18 October 2007

Worship seeking understanding, part four

(part one) (part two) (part three)

On the face of it, Sally Morgenthaler's article "Worship as evangelism," is raw and gloomy, but I choose to see in it a possible confirmation of Friends practice--and Friends promise.

Morgenthaler, the author of Worship Evangelism, is utterly blunt about the self-deception and cultural blinders prevailing in so much of Evangelicalism 2.0 in North America. For example:
Were these worship-driven churches really attracting the unchurched? Most of their pastors truly believed they were. And in a few cases, they were right. The worship in their congregations was inclusive, and their people were working hard to meet the needs of the neighborhood. Yet those churches whose emphasis was dual-celebrated worship inside, lived worship outside--were the minority. In 2001 a worship-driven congregation in my area finally did a survey as to who they were really reaching, and they were shocked. They'd thought their congregation was at least 50 percent unchurched. The real number was 3 percent.

. . .

For all the money, time, and effort we've spent on cultural relevance--and that includes culturally relevant worship—it seems we came through the last 15 years with a significant net loss in churchgoers, proliferation of megachurches and all.

In 2000 I didn't have all of the numbers I have now, but I had seen enough to know what was happening. The contemporary church--including the praise-and-worship church, the worship evangelism church--was in a holy huddle, and I began to talk about it. It was excruciating. It was career suicide. But from pastors conferences to worship seminars to seminaries, I began challenging leaders to give up their mythologies about how they were reaching the unchurched on Sunday morning. Yes, worship openly and unapologetically. Yes, worship well and deeply. (Which means singing songs that may include anger, sadness, and despair. Have we forgotten that David did this? Have we discarded the psalms?) But let our deepened, honest worship be the overflow of what God does through us beyond our walls.

Conference organizers were confused. They wondered what had happened to me. Where was the worship evangelism warrior? Where was the formula? Where was the pep talk for all those people who were convinced that trading in their traditional service for a contemporary upgrade would be the answer? I don't have to tell you this. The 100-year-old congregation that's down to 43 members and having a hard time paying the light bill doesn't want to be told that the "answer" is living life with the people in their neighborhoods. Relationships take time, and they need an attendance infusion now.

I understood their dilemma, and secretly, I wished I had a magic bullet. But I didn't. And I wasn't going to give them false hope. Some newfangled worship service wasn't going to save their church, and it wasn't going to build God's kingdom. It wasn't going to attract the strange neighbors who had moved into their communities or the generations they had managed to ignore for the last 39 years.
For me, considering Quaker worship in Elektrostal--or anywhere--Sally Morgenthaler's honesty confirms a healthy priority AND identifies a crucial, complicated threshold issue.

The priority: being with people, loving people, building relationships, being a modest, available, public believer with no facade of piety, perfection, or permanent cheerfulness.

The threshold issue: at some specific time and place, we worship. At some point the newlyweds stop talking about intimacy and start being intimate; at some point the people of God turn their faces and hearts Godward--but in full view of each other, in full fellowship, with each other. Sure, we want that experience of worship to be attractive and liberating for those who attend--whether regularly or for the first scary time--but there must be, if I am following Sally correctly, some authentic connection between that event and our prior presence in the community we want to welcome.

Maybe this helps me explain to myself why, after all these years in the programmed Quaker world, I'm still at heart an unprogrammed Friend. Well, not exactly unprogrammed: I absolutely love the unforced rhythm of preaching, singing, waiting, praying, that characterizes the best of programmed worship. And I know as well as any how the silence can be a place to hide--I've done it myself, and I've seen what happens when people become connoisseurs of the silence. But any importation of symbolic elements that cannot be provided with a normal voice or potentially by anyone, including an honestly motivated child, is a red flag, at least when it happens among us Friends. Why would we try to give people a representation of God, a secondhand taste of piety, a human-made (however antique) channel of grace? The function of words and songs among Friends is to frame the experience for the purpose of access, so that we are more or less equal in our understanding of what we're attempting, and then to get on with it and do what we're attempting: communion with our Savior and firstborn brother, Jesus. The letter to the Hebrews invites us to go boldly through the curtain into the presence of God. (See Hebrews 10:19-21.) Why do we keep trying to embroider the curtain?

. . .

I just asked a rhetorical question, but to be fair, perhaps the question deserves a straightforward answer.

Years ago, I read one of the booklets distributed by the New Call to Peacemaking. The author addressed the classic hypothetical question used by those challenging pacifists--"What would you do about Hitler?" In reply, the author said something about choosing not to start with Hitler and the world, trying to move from there towards God, but instead starting from God, moving towards Hitler and the world. In considering our ideals about worship, we need to consider both how people might move from worship towards the world (that is, towards their communities) and how people can move from the world towards worship. But the triangle formed by world, worship, and God, must not be austere and cerebral, but must be filled by the Holy Spirit.

