What Is Sunday Worship?

I’m gonna keep this simple, but hopefully not simplistic. As you consider your corporate gathering of believers (typically on the first day of the week), there are three ways to think about it. You can think of it as an event, a participation, or a transformation.

The Event Model can take on two modes: emotionally-driven or cognitively-driven. The emotionally-driven mindset, of course, could baldly mean that you show up to hear some great music and hear a message. You go to watch and experience something. The cognitively-driven mindset could mean that you highlight the sermon so much that it becomes the point of your showing up. You hear this a lot in evangelical churches that the sermon is the most important aspect of the worship experience. The problem with such thinking, though, betrays an onlooker mentality. That is, I go to church to observe and consider and think and have my thinking changed.

In this model, there is an I-Thou expectation of the worship service. I go to that. I consider that. I am separate from and participate in that. In other words, this kind of approach to the corporate gathering is apart from who I am. I go to there. I leave from there. Sure, we talk about taking the message home with us…but come on! You and I both know we forget what was said within 10 minutes of leaving the building. When we are confronted with traffic on the way to the buffet. And then, we get bored. Bored with our lives. Bored with our faith. We find greater joy in our team winning the game than in our eternal salvation won at the cost of the Son of God.

The Participation Model is a little bit better than the event model. This puts the onus on the believer to come to the service seeking to be engaged in other people at church. For all the talk about this being a need in churches, and people nodding their heads in agreement…this does not happen in reality. People cognitively ascend to this truth, but they don’t fully grasp this truth.

If they do grasp a hold of this participation model, it often devolves into judgmentalism (others aren’t as serious about their faith as you are) or complacency (I asked someone how their walk with God is going and they gave me the cold shoulder). So what’s the problem with this model? Write simply it remains in the realm of I-Thou. That is, I bring something to you. I come to serve you. I am apart from and wholly different from you. At its root, it is simply another (albeit more spiritual rendition) of the event model. 

The third, and I believe more biblical model (of course!), is the Tranformational Model. This way of approaching the Sunday morning gathering sheds itself of the event. It doesn’t come in judgment of the service–I didn’t like that song. I liked the sermon. I really engaged with God this morning. Wow, what a wonderful time. Instead, it views Sunday morning as another step in my being conformed into the image of Jesus. It does see it as an event you come to. It is something we participate in. But preeminently it embraces the fact that over time we are being changed by the service itself. 

What does this look like? Well, it understands that every time we attend an event or participate in a service, we are slowly changing. You are much more different from the fifth football game you attended, than the first. You understand the language, the traditions, the cheers. 

So it is with a church service…and this is where it gets a bit thorny. With the typical evangelical liturgy (and it is a liturgy) of two fast songs, two slow songs, a sermon, and dismissal, we are slowly becoming consumers. Or better put, our already-ingrained consumer mentality is reinforced as we observe (and maybe participate). We watch the stage. We critique the songs–or what the song leader was wearing. We sit down and hear someone wax eloquently–or not. 

I fear that much of the problems we see in modern evangelicalism stem from us offering goods and services to people and not inviting them into be transformed. This fact is betrayed in much of the assumptions underlying decisions made on how the liturgy ought to roll. For example, since we need to be engaging and winsome in our communication of the Gospel, we need to play this popular radio song and do a Jesus juke to talk about how real love is only found in Jesus. Of course I’m not saying messages and songs ought to be fuddy-duddy and boring! Stop putting baby in the corner. 

What I am saying is that churches ought to be very clear in what they are shaping their people into becoming. We ought to understand that we are in the business of transformation–from one degree of glory to another. Not filling seats. Not being entertaining and relevant at the cost of depth. 

This is why at Christ the Redeemer, we have been intentional in our liturgy. We believe that the primary purpose of the Sunday morning gathering is the transformation of people. We have an explicit order to our service that follows the biblical storyline of Creation>Fall>Redemption>Consummation. Over time, people’s being is changed. It unwittingly becomes easier to say “I’m sorry, please forgive me” because you are trained to confess your sin every week. You more readily accept forgiveness because you are trained to hear God’s Word of Forgiveness to you after confessing. You more readily come to fellowship with God in spite of and because of your sin because you are trained that at the Lord’s Table you find satisfaction and rest for your souls.

