Category: Worship (page 1 of 23)

Uniting as One

More than one-thousand followers of Jesus from at least sixty-three churches in Amarillo gathered on the downtown Potter County Courthouse lawn last night to praise God together and to pray to him for healing for our land and harmony for his people. “Uniting as One” was a city-wide, all-church, interracial, interdenominational event meant to express our unity as one Body of Christ.

 

 

 

 

It was not a protest, it was not a demonstration; it was a Christian worship service. Black and white and Hispanic churches, young and old, the overly-demonstrative and the too-laid-back, folks from both sides of I-40 — together in Spirit and in truth. We sang Gospel hymns and contemporary praise (for a brief moment when the power went out, we even sang acappella!), we read Scripture about unity and humility and obedience, we prayed for our city and our churches, and we met a lot of people. We prayed for God’s justice and peace for the state of Texas, for the United States, and for all of God’s creation. And we showed all of Amarillo and anybody else who’s paying attention that all Christians are united together in Jesus, that we are committed to living and serving and worshiping together in peace and love and unity, that we are resolved to tear down walls and build bridges. Together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was not a photo opp (although many pictures were taken and posted) and this was not a box to check for what a church is supposed to do when racial strife makes the news (Remember? We had that worship service!).  No, this was a stand. This was a Christian line in the sand that the followers of Jesus in Amarillo, Texas will not be divided over anything. Not race, not color or ethnicity, not zip codes or geography, not language or culture or national politics — nothing is going to divide God’s people in this city!

 

 

 

 

There was also a call to action last night, a serious challenge for all in attendance. Pastor Anthony Harris, from St. John Baptist Church, asked all of us to sit down to a meal with somebody of a different color sometime in the month of July. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, whatever. Go to their house, invite them to your house, meet at a restaurant, doesn’t matter. But everyone was challenged to commit to sharing a meal together with somebody whose skin is a different color sometime in the next five weeks.

Because if we all do that, things will change.

 

 

 

 

Our God chose a table, he chose a common meal as the way to show his oneness with his people. Around the table is where you experience unity and fellowship. Sharing a meal is how you strengthen family and develop friends. Being at the table together expresses acceptance and presence. To eat and drink a meal with someone is a show of solidarity: “We have things in common!” And if all the Christians in Amarillo do this, things will change.

 

 

 

 

I was honored to be asked to speak at last night’s historic event. I was humbled by the sheer enormity of what God seems to be doing in our city and grateful to be involved in some small way.  I was encouraged by the spirit of the gathering, the mutual love and acceptance, the combined eagerness to do something significant “that the world may believe.”  And I was reminded why it’s so great to live in Amarillo and so great to be at Central.

I praise God for the new friends I’ve made in the past six weeks and I thank him for whatever is coming next.

Peace,

Allan

From Scattered to Gathered: Part 3

 

If Sunday morning worship is a beach vacation — it’s real, it’s physical, sand in the toes, sun on the face — and online worship is not; but if coming together on Sundays under social distancing restrictions, mask guidelines, “Rip N Sip” communion kits, and a lot of our church family still quarantining at home is like sticking your finger in a four-year-old jar of sand — it’s just not the same, it’s diminished, not the way we remember, almost a let down — should we even do it?

Let me finally now make a case for it. I’m convinced we can practice the priority and the purpose of our gatherings, while not forgetting what we’ve learned and experienced while we’ve been scattered. And I believe a helpful text is Hebrews 10:19-25.

Since we have confidence, boldness, authorization to enter the very Holy of Holies; since we have the blood of Jesus and the body of Christ that opens up the door for us to come into the very presence of God himself; since we have been given access by our risen and reigning high priest to the very throne room of God — because of all those mind-blowing blessings we share together — let us.

Let us draw near to God in faith. Let us go in, right into his presence. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, that God has promised an eternal gathering someday, a forever community to which we will all ultimately belong together. Let us take care of each other. Let us love, encourage, and support one another. Let us not give up meeting together — for all these reasons. Let us not stop meeting together.

It’s a taste, right? It’s a foretaste of what’s coming. Our Sunday morning assemblies point to the day when all God’s people are gathered together — every tribe, language, people, and nation — in God’s presence with one another around his great banquet feast. Our church gatherings anticipate that, our worship services point to that. It’s a taste. It’s a glimpse. And when we’re all physically together in the presence of God, in the name of Jesus, and by the power of the Spirit, we actually are really participating in that ultimate promised gathering.