For example, if we start with worship and orient ourselves towards both God and the world, my minimalist approach may seem right--we don't try to pre-empt the Holy Spirit with our own traditions or cleverness, but do all we can to frame and demonstrate freedom, authenticity, and equality in worship. We depend on the Holy Spirit to guide our worship; we depend on the world for raw data on the healing and liberation that is needed, and also (lest we get too spiritual) for the embodying elements: time, place, human beings, language, gestures, and so on. (Speaking of raw data, see Peggy Parsons' latest.)

But sometimes we may want to start in the world, and move toward worship. Sometimes I've been in what seemed like a completely "secular" setting--a dance or blues concert or a lively conversation in a café--and suddenly such a sense of blessing descends that it verges on worship. What do I do with my austere theories then? But maybe those moments are just sheer gift; I can't do anything to produce them on demand.

Here in Elektrostal, we need to worship--and we need to worship in Russian, which seems a reasonable minimum in framing and providing access! But there is absolutely no way we will hit on a "silver bullet" worship style that will reassemble the scattered Elektrostal Friends meeting and add to its number; we must go into the community clothed in an attitude of worship.

(It reminds me of Samuel Charters' wonderful liner notes to Chicago/The Blues/Today vol. 1, a record that changed my life. His experience as a visitor in the blues bars forty years ago: "The blues is still the South Side’s music, and the stares get hostile if you stay too long, but the music stays with you as you ride the El back to the loop, rubbing against your skin with its hard strength." The stares here, when they happen, are sometimes friendly, sometimes just curious and occasionally hostile, but the spirit of worship rubs against your skin with its gracious strength.)

In any case, I'm very grateful to Sally Morgenthaler for her candid thoughts. If you like, please add yours.

Control isn't want it used to be. Something is shifting in this world, and unilateral military dominance is becoming almost irrelevant. There's a hint of it in Fyodor Lukyanov's op-ed in today's Moscow Times. An excerpt: (full article for paying customers.)
From the West's point of view, Russia is obstructing the attempt by the "civilized world" to coerce Tehran into giving up its nuclear program. The U.S. Congress and mass media often accuse the Kremlin of protecting Iran's belligerent mullahs and their half-witted president. And Moscow's categorical "nyet" to the deployment of U.S. missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, which Washington claims would help mitigate an Iranian missile threat, further muddies the waters.

Tehran believes that Moscow is exploiting Iran as nothing more than a disposable pawn in its cynical game with the West. Iranian political analysts assert that it has always been unwise to rely on Russia's word. They point out that Russia has not followed through on its agreement to build a nuclear power plant in Bushehr and supply it with fuel. And Moscow's offer that the U.S. make joint use of its radar installations in Gabala in Azerbaijan and Armavir in southern Russia to monitor Iranian rockets is a clear affront to Tehran.

To be sure, Moscow is also unsettled about the prospect of a nuclear Iran. In addition, the issue of how the Caspian Sea is shared continues to be a divisive issue between the two nations.

Nevertheless, Russia views Tehran much differently than the West does. Israel, the United States and some European nations believe that Iran is an unpredictable clerical state capable of doing anything for the sake of religious dogma. And Tehran needs nuclear weapons, they believe, so it can spread the "true faith." Moscow, on the other hand, believes that the modern-day successors of Persia's imperial past are interested primarily in becoming a regional power, especially in the context of an increasingly multipolar world. This, the Kremlin says, is the most important reason why Tehran wants nuclear weapons [by the way: does it?] and not to launch a nuclear strike against the West.

Russia's position should not be reduced to a primitive "for" or "against." The prospect of U.S. military intervention in Iran scares Europeans no less than Russians. The problem is that the political leverage of Russia and other world powers is much less than they think.

At a time of global instability, it is regimes like Iran -- and not the major global powers -- that come out the winners when the superpowers get bogged down in political power struggles. But the big players refuse to accept this fact. It is more pleasant for them to believe that they are still the ones calling the shots.

Remembering Samuel Charters and his liner notes brought back memories of the very first blues song I ever heard: Albert King's "Born Under a Bad Sign."


Martin Kelley said...

What's consuming me right now is the question of who "we" are. Our churches and meetings are often so obsessed with meeting the needs and expectations of their settled members and so many of their structures are oriented inwardly.

Reading Pink Dandelion's new book on Friends, it strikes me again how Paul's conception of Christianity was not tied to a kind of Jewish tribalism but made for the world. Certainly Jesus preached widely and almost had an allergic reaction to the pious religious establishment. How then have our churches become their own tribal compounds?

anj said...

