May 29, 2011

Transforming Worship
W. Gregory Pope, preaching

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Series: Practice Resurrection
Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 12:1-2; John 4:19-24

The title of the sermon today should be read in two different ways:

1) Transforming Worship as worship that transforms us.

2) And Transforming Worship in the sense of transforming the ways in which we worship.


Encounters with God touch us in deep places and leave us differently than before. 

When we worship, we are seeking to meet the God of resurrection, who brings life out of death.

So we should expect transformation.


Transformation is the purpose of our worship.

God does not need our praise.

We need to praise and worship the only One worthy of our worship

so that we do not bow down to the lesser gods of this world,

like individualism and greed.


Paul said, “Do not be conformed to this world,

but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. 

Present yourself as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. 

This is your worship.”

The giving of yourself to God.


Worship is one of the most significant spiritual practices

God uses to shape souls and open hearts and change minds and transform lives. 


When it comes to worship, there is a multitude of traditions and styles and forms.


The most common form found in almost every worship service

finds its roots in Isaiah 6,

the text we read as a call to worship.


It is an ancient four-fold form:

            1) The Gathering with Praise/Awe/Reverence and Confession

                        This is where we encounter the holy presence of God.

            2) The Service of the Word with Scripture and Sermon

                        This is where we listen for God to speak to us.

            3) The Response including the Table and Offering

                        This is where we respond to what God has said.

            4) The Sending Forth with Benediction

                        This is where God sends us into the world to be God’s people.


As early as the second century we have documents describing the worship of the church following very closely to this form.


And I think worship is incomplete without some variation of these four movements.


However, there are many creative expressions of that form.


People worship differently.


Some, like myself, worship best in formal settings,

with lots of readings, hymns, an organ, choir and clergy robes, etc.

There’s something about a formal liturgy

that helps me encounter God honestly, reverently, and deeply.

I know that’s not true for everyone, but it is for me.


Instead of speaking for those who prefer a less formal style of worship,

I have asked Andrea Woolley to come and share what helps her worship best.


Andrea Woolley:


My preferred mode of worship is not traditional, but it is not contemporary;

it is, I don’t know, maybe eclectic.

I believe our worship is our response to God,

and since we are all different,

with different personalities,

different styles and different comfort levels,

so our worship will be different.


My worship takes form in a million ways.

Sometimes it is silent awe.

Sometimes it is laughter so hard that I am afraid I might pee on myself.

Sometimes my worship is sitting in a doctor’s office

with a sick kid and advocating for him

to make sure he gets the medical care he deserves.


My preferred corporate worship style is spontaneous, intimate, ever changing, and unexpected.

I am one of those people who would prefer not to know what’s coming next.

I don’t want an order of worship.

(I want the worship leaders to have a plan and know what’s going on,

but I want to be surprised.)

I want guitars and drums and piano and sometimes no music at all.

I want a thought-provoking, intellectual sermon

and sometimes I want a story, a narrative type sermon.


If I could plan corporate worship for myself every week

it would be different and spontaneous and unexpected and intimate.

I want to be surprised.


But worship isn’t about me.

And I hate to burst anyone’s bubble this morning,

but it is not about you either.

It is about coming together as the family of God

and showing our love of God to each other

and acknowledging our awe and wonder of the God we serve together.


(End of Andrea’s remarks)


Some worship well in both settings and in blended settings

where there is a mixture of formal and informal


Most of us by nature and experience prefer one over the other.


The key for the sake of community is not to demand your way or the highway.

People have been arguing over different ways of worship since the beginning. 

And the fights can get ugly.


Someone has quipped,

“What’s the difference between a liturgist (one who plans worship) and a terrorist? 

You can reason with a terrorist.”


All of us, no matter what our preference, we are influenced by culture.

All worship is shaped in a cultural context.

To say that culture shapes us

is not the same as being conformed to the world.


Leonard Sweet has, I think, chosen a helpful way to talk about generational differences.

We often talk of the builder generation, the boomer generation, Generation X and Y.

Sweet divides us into the Gutenberg generation (those born before 1971)

and the Google generation (those born after 1971).


Why 1971?

In 1971, the first home computer came out.


Those born before 1971, the Gutenberg generation, are more influenced by print, words in books.

