Category: Worship (Page 1 of 25)

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

Christ For the World We Sing

“Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a Kingdom of priests.” ~Exodus 19:5-6

The Lord places our priesthood in the context of the whole world. We are not saved by God to rule the world. We are not saved by God to ignore the world. We are saved and called by God to participate in his plans for the world.

A priest is someone who stands between two parties – a liaison, a go between – usually between the people and God or, in this case, the world and God. Priests represent the people in the presence of God. So as a Kingdom of priests and a holy nation, Israel was called to represent the whole rest of the world to God. On behalf of all the people on earth, Israel was to offer praise to God. And sacrifices and offerings. Confession and prayers. Worship.

Worship is a priestly duty. Our worship is for the sake of the world. We mostly think of worship as for the sake of the individual, for my personal sake. We act like the purpose of worship is to inspire me, to enrich my own private walk with God. That’s part of it, I think. But we need to remember that we represent all of creation when we come together in the God’s presence to worship.

Christ for the world we sing! The world to Christ we bring!
With loving zeal;
the poor and them that mourn, the faint and overborne,
sinsick and sorrow-worn, whom Christ doth heal.

Christ for the world we sing! The world to Christ we bring!
With fervent prayer;
the wayward and the lost, by restless passions tossed,
redeemed at countless cost, from dark despair.

We sing for the whole world. We intercede for the world. We speak to God on behalf of the world. Part of being priests is that we sing and pray for everybody. We ask God to be merciful, we ask God to forgive, we ask God to save – not just people like us and not just people who like us. Everybody.

Once we had not received mercy, but now we have received mercy. So we ask God to show that same mercy to all people. We intercede for the world in our worship.

Peace,

Allan

Extravagant Worship

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy, and dearly loved…” ~Colossians 3:12

We’re not chosen because we’re good. We’re not holy because we act like it. We’re not dearly loved because we deserve it. It’s all because of God. Who we are as chosen, holy, and dearly loved is strictly and totally about God. Not us. God’s love for you is eternal, his commitment to you has no limits, and his grace toward you is undefeated. Blessing after blessing after unmerited blessing! And our response to all that divine love and blessing is worship. We pour our hearts and our lives out to our Father in worship because he loves us more infinitely and blesses us more abundantly than we could ever dream.

Some people talk about church like it’s a gym. We go to church to get stronger, to build up our spiritual muscles. But I don’t think it’s like the runners I see around my neighborhood at 6:30 in the morning. Those folks are out there early every morning with their grim, sweaty faces, just trudging up and down the streets, laboring, grunting, stumbling, struggling – I guess so they can live longer. That’s not worship! Worship is the young lady running to meet her fiance! It’s the kids dancing wildly and shrieking loudly when they find out we’re going to Disney World! That’s Sunday! We’re expressing our gratitude and love!

And, yes, it’s extravagant. It’s over the top. We dress up nice for church, we get to the building early so we can have the best seats. We put our best singers on microphone and they practice – it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve sung “O Worship the King,” the worship minister makes you practice! Some of the songs make you cry, some of them make you clap your hands and dance. Some of the readings make you shout “Amen!” Some of the prayers change the course of your week. We spend hours every week changing light bulbs and polishing the pews and setting up banners and planning the order. We’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars in the sanctuary over the years and we’re going to spend more. Yes, there’s a lot of material, emotional, and spiritual extravagance in the worship center.

But, that’s love. Extravagant. People who are in love act extravagantly. They’re over the top. They sing songs and write poems and make mix tapes and videos. They buy new clothes and get new hairstyles. They cry and shout and dance. That’s the way love is – it’s excessive. Think about the twitterpated teenager. The dozen red roses – crazy expensive and what good does it do? Kissing in public – yuk! Get a room! What is all that? It’s loving excess.

If you ask people in love why they act that way, what good does it do, what does it accomplish, they’ll laugh at you. Those are the wrong questions. You’re on the wrong track. They’ll think you don’t know what it’s like to be in love. They’ll think you’ve never been in love. Or you’ve forgotten how.

The Bible says we love because we have been loved. And that is the source and the reason for the Church’s extravagant, excessive, over-the-top worship.

Peace,

Allan

Spiritual Formation by Church

I’m having some of those standard conversations with Cowboys fans today. The main theme today with the Star-gazers is that the team should be 2-0. They ought to be 2-0. They could very easily be 2-0. It’s simple to argue back that it’s just as likely that this team would be 0-2. In many ways, they ought to be 0-2. They could very easily be 0-2. That’s the way it is every week with an eventual 8-9 or 9-8 football team.

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There is no spiritual formation without the Church.

“Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues, put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” ~ Colossians 3:12-14

How? How do we do this? How do we put on these virtues, these Christ-like qualities, these fruits of the Holy Spirit? How do we add them to our lives and develop them as critical components of our nature?

“As members of one body… Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.” ~ Colossians 3:15-16

This sounds like worship. This passage is about worship in and with the Church. It shapes us.

And I know becoming like Christ is a full-time, all-the-time, seven-days-a-week lifelong journey. I know. But our formation radiates from and is nourished by the worship of the Church, gathered together every Lord’s day around the Word and the table. There is no spiritual formation without the Church. Not because there’s anything magical or superstitious about the church building, but because the Church is the Body of Christ. We are the Body of Christ, given life and sustained by God’s Spirit and formed by our Christian practices together. Worshiping together every week makes us more like Jesus.