“You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men and women, to the spirits of righteous people made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant.” ~Hebrews 12:22-24

The assembly transcends time and space. We’re not meeting at 1401 South Madison in Amarillo, we’re gathering on Mount Zion! We’re in the heavenly Jerusalem! We’re not assembling with 600 people in a church building in Texas, we’re worshiping and eating and drinking with all of God’s saints for all time! That’s the invisible eternal reality!

When God’s people meet together, we meet the future. We get a taste of the future. We experience it. We join it. We get to see what our God is ultimately doing. It’s like receiving the down payment on God’s guarantee.

Church is a communal event. It’s spiritual communion with the Lord through which the divine community engages the redeemed community, where we delight in each other and we witness together to the not-always-seen realities of God’s Kingdom.

Sunday morning worship is Psalm 50 where God says, “Gather to me my consecrated ones.” It’s Leviticus 9 where the entire assembly comes near and stands before the Lord and his glory appears to them all. It’s Jesus saying, “How I long to gather you together.” It’s Ephesians 1 where the Bible says God’s ultimate will is to bring all things in heaven and earth together in Christ.

So what if May 31, or whenever your church gets back together, and the weeks after that are like just sticking your finger in a four-year-old jar of sand. It’s a taste. It’s a glimpse. It’s still a real, physical participation in a glorious, eternal reality with God and each other.

God has been obviously at work during the weirdness of doing church online. You think he might have something special planned for us in the weirdness of May 31?

Let us draw near to God and find out.

Peace,

Allan

From Scattered to Gathered: Part 2

This Sunday at Central will mark the tenth consecutive Sunday we have worshiped together online only. One more time we’re going to livestream the “assembly” from a nearly empty worship center to our scattered church participating in their homes via the marvel of the internet. We’ve added stage lights and changed the camera angles, we’ve manipulated the sound of the praise team  and paid careful attention to start and stop times, we’ve incorporated more videos of our own people from their own settings and been as interactive as we know how.

But it’s just not the same.

Christian author Brian Zahnd writes: “Virtual church is like a virtual beach vacation — it’s just not the same thing. A real beach vacation means sand between your toes. And real church means human contact and sacraments.”

Our online offering is pretty good. But it’s no day at the beach. As a church, we’re not gathered right now. We’re scattered. And, I’ll tell you, it’s not my favorite thing. But it’s not the worst thing, either. Because the Church is God’s scattered people, too.

Yours is not the first church that’s ever been forced to scatter. And this is not the first time in history the Church as a whole has been unable to gather. In fact, it happened early on. The very first church, that Pentecost church in Jerusalem, got scattered pretty quick. Stephen was stoned in Jerusalem for preaching the resurrection…

“On that day a great persecution broke out against the church (assembly) in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church (gathering).” ~Acts 8:1-3

Randy Harris says if the Church only knows how to be Church in mass gatherings, then it was never really the Church in the first place. And I agree.

We are, all of us, each of us, saved by God in Christ and called by God in Christ for the sake of others. The Church of God exists as people on a mission, men and women saved and called by God to join God’s acts of salvation for others. And sometimes our assemblies have to be broken up by outside forces, we’ve got to be dispersed in order to remember that the Church is God’s scattered people, too. And he can work in powerful ways whether we’re worshiping together in the same rooms on Sunday mornings or not.

“Those who had been scattered preached the Word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said. With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed. So there was great joy in that city.” ~Acts 8:4-8

Think about those followers of Jesus in Jerusalem who had witnessed amazing demonstrations of the presence of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. The worship services at that church must have been over the top awesome. Peter’s preaching the Word as an eyewitness to the resurrected Christ. People are being healed. People are speaking in tongues. The Holy Spirit is there in visible pillars of fire. They’re singing 19-verses of Just As I Am because hundreds of people are being baptized every Sunday. And no announcements! That’s an awesome worship experience!

And they were forced to give it up. But the church didn’t shut down. The church actually expanded.

“Those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch… telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” ~Acts 11:19-21

During the early weeks of the Covid-19 shutdowns, the most loving thing we could do for our neighbors and our community was to stay apart. To not meet. Which is so strange because God always calls us to community, to be together, to be present with each other — bodily, physically, face-to-face present.

