Monday, September 3, 2007

A Vision for the Church: Moving from Presence to Participation

(A sermon based on Psalm 100:1-5; Amos 5:21-24; Romans 12:-12)

[Part three in a series]

Every once in a while one denomination or another will undertake a campaign to try to get their adherents to go back to church. I remember a Roman Catholic campaign called “Come back home” and a Southern Baptist one called “Let’s All Go to Church.” While polls show that some 40% of Americans attend church on a weekly basis, other research indicates that the figure is actually closer to 20%. While lots of folks don’t belong to a church and thus don’t go at all, which is understandable, lots of other folks who do belong to a church don’t go at all or very often, which is not understandable.

The situation is addressed in a poem by Bert Penny [“Attendance Report,” The Living Church (November 18, 1956), 11, cited by Allen Cabaniss, Pattern in Early Christian Worship (Macon: Mercer University, 1989), p. 63]:

They asked of Johnnie, the acolyte
Smiling their mockery:
“How many were there, as the day broke bright,
For Holy Liturgy?”

Johnnie, the acolyte, made reply,
“Beyond all count,” said he,
“Filling the earth and the dawn-rose sky
As waters fill the sea;

“Angels and archangels, light impearled,
In Heaven’s whole company;
All faithful people around the world;
And old Miss Jones and me.”

So the lack of faithful attendance is a problem. But we’ll leave that there, since we are in church and you are here so that’s not our problem. For folks like us we need to address other areas.

Many of us, I suspect, equate worship with going to church. Such an equation falls far short of the mark. Still, worship does involve going to church, so that’s a good place to start our discussion. After all, in church is where we are and we have all, in theory at least, come here to worship. We are present and that is good! Would that more were present! In a sense, all other worshippers around the world are present and all those who have ever worshipped are present. Moreover, God is surely present (cf. Cabaniss, pp. 62-63).

If God is present you can be sure that he is active. Where God is, God acts. For our part, we must face this fact: our mere presence in church, while it is to be preferred to our absence, is not enough to qualify us to call ourselves “worshippers.” To be in attendance and to be worshipping are two different things; to be present and to be participating are two different things. It is one thing to say, “I went to church today” and another thing to say “I worshipped today.” That is because real worship is active rather than passive. To worship is to take an active part in what is going on. To worship is to move beyond presence to participation.

What we are to do when we come to church, then, is to worship. Real worship is active and participative; it is something to which we give ourselves over.

Why do we give ourselves over to active worship? First of all, because of who our Lord is. As the psalmist put it, “Know that the LORD is God.” Our Lord is the mighty Creator; he is the Savior; he is our Master; he is high and lifted up. He is also, in Christ, meek and lowly and intimately involved in our lives. How can we not be compelled to worship in the presence of our Lord?

What God has done is connected with who he is. What has he done? “It is he that made us.” He has given us life. Moreover, in Christ he has given us eternal life. How can we stop ourselves from worshipping a God who has done those things?

What God is characterized by is also connected to who he is. He is characterized by goodness, by steadfast love, and by faithfulness (Psalm 100:5). He has actively and openly shown his love to us in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son Jesus. He has proven himself faithful over and over. How can we help but worship such a great God?

So we give ourselves over to active worship first because of who God is. We do so second because of who we are in relation to God. “We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture” (Psalm 100:3). God has chosen and called us and we have responded in faith and obedience. Since we are his sheep he cares for us as a loving shepherd. We have a purpose in life that he has given to us. We have his supreme strength when we are weak. We were once wandering aimlessly but now he has found us, saved us, and cared for us. Again, how can we help but worship him?

It needs to be repeated: our worship is to be active. The words of Psalm 100 call for boisterous thanksgiving on the part of God’s people. The NIV translation of vv. 1-2 is appropriately expressive: “Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth. Serve the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.” The picture is one of singing, not listening!

Our church should be a worshipping church. I’m grateful for your attendance but we should truly worship when we attend. To worship is to declare God worthy; it is to offer praise to him in response to who he is, to what he has done, and to who he has made us to be. We do that best with Bibles and hymnals in our hands. We do that best by actively sharing in what is going on. We do that best by seeing worship as something we do rather than as something we watch and hear.

What have we said so far? We have said that to worship is to move beyond presence to participation. We have said that worship is more than coming to church. We have said that worship means involving ourselves actively in the worship experience. But there is more to say because we can come to church every Sunday and Wednesday and on every special occasion and still not, from the biblical standpoint, worship.

To worship as the Bible teaches is to move from presence in the service to participation in the service but it is also so move from active participation in the service to active participation in the world. That is what our Amos and Romans passages teach us.

In the Israel to which the prophet Amos preached, people went to church. More accurately, they went to the cultic centers of the land. There they went through the acts of worship. They offered the sacrifices and the offerings. They sang the songs. Had they had a preacher they would probably have even listened to the sermons. But God said, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (Amos 5:21). God rejected their offerings. He would not listen to their songs. Why? Because they were out of relationship with God and with their fellows. God issued this challenge to the people through Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (v. 24).

From our Amos passage we learn that all the worship activity we can do in church is meaningless and worthless unless we also worship with our lives. A basic meaning of the biblical concept “to worship” is “to serve.” The goal of our lives as worshippers is expressed best by Romans 12:1: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” We offer our lives to God in worship by participating in the world outside the church through Christian service. We are to serve God with all that we are and with all that we do.

Romans 12 and 13 reveal that “our spiritual service of worship” (NASB) in the world includes a lot of realities. We are to be humble, to exercise our spiritual gifts, to be loving, to be zealous, patient, prayerful, giving, and forgiving. We are to be good citizens. In short, we are to serve God with every facet of our lives through our every involvement in the world. This service is to be active, too. We are to be actively involved in the giving of ourselves in service to God.

Are we a worshipping church? We are a worshipping church if we give ourselves over to the experience of worship whenever the people of God gather for the purpose of praising God. But we are really a worshipping church if our giving of ourselves to God here results in our giving of ourselves to God “out there.” As Raymond Bailey has said, “Christian worship is never completed in a sanctuary. It issues in the action of God and is completed in the action of the people of God” (“Worship in the New Testament,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, 971). No one—not pastor, nor deacons, nor staff, nor teachers—can do our worshipping for us in here or out there.

Are we a worshipping church?

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