Aug 16 2009

A Tale of Two Churches

I went to two churches this morning, one at 9:00 and the other at 11.  One was a typical contemporary evangelical service, not unlike many others I’ve been to over the years. The other was the Episcopal church I’ve been attending for several months.  There was a vast difference in style, as one would expect. However, today I became aware of one distinction in particular which bears some reflection.

Church #1

First, I want to be clear that I am not saying church #1 is in any way a bad church, as evangelical churches go.  On the positive side, they really understand how to be welcoming.  We were very warmly greeted by people who seemed genuinely happy to see us (granted, one greeter was someone I happened to know).  Second, they started precisely at 9am.  They even had a TV screen in the lobby counting down the seconds until church started.  Even though most people were late, that didn’t stop the worship team.

Here’s the thing with church #1: The service, which was 90 minutes long, consisted of only two items, worship (that is, singing about 4 worship songs) and the sermon.  As far as the worship portion went, the band was very good (and loud), and the songs were for the most part well-chosen, including 2 contemporary versions of older hymns (including Amazing Grace, always a winner).  The pastor was a fair speaker, but talked way too long, and said virtually nothing that couldn’t have been said in under 10 minutes.  Then they did a quick offering during a reprise of one of the worship choruses.

Church #2

On the other hand, at St. Paul’s Episcopal we sang about the same number of hymns, not counting various liturgical choruses and a responsive chant of Psalm 111.  They read selections from the Old Testament, the Epistles, the Gospels, and of course the chanted Psalm.  There was a sermon – barely 10 minutes, but well thought-out and providing food for thought (a little pun… the text was John 6:51-58) on a very difficult text.

We also publicly confessed sin, received an affirmation of forgiveness, spent time in intercessory prayer, proclaimed our faith in reciting the Nicene Creed, corporately prayed the Lord’s Prayer, heard some amazing special music and celebrated the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist).

All that, in under one hour.

Food for thought

Again, I did not particularly dislike church #1.  But again, the contrast between my 2 church experiences this morning reveals something, I think, about evangelical Christianity.  I keep coming back to Marshall McLuhan’s concept “the medium is the message,” because I think it’s directly applicable to church. What we do – or not do – and how we do it reveal both our priorities and our beliefs.

It is easy to see in the Episcopal worship service what they believe and what they value: Scripture, worship of the Trinity, a commitment to the historic faith and the ever-present work of Christ as celebrated in the Eucharist.

In church #1, it was not so easy to discover what they believed. I presume – because I know the denomination – they are Trinitarians and believe in the authority of Scripture, but I wouldn’t know this from the service. It was evident that they valued contemporary music and a quality sound system, and that they valued the perspective of the pastor (the sermon took the majority of the service).  But, what does what is lacking in the service say about their beliefs and values?

I am not blaming church #1 for their rather featureless service; I believe they inherited a contemporary, anti-liturgical and anti-historical form and have taken it for granted. It possibly has not occurred to most of them that they leave the service with relatively little, and having done very little.  Fellowship, corporate singing and some teaching are, of course, not without value; the question is, is it enough?

Aug 4 2009

A Lutheran perspective on North American Christianity

From a recent sermon (Lutheran):

… we need to recognize that the religious culture of North America is Evangelicalism.  This culture has its roots first in Puritanism, which is basically Calvinistic, and secondarily in the great revival movements of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  Evangelicalism puts the emphasis on conversion as a personal decision and the church as a spiritual democracy.  Evangelicalism’s stress on the autonomy of the believer and the immediacy of spiritual experience apart from sacramental means has shaped a religious culture that accents an individualistic faith over churchly life and tends to characterize Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper as peripheral to the Christian life.  This subjectivity, coupled with a suspicion of the intellect, has produced a religious culture that elevates heart over head, and emotion over intellect.  Wherever biblical authority is lost, Christ is displaced, and the Gospel is distorted, then our interests have displaced God’s, and we are doing His work in our own way.  The loss of the centrality of Christ in the life of today’s church in North America is becoming more and more common.  It is this loss that allows us to transform worship into entertainment, Gospel preaching into marketing, believing into technique, and living a sanctified life into feeling good about ourselves. God does not exist to satisfy human ambitions, cravings, the appetite for consumption, or our own private spiritual interests. [emphasis mine]

