Category: Worship (Page 1 of 25)

Resurrection Rejoicing

The great biblical scholar and writer N. T. Wright asks, “Is it any wonder people find it hard to believe in the resurrection of Jesus if we don’t throw our hats in the air? Is it any wonder we find it hard to live the resurrection if we don’t do it exuberantly in our liturgies? Is it any wonder the world doesn’t take much notice if Easter is celebrated as simply the one-day happy ending tacked on to forty days of fasting and gloom?”

Yes, the Resurrection of Christ is our greatest event. Yes, Easter is the Church’s greatest day.

And we had a good one today at the Golf Course Road Church. The energy and enthusiasm for worship and fellowship was electric as 664 of us came together to praise God and remember the life and power we share in the resurrection. The morning began with an Easter Brunch – breaking my Lenten fast with that spread of breakfast casseroles and pastries was almost overwhelming. We sang songs together with gusto. We ate and drank the Lord’s Meal together in celebration. Three of our young people were baptized into Christ and experienced their own resurrections as we witnessed and participated with them as a community of faith. I met lots of our members for the first time, folks who hadn’t been to church in months – in some cases, years – but had decided that Easter Sunday would be the day they came back. I met several guests, people who have just moved to Midland and are looking for a church home. As far as this preacher is concerned, praise be to God, it was an absolutely perfect Easter Sunday at GCR.

But it can’t just be Easter Sunday. It can’t be a once-a-year thing. Easter has to be an every day, every week, every Sunday thing.

Take Christmas away and, in biblical terms, you lose two chapters at the beginning of Matthew and Luke. That’s it. Take Easter away and you don’t have a New Testament. You don’t have Christianity. As Paul says, our preaching is worthless and so is your faith; we are still in our sins and are to be pitied among all people.

We should rejoice in our Lord’s resurrection today and every day. Every Sunday should be Easter Sunday – the same expectant crowds, the same exuberant worship, the same careful planning and rehearsing, the same enthusiastic participation, the same commitment to be in town so we can be in church.

Let’s rejoice in our Lord’s resurrection next Sunday, too. Let’s celebrate his current and eternal reign at the right hand of the Father every week. Let’s declare the gracious gift of everlasting life that comes to all those who share in Christ’s resurrection every Sunday. And let’s live – man, we should live! – into the resurrection, through the resurrection, because of the resurrection.

Peace,

Allan

Journal of Christian Studies

The inaugural issue of the Journal of Christian Studies arrived in my mailbox two weeks ago, the entire issue is now free online, and I’m eager to share it with you today. The Journal is a thrice-yearly publication of the Center for Christian Studies in Austin, of which – full disclosure – my brilliant brother Keith is the Executive Director. In keeping with the long tradition begun by Austin Graduate School of Theology, the Journal of Christian Studies wants to make biblical scholarship accessible and practical for the local church. They’re going to use each issue to focus on a particular topic or theme and unpack it in a way that benefits ministers and lay leaders in their congregations. Keith describes the Journal of Christian Studies as “more accessible than the purely academic journals but more rigorous than the popular-level magazines,” a venue for “thought-provoking writing that instructs and encourages the church at large.”

This vision captures the very essence of the old Austin Graduate School of Theology, where serious scholarship intentionally moved smoothly from the ivory towers into the trenches of church leadership. I remember well my professors at Austin Grad – mainly Michael Weed, Alan McNicol, and Jeff Peterson – after 30-minutes of tough sledding through some complicated theology, taking a deep breath and saying, “Okay, here’s how the Church needs to hear this” or “Okay, here’s why this matters to your church,” then spending the next 30-minutes in very practical and helpful guidance. That’s what Keith and the Center for Christian Studies is attempting to continue, by offering biblical and theological education and training for local churches and church leaders. And this initial edition of the Journal of Christian Studies is a very good sign that they’re really onto something.