Yes, Sunday morning is an event. But not merely so. It is something we participate in. But not merely so. It is preeminently another step in our being transformed into the likeness of Jesus. The primary goal of Sunday morning is our transformation through intentional liturgies.

Why This Baptist Follows the Revised Common Lectionary

The church I pastor, Christ the Redeemer, is a congregation that seeks to appreciate the tradition of the Church at-large without a lot of the pomp. It is a middle ground between what is called “low church” (a service opting for as earthy as possible–a few songs and a sermon) and “high church” (a lot of formality and ritual). I like to call what we do, “middle church.”

I may write more on this at another time, but our liturgy is structured following the biblical storyline of Creation > Fall > Redemption > Consummation. There are a lot of elements you find in a clearly delineated order of service (i.e., Call to Worship, Individual & Corporate Confession, Lord’s Supper, Benediction, Commission).

Latest Sermon from Warning Passages in Hebrews 2 & 3

The purpose of this post, however, seeks to explain why we follow the Revised Common Lectionary [RCL]. This is our church’s conviction. We do not presume to know or prescribe what other local congregations ought to do…other than preach the Gospel in the best way they see fit for their time and place.

Some Principles that Direct Our Decision

Local Church Autonomy

As a Baptist, we are so thankful for local church autonomy and, as such, there isn’t a prescribed Order of Service for a church to be a “Baptist” church. The elements that link us are theological and not pragmatic. Go to one Baptist church, and it could be different than one you visit the following week. There is no prescribed way to order a Baptist church. Such diversity is healthy. Indeed, it is missiological in nature. There are so many kinds of people. It is only beneficial that there be many different kinds of churches. There is a danger to want all churches to look and sound like my preferences. To acquiesce would make the Church a monolith, rather than the rich and diverse expression of the richness and diversity of her people.

Guardrails & Guidelines

The prescribed readings for a given week are merely that, a prescription. I can opt not to take a prescription. I have often said that the RCL serves as guardrails or guidelines and not a straitjacket. That is, there may be a time in our church’s life that we don’t follow the RCL‘s Scripture passages because we want to focus on a particular book or issue in the life of our church. We have the freedom to do that.

The Whole Counsel of God

The RCL is a set of readings from the Psalms, Old Testament, Gospels, and Epistles. The real beauty of the Lectionary is that over the course of three years, our church will have heard the entire breadth of the Scriptures.

How We Implement the Readings

We open each of our services with a Call to Worship. This has always been from the reading from the Psalm for that Sunday and is typically read responsively with the Service Leader. For example, this past Sunday 
The Leader read Psalm 19.1-6
  The Congregation responded with vv.7-9
The Leader responded with vv.10-13
  The Congregation with v.14.

After children 4-6 are dismissed from the service, we have typically have an Old Testament reading (which follows the thematic order of the RCL rather than working through the Bible canonically). During this season of Lent, the sermon text has been from the Gospel reading, since we have wanted to focus on Jesus’ life and ministry during Epiphany and Lent. Therefore, the New Testament reading has been from the Epistles. 

After we celebrated Easter, we focused attention on the Epistle readings–so we can work through a book (2Corinthians, Ephesians, James, and much of Hebrews). Next year we will focus on Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, and Lamentations.

Responding to Criticism

Are you opting for traditions of men over God’s Word?

Every church follows a liturgy. It is merely an order of service. Whether a church is explicit in its reference to a liturgy or not, it does not negate the fact that every church follows some order of their weekly gathering. A “low church” typically has a Welcome & Announcements, then a few songs (two fast and two slow), followed by a Sermon, Passing the Offering Plate, and Dismissal. There is no getting around a liturgy. Scripture is silent on a prescribed method or model. I can’t help but think this is so that churches have the freedom to contextualize and serve their time and space most effectively. A church in Jerusalem in AD 100 and a church in Greenville, SC in AD 2018 ought to look different, but feel similar, as they are both rooted in the proclamation of the Gospel and mutual edification of the saints. 