Those born after 1971, the Google generation, are more visual;

seeing words and images on screens are more natural for them.


This is no hard and fast divide.

You can be born before 1971 and prefer visuals to print (and vice-versa).


But generational and cultural differences do affect the way we worship.


Even the forms of biblical worship were shaped by ancient culture and thought.

But I think it is always important to look for the meaning behind the tradition,

no matter what the culture,

and see if it can be helpful for our worship.


I think there is something to be said

about participating in a ritual that goes back hundreds and thousands of years.

It has a way of connecting us to our brothers and sisters of the past.


I’ve said before that we should take tradition seriously without following tradition blindly. 

We should not do or say or sing something in worship

simply because the historical liturgy of the church says it should be done.

However, we should pay attention and give thought

to what the church has done in worship for over 2000 years,

as well as what Israel did 2000 years before that. 


It is arrogant to assume we have nothing to learn from the history of the church’s worship. 

At the same time,

it is meaningless to do something just because it has always been done

or because the official liturgical police (whoever they are and wherever they are hiding)

say it must be done.


We must always be open to new ways of worship.

The psalmist calls us to sing a new song to God.

God is still speaking.

God is still inspiring.

And we should be open to whatever new thing the Spirit is doing.


As many of you know

we are considering the beginning of a second worship service

likely to take place on Sunday evenings

that is more informal in nature,

incorporating the use of technology,

it will be more sensory than traditional worship,

most likely the music will be led by a worship band,

all for the purpose of providing other avenues

where more people can encounter God in worship.


Blending worship forms can only go so far,

and we do not want to exclude persons

simply because they do not find a more formal worship service meaningful.

It is another way we are seeking to be a church for all people.


The woman of Samaria raised the question of worship to Jesus:

Where and how should we worship? 

Should we worship on Mt. Gerazim as the Samaritans do,

or in Jerusalem as the Jews do?


We have the same questions:

Should we worship in a sanctuary with robes and organ and formal prayers and sacred hymns,

or outside on the lawn in casual attire with guitar and the feel of informality? 

Will God be disappointed if we incorporate some worship elements

from the Catholics, the Presbyterians, and the Methodists,

or should we just stick with the Baptist tradition?

And if so, which Baptist tradition -

the revivalistic Sandy Creek tradition

or the liturgical, formal, Charleston tradition?

What about snakes and incense and dancing?

All of it is in the Bible.


Jesus brings an astounding answer to this Samaritan woman and to us.  He says:

“The hour is coming when you will worship God neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.

God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth.”


Where do we worship?

How do we worship?

Jesus says, wherever and however we are in the Spirit of God,

and with as much truth and honesty as we can bring to God.


American Christians have been engaged in the so-called “worship wars” for over thirty years:

traditional worship, liturgical worship, informal worship,

blended worship, praise worship, emergent church worship.

Tastes great!  Less filling! we yell at each other.

My worship is better than yours.


Jesus makes it simple:

Worship in the Spirit of God, as you sense God leading you,

with all the truth you can bring.


No matter what the form,

the question to consider before any service of worship is this: 

Am I intending to allow God’s Spirit to form me,

to change me, to transform me

through these acts of worship,

or am I intending to see what is here for me or evaluate the quality of entertainment?


And the question to consider upon leaving a service of worship is not:

“What did I get out of it?

but rather “What did I leave at the altar? 

What offering did I make? 

What part of myself did I give to God? 

And what difference will it make in my life?”


Not every worship service will transform your life. 

But the hope of worship is that little by little, week by week,

small changes will take place that will help you follow Christ more closely,

examine your life more deeply,

and listen to God more clearly.


A lyric in a song may become more true for you. 

A line in a prayer or a sermon may become the words of your heart. 

God may speak in the silence. 

The music may lift you out of your despair

- if only for a moment, or the week, or a season. 

Wounds old and fresh will begin to heal.


Ultimately, the hope of worship is that we will respond to God’s call

to enter the world,

living and speaking in the name of Christ,

bring healing and life, transformation and love to the world.


Worship is about giving ourselves to God,

centering our lives in God.


What is God calling you to do?

What is God calling you to give? 


What offering will you make today? 

What part of yourself will you give to God?