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Six Great Ends of the Church: 3. The Maintenance of Divine Worship

Lessons: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, Psalm 122


We continue this morning with our sermon series on what the Presbyterian Book of Order calls the Great Ends of the Church, a list of six goals or purposes that define what the church is, and what we strive to become. This morning, we look at number 3: The maintenance of divine worship. Today we aren’t faced with as many churchy, theological-sounding words as we were a couple of weeks ago. It’s the ordinary word, “maintenance,” that intrigues me this week. I have cleaned restrooms on our spiff-up days – men’s restrooms, mind you – I’ve changed plenty of light bulbs and moved furniture, and I’ve run the sound system by myself. But I’ve never thought of myself as working in maintenance. Until now.


The maintenance of divine worship. It implies we are not creating something from scratch but tending something that already exists, something ongoing. Ongoing since before Paul described the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in the First Corinthians passage.[1] Ongoing since even before the psalmist expressed his delight at being invited to the Temple in Jerusalem, to the “House of the Lord.”[2] The order of worship for Evensong, the weekday evening worship service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, describes this ongoing quality of worship: “When you come to Evensong here, it is as if you were dropping in on a conversation already in progress – a conversation between God and [God’s] people which began long before you were born and which will continue long after your death. So, do not be surprised or disturbed if there are some things which you do not understand straight away. For a brief moment, you step into the continual stream of worship which is being offered today and which will be offered to the end of time. You are one with those who worship here on earth and in heaven.”


Our calling as the church isn’t to invent worship, but to maintain it, to allow worshipers to step into the continual stream which is being offered today and which will be offered until the end of time. So what does that look like? On my sabbatical six years ago, whenever I wasn’t traveling on a Sunday, I worshiped at a different Bay Area church. It became abundantly clear that maintaining divine worship doesn’t look the same for everyone. I worshiped at one Marin church that started with 20 minutes of praise music played by a rock band. We shared communion after that, with absolutely no formality or ritual whatsoever: no invitation to the table, no “On the night he was betrayed, …;” nothing. The pastor said, more or less, “Come and line up here.” That was it. Following communion, he preached a 35-minute sermon, and the service ended with more praise music. The worshipers at this church seemed happy.


I worshiped at Allen Temple Baptist, a historically African-American congregation in Oakland. Worship was loud and energizing, with lots of “amens” and “preach it, sisters” and “that’s rights.” The gospel music was so good that our son, who was 11 or so at the time, said, “Mom, you can keep on going to our church, but Dad and I are coming here.” The worshipers at that church seemed happy, too.


I worshiped at an Orthodox church where professionals sang most of the liturgy. It was ethereal. Worshipers stood throughout the entire service – no sitting down. It was a deeply spiritual experience, and the worshipers at that church seemed happy, too.


So, clearly, public worship – worship in the community – needs to fit the culture of the worshipers. There is private worship, as well, of course. Many people say that nature is where they worship, and I understand that; I too, feel reverence and gratitude and a prayer rising in my heart when I look at the night sky or wander through Muir Woods. That is private worship, and private worship, including prayer, Scripture reading, gratitude for nature and other practices, is important. It fuels our daily faith. But we need public worship to keep our private devotions from becoming self-centered, to be challenged, and to grow. One of my beloved professors, Howard Rice, wrote, “Public worship matters because it is the one time in the week when God’s people gather to acknowledge God’s presence in the world in our lives, to remember our faith, to act out its meaning, to celebrate the good news in Christ, to respond to God’s claim on our lives, and to receive the blessing of God.”[3] Without community worship, we tend to forget who we are: God’s people, created in God’s image, part of God’s beloved creation. The culture around us tries to sell us all kinds of identities that conflict with this. It tells us people are consumers and competitors and even objects of hatred; that we are to dominate creation instead of living in harmony as a part of it. Worship is one of the few places we hear a different story: the transforming story celebrating the life, teachings and acts of Jesus.


At its core, that is what worship is: an experience of God that transforms us.[4] There’s an old joke about a sign at a Presbyterian Church listing two Sunday school classes. The sign showed an arrow pointing in one direction with the caption, “This way to a seminar about God,” and a second arrow pointing in a different direction with the caption, “This way to God.” For perhaps too long, Presbyterian worship has been a seminar about God, but things are changing. More and more of us are less interested in a seminar about God, and more interested in a relationship with God.[5] That is the experience that transforms the heart.


But that’s the tricky part, isn’t it? We all long for the holy, but there is no one magic formula or ritual or phrase that conjures up God’s presence, that guarantees that transforming encounter with God. So what do we “maintain,” when there is no such thing as one size fits all worship?