What about expositional preaching?

The 20th century saw the advent of working through a book of Scripture–specifically through the ministry of Martin Lloyd-Jones. Since that time, there has been an emphasis in evangelical circles of walking through a book chapter-by-chapter (and in some cases, verse-by-verse). There, of course, is great benefit to walking through a book of Scripture in such a way–after all, that is our plan at Redeemer following Pentecost Sunday!

But “expositional preaching” is a type of preaching that “exposits” or walks through the meaning of a passage of Scripture–heeding the context and the original authorial intent. This is the general characteristic and tenor of expositional preaching. This is the healthiest way to preach, I believe. After all, there is a need for churches to teach people how to read Scripture contextually. There is a need to explain the author’s original intent rather than opting for it as a springboard for a non-contextual, hyper-applicable sermon. The former does not see a need to get the context of the passage because the text is always evolving or it is merely a starting point for a trajectory that changes over time. The latter uses the text of Scripture to support an agenda or topic for the sermon (typically termed “topical preaching”).

Expositional preaching is the kind of preaching I do at Redeemer–though I am sure others would say that I don’t because I don’t preach verse-by-verse. Needless to say, the term “expositional preaching” gets at the issue of explaining a text of Scripture. 

There actually are times that a topical sermon may be in order. For example, I preached on the five solas of the Protestant Reformation for five Sundays to commemorate the 500-year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Each of those solas, however, was wedded to and derived from a passage of Scripture. For example, Sola Scriptura was based off 2Peter 1.16-21, where Peter’s intent was to give the surety and confidence we have in Scripture. 

In fairness, even for those walking through a book verse-by-verse or chapter-by-chapter, the passage for that Sunday runs the risk of being taken out of context. That is, instead of reading the whole epistle of Ephesians (as would have been done in Ephesus), the pastor will only be explaining one chapter or a few verses of one chapter in hopes that people remember the previous weeks’ sermons and verses. It behoves each of us on Sunday to explain the context of a passage of Scripture each Sunday for the building up of God’s people and as a demonstration of how to read contextually and with all the texture and depth of a particular passage. 

Positively Speaking

Jewish prescribed readings

Following the guidelines of the RCL follows the model of the Jewish readings in the synagogue during the time of Christ. Note Luke 4.17: The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to [Jesus]. There was a prescribed lectionary in the Jewish faith. Following the RCL just follows such a model.

The Breadth of Scripture

As mentioned earlier, following the RCL helps the congregation hear the entirety of Scripture over the course of three years. A couple Sundays ago, we had the uncomfortable experience of sitting through the entirety of Genesis 17 where there word “circumcision” shows up repeatedly. It was uncomfortable as a father…and as a man. Yet, there I was listening and underneath God’s Word. Following the RCL helps us affirm in a practical way our belief that all of Scripture is God-breathed, not merely what the preaching pastor feels comfortable with. 

In all honesty, and in full disclosure, I have heard this as an argument for walking through a book verse-by-verse. Yes, this is great! Keep going for it. Yet, I can’t help but think that many pastors keep preaching through Romans and Genesis and Nehemiah and several epistles verse-by-verse and don’t want to tackle Song of Solomon or Leviticus or Revelation. Sure, there are brothers who are tackling those…may their tribe increase! Yet, let’s not put our yoke of conviction on others and say it must be their yoke. May we be able to serve in our particular congregations in accord with our convictions and joyfully.

Affirming the Church Universal

Every Sunday, while our people at our local congregation are hearing the words of John 2.13-22 so also are myriads of congregations hearing these same passages. We are one congregation in the midst of the Great Congregation. Not only across space, but across time.

What a beautiful picture to consider that we are hearing the same readings as other brothers and sisters…and across denominational lines!

Shaping the Congregation

The seasons of the Church Calendar provide us opportunity to pause at intervals to consider various aspects of our discipleship. That is, we focused on Jesus’ first Advent–his kingship, and then on his early ministry of calling the disciples and how that ought to inform our being called by him at Epiphany, and we reflected on the need to repent and lay down our lives during the season of Lent. We focus on the church as a community during Ordinary Time after Pentecost Sunday (the too-oft neglected celebration of the Church–that is, not celebrating and considering the implications of Pentecost forty days following Resurrection Sunday. My opinion only!). 

