(1 Chronicles 16: 23-31)
Back in 2001, a long-time Presbyterian church in a quaint little town north of here decided to hit the reset button on their 11am worship in an attempt to jump-start some new life into the congregation. They did this, in part, with the help of a sizable grant from the denomination, which enabled them to fulfill their ultimate dream – a state-of-the art contemporary worship service that would attract young people and grow the congregation by leaps and bounds.
So they went all-in, amassing an arsenal of the best audio/visual equipment money could buy. A professional-grade sound system and 24-channel mixing board to handle the needs of a multi-member praise and worship band. A 12-piece, top-notch electronic drumset. Monitors and more cables than you could shake a stick at; dozens of mic and music stands. Two state-of-the-art Bose tower systems for acoustic guitars; various amps for the electrics. A 500-watt bass amp, a high-end Yamaha stage piano. Headset and wireless handheld mics. And don’t forget stage lights – 30+ professional-grade lights, affixed to four professional-grade stands, all patched into a sequencer that would rival your favorite rock concert.
They installed a huge drop-down screen for the lyrics at the very front of the sanctuary, but when it was pointed out to them that it covered the large historic cross every time it was lowered, and how maybe that wasn’t a good thing, they installed two smaller (but still large) screens on either side of the cross, along with two top-notch LCD projectors sticking out from the sides where the organ pipes used to be. And when the band members noted how awkward it was to look back at the screens behind them when playing, they installed an even larger screen and projector in the very back of the sanctuary, just for the band to use.
On the day the church officially launched its new worship service with much fanfare, they totaled around 50 worshippers. Within a year, their membership more than tripled that.
Now, let me stop here and say that you may be wondering why I’m telling you this. You may wonder if I am suggesting something. You may be getting very uncomfortable right now! The truth is, yes, I am suggesting something, but not perhaps what you think. That’s because I haven’t finished the story yet.
Around five years ago I visited this church for the first time. But I didn’t go to join the masses in a rock concert worship service. I went as part of a presbytery commission to help the church close its doors. Our group had been tasked with packing up every last one of those speakers and lights and cables and stands and drums and keyboards and mixing boards, all in a U-Haul truck, and hauling it to a storage facility near the presbytery office.
That previous Sunday, the church officially dissolved and held its final worship service, which looked nothing like its first. There was no huge mass of people; in fact, it was a mass of only seven; the number the congregation had dwindled to in just a few years.
So what happened, right? That’s the question. The truth is, it wasn’t the normal suspects: a scandalous pastor, an empty bank account. As strange as it sounds, the thing they had made their sole focus – worship – was the thing that led to their eventual downfall. Because they did it for all the wrong reasons. Because they hadn’t really given thought to what it means to worship together.
As you know, Grace and I are in the middle of a sermon series, looking at all the things that bind us together as a community of faith. Two weeks ago we talked about how we learn together. Last week, how we hope together. Today, we look at how we worship together as the people of God. Different churches do it differently. And yet, the God we worship does not change, nor does our calling as a worshipping body to worship with our hearts, with our minds, with our souls. What some call “passionate worship.”
We get an image of passionate worship in our first scripture from 1 Chronicles. Israel is making its home in the Promised Land and King David seeks to centralize both his political power and the people’s worship in the city of Jerusalem. So David brings to the city the ark of the covenant, containing the two Ten Commandment tablets, with much fanfare. Worship the Lord in holy splendor; the writer proclaims, tremble before God, all the earth. And then this familiar line: Great is the Lord, and worthy to be praised!
There is an undeniable emphasis here on two things: “worship” and “God.” Those are the pillars of passionate worship. It happens across denominational lines, in large and small churches. And our goal as the church is to meet every week and engage in passionate worship together.
The question is: what does passionate worship look like in our day and time? I want to suggest to you this morning three things passionate worship is and one thing it is not.
First, what it is not: passionate worship is not about style – not about contemporary or traditional. You can have passionate traditional worship as much as you can have unpassionate contemporary worship.
That’s because the assumptions we make about worship styles can get a little murky. Like when we assume it’s a generational thing – older folks only prefer traditional worship and younger folks only like contemporary. In 19 years of ministry, I don’t know that I’ve seen anything to back that up. Time and time again, the younger people I know tell me that they are drawn to Trinity because of of our worship. As one of them said to me, “If I wanted to go to a rock concert, I’d catch my favorite band at the Pavilion.”