This first issue tackles the topic of the Church’s response to COVID-19 and the multiple challenges that lie ahead. It opens with Ed Gallagher’s piece on the local church as a worshiping and serving community of God’s people in which the author reminds us why regularly coming together in the same place at the same time is so important to the formation of Christian character. Relationship, reconciliation, bearing one another’s burdens – God is at work in the hard work of being community together. This is something I believe we have failed to adequately communicate in our churches and the current times demand we step up our teaching.

Keith compares the emergency procedures our churches enacted during the COVID lockdowns to similar emergency situations that forever altered the practice of Christian baptism and the communion meal. He cautions us to engage in serious thought and reflection when it comes to our language and our rituals, especially as it concerns our rapid move into live-streaming our Lord’s Day worship assemblies.

Todd Rester provides some helpful historical reminders that our current day is not the first in which God’s Church has dealt with a global health crisis. It’s almost refreshing to read that church leaders in the Middle Ages also took steps to mitigate the spread of the plague and other horrible diseases, while still maintaining pastoral duties to the flock. At the same time, it’s almost depressing to realize that they were more faithful and brave than we seem to be. There are lessons to be learned from looking at the history.

Todd Hall completes the issue with a focused look at the pandemic’s effect on spiritual formation. How do we recover our spiritual disciplines? How do we deliberately move away from the screens and the earbuds, scrolling through Facebook and binging the latest Netflix drama, isolation and fear of the other, toward more intentional time with God in Word and prayer and with his people in service and worship?

I can’t recommend enough to you this issue of this brand new journal. It’s deep and serious theology of the Church and what our God is doing in and through his gathered people, and how the pandemic has impacted our expectations and experiences. It’s a call to pay closer attention to what we do and why we do it when we come together. Read the whole thing. Start with Keith’s article first.

Peace,

Allan

Ash Wednesday Wrap

Putting the wraps on our first GCR – First Pres Ash Wednesday service last week at First Presbyterian Church in Midland. I didn’t know if we’d get a dozen people to show up or maybe thirty or forty. I didn’t know if our folks would be really blessed by participating in something so foreign to our typical Church of Christ service or if they’d be turned off. I didn’t know if this was going to be a one-time thing for us as two churches worshiping and serving God as the unified Body of Christ or the first of many cooperative events and ecumenical times of worship to come. We do understand that breaking down the walls between our Christian denominations and coming together as his people is fully within our God’s will. And we did ask God to be with us as we took this step together. So why are we surprised that it was such a glorious, life-changing, soul-filling experience?

 

 

 

 

Corporate confession is not something we normally do in Churches of Christ – we never do it. But this Ash Wednesday service reminded us that regular confession and repentance and absolution of sins is good for us. And necessary. Responding aloud to the Word of God being read – it’s formative. Observing the Christian calendar and preparing for Easter Sunday in fasting and prayer in unison with disciples of Christ all over the world – it’s powerful.

Now, about the ashes. I’ve been told that my line was moving much slower than Steve Schorr’s line. You see, that was the first time I had ever imposed the ashes. I’ve participated in seven or eight Ash Wednesday services in the past and always received the ashes but, until last Wednesday, I had never been on the other end. So, yeah, cut me some slack. There’s an ashes-to-forehead distribution process to work through. The first few parishioners I received walked away with very, very dark crosses on their foreheads; they’re probably still trying to scrub them away today. The next few each required a couple of takes because I didn’t get enough ashes on my thumb. It’s not as easy as it looks! Also, I wanted to use the phrase, “Repent and believe the Good News” instead of “From ashes you were created and to ashes you will return.” It just feels more like an invitation and more like the Gospel to say the first phrase, more of a blessing. But First Pres uses the “ashes” phrase. And they’re the experts. So I used both. To each worshiper, I applied the cross with, “From ashes you were created by God and to ashes you will return; repent and believe the Good News!” That seems more appropriate. It also slows down your line.

Plus, when members of my own GCR family approached, I wanted to call them by name. I wanted to bless them  personally. Acting as a pastor and priest in that moment, I wanted to connect them by name to the truth of their own lives and to the truth of what God has done and is doing for them through Jesus. It was a very powerful experience for me to be a conduit of God’s truth and blessing in that very different way. And it slowed down my line a little.