I have heard accounts of people in our congregation being greatly affected by the various foci we have had as a congregation as we have spent time considering these varied aspects of our communal and personal discipleship with Jesus.

Preparing Our Hearts

This is not to say that this can’t happen in a church that doesn’t follow the RCL, I wish, though, it would happen more, but every Sunday people know what passages we will be hearing…for the rest of our lives. That is, we are in cycle B of the Lectionary right now. Someone in my congregation passed me in the hallway before the worship service and asked, “You preaching on John 2 today?” What an encouraging question! “Why yes, yes I am.” Even visitors to our congregation could know what I will be preaching on if they visited the Lectionary for that Sunday. Granted, I could have preached on Psalm 19 or Exodus 20 or 1Corinthians 1 this past Sunday. But at least someone would know.

One Story

There is a thorny problem in our churches that opt for a canon within a canon. That is, too often people give priority or superiority of one Scripture or body of Scripture over another. Because the RCL has us read from four passages of Scripture each Sunday, we see the value of poetry, history, prose, prophecy, and epistle. We see them as equally important to our devotion.

What is more, because we have opted for the thematic readings, we will hear from Numbers 21 (the account of the bronze serpent being lifted up) and John 3 (where Jesus references that happening in Israel’s wilderness wanderings) and Ephesians 2 (where Paul reminds us that we were not just in the threat of death, but were, indeed, dead in our trespasses and sins). 

People are enabled to see the one story of Scripture that magnifies and tells the story of redemption. They hear the unity of the Bible. Its beauty and its strength and its relevance for us…in every genre of Scripture.

Sanitized Christianity

Below is a letter I just sent out to our church. I believe it might encourage and enliven your own faith, and share it with you to that end.

Redeemer,

What a gift yesterday was as we celebrated Pentecost Sunday. As I shared in my opening comments, it is a sad state when the Church doesn’t even know about the glorious celebration of the Spirit’s filling of believers. This is not to chastise other churches. Rather, it is a stiff reminder of why we do what we do when it comes to the church calendar and liturgy. It roots us deep in the rich history of the church. While so many believe they are searching for the new and fresh, it is actually the firm and tried forms the church has been practicing for millennia. Surely, there are dead expressions of this beautiful liturgy. Therefore, we want to know what and why we are doing what we do to safeguard from form without substance. We want to have the skeletal work of the liturgy with the breath of life (read “Spirit”) and muscular reflex (read “walking in the light”).
With that said, as I was preaching I was struck by the beauty of considering the utter power and creative work of the Spirit. As I looked out on our fledgling congregation, it was as if I could see the small band of disciples at Pentecost—only eleven. Yet, being filled with the same Spirit who created the world. The same Spirit who filled the Apostles to speak fervently and with full conviction. This same Spirit lives within us! Have you considered the sheer magnitude of that? Your life is not a mere appendix to the story of redemption. It is a continuation of this magnificent work to go and tell other to come and see. Every conversation you have is alive with opportunity and grace. Every glance. Every moment is resplendent with the glory and presence of God. What would our lives and our world look like with a band of disciples whose lives and decisions revolve around Jesus? Not around vacations and job promotions and being thought highly of by those we so diligently seek approval from.
So much of our Christianity in Greenville is sanitized. That is, we put the Spirit’s work in a box or in a moment. We minimize him. We relegate him to private moments. In fact, he is constantly at work. He gives us every breath we have (remember Psalm 104.29-30?). What our city needs is less concern for our preening and being made much of in the eyes of others. What our city. What our world needs is Christians who really believe, and who live in accord with that belief, that Jesus is always enough. He’s enough for our pain and suffering. He’s enough for our excitement and comfort. He’s enough for my job. He’s enough for my neighbors. He’s enough for my family. He’s enough for me.
May God fill our church with his Spirit so that the watching world will indeed say, “See what way they love one another!”
May the Lord open your eyes to the beauty of his work this week,
Matt

Abiding in Christ?