But look what’s happened to us. All of us have been forced to not just talk, sing, and pray about the mission. We’ve had to live it. You can’t lean on the crutch, “Well, of course I’m a Christian! I go to church!” No, you don’t. Not right now. And our hearts and our lives have been refocused for the past ten weeks on the mission. We’ve been given the time, space, and circumstances to actually do what we claim to do, what we really want to do. We’re serving our neighbors, we’re checking on the elderly, we’re providing money and meals to the needy, we’re reaching out to folks we know who live alone.

Your church has not been closed, it’s been expanded into all of your neighborhoods. We’re paying closer attention to the vulnerable and weak, we’re all thinking more about the marginalized and compromised. And the Bible says if we’re not doing those things, then our worship stinks and it’s not doing us or God any good anyway.

Worshiping online from our homes has brought other unexpected blessings. Some of us have become more acutely aware that Christians all over the world are doing the exact same things we’re doing. We’re all singing awkwardly by ourselves in our homes. We’re all eating and drinking the communion meal with whatever we can find — Cool Ranch Doritos and a bottle of Pedialyte? Sure! It works! All disciples of Jesus are doing the same things right now, every Sunday, and we feel more closely connected to the global Church.

God has done some very surprising and glorious things while we’ve been scattered. And we praise him for that. He’s helped us be creative. He’s opened our eyes to people who need the Gospel. He’s stirred our hearts to be more generous and kind.

But God’s Church is at a handicap when we’re not meeting together. It’s part of our essential nature.

So how do we make the transition from scattered to gathered? And do we even want to?

If Sunday morning worship is a beach vacation and online worship is not — no sand between the toes; it’s not real — then what’s it going to be like May 31? Or whenever your church reopens for in-person worship? With all the distancing and masks and weird communion kits and a lot of our older brothers and sisters staying home, it’s not going to be a day at the beach. It might be more like sticking your finger in a jar of sand you brought back from South Padre four years ago.

That’s not great. We need to anticipate that it’s not going to be the same for a while. It’s going to feel very different. So do we even want to do it?

Peace,

Allan

From Scattered to Gathered: Part 1

Most churches are beginning to reopen for in-person Sunday worship. Church leaders are taping off pews, sanitizing doorknobs, and trying to figure out what to do with the kids. There are many questions that come as a church transitions from scattered to gathered in the middle of a global pandemic, some of them seemingly unanswerable. All of us are doing this for the very first time, we’re flying by the seat of our pants. But one question that must be answered is this: Why bother?

Central is reopening for public worship next Sunday May 31. And it will not be like it was in February. In fact, it won’t be like it’s ever been in the 112-year history of this congregation. We’re asking our people in the at-risk categories to stay home. We’re blocking off two out of every three pews so we can maintain nine to twelve feet of distance between us. We’re wearing masks. We’re using those individually packaged “Rip n Sip” communion kits (yuk!). No Bible classes for a while, no children’s programming.

What is that going to look like? How is that going to feel?

Eric Gentry is a CofC preacher in Memphis, Tennessee and he wrote an article a couple of weeks ago asking this question: “Is there something about God, church, worship, or community that we are not experiencing now online that we will experience once we return, even under the restrictive conditions? If so, what is it?”

That’s probably the question we need to answer. Whatever “it” is, if we’re eager to experience “it” together at church, we should probably be able to define “it.” I keep hearing how desperate we all are to be back together in the same room, how we can’t wait to meet again as a church. But do we know why? Because when we do come back together, we’ll do so at the risk of compromising the health of our members and guests. It’ll cost us more money in utilities and cleaning than we’ve been spending for the past two months. And with all of us spread out so far apart and wearing masks and the weird communion, it’s going to be a diminished worship experience. It won’t be the same.

So, let’s work through this.

I believe the desire in us to assemble together on Sunday mornings is so deep and so strong because it is the very essence of who we are as God’s people. The Church is God’s gathered people.

In the account of the inception of the Church of Jesus Christ, the Bible makes clear that the people in Jerusalem that day had come from all over the known world. Acts 2:8-11 lists all the foreigners who were there the countries from where they came. The author doesn’t want you to miss it. God had brought these people together from all over and that’s when he established the Church.

