Sing a New Song
I am a PK, a preacher’s kid and grew up in a traditional Methodist church with hymns, the organ, anthems, a handbell choir and Calls to Worship. In 1990, I attended a conference in Houston on cutting edge ministry. The first night opened with worship. I walked in and the worship began with a band. I was blown away. We worshiped that night and sang music I had never heard before. We worshiped the next morning and then again in the evening and the same the following day. I had never seen anything like that before in worship.
When I was growing up, United Methodist Churches were like McDonald’s. It didn’t matter what part of the country you were in, we had the same menu in worship and even ministries. That’s no longer the case today. In fact, as you attend other churches, you begin to discover that there are dramatic differences in worship styles, even within the same denomination. Why is that and what is the purpose of worship? The Hebrew and Greek terms for worship in the Bible "emphasize the act of prostration, the doing of obedience." Warren Wiersbe writes, "Worship is the believer’s response of all that he is--mind, emotions, will, and body--to all that God is and says and does.” That’s what the Psalmist says today, worship first and foremost is about God. Worship is pure adoration of God by one’s entire being. In worship we acknowledge God’s kingship in our lives and His right to rule over us. Worship is for God’s benefit. He has the center stage. And yet Jimmy Cutter writes, “Many Christians misunderstand the purpose of congregational worship. Many times our congregational worship has become an experience in which (we are) the focus. Worship has deteriorated into an "I didn’t get anything out of that sermon" experience. (We have) become the object of own worship. (We are) there to be entertained and spiritually massaged. It hardly occurs to some that worship is primarily a matter of God receiving something from us: our praise, adoration, and confession of dependence on Him as our Sovereign.” Worship is not about us or our needs, it’s about God and giving him the praise and worship he deserves.
The second purpose of worship is to connect people with God. But that raises the question, “Which people?” In our society, we have been taught and conditioned to focus on ourselves: our needs, our wants and our desires. But are we Gretna UMC’s primary customer? Paul Borden in his book, “Direct Hit: Aiming Real Leaders at the Mission Field” writes, “Congregations have two types of customers. Primary customers are the ones who are not yet part of the congregation because they do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Secondary customers are the disciples who are already involved in the congregation…When that order is reversed, or if a congregation loses sight of its primary customers, (the church begins to die.) The movement from a inward focus to an outward focus with rare exception demands a major shift.” Most people encounter a church for the first time in a worship service. That means worship has an evangelistic purpose to it as we seek to expose people to Jesus and connect them with their Creator and Redeemer. Worship is a primary means of evangelism and so the question becomes, What is the best style of worship to evangelize the people we are trying to reach?
When you study history, you realize that forms and expressions of worship have always been changing to reach the culture in which the church is ministering. Culture has influenced worship practices and styles. In fact, so much of what we do in worship today stems from a specific point in time and what was happening in culture then. The problem is that what helped people connect to God in one point in time may not today. And yet our worship styles become ingrained us. It’s fascinating how our own personal choices and preferences dictate what we feel is appropriate worship or not. This seems to have always been the case. Here are two letters written from individuals complaining about the song selection and music in worship.
One letter said:
"I am no music scholar, but I feel I know appropriate church music when I hear it. Last Sunday’s new hymn - if you can call it that - sounded like a sentimental love ballad one would expect to hear crooned in a saloon. If you insist on exposing us to rubbish like this - in God’s house! - don’t be surprised if many of the faithful look for a new place to worship. The hymns we grew up with are all we need." This letter was written in 1863 and the song they were concerned about was "Just As I Am".
Another letter said: "What is wrong with the inspiring hymns with which we grew up? When I go to church, it is to worship God, not to be distracted with learning a new hymn. Last Sunday’s was particularly unnerving. The tune was unsingable and the new harmonies were quite distorting." This letter was written in 1890 about the hymn "What A Friend We Have In Jesus".
And yet in the 19th century, there was only one style of worship, what we call today traditional worship. So why are there so many styles of worship today? The simple answer is because there are so many different types of people. For the first time, the church is faced with the challenge of ministering to 5 living generations. In the 19th century, people were pretty much the same. They liked the same music, held the same values, and believed the same things. But after WW II, we began to see a greater diversity appearing among people and generations. Let’s take a brief look at the differences between the generations and their preferences in worship. Now there is always a danger in characterizing an entire generation with broad brushstrokes because many people in a generation will not fit into such a description, but these preferences characterize the generation as a whole.
The G.I. Generation and the Silent Generation are those born before 1946. They are very cautious and that makes them suspicious of great changes, especially in the church. They long for stability and see dramatic change as an unnecessary risk. They would prefer to stay with the methods that worked in the past. They’re known for their faithful stewardship and their leadership in and commitment to the church. While they were influenced by big band music, in their mind it did not belong in the church. There is a clear distinction between the secular and the sacred. They prefer traditional worship, times of quiet reflection and meditation, hymns, anthems, and sacred music like Bach and Beethoven. They want worship which is moving and challenges and engages the mind but which is not too emotional.
Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1965, mistrust authority, government and other institutions their parents honored and served, even the church. Having been the focus of society all their lives, they come to church with a “what’s in it for me” mentality. By in large, they prefer non-traditional music with a band up front led by a group of people, and keyboard driven music, like soft rock. Worship should be fast-paced with no lagging or dragging and the music should be happy and upbeat. They want hands on practical teaching in how to improve their lives. The sanctuary should be well lit and they expect excellence in everything in worship.
Generation X was born between 1965 and 1983. Only 1 in 7 go to church, reflective of the fact that this is the first generation to be raised outside of the church. But they still yearn for a relationship with God. If they go to church, they prefer contemporary, guitar driven, edgier music, what some might call hard rock. The words to the songs often have an edge to them and are more honest and personal. They also seek a multi-ethnic gathering. They want worship to be real, relevant, relational and revolutionary. Xers have little use for hype. While boomers focus on a high-quality performance, Xers focus more whether it’s an authentic leaders and an authentic experience. They want worship which is more interactive and experiential. It involves sharing your own stories and questions of faith. It is a shift from simply presentation of the gospel to interaction with the Gospel as they share life together.
The Millenials are those born after 1982. They like Jesus but not the church or the hypocritical Christians which fill them. They don’t want to be told what to believe but rather want to be led to consider their beliefs. They are much more accepting of diversity than any generation and prefer churches with diversity. They think church services should “feel like church” and thus they like worship experiences with an ancient-future feel to them, reclaiming many of the mystical traditions of the church, like singing the Agnus Dei but to a rock orchestration or encouraging people to pray through the Scriptures, the ancient practice of lectio divina. They prefer a dark sanctuary and there will be candles, lots of them. They want to experience God so they want to touch, taste, smell, and feel something in worship along with seeing and hearing. Worship is not something to watch or listen to but something to sense. They are very informal services. Their preferred music is more mellow, almost-blues style music which provides an oasis from their hectic lives.
The tactic that most churches have taken to reach these different generations falls into two categories. The first is to do nothing at all. They take the attitude, “This is the way we do things, so get used to it.” And as a result, the Methodist Church has missed out on the majority of Baby Boomers and practically all of Generation X and is losing many of the Millennials it has. That is one reason why the average age in the Methodist Church is 60. The second approach is to expand your styles of worship service. The most common example is to have a Contemporary Service and a Traditional Service. But many other churches are finding that’s not sufficient and so they not only have a Contemporary Boomer service, but another targeting Xers and another for Millennials. Some have even more due to the wide differences even within a generation. NorthCoast Community Church in San Diego has 13 different styles of services. The problem with these approaches is that Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week whether that be racially or generationally. In fact, studies have found that almost 93% of Catholic and Protestant churches are mono-racial. Now if the kingdom of heaven is not segregated then why on earth is the church?
And that leads to a third path which we, the leadership and your pastor, feel God is calling this church: to become a multiethnic church. Jesus’ last prayer before his crucifixion and death, which is the longest prayer in the Bible, prays for one and one thing only: that we would be one. In John 17:21-23, Jesus prays, “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Two things about Jesus’ prayer: first, he prays that all believers may be one. And all means all! Second, the word ‘perfect’ in Greek means to become mature or completely one. In other words, Christ intends for believers to become mature in our faith, completely united as one with each other and with God. Jesus prays this so that the world might know God’s love and believe through us and our life together. If so, then God will be glorified. So we have been called to be one for the sake of Gospel and the mission of Jesus Christ. Mark Deymaz in Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church writes: “Indeed, when men and women of diverse backgrounds walk together as one with Christ, they uniquely reflect the Father’s love on earth as it is in heaven. More than that, their oneness of mind, love, spirit and purpose proclaim the Gospel in a most powerful and compelling way…..Yes, in pursuing the “perfection of unity,” we will see the world saved…..If we unite as one….., the world will experiencially understand that he is truly the Savior of the world. For only the Messiah, the Prince of Peace can redeem mankind-men and women from every nation, tribe, people and tongue-and unite them as one before the Father, thereby establishing peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”
The fact is it was difficult for the first disciples to understand that God’s unconditional love and the message of eternal life was to be taken beyond Jewish borders. They seem to have found it difficult to leave the environment in which they were most comfortable, their comfort zone. In fact, every person called by God has been called beyond their comfort zone: from Abraham to Moses, Joseph to Ruth, Esther to Isaiah and from Christ himself to the Apostle Paul. And yet that is the call of the Great Commission, to go and make disciples of all nations, in Jerusalem and in all Judea (the disciple’s comfort zone) but then Jesus says Samaria, the despised land and people who were half-breed Jews because they intermarried with the Gentiles and a people and a territory which every good Jew was to avoid. And just in case you don’t understand, Jesus says we are to go to the ends of the earth. In other words, go to every other Gentile territory. In order to build a church which reflects the kingdom of God, we must be willing to do the same. We must be willing to leave our comfort zone and familiarity in order to go and make disciples of all nations.