We had as many Church of Christ’ers there as they had Presbyterians. I have not stopped receiving emails and texts from GCR folks who are so thankful for the way God spoke to them Wednesday night in somebody else’s church. And it was definitely not a one-time thing. Steve leaned over toward me before the service was even over – we were singing the next-to-last song before the benediction – and said, “What are we doing next?”

Peace,

Allan

 

Putting Away and Taking On

“Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” ~Romans 13:14

Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent, the 40-day period of fasting and prayer that precedes Good Friday and Easter Sunday on the Church calendar. Going back to the early years of Church history, Lent has traditionally been a time for personal abstinence and self-discipline. In the Middle Ages, it became particularly associated with a fast from eating meat. It developed into a teaching tool for the Church and a reminder for all Christians: In your hunger, be reminded of all that Jesus suffered and sacrificed to win your salvation.

As you enter this season of Lent on your own or together with your family or community of faith, allow me to suggest that it’s not just about giving something up. It’s not only about sacrificing a certain type or amount of food or some other regular pleasure in order to participate in the sufferings of Christ or to remember his selfless preparation for the cross. At least as important is the idea and practice of taking something on, adding something new to your life in Christ.

Not only the surrender of material things, but the taking on of spiritual things, eternal things that draw us closer to Christ and, by the power of the Spirit, transform us more into his image is the best way to prepare for Easter. A new ministry. A new discipline. A new work for the benefit of others. A new prayer. A new friend. A new passage of Scripture. While you’re cleaning out your house over the next six weeks, pay attention to what you’re moving in to the empty spaces. Add something important. Commit to something Spirit-filled.

Our church at GCR is observing Ash Wednesday tonight with our brothers and sisters in Christ at First Presbyterian here in Midland. The joint worship service begins at 630pm. There will be corporate confession and repentance. There will be an imposition of ashes. For most of us Church of Christ’ers, it will be brand new, mildly uncomfortable, and sort of strange. And powerful and beautiful and holy.

Peace,

Allan

Transformation and Proclamation

I am just about beside myself with anticipation over what our God is going to do this Wednesday evening when Golf Course Road Church of Christ and First Presbyterian Church of Midland come together for our first ever joint Ash Wednesday service. I didn’t really know what to expect from our side – we CofC’ers don’t do Ash Wednesday, it’s the kind of thing we’ve historically dismissed as extra-biblical and borderline innovative. I wasn’t  sure how many people from GCR would dive into this “new” experience of an ancient Christian practice. But I’m hearing the buzz. People here are talking. Some of our Life Groups are attending the event together. At least one Bible class here is going. Our teenagers are heading to First Pres together and planning to debrief it as a group when it’s over. Some of our people are going out of curiosity, some are doing it because they’ve been invited by a friend at First Pres, others are going because they’ll do anything if it means cooperating publicly with another Christian congregation. The bottom line is that a good number of our folks appear to be excited to do something they’ve never done before.

I believe our God is going to do something really big with this. I believe this Ash Wednesday service is going to be bigger than you think and have larger and longer lasting impacts than you can even imagine. Let me give you two reasons.

Number one, God wants to transform us. He wants to make you and me more into the image of his Son Jesus. He won’t force it on us, he won’t take over and do something you don’t want to do. But if you’ll give him just a crack, if you’ll say “Yes” to him just a little, his Holy Spirit will change you and shape you to be more like Christ: more loving, more kind, more forgiving, more gracious, more welcoming, more prayerful, more generous, more accepting, more service-oriented; more of the mind of Christ in considering the needs of others more important than your own.

Stepping outside of your own comfort zone, trying something new in the name and the manner of Jesus, is the best way to open yourself up to transformation. Engaging the Bible in a different way, praying at a different time, worshiping with different Christians, is one powerful way to make yourself available to God to do whatever he wants to do with you.