Peter preaches that God’s Holy Spirit had raised Jesus from the grave and that Jesus is alive and reigning at the right hand of God and that the crucified Jesus is indeed both Lord and Christ. And three thousand people were baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins and they each received the gift of God’s Spirit living inside them. And they responded. Saved by the blood of Jesus Christ, guided by the power of the Spirit, notice how they lived and worshiped and served together.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” ~Acts 2:42-47

Our God, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, has saved us and called us to be a gathered together people. Staying away from each other goes against our nature as Christians. It’s like a bird trying not to fly. It’s like Ted Nugent trying not to cuss. It’s not going to last very long. We must be together.

The literal definition of Church in the Bible is an assembly of people. The original Greek word is ekklesia. It means a gathering or assembly of people. You find it 111 times in the New Testament. Everywhere you see the English word “church,” it’s a translation of the Greek word for assembly.

David Watson writes, “The word ekklesia always speaks of the coming together of God’s people in answer to his call, in order to meet with God in the company of each other, and to meet each other in the presence of God.”

Meeting together — it’s the very definition of who we are. We are first and foremost a gathered people.

The Christian faith is an embodied faith. Coming together to share the same space, to breathe the same air, and to eat and drink the same meal embodies our incarnational God. In Christ Jesus, our God joins us in physical bodily form and calls us to also come together in community in one another’s physical, bodily, face to face presence. The things we do together like baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and congregational singing are communal acts meant to be shared and experienced in community. We don’t baptize ourselves. We break bread together. We believe the Church, the assembly of God’s people, is a spiritual reality that is manifest and given its power in physical acts done by physical people in physical proximity.

Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I’m right there with them!”

I think that’s the “it.”

That’s what is so special about Sunday mornings together. It’s the unique presence of our God with us when his people all physically come together. It’s the powerful presence of God with his people on the Day of Assembly. It’s God himself eating and drinking with his people when they come together at Mount Sinai. It’s the Lord’s glory appearing in the midst of his assembled people during the appointed times. Being together in the same physical space in the presence of God — that’s the deal! That’s what we’re craving.

And you can’t get it online.

Peace,

Allan

Honk If You Love Jesus!

We are being forced to practice our communal faith as the digital Body of Christ. Right now, for the most part, we are a virtual Body of Christ. And that’s OK. We know in our heads we don’t have to be physically together to be Christians. Our songs are still getting through to God. Our prayers are still being heard. Unimpeded. We know we don’t have to be together in the same physical space to pray. The Bible tells us we don’t even have to say words to pray. Ministry is happening. Worship is happening. And our God is at work in and through all of it. He is loving us, drawing us closer to him, reminding us, encouraging us, challenging us, changing and shaping us more into his image.

 

 

 

 

We know all these things are happening. God’s holy presence is with us whether we are gathered together inside a church building on Sunday morning or hunkered down by ourselves in our homes. We know this. In our heads.

But in our hearts, something’s not right. It doesn’t feel right.

 

 

 

 

Christianity is a communal faith. We were created by God to be together. Physically. Incarnationally. Together. Occupying the same space, breathing the same air, sharing the same meal. Christianity is about breaking down the walls that separate us and uniting all people and all things together in Christ. Social distancing with its masks and gloves and six-feet of separation does not feel like church.

 

 

 

 

Last night we held our first parking lot worship service here at Central. As far as coming together in the same space as a church, this is about as good as we can manage right now. And it’s OK.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We all rolled down our windows, tuned our car radios to the designated FM frequency, sang very familiar songs together, heard very familiar Bible passages, and prayed very familiar prayers. Together. We saw each other’s faces and heard each other’s voices. We lifted our hands to the Lord in praise and toward one another in blessing. And it was sweet. Our oldest saints and our youngest kids and everybody in between honking our horns and flashing our lights. It was so sweet.

 

 

 

 

My family and I worshiped together inside the truck. To our immediate left, Suzanne Couch making jokes about me being a televangelist and Mary Merchant singing “It Is Well” through her oxygen tube. To our immediate right, John Todd and Kami Cornett, dealing with their own health issues and business worries, singing “Blessed Assurance,” and nodding affirmatively while listening to Hebrews 10. Directly behind us, Steve and Becky Nordyke, selfless servants of our Lord, great Bible class buddies, loyal covenant group partners, unbelievable sources of continuous encouragement, and priceless friends, smiling and singing and waving.

 

 

 

 

 

In my truck and on the stage and in a lot of the cars around us, people lost it while we raised our hands to each other singing “I Love You with the Love of the Lord.” When we began blessing each other in unison with the words from Romans 15:13 — “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” — it broke down after about the fourth word. Lots of us got really emotional about hearing each other’s voices together like that. It’s been a while.