The truth of the matter is that we can get ourselves into trouble when we make it all about style. That church up the road who changed everything about their worship because they thought it’d bring in new people. It did – but only for a time. When we in the church make worship a means to an end, we’re missing the entire point of worship, and the church in general. Worship is not a means to an end – it is THE end, THE reason. It’s precisely why we gather every week, 52 times a year, every year. Passionate worship is not about style.
So what is passionate worship, then? Three things:
First – authenticity. Passionate worship is about being authentic. The prophet Isaiah warns about inauthentic worship when he says this:
These people make a big show of what they do, but their hearts aren’t in it.
Because they act like they’re worshiping me, but don’t mean it.
There is something inherently wrong, the prophet proclaims, with going through the motions of worship and not really meaning it. Because in an ironic way, when we do that, worship can actually become an idol. One of my seminary professors implored us to always ask this question of our churches: in you worship, are you worshipping God or are you worshipping worship? Whatever style it is, when you worship, are you experiencing the divine in the words and music and movement, or are you simply going through the motions and wondering when the hour will end? Are you worshipping God or worshipping worship?
So passionate worship is about authenticity. It is also about movement. Seriously! You may not think there’s a whole lot of movement in our Trinity services other than the standing and sitting. But take a look at the inside of your bulletin and the order of worship – open it up, if you will. Have you noticed the centered headings before?
We GATHER for worship
We OPEN UP to God
God SPEAKS to Us (in other words, we LISTEN)
We RESPOND with Faith and Commitment
We GO FORTH to Witness and Serve
Gather. Open up. Listen. Respond. Go forth. We may be sitting perfectly still in our wonderful Trinity pews, but make no mistake: we are in constant movement in worship.
We move in worship when we engage in the flow of our reformed tradition and the roles we assume in it. We come together, we come clean, we listen to God and we respond with our faith, with our giving, our lives. Worship can never be passive, like watching TV or scrolling through our Facebook feed. We are not observers in worship; we are participants – all of us, not just those of us sitting up here. We are all called out of ourselves into God’s embrace. Called to holy movement.
So, authenticity. Movement. And third – passionate worship is about worshipping God together. Together. Being part of something bigger than ourselves, and being part of it with our sisters and brothers in Christ. Together.
I love the story evangelist Gordon Cosby tells about the time he guest-preached for an evening service up in New England. The service, conducted by the church, was, to be frank, dull and uninspiring. Nobody sang the hymns; nobody smiled. The only thing that moved, Gordon said half-jokingly, were the offering plates! After the service, Gordon and his wife retired to the room the church provided for the night, and they talked about what a drag the service had been.
And as they were talking, they became aware of a noise coming from below. So they went down to check it out – and that’s when they saw that the noise they heard were the crowds of people gathered in the town tavern right under their room. Sounds of people talking and laughing; sounds of movement and celebration. Sounds of folks who were there because they wanted to be, not because they felt they had to be.
And as he and his wife listened, Gordon thought to himself, you know, there is more warmth and fellowship in this tavern than there was in the church tonight. And he surmised that if Jesus had showed up and had his choice, he probably would’ve chosen the tavern over the church.
Now, just to be clear, I’m not suggesting we need to turn this place into a tavern – although our partners in ministry at M2M are doing just that at this very moment at the Evening Muse in NoDa. No, what I’m suggesting is that we worship God most authentically when we worship God together, with a strong sense of community and praise of God. That is when worship is life-giving, celebration, sacred space and holy ground.
I am still haunted by the image of that church closing its doors years ago. I lament that they thought changing worship style would solve all their problems. I don’t think that’s the way it works.
See, here’s what I think: I think every Sunday morning, when God is with us in this place, I think what makes God smile is when we sing praises not with any particular instrument, but when we sing from our hearts.
I think what makes God smile is not when we read the right words from the bulletin, but when the words printed on a piece of paper in some way reflect the words that God long ago etched deep in our hearts, and we take time in worship to acknowledge and sense that connection within us.
I think what makes God smile is when we’re not just going through the motions of a tired weekly ritual, but when we are actively moving with joy and purpose: gathering, opening up, listening, responding and going out.
Authenticity. Movement. Togetherness. And in the end, and always, God. Great is the Lord, and worthy to be praised! What do you say we do it again next week?
In the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.