Here’s the attitude: Lord, this Ash Wednesday thing is something a majority of your people have been doing every year for at least eighteen-and-a-half centuries. I’ve never done it before. I’m going to try it. I’m going to participate in this ancient Christian practice and I’m going to be totally open and available to whatever you want to do. Open my ears and my heart to hear what you want to tell me. Open my eyes and my very soul to see what you want to show me.

You don’t think God can do something with that?

The second thing is that a Church of Christ and a Presbyterian Church worshiping and serving together as one holy, united Body of Christ is a powerful proclamation of God’s will. We know Jesus died on the cross to break down all the walls, to destroy all the barriers between us and God and between us and each other. Our Lord passionately prayed that all of his followers would be one, so the world would believe. Putting aside whatever differences we think we might have in order to worship together the Lord who makes us one is an answer to Christ’s prayer and a fulfillment of God’s will.

All it takes is a phone call to realize the truth of this.

I called the pastor at First Pres, Steve Schorr, three weeks ago and just floated the possibility of GCR attending their Ash Wednesday service, and he almost exploded on the other end of the line. He talked for the next ten minutes without letting me get in a word. He enthusiastically embraced the idea and kept adding onto it. It’ll be a joint service! We’ll promote it together! You’ll help with the service! It’ll be both our churches on all the ads and promotional materials. We’ll structure it so we give a brief history of Ash Wednesday during the service! What else can we do to really pull this off?

All it takes is a phone call to express some Christian unity and cooperation and God’s Spirit jumps in and lights it up. Things start to move almost independently. Important things are happening before you even have time to think. It takes on a life of its own or, to say it better, it takes on a holy momentum in the eternal will of our God. Our God wants things like this to happen. All we have to do it show a little interest and he’ll do all the rest.

Because the witness to our community will be powerful and undeniable.

Anytime different churches do anything together it makes front page news – anytime the Church of Christ does anything with anybody it makes front page news! When we worship and serve with other brothers and sisters from other Christian denominations, it’s a loud and proud declaration in three-inch headlines to our Midland community and to all of West Texas that we belong to a King who is bigger and whose mission in this world is more important than anything that might possibly divide us. If we can do something like this, then surely we must be following a real Prince of Peace.

Transformation and proclamation. That’s what’s in store for us together at First Pres this Wednesday night. I can’t wait for us to experience it together.

Peace,

Allan

COVID and Church Online

I got distracted last week and neglected to finish my thoughts on where we are and what we’ve learned as churches during COVID.

First, we’ve learned that temporary emergency measures can become standard operating procedure in a church if we’re not intentional in our communication, reflection, and practice. We didn’t as much learn this as it’s just been reinforced. During the early days of the pandemic, most churches complied with government recommendations and shut their doors to the Lord’s Day assembly. For the first time in history, healthy people in the United States were not allowed to worship God in their church building on Sunday. Most of us scrambled and began livestreaming our assemblies online so, at least, we could sing and pray, listen to a sermon and eat a communion meal in a virtual gathering. We understood that we were spiritually connected. And it was appropriate and good in this unprecedented emergency situation.

But now, nearly two years later, church online has become an acceptable and even sanctioned option for Christians and their churches. For a lot of disciples, the livestream service is normal now. It’s like the communion meal. I suppose there was a time when those “rip n sip” individually packaged communion kits were appropriate. But now, way past the emergency, many Christians and churches are still using them. (For my thoughts on communion during COVID, what we’ve lost with the “rip n sips,” and why we need to return to passing trays and “breaking bread,” please click here.)

The problem is that our language around the livestream was normalizing. We spoke in the very beginning about church online like it was already permanent. Instead of emphasizing that the livestream was a temporary, emergency procedure, we went out of our way to reassure the Christians who were staying home. Instead of saying that folks who are going to work, the grocery store, the gym, and restaurants should also return to the Sunday Christian assembly, we welcomed the online church and assured everyone watching that they were doing what was best by not coming to the building, even as a lot of those watching were attending football games and going out to eat.

