35 years-who participated in developing the old red hymnbook-worship had a certain and clear form… It never changed and it was dependable. We’d open with call to worship… move through hymns and prayers and conclude with the sermon as the climax of the service. Lest there be any doubt, when he preached, the lights were dimmed in the sanctuary and the spotlight was clearly on the pulpit. His sermons were very authoritative and heavy.

Then Dr. Beverly came along-a young pastor with young ideas about worship in the turbulent 60s. I’ll never forget the day when he brought in a dancing troup from Jacksonville University – who at the end of the service danced down the aisles in slow motion… hands touching (demonstrate) … it was all touch feely… but no more dramatic than the liturgical dance we’ve seen at the Kirk and the service lasted until almost 1:00pm. It almost tore the church apart… I’m still not sure… if it was the dancing or the length of the service. The session held an emergency meeting that night to deal with the crisis and the pastor who had created the crisis for the church. But he survived. In fact later on in worship he would be the first minister I knew that would play top 40 music over the speaker system as an illustration for his sermon. We heard, "What’s it all about Alfie?" and "Is that all there is?" as part of his sermons. And you know what, I still remember those illustrations. Isn’t that interesting?

By the time Dr. Stoffel came along, I was in high school… In Dr. Stoffel, the church returned to a more seasoned and traditional minister. He had been the minister of First Presbyterian in Charlotte for 17 years. He was more our style!

But, but… it was under Dr. Stoffel we also did some very creative things in worship for the time. In fact I had forgotten one of the things we did until Jan Ross (wife of Art Ross at White Memorial) told me about it.

Art was the Associate pastor at my home church when I was a teenager. Jan says that she remembers me one Easter season, as part of the youth choir… coming down the aisle… in shorts and barefooted… singing "He is alive" as part of a musical. And as I remembered that (you can try to get the image out of your head now), I also remembered that we had electric guitars and drum sets playing. This was in 1972! With Dr. Stoffel and with Mr. Pierson, the director of music for as long as I could remember!

And while I didn’t know it then, growing up in that church, I was learning some lessons about worship that are now part of an important understanding of worship these days that actually come from our own Reformed tradition.

For example, it occurs to me that no where in the Bible will you find a single way that is prescribed for God’s people to worship.

You can look from Genesis to Revelation and you will not find God or one of God’s messengers saying, this is the order of worship and this is the style of worship you have to follow in order to be my people. Nowhere does it say– "You have to use the Red, blue or sing the faith hymnal." It doesn’t even say you have to use a hymnal at all!

In fact, implied in scripture is a variety of styles-there is temple worship-formal with well written psalms being said and sung… with scripture being read… led by people with beautiful robes in beautiful buildings.

Sometimes there are are cymbals crashing… sometimes clapping-but not for the preacher or the people for an excellent performance– but for God and God’s goodness -Psalm 47:
"Clap your hands, all you peoples, shout to God, with loud songs of joy, for the Lord.. is awesome…" Our God is an awesome God! So, clap in church-yes… but when we clap, let’s clap for God! As they might say today, "let us give a shout out for God!"

But also you will find house churches singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs as part of worship in very intimate settings. People gathered in living rooms, singing songs, reading the Bible, praying… that was beautiful too.

No where… and I repeat … no where does God say there is only one way you have to worship me. God is not that small.

What we do find in scripture are elements and principles that can guide a variety of ways to worship God.

Some of the key elements we include we read about from Isaiah’s experience of being in the presence of God.

Note that his experience of worship was fairly dramatic and noisy and smelly… there are those winged creatures… there is smoke in the room… The elements he describes we still use in our worship today:
     Praise: Holy, Holy, Holy..
     Confession of Sin… "Woe is me"
     Forgiveness of Sin… "your guilt is departed"
     Challenge and Charge… "who will go for me"
     The Sending… Here am I, send me… (sign me up-I’ll serve you!)

The whole passage is the hearing of the word and the explication of the word for Isaiah and later for the rest of us.

And I don’t care if you go to a contemporary service, an emerging worship service or a traditional service… in some way and in some fashion, you will find most, if not all of those elements of worship present in a variety of forms.

Dorothy Butler Bass, discovered this in the congregations she visited.

She said, "as I journeyed through the mainline church, I observed that the particular style of music did not necessarily matter to congregational vitality. Some churches, like Scottsdale UCC, worshipped in jazz and contemporary idioms (with informal liturgy); others, like St. Marks (Lutheran), used traditional music (with formal liturgy). And still other congregations, like Goleta Presbyterian church… blended styles, borrowing from three or four kinds of music and liturgy in a single service. I have witnessed mainline Latinos singing hymns set to the tunes of 1960s folk music; white Episcopalians making music in African drumming circles… Congregationalists playing medieval recorder music; Lutherans singing Latin chants; Methodists rocking to their own locally written praise songs; African-American Episcopalians sitting in silence to Bach…" (p. 182, Christianity for the Rest of Us_)

What Bass discovered is that the Spirit can use a variety of forms to bring the lifegiving word to the people of God and the people of God have a variety of ways to praise and please God.

But they do all share one thing. What they have in common, she also says, is that these are congregations where the people are engaged in worship.

They didn’t come to church waiting for a performance to begin… they were the key players in the performance… even if they were in an ensemble or part of the choir we call the congregation. I bet they didn’t go home after worship and give a sort of American idol evaluation of the preacher and the choir. If anyone is going to evaluate worship… it should be God. For God is the audience. There is only one person in the audience every Sunday and that is God. Every Sunday we have an audience of one. We should be evaluating ourselves each Sunday with a question like: How do you think God felt about my worship today? Did I mumble my way through the hymns and the liturgy… did I give God my best? Was I fully present with God or was I too tired from staying up late the night before?

I think of a story that Kathleen Norris tells in her book, Dakota, A Spiritual Experience. After being away from church for many years because she saw religion as an intellectual and moral restraint, she returned to a very traditional small church in South Dakota. She says,
"I,…began, slowly, to make sense of our gathering together on Sunday morning, recognizing that church is to be participated in and not consumed. The point is not what one gets out of it, but the worship of God; the service takes place both because of and despite the needs, strengths, and frailties of the people present." (p 94-95)

Did you hear her? She’s got it right.
"Church is to be participated in and not consumed. The point is not what one gets out of it, but the worship of God."

Until we get that, we don’t get worship if you ask me. It’s not about what you like, it is about what God likes in worship. It’s about participation- following the script is not as important as giving your-self to the worship service.

I recently heard a story about Dr. Williams Holmes Border Sr. who had been the pastor of the Bethel AME Church in Atlanta for many years. He was active in the civil rights movement. So well respected he was, they named a street after him in Atlanta. The story is told that every Sunday when he would pray with the choir, he would conclude with this prayer…
"O Lord, please let it be that something happens that is not printed in the bulletin!"

I like that. Let it be that we do more than follow a script, but we give ourselves fully to God. That’s what Bass and I think the Bible is talking about. That’s what vital worship looks like in whatever form it takes.

That’s what I experienced at the Montreat Worship and Music conference that made it so special… a congregation of people offering themselves fully to the living God.

When I think back on my experience on worship… I know I am blessed that Dr. Kissling laid down a firm foundation for worship and that Dr. Beverly and Dr. Stoffel knew that it was okay to be joyful and foolish now and then in worship… because they knew that our God is a God who rejoices whenever he sees his children gather together for a good time-for don’t you think what really matters to God is this: not worship where form follows function… but where form follows the heart… the heart of a person who loves God… a heart… ready to praise, give thanks and show our love for our living God, who after all is the audience of one. Amen.


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