Thursday, June 11, 2009

Why I Go to Worship

Last week, my church's worship and music committee discussed worship attendance. If talk from the recent Gulf Coast Synod Assembly was any indication, it's a synod-wide problem. Church members are skipping out on church services.

After some discussion, through which I sat silently, I asked the other committee members, "Why do you go to church?" The chair asked if that was a rhetorical question and I said, "No, I really want to know, because I'm not sure I can articulate why I go to church. I've tried to stop a couple of times but I keep coming back, but I'm not sure why."

There was some discussion after that, but none of it really helped my inarticulateness. Being a writer, inarticulate moments frustrate me, so I've been pondering this ever since.

Here's what I have so far.

It's largely a relationship thing. What do I mean by that? Are my best friends at church? Not necessarily, although I am quite fond of many people there and would name them among my friends. Some of my closest friends don't even go to church, aren't even Christian, so it's not as if church is the sole or even primary source of my friendships.

I often think, however, where else will I sing with other people? Having grown up in the church, I have a list of hymns that hold a number of associations for me. "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" is one that I really enjoy singing, and I wouldn't care to do it as a solo. Where else will I sing "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" with a group of people? I think there is a nearly religious dimension to singing anything together. I've heard people who have come back from the Kerrville Folk Festival and talk about singing songs around a campfire long after all the performances have ended. They speak of it in quasi-religious terms. So it's not as if I couldn't find groups of people with whom to sing. I'm not hugely fond of "Just As I Am," a hymn with to much emphasis on the first person singular for my theological tastes, but when I'm singing it with a congregation, well, it's okay. And where else will I do that?

There are people at church I wouldn't know any other way than because we go to the same church. Engineers, lawyers, school teachers . . . I might run into these categories of people in my job as a retail bookseller, but where else will I have breakfast with them? Left to my own devices, all I'd know would be artists, performers, and writers. Going to worships exposes me to people from walks of life I wouldn't normally hang out with. And my life is made richer.

But it's not only a relationship with people thing, although that's an inescapable dimension of it. We gather as people of God, as followers of Jesus. And one thing that is true, even when I've tried to avoid the church, is that I'm a little in love with Jesus. There I said it. Sounds sentimental and mooshy, doesn't it? Well, it's not some box of candies, flower arrangement kind of love. Jesus doesn't really work all that hard at being consistently loveable. But I find Jesus compelling. I'll allow that it may be because I grew up in a Christian family and in church, but even though there are Buddhist or Taoist teachings that I find very interesting, even edifying, it's Jesus that I want to follow. It's the God that Jesus pointed to that interests me. That I love.

And seeing as how the church is the body of Christ, I suppose that means I'm a little in love with the people with whom I sing and pray on a Sunday morning. Sometimes we sing to God, but it seems we more often sing to each other. "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" isn't addressed to God or Jesus. The liturgical hymn of praise "This is the Feast" is not addressed to God. "Lift High the Cross," a hymn with strong memories attached, is not addressed to God. So we must be singing to each other. And there's where something remarkable, even mystical happens. Singing together, we may be praising God, but we may also be singing to one another, as the body of Christ. It is as if Christ is singing to each of us. Exhortation, comfort, encouragement---where else will I hear dozens of people singing these words to me as from Christ? Where else can I, with dozens of people, sing these words to someone among us, someone who is needing that hymn sung to them by the body of Christ?

So this relationship thing, this love thing . . . I don't always feel it, not every Sunday. I do trust it's there, regardless. I do trust that there is something bigger than my feelings happening among us. I live in hope that because we gathered together, someone is leaving edified, renewed, hopeful, loved, even if that someone isn't me.

I'm not sure this explains it all, at least not to my complete satisfaction. I don't know that it's comprehensive enough. The sacraments are very much a part of my need for church, and I haven't even mentioned them here. Maybe another post. I'll have to see if I can find the words to talk about the sacraments in ways that express why I need them. This inarticulateness is frustrating. I hope my muddling through these thoughts might stimulate some thoughts of your own. I welcome responses.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Thought on Worship

A book that I'm likely to reference frequently here is Mirror to the Church: Resurrecting Faith after Genocide in Rwanda. It is by a Ugandan Roman Catholic priest and scholar, Emmanuel Katongole, who teaches at the Duke Divinity School. It is a book that fell into my hands somewhat accidentally, not something I would have normally sought out, but seems to have animated my imagination in ways that few books on religion have. His main hypothesis is that what happened in Rwanda in 1994 is reflective of how the church in many societies, in the West as well as in Africa, operates. That is, the church as it currently exists simply doesn't matter. It didn't matter that Rwanda has been considered one of the most successfully evangelized African nations. Christians killed Christians and often in direct, hand-to-hand combat (which, for some reason, strikes me as even more atrocious than if the genocide had been accomplished by long-range missiles or even simply pulling a trigger on a gun---hacking people to death with a machete is much more . . . personal).

Katongole asks, what difference does being a Christian make? If we call ourselves Christian but then can kill our fellow church members simply because the government says they're the enemy, what good is saying we follow Christ?

As I say, there is much in this relatively short book (it's under 200 pages) that I will likely bring up in weeks and maybe months to come, but I want to put out there one short quote from him (in part because I was at a worship and music committee meeting today):

"I do not think it is any accident that the civil rights movement in the United States grew out of black churches where people were used to worshiping Jesus for two, three, even four hours at a time. Christians who cannot imagine worshiping God that long may want to reconsider their cost/benefit analysis of discipleship."

This strikes me as terribly indicting of the church when I hear complaints that a worship service goes more than 10 minutes over an hour or that a hymn was too long or there simply were too many hymns.

I'm not sure I'm advocating 3 hour worship services, but I am pondering the cost of being a church member. That is, I'm wondering if we even think there is a cost to being a church member. What are we willing to "pay" for the right to call ourselves disciples?

(Obviously, this is a question applicable to countless other areas of a Christian life, not just worship. Spin it where the Spirit leads.)