I wish I’d said that.  I often refer to Marshall McLuhan’s concept, “The medium is the message,” which I think is especially true of our expressions of Christianity. How we worship – what we do on Sunday mornings – speaks volumes about our values and beliefs, more so than we realize.  In many evangelical churches – and to be fair, a number of liturgical churches as well – Christ is not in the center of what is being done.  Sticking to the liturgical book masks this somewhat, but many liturgical churches have left the book for newer, trendier liturgies that are severely lacking.  I actually walked out of one such Lutheran service.  Seeker-sensitive or experientially-focused churches, however, have nothing historical to hide behind, so I think the message they convey in what they do is more obvious.

Is this being judgmental?  Yes, definitely.  But, as GK Chesterton said (my favorite quote), “Tolerance is the virtue of a man without convictions.”  Am I positive that I’m 100% correct in my judgments?  Not at all – however, I will believe what I believe until I have a better revelation of truth.  If you’ve got some, I’d certainly like to hear it.

Thanks to Dawn for the quote.

Aug 2 2009

On attending church

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14

On my way to church this morning, I was contemplating my sinfulness, and contemplating how I seem to do this regularly as I drive to church.  It’s not intentional, I just can’t seem to avoid it.  It is an interesting phenomenon – by the time I’m half-way there (my drive is usually about 20 minutes), I have become aware of a number of my weaknesses, shortfalls, issues and, yes, sins.  I’m sure I’m not aware of all of them, but that would probably be too much for me to handle.

I’m not talking about dealing with guilt feelings; this is not a necessarily emotional experience.  No matter what state of mind I am in when I leave the house, by the time I arrive at the church, I am totally in touch with the fact that I am indeed a sinner, and that I depend wholly on grace.

Prior to the last few months, I don’t recall ever having this frame of mind while going to church.  In the past, if I thought about it at all, I went to church as a “saint saved by grace” rather than a “sinner saved by grace.”  I would walk in knowing everything was cool, I would groove to the worship, sit through the sermon, talk to friends and go home often not remembering what the sermon was about. In other words, I would leave as unaware as I went in, perhaps not that much unlike the Pharisee in the parable.

The Church as Creation of the Gospel

Over the last year or two, I have come to believe that the church does not exist as merely a gathering of the saints – a “King’s kids” family reunion, as it were.  The Church is truly created by the Gospel:  It is first and foremost a gathering of sinners –  those who are “being saved” (1 Cor. 1:18).  We are attracted not by the music or the preaching or the aesthetics of the building but as sinners we are attracted by the Gospel; for without the centrality of the Cross the rest is without substance.

Without an awareness of my need for grace, the proclamation by the Priest that

“Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins
through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all
goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you
in eternal life” (Book of Common Prayer)

or its equivalent would not have any meaning, and neither would the Eucharist (communion).

So, this was what I was thinking about as I drove to church this morning.  Whether my recent Sunday morning sin-awareness is a gift from God, an attack from Satan or perhaps due to the fact I am now knowledgeable about the liturgy, it serves the same purpose, to prepare me to worship.  Definitely counter-intuitive.