Johann - As one who came back to faith in an early charismatic evangelical music worship based church, Sally Morgenthaler's writings were like a breath of fresh air. Yes, Martin, I am surprised, at times, by how inbred our churches are, and how tribal our own Quaker faith can be. I believe that Friends have much to offer the world in 'knowing experientially' the sweet spot of worship in the fullness of the Presence in the midst, no 'embroidery' required. Tonight, after a really bad week, soon after I finish this post, I am walking to a neighbor's. She has invited me in the past to come down when I am struggling. Tonight, I am taking her up on the offer, and I hope that there will be a sweet spot of sweet gift in this moment of connection. it is good to read that spot must be filled with the Holy Spirit, and that it is possible, even in my struggle, to start from God, instead of away from God. A weighty Friend from my meeting often asks me "Can you take meeting for worship with you?" it is not the technique, maybe it is just the trying.

Anonymous said...

Christ continues to reveal to me Paul, don’t worry about the theology or any other human characteristic of the person who sits next to you in Meeting.

This is my work with my
people in silence not your work!


Christ is come and doth dwell in the hearts of his people and
reigns there. And thousands, at the door of whose hearts he hath been
knocking, have opened to him, and he is come in, and doth sup with
them and they with him, the heavenly supper with the heavenly and spiritual man. George Fox

Judy Brutz said...

Johan- I'm so happy to have found your blog and to listen deeply to your message.

These days I am living with questions regarding blessing (verb). How do we bless the Lord? What does blessing mean? How am I to be open to giving and receiving blessing? Am I still enough, and open enough, to be in blessing with peoples of the earth? with nature? with animals?

I suppose I am using different language than "living Worship," but it is the same.

Thank you for being faithful.
Blessing and joy to you and Judy,

Judy Brutz, Commit to Blessing

Johan Maurer said...

I'm feeling very blessed by all of these comments. (And, Judy, it's so good to hear from you again!)

I keep coming back to one of my perennial themes: the respectful division of labor. We are fortunate to have people among us who do "inreach," who make our Friendly communities ... friendly. (And who give us safety and respite when we need it.)

But we need to make a concerted effort to empower the outreachers and evangelists, those who are peculiarly gifted to communicate our faith and ethic beyond our tribal boundaries. I'm convinced there are far more of them among us than you'd guess from our generally stagnant growth patterns, but we don't generally affirm them.

And the point cannot just be to issue mating calls to gather likeminded people to our existing patterns, but to cry out in God's name to those who ready to risk everything for the pearl of great price--intimacy with the God who loved them into being in the first place--and in some cases to invite them to join us in a Lamb's-War confrontation with confusion and oppression. But to ask people to take that leap means that we as Friends should also take that same risk. The goal isn't to enhance Quakers as we are now, but to open a new and living Way. It's a Way that others (outside Friends) are also opening, but we do so with the resources of our heritage and discipleship.

Bill Samuel said...

My mother always used to say, "The life I live is the prayer I pray." And that is just a statement of fact. A scary one sometimes! And worship is how I honor (or don't honor) God in how I live day by day - our true spiritual worship in the words of Paul.

So emphasizing what happens in the hour or so we designate as "worship" on a Sunday morning really is missing the point. And unprogrammed Quakers are just as guilty of this as those who make a big, slick production of their worship service. This leads to worship of a form, which is idolatry.

Anonymous said...

When I look at the matter from the viewpoint of the unchurched, it seems to me that they are not coming to evangelical Protestant churches because they don't find anything sufficiently appealing to them there.

And there are all sorts of obstacles I can think of that might stand in their way — from the seeming spiritual arrogance of "I've found God", to the lack of anything that evangelicals do on Sunday morning that really seems more appealing to the unchurched than staying home and relaxing.

In both those instances (and in many others as well), the indictment that the unchurched would have to make, of what evangelical churches have to offer, is really not terribly far from what the early Friends were getting at when they talked about "will-worship".

And the words of Paul come to my mind, in his first letter to the believers at Corinth — that "...I, brethren, when I came to you .... I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power...."

What Paul was talking about there was of course something quite different, both from being a "connoisseur of silence" as you put it, and from being a typical Christian-engaged-in-outreach. It wasn't will-worship at all. I could go on and on all day about what the differences are between Paul's activity and most modern "outreach"; but frankly, my impression is that either a person sees the differences without my help, or else he/she isn't really going to get my point at all.

If I "do outreach" to the people I wait on at the department store where I work, it accomplishes nothing. But if I tell them how I quit my job two summers ago to walk across the country from Nebraska to Virginia, because I'd been invited to deliver a talk to a Quaker body and it came to me that if I walked the distance I'd be given what to say, it stops them dead in their tracks and for five minutes they don't want to talk of anything else.

For those five minutes, I'm not a connoisseur of silence or a person doing outreach either; I'm in a position analogous to the apostle's, simply reporting the news.

You understand, of course.