We have publicly welcomed 32 new members to the GCR Church here in Midland over the past two Sundays. I’m certain your church has added a few new members over the past several months. You don’t get to interview these new members. Nobody gets to vote. All these new men, women, and children – nobody asks you if it’s OK to make them members of your church. God chooses people and moves them in and requires us to love each other. Our worship forces us to sing other people’s songs, to listen to other people’s opinions, to pray over other people’s cares, to forgive other people’s wrongs, and to eat and drink a meal together every Sunday. And it shapes us. It clothes us with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness. And patience. You know it does.

So we are devoted to the Church’s worship. We’re committed to it. We don’t miss it or skip it. We don’t quit on it or give it a lesser priority in our lives. We know our worship together makes us more like Jesus.

Peace,

Allan

Connected at the Gardens

With the rising number of Covid-19 cases in Amarillo and within our church family, I was concerned that last night’s Central worship event at the city’s Botanical Gardens might be sparsely attended. “I Come to the Garden Alone” was not on the set list, but I was afraid it might be the reality.

Not even close.

 

 

 

 

Between 70-80 of us showed up last night to enjoy the beauty of the gardens and worship together in song, Scripture, and prayer. The weather was absolutely beautiful under that big shady oak tree, the butterflies were doing their thing, the fellowship was sweet even from behind our masks, and the fall decorations added a wonderful touch to the evening. A bird pooped on Hannah and a few of us got hit by falling acorns, but it was a really nice evening together as a church family.

 

 

 

 

 

The theme of the evening went along with our Missions Month theme: “Connected.” We are connected together in that we all need the same grace of God, we are all saved by the same blood of Jesus, we all share the same Holy Spirit, and we are all sent on the same mission. When our nation feels so fractured, when our families and neighbors seem so separated, when our church is more scattered than gathered, when the whole world is more focused on the distance and the differences between us, we need to intentionally remember all the things we have in common. Now is the time to consider the countless ways we are attached.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Worship does that. Singing the same songs together to the same Lord. Reading the same passages of Scripture together out loud as a community of faith. Praying together on behalf of those who are not with us, but to whom we are so connected. Being reminded of who we are and where we’re going and who’s getting us there.

 

 

 

 

 

All who attended, I think, really needed what happened last night. I know I did. I have to remind myself once or twice every day that so much of what’s happening around me is completely out of my control. Things with our church, things in our city, things in the world — I have no control over hardly any of it right now. So I shouldn’t worry about it. I shouldn’t let it stress me or get me down. The only One who is in total control is our Father and he wants nothing but good for me and for the people I love. I remembered that again as Whitney led us in prayer last night. What a blessing she was to everybody in the garden and what an immeasurable encouragement it was to her. I remembered it while watching Melissa struggle with her young son as she led us in worship. What a picture of perseverance and commitment to her kids and to her church family. I was reminded while we were singing “Amazing Grace” and “Days of Elijah” together last night with so many dear and faithful Christians. The days of great trial? The days of tribulation? Behold, he comes!

Worship connects us to each other and to our Lord and to his great promises. I’m grateful to God for meaningful times like last night.

Peace,

Allan

Songs in the Night

“Behold! Bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord
who minister by night in the house of the Lord.
Lift up your hands in the sanctuary
and bless the Lord.
May the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth,
bless you from Zion.”

~ Psalm 134

It is nighttime at the temple. This psalm describes nighttime worship in the presence of God. King David had set things up so that God was worshiped around the clock at the temple, during all hours of the day and night. If you look at Psalm 92 and a couple of places in 1 Chronicles, you see that the temple choirs and praise bands blessed the Lord all day long and through the night. I know when you’re in church on Sunday morning you’re constantly glancing at your watch, you’re leaning over to the person next to you: “When is this over?” If you were in the temple in Jerusalem and asked a priest, “When is this over?” he would say, “It’s not! It’s never over! From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, the name of the Lord is to be praised!”

This 24-hour worship in the temple, this around the clock praise in the presence of God, is symbolic. It’s supposed to communicate certain realities that we can’t always see.

One of those realities is that our God never sleeps. Our God is 24/7. The pagan temples of this time always closed down operations at night because the god(s) needed to sleep. Remember Elijah talking trash to the priests of Ba’al on Mount Carmel? “Why is your god not answering you? Maybe he’s taking a nap!”

Not our God.

Psalm 121 assures us that God is watching over us and will not slumber, he will not sleep. Psalm 127 tells us the Lord provides for us while we sleep. You and I can be sound asleep in the middle of the night, knowing our Lord is wide awake and watching over us and our loved ones, protecting us, doing what’s best for us.

It also reminds us that God gives us songs in the night. When it’s dark. When times are tough. When you can’t see your way. When you can’t do anything else. You can always praise God. In fact, that’s probably the best thing you can do: bless the Lord. Even in the night.

Psalm 42 says by day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me. Psalm 77 claims that we remember our songs in the night. Job’s friend mused, “Where is God my Maker, who gives songs in the night?” David sings in the darkness of the cave while his life is in danger. Paul and Silas sing while they’re suffering at night in the Philippian jail. Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn while they walked to Gethsemane on that terrible night.

When you are sound asleep, God is being praised. And in the depths of your darkest night, you can always praise God.

Go Stars.

Allan

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