Today’s sermon

Perhaps not coincidentally, the sermon (based on 2 Samuel 11, the David & Bathsheba incident) was about sin and the Gospel; specifically, our need for a personal awareness of our sinfulness.  It was the first sermon I’ve taken notes on in years.  Here are some of the key quotes:

  • The Gospel is never about someone else; the Gospel is always about you (me). Yes, it’s about God, but what he meant was that a non-personal Gospel is no gospel at all.
  • David’s admission, “I have sinned before God” is full of hope, because it is full of God. Again, awareness of our sin brings hope for forgiveness. Without a personal awareness of our sin, the Gospel doesn’t become personal, either.  An intellectual awareness that “all have sinned” does us no good.
  • Sin doesn’t take much imagination. No one’s sin is all that interesting- there’s nothing new under the sun. However, forgiveness – God’s mercy – is new every morning. Whatever we think about our sin, it’s not all that exciting to God.  However, God is very creative in showing ways to forgive us and bring redemption. (Romans 5:20)

As I began this post, I was aware that a commentary on Luke 18 has the potential of putting me in the Pharisee’s role; conceivably even an awareness of sin can make oneself proud.  Hopefully I’ve avoided doing this.  I have just started meditating on this issue, so my thoughts are kind of random. However, this seems to fit in with Luther’s teaching on Law and Gospel, which very few non-Lutherans (or Lutherans, for that matter – seeing as I was raised Lutheran) understand, as well as his concept of  “simultaneously saint and sinner.”

All I know is, I’m very, very appreciative of the Gospel.

Jul 14 2009

My Episcopal quandary

I find myself in the midst of a quandary.  I have, over the past several months, fallen in love with a church service.  Not a church, mind you, but the service.  As I’ve mentioned in the past, last December I started attending a local Episcopal church.  After being greatly disappointed with Lutheran (ELCA) services, I found the liturgy in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer to be quite good.

And, this church has awesome music, most of the time.  Besides traditional hymns, they will use current songs like “Shout to the Lord” or classics like “The Old Rugged Cross.” Even the sermons are good.  Being sacramentally-oriented anyway, I have become dependent upon the completeness of worship that the liturgy provides, especially celebrating the Lord’s Supper weekly.  During a fairly unsettled period in my life, church on Sunday morning is my one safe place, the eye in the middle of my often stormy life.

The problem is, the denomination has left the faith.  I can’t tell from a normal Sunday morning, but I know of the issues behind the scenes.

The LA Times reported today,

Leaders of the Episcopal Church, gathering in Anaheim for their first national convention in three years, reopened fractious debate this week over whether to authorize marriage rites for same-sex couples and to repeal a de facto ban on the consecration of gay bishops.

The issues have caused painful divisions in the 2.1-million-member denomination, which in recent years has seen dozens of parishes and four conservative dioceses, including one in Central California, break away. Last month, the dissidents formally launched a rival church.

Despite warnings about the consequences, liberal Episcopalians at the meeting are championing a flurry of resolutions to expand participation of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in church life, with votes expected in coming days. The conference, the church’s General Convention, runs through Friday.

This is actually nothing, compared to what is also going on.  The Anglican Church in North America, the newly-formed group referred to in the article, has published a booklet charging the Episcopal Church (TEC) with a number of heresies. While perhaps not specifically adopting heretical positions, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and other prominent leaders have made numerous heretical statements denying that Christ is the only way to salvation, denying the resurrection, denying Christ’s deity, and so on.  One priest is openly Muslim, and anther is a known Buddhist (I think they dd draw the line at Satanism, however).

TEC appears committed to being “all churches to all people,” becoming a nearly-universalist organization.  Furthermore, TEC has taken to filing lawsuits against many churches who have made the decision to leave TEC over these issues.  What is ironic is that it is TEC that has departed from the larger Anglican Communion.

So, that’s my quandary.  Now, I don’t know for sure where this church would stand in relation to these issues. The Priest in Charge (the Rectorship is currently open) appears to be fairly level-headed. He is, at least, a C.S. Lewis fan.  However, I know that there are many in the church that are Marcus Borg fans (I think Marcus has some interesting things to say, but he questions the factual nature of much in the Bible).

I do plan on calling the Priest in Charge and making an appointment to address these concerns. However, a part of me just wants to enjoy the liturgy, and ignore the rest.  That could work, at least until TEC decides to change the liturgy.