How do you abide in someone you can’t see or touch or audibly listen to? When Jesus told his disciples to abide in him, was it merely for them or is it something we are called to emulate?

To the first question, Jesus most certainly expected his disciples to abide in him despite not being able to touch him and hear him and see him. After all, John 15 (where the speech comes from) is right before his crucifixion. Too often our faith is wedded to too much wooden-ness in understanding. We veer toward, “Yes, but…” Like Thomas who would not believe unless he put his hand in Jesus’ side, so also our faith is not expansive enough. Blessed are those that have not seen and yet believe–which leads to the second question.

Jesus prayed not only for his disciples in the Garden, but for all those who would hear the Good News from his disciples testimony. When he responded to Thomas that those who have not seen and yet believe are makarios (“blessed”), he had you and me in mind. What we see unfold in Scripture after the Resurrection is the kind of effulgent life he wants us to live…and abiding life.

So how do we abide?

I would suggest three ways.

Keeping His Word

Throughout John’s Gospel and his epistles, Jesus tells us that if we love him we will keep his commands. Like a father who loves his child, like an older brother looking out for his younger brother, Jesus tells us how to navigate God’s world. Do we trust him enough to actually follow his steps?

This explicit teaching is what is called the Revealed Will of God. While God is constantly working in his world for his own purposes, part of that working is his condescension to tell us how to understand his world. That is, unlike the gods of the Ancient Near East, Yahweh determined to tell his people how to live. His Law is gracious and kind to reveal his ways to us.

All the Law hangs on Jesus’ admonition to love God and people.

Throughout the New Testament we see what it looks like to abide in Christ when we hear the Apostles telling people to put others before their own whims and preferences. We see this worked out as the Spirit comes at Pentecost and the Church extends to the uttermost parts of the world.

Led By the Spirit

It is no accident that John 16’s (continued) discourse on the preferment of the Spirit’s coming follows on the heels of Jesus’ command to abide in him. While the Law is gracious and good, we botch it up with our self-seeking and short-sightedness. We need the Spirit of God to guide us into all truth.

As I shared in my sermon on Sunday, there are three witnesses: water, blood, and Spirit. The first two speak to the doctrinal clarity and objective reality of who Jesus is. The third is the subjective application of these truths into the life of the believer.

Unfortunately the Spirit is equated with emotionalism and awkward and outlandish activity by those claiming to be Spirit-led. This is an unfortunate state of affairs, indeed. While the Spirit blows where he will, and does things outside our meager understanding, this does not necessarily mean that his working in incomprehensible or outlandish or alien (more on this in the third point).

What are some ways we can be led by the Spirit?

Well, he inspired the text of Scripture and has clearly spoken there. Go there.

In Ephesians 5.18, we are told to be filled with the Spirit. How? The participles that follow this command tell us how: Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. The Spirit is guiding and directing God’s people. Go there.

It would be good to reflect on each of these four participles and consider how you might be filled with the Spirit in ever-increasing measure. Are you speaking God’s songs over people? Are you singing to soothe the angst in your own heart? Are you grateful? Are you putting others’ needs before your own–considering them more significant than yourself?

Being Attune to God’s Working

One of my charges as a pastor is to help us see God’s continual work in the world. It is easy to wax on about God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence but to deny his power and that this means right here right now. He is not all these characteristics merely in heaven. While you may say, “Obviously!” In fact, many of us affirm these aspects of God yet we live life as though he is not at work in the mundane stuff of life. We talk about him and his superintendent work int he world…but we fail to see his work in my making coffee or standing in line or talking to a stranger.

The shift in our lives happens when we see him always at work. Always. In the mundane. In the suffering and pain. In the exciting. That is God working and shaping you.

Every conversation. Every. Conversation. Is opportunity to hear God speak to you. For him to shape you. Every appointment is a “divine appointment.” He graciously guides our footsteps. The person in the checkout line needs to hear of God’s grace. Your co-worker needs to know that God loves him. The annoying neighbor needs to see God’s mercy. Your family needs to experience peace in your words and actions. These are all God’s ever-present work. His beckoning us to abide in his word and his world.