The issue is that church online is not church. It’s something, certainly; it’s not terrible, of course. But it’s not church; it’s something else. By definition, church is a physical assembly. Flesh and blood people coming together in one place for a common purpose. Real, physical people gathering to worship God and serve one another together. Men and women and children, in the same place at the same time, being transformed together as they accept and forgive, bear with and love, compromise and laugh and cry with one another in the name and manner of Jesus.

Our faith is an incarnational faith in our incarnational Lord. God did not come to us virtually, he came to us in our flesh and blood. He didn’t send a text or a video, he sent us his Son. Our spiritual connections are important, but they are incomplete without our physical connections. Our Sunday gathering is not just any meeting that can be attended or substituted on a whim or out of convenience – it is the very Body of Christ. The Body of Christ is something that can be seen and heard and touched. Church online is a disembodied virtual experience. It’s not church.

Can you imagine being married and never going home to your spouse? I’ll just call her every night, it’s the same thing! Can you imagine telling your kids and grandkids at Christmas, “Don’t bother coming over for Christmas lunch and presents, let’s just Zoom it. It’s the same thing!

Of course, we all know it is decidedly not the same thing. What’s vital for some – the shut-in, the sick, those who work on Sundays – should not be normal for most.

But it’s normal now. It’s not surprising that something as convenient as online church would quickly become normal. If you’re out of town or on vacation, it’s much easier to hop online from your hotel room or your lake house and “do church” with your own congregation virtually than it is to hunt down a real live congregation of flesh and blood Christians and worship with them. To be shaped by the experience. To encourage other Christians and to be encouraged by meeting other disciples in a different place. To physically participate with the physical Body of Christ in all of its transforming power. We used to do that.

Maybe the compulsion to never miss church was misguided when, a few decades ago, we never dared skip the assembly. Certainly it was – a lot of us grew up believing that church attendance was the truest sign of faithfulness. The uncritical embrace of online church has exposed our shallow theology about church. As I’ve said before, the reasons online church is normal now and so many Christians opt to spectate from home instead of participate in person are three-fold: One, the pull of the culture toward individual consumerism is stronger than the pull of the Body of Christ; two, we’ve done a terrible job of teaching and communicating what’s really happening when God’s people come together in his presence, in the name of Jesus, and by the power of the Holy Spirit; and, three, our people have never really had a transforming experience in church. It’s all three.

The livestream should be done well for those who need it. And we would do better to address this from the pulpit on Sundays by saying things like:

“We’re so glad to make this livestream available to our sick and shut-ins; we pray it blesses you. For the healthy and mobile, please don’t let church online be the extent of your connection to God and to his people. Please come join us in person on Sundays and participate in all that God has planned for you through the Body of Christ.”

“We hope you are blessed by watching our worship service online. We also hope that you can join us here in person next Sunday.”

“If you are unable to be with us physically this morning, we’re grateful to be with you virtually. We understand that church online does not provide you the connection and the transformation that happens with the Body of Christ in here – but we hope this is beneficial. If you are able to be here but you’re watching online, we would encourage you to come join us in person next Sunday. Don’t let watching online be the extent of your engagement with God and his people. We would love to welcome you here to participate in what God is doing in us and through us together on Sundays.”

To be clear, I do believe there are benefits to livestreaming a worship service. Other than the aforementioned blessing for the congregation’s sick, shut-ins, and those forced to work on Sundays, I believe a livestream can be a wide on-ramp for people in your city. Folks in your community can be introduced to God and his people in your congregation through your livestream. But it must go beyond that. Strategies must be devised and resources must be deployed to engage those viewers and invite them into the physical assembly. We can’t be content with “hits” and “viewers;” we cannot mistake “time spent viewing” with engagement with Jesus and his Church; we must work hard to connect those online to the physical flesh and blood Body of Christ.

Finally, it’s on church leaders – shepherds, preachers, pastors, worship ministers – to teach and communicate better what God is doing during our worship assemblies, and to plan and practice so the holy community and transforming encounter of church is experienced on Sundays.

Peace,

Allan

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