Ruben and Adrain Vaughn, Victoria Stipelcovich and I were discussing this calling to become a multi-ethnic church a couple of Sundays ago. I was raised in an all white traditional, high church worship experience in a suburban church with white collar professionals. Ruben and Adrain come from an African American gospel worship service. And Victoria comes from a non-denominational background. We realized we are all outside our comfort zones! But we also believe this is exactly where God is calling us to be and together we’re ready to take this journey, trusting God and his guidance.
A muti-ethnic worship experience will need to speak to African Americans, Hispanics and other ethnic groups. African Americans prefer a worship service which is filled with high energy music. They want a service which has verbal participation by saying “Amen” and repeating after the pastor and other forms of “dialogue. They prefer sermons which are relevant to current issues in their lives like positive relationships, addictive behavior, and financial planning. And they love spontaneity during worship which reflects the leading of the spirit.
Two weeks ago, we asked all of our leaders to get outside their comfort zone and attend one of four churches on the WestBank which were chosen by four criteria: they are growing, reaching a younger audience, are multi-ethnic and are on the WestBank. The leaders then came back to church after worship where we had lunch and discussed what we saw, experienced and learned. After more than an hour and a half discussion, we talked about our next step in terms of worship. Now remember, we are not trying to reach Builders, Boomers, Generation X or the Millernnials, we feel God’s call is to reach people of all nations, ages and races. With that in mind, we considered whether to go back to two worship services, a traditional and contemporary service or take the next step in transitioning our current worship. Going to two services would allow us to provide a traditional service for those who prefer that. The problem is that we are averaging 175 in worship in a 450 seat sanctuary and that would make this seem even more cavernous. It would also split the church into two congregations. Transitioning our service would allow us to stay together, reach more people, fill the sanctuary and expose all of us to even wider expressions of worship. After much discussion, the leadership resoundingly chose to continue transitioning our service. From those services, we committed to do three things. We will increase the number of greeters we have and work on our hospitality as congregation. We will continue to have a hymn or two but re-orchestrated and accompanied by the band as well as other “traditional expressions of worship as a part of our service. Third, we will offer a wider variety of worship expressions in our service which reaches across cultures and race. We believe this will help us not only to fulfill God’s call to become a multiethnic church but also to achieve the purpose of worship: to honor, praise and glorify God and to help us fulfill the Great Commission by connecting people of every nation, tribe, people and tongue to God through the use of culture specific music and acts of worship.
For some of you, that is going to be an easy transition. It’s something that you’ve been yearning for. For others of you, it is going to mean some sacrifice and perhaps even some tolerance of other expressions of worship outside your comfort zone and your preference for traditional worship. Gerardo Marti, author of “Diversity and Innovation in the Multi-Ethnic Church” states that “Mainline denominations grew during a particular period of history and they don’t recognize that the forms of worship that they have are imbedded with a number of cultural codes, cultural understandings and cultural assumptions. In a profound sense, some of our churches are radically Anglo in their orientation….Our mainline liturgy is developed from England and Western Europe and so those practices….have imbedded with them certain orientations For example, the concern for time…. (second) architecture and the way seating is arranged which impacts our relationship to each other and what happens up front….(third) the metrical systems of music and the hymns that are treasured have a particular history to it. The more astute working towards diversity (realize) music has cultural assumptions imbedded in them and they are pushing to embrace a variety of rhythms so that we can include a greater cultural diversity, even in our hymnology.” Up to this point, those of African, Hispanic and African American descent who have joined us have done so because they moved from their tradition, history and background and adopted ours. We are asking for the sake of Jesus Christ and the Great Commission for you to take the same step toward their worship traditions and their preferences in music and ritual. For it is in the middle where we will meet as brothers and sisters in Christ and where we will become one in Christ. We are asking you to join us in mission through the support of your time, talents, treasures and presence to accomplish God’s call to become a multi-ethnic congregation.
Many of you have made comments about the new attire I’ve been wearing. The reason I’ve changed is because through conversations, I realized that African Americans have an expectation that the minister will be in coat and tie. For many of our visitors it has been a distraction to see me dressed casually. Two weeks ago just before service, Luke was in my office and asked which I would rather wear, the suit or slacks and a golf shirt. And my honest answer was this: I am willing to wear and do whatever it takes for us to pursue and accomplish our God given task and that is to become a multi-ethnic church. I ask you in the name of Jesus Christ to join me in making a similar sacrifice as we continue to transition our service for the glory and honor of God and to reach people from every nation, tribe, people and tongue. I’ll end with this quote: Philosopher Monk Scheller states, “Nothing unites beings more immediately and intimately that the common worship and adoration of the Holy. It lies in the essence of the intention toward the Holy to unite and join together.” Together, may we be one and may God’s vision become a reality. Amen and Amen.