 

 

 

Our city is under attack by this virus right now. The CDC has set up shop at the fairgrounds and it feels like it’s going to get a little worse now before it gets better. We’re still targeting May 31 for a return to public, in-person worship assemblies at Central but, even then, not everybody will be able to participate. For several more weeks, we’re still going to be mostly a digital Body of Christ. A virtual congregation of God’s people. But we are always together in Christ. By God’s grace, we are always together in him.

Peace,

Allan

Church Habits

I have no idea why Jerry Seinfeld is playing in Midland, Texas tonight, but I do know Carrie-Anne and I will be on the floor of the Wagner-Noel Performing Arts Center in our seats in the middle of Row 12! It’s a Christmas present from my super-cool wife and I’m excited beyond description. I’d drive to Midland to watch Seinfeld read a phone book.

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Once a month our covenant group gets up early and serves breakfast to the folks staying at the League House. We hang out for a couple of hours and pray with people from out of town who have relatives in the hospitals here. A couple of weeks ago we met a guy named Jeff (not his real name) who’s from the Austin area. He and his wife and three kids had come up to be with Jeff’s brother who was in serious condition after suffering a terrible brain aneurysm.  As we’re talking with Jeff and hearing his story, he mentions that his wife is from Vietnam. Then, later in the conversation, Aleisha asked him, “How did you meet your wife?” And he told us a fascinating story.

The company he works for in Austin is headquartered in the D.C./Virginia area and they regularly send a woman from there to train the employees in Austin. This woman’s originally from Vietnam. So Jeff and this woman get to know each other in a friendly, working relationship kind of way. And one day she calls Jeff from Virginia, from completely out of the blue, and says her family is looking for someone to marry her sister so she can come to the states.

“What?”
“Yeah, my sister can come to the U.S. if she has an American husband. So, if you know anybody who might be interested in helping us out…”
“I don’t know anybody who’d actually want to get married.”
“No, they don’t have to stay married. Only for a year or two. Then they can get divorced and she can stay in the U.S.”
“No, sorry, I don’t know anybody.”
“We’d pay him money.”
(short pause)
“Um… How much money?”
“We’d pay him $30,000.”
“Well, I think I might could get interested in that!”

So, Jeff agrees to do it. He’ll marry this lady from Vietnam, pocket the $30K, and they’ll split up later.

Now, here’s the catch. Jeff had to take three or four trips to Vietnam to sell everybody over there that it was legit. The family paid for the trips, but Jeff had to go to Vietnam to spend time with her. They had to go on dates together, eat dinner together, spend time with her family. They had to take a lot of pictures together and post them on social media. And the most important thing: when he’s in Austin, he had to write her letters. He had to call her and facetime her and send her gifts. He had to act like he was in love with her. He had to do things a guy in love would do.

And in the middle of all that, Jeff fell in love with her. For real.

He never would have thought himself into loving this young lady. He never could have studied himself into loving her. But he acted himself into it and he didn’t even know it was happening. He was forced by the circumstances into some habits that actually changed his feelings and his thinking. Doing what people in love do shaped him into a guy in love. They were married 14-years ago, they have three children, and he never took the $30,000.

Why do we go to church? We go to church because it makes us more like Jesus. Church is one of the main habits, one of the critical spiritual practices that shapes us into the people of God.

It’s hard to think yourself into loving others. It’s difficult to study yourself into considering the needs of others more important than your own. Being together around Word and Table puts us in the circumstances and into the habits that will, by God’s grace and the power of his Holy Spirit, actually change our feelings and thinking. Doing what Jesus does shapes us into the image of Jesus.

So many of us grew up going to church. It’s a habit of our lives that started before we can remember and possibly one that we sometimes see as very ordinary. Maybe even humdrum and boring. We can do church with our eyes closed, and sometimes do.

But what if we understood our church gatherings as sacramental encounters with our Lord? What if we believed God’s Spirit was powerfully at work during our songs and prayers, during the Scriptures and the meals, to transform us into the image of Christ? What if we allowed ourselves to be swept up into the habits of the church as formation practices through which our Lord meets us and moves us into better fitness for eternal life? What if we were filled with awe at the possibilities in front of us? What if we were filled with awe in the face of a vision of how we can be and how the world will be in the future? And what if that awe increases as the power of God’s Spirit heals us and transforms our lives?

Peace,

Allan

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