Pastor Eric Elnes describes sitting on a dock near a lakeside cabin in Oregon, thinking about the young people who refused to come to worship at his church in Scottsdale. He was staring at the water when the largest bass he’d ever seen swam past, leaving a ripple in its wake. “I stood up,” said Eric, “and gasped as a sense of awe and wonder provoked a surge of adrenaline through my body.” That’s when Elnes had this insight about worship: “If you can take an hour on Sunday and open people to experiencing just a quarter-second of awe, wonder and surrender …” you’ve achieved worship. That is not to say worship is supposed to manipulate people by “tugging [their] emotions and pretending it is a God-experience;” rather, Elnes realized that the object of worship is to invite people into a sense of openness and attentiveness similar to sitting on that dock in Oregon. He writes, “You never know whether or not a bass will swim by, but if one does, you want to be ready for it.” His church began experimenting with an alternative worship service centered more around experience than message. Elnes takes the material of everyday life – art, music, film and reflection – and assumes that all of it is an entryway to the sacred. They call the service The Studio, and it combines jazz, live-camera feed, people telling their own stories, readings, silence, contemplative prayer and journaling. The teens loved it, and so did the unchurched people who found their way there – and, perhaps surprisingly, so did the folks who still attend the traditional service at Elnes’ church.[6]


Rachel Held Evans, on the other hand, craved tradition. Evans was a blogger who was an articulate voice of millennial Christians until her death after a sudden illness last spring. She published an article in the Washington Post entitled, “Want Millennials Back in the Pews? Stop Trying to Make Church ‘Cool.’”[7] She wrote, “You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality. You can be dazzled by a light show at a concert on any given weekend, but church is the only place that fills a sanctuary with candlelight and hymns on Christmas Eve. … What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.” Evans wrote, “[E]very week I find myself, at age 33, kneeling next to a gray-haired lady to my left and a gay couple to my right as I confess my sins and recite the Lord’s Prayer. No one’s trying to sell me anything. No one’s desperately trying to make the Gospel hip or relevant or cool. They’re just joining me in proclaiming the great mystery of the faith — that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again — which, in spite of my persistent doubts and knee-jerk cynicism, I still believe most days.”[8]


So Elnes’ hip, alternative worship service was meaningful to his congregation, while Evans didn’t want anything to do with hip. One size does not fit all. What Elnes and Evans share is a commitment to worship as a transformative encounter with God, and to authenticity. The younger generations, in particular, have been bombarded with sales pitches; they can tell when there is more emphasis on marketing Jesus than actually following Jesus.[9]


Elnes and Evans also show us is that we mustn’t confuse “maintaining divine worship” with “maintaining our own tastes and preferences.” There is not one right way to worship. We might think what we do is “the way we’ve always done it,” but I promise you, our great-grandparents, not to mention the Church 500 and 1,000 and 2,000 years ago, were singing different hymns, using different instruments, sitting in different buildings and hearing different sermons. “The maintenance of divine worship” sounds like keeping something the same when what it really means is lots and lots of openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit. The ancient conversation already in progress has taken and will continue to take many forms.


What does this mean for us at First Presbyterian Church? Maybe we start by asking some questions: Does our worship invite people into a sense of openness and attentiveness so that we just might experience that quarter-second of awe, wonder and surrender? Do we experience it; and if so, when? In the music? The silence? The prayers? The Lord’s Supper? In the reminders that God loves us just as we are; that we are forgiven and called to forgive; that God has something better in mind for God’s world and Christ calls us to be part of the healing? Does our worship transform us? Does it work in our culture? Does anything need to be tweaked, or even overhauled – remembering that worship is not entertainment, not meant to manipulate our feelings, certainly not nostalgia and not something we need to sell?


As you consider all this, did you notice that the psalmist talks about being glad? “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’”[10] We might skip over that aspect of divine worship, especially if we’re caught up in defending our own preferences, or desperately trying to be more relevant. In her research on the mainline church, Diana Butler Bass saw healthy congregations with every form of worship you can imagine and then some. She saw vibrant churches using traditional, contemporary and blended worship; they played jazz, chants, gospel and rock-and-roll. She saw Latinos singing hymns to 1960’s folk songs, white Episcopalians in African drumming circles, Presbyterians singing Broadway show tunes, and African-Americans sitting in silence listening to Bach.[11] The music, it turns out, didn’t matter. The celebration mattered. The opening of people’s hearts to God mattered. Hospitality and welcome mattered, and joy mattered. And so Frederick Buechner writes that one way you worship is by serving God, by doing what God needs done, and the other way is “to do things for [God] that you need to do—sing songs for [God], create beautiful things for [God], … tell [God] what’s on your mind and in your heart, in general rejoice in [God] and make a fool of yourself for [God] the way lovers have always made fools of themselves for the one they love. … A Quaker Meeting, a Pontifical High Mass, the Family Service at First Presbyterian, a Holy Roller Happening—unless there is an element of joy and foolishness in the proceedings, the time would be better spent doing something useful.”[12]


May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.


© Joanne Whitt 2019 all rights reserved.

[1] 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.


[2] Psalm 122.


[3] Howard L. Rice, Jr., Maintenance of Divine Worship (Louisville, KY: Witherspoon Press, 2006), 5.


[4] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2006), 177.


[5] K. C. Ptomey, Jr., “A Rendezvous with God,” in Proclaiming the Great Ends of the Church: Mission and Ministry for Presbyterians, Joseph D. Small, ed. (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2010), 78.


[6] Bass, 173-174.


[7] Rachel Held Evans, “Want Millennials Back in the Pews? Stop Trying to Make Church ‘Cool,’” April 30, 2015, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jesus-doesnt-tweet/2015/04/30.


[8] Evans.


[9] Evans.


[10] Psalm 122:1.


[11] Bass, 182-183.


[12] Frederick, Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993),

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