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A Shared Christian Life
By Ben Witherington III
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
LOVING AND WORSHIPING GOD WHOLEHEARTEDLY
Religion is the spirit of a sound mind; and, consequently, stands in direct opposition to madness of every kind. But I mean, it has religion for its object; it is conversant about religion. And so the enthusiast is generally talking of religion, of God, or of the things of God, but talking in such a manner that every reasonable Christian may discern the disorder of his mind. Enthusiasm in general may then be described in some such manner as this: a religious madness arising from some falsely imagined influence or inspiration of God; at least, from imputing something to God which ought not to be imputed to Him, or expecting something from God which ought not to be expected from Him. —John Wesley, sermon "The Nature of Enthusiasm"
One of the great problems in the twenty-first-century church is the problem of time. This is all the more a problem during an economically difficult time. People have to work—work hard to find and then keep a job—to provide for their families or to pay off their college education. When they are not busy doing such things, they are resting or occasionally having a bit of fun with family or friends. And frankly, there are not a lot of hours in the week for religion of whatever sort.
And so it is, that when the spiritual gurus call persons to extreme spiritual athleticism ("drop everything and come to my seminar"), or alternatively serve up pablum in some sort of "chicken soup for the soul," it is no wonder that the Christian public gets confused about what the normal Christian life should look like.
Is spirituality like some sort of hothouse flower that requires a self-contained environment where "heat" is the constant requirement just to produce any sort of growth at all? Is it some sort of human self-help program? Is it all about deep introspection and intense feelings about God? Is it only the seeking after some sort of cathartic religion experience? In short, folks get discouraged because they feel like they either don't have the time or don't have the energy, or don't have spiritually what it takes to do spiritual formation. And this is unfortunate but normal.
John Wesley certainly had some thoughts about this whole matter, and one of the interesting things about Wesley is that he did not think one size of spiritual formation fits all. In fact, he set up groups—societies, classes, and bands, three different levels of spiritual commitment—to help persons at different stages in their spiritual growth learn to draw closer to God. And while on the one hand Wesley was all in favor of Christians having a deep and abiding love for God and neighbor, and manifesting the love and joy and peace as the fruit of the Spirit in their lives, on the other hand, John Wesley was not a fan of what was called "enthusiasm" in his era, by which was meant religious fanaticism. As the quotation from Wesley at the beginning of this chapter shows, his view was that true religion, true "enthusiasm" in the positive sense, was the spirit of a sound and rational mind, not the spirit of someone who had taken leave of his or her senses. It was also not about a Christian needing to go through some "dark night of the soul" experience, or even some extreme ecstatic experience, in order to truly commune with God. What Wesley goes on to stress in his sermon is that false enthusiasm is seeking the ends without the means, seeking something from God directly that God, in fact, regularly and normally gives through the communal life in Christ. Here's how he puts it at the end of this sermon:
Beware, lastly, of imagining you shall obtain the end without using the means conducive to it. God can give the end without any means at all; but you have no reason to think He will. Therefore constantly and carefully use all those means which He has appointed to be the ordinary channels of His grace. Use every means which either reason or Scripture recommends, as conducive (through the free love of God in Christ) either to the obtaining or increasing any of the gifts of God. Thus expect a daily growth in that pure and holy religion which the world always did, and always will, call "enthusiasm;" but which, to all who are saved from real enthusiasm, from merely nominal Christianity is "the wisdom of God, and the power of God;" the glorious image of the Most High; "righteousness and peace;" a "fountain of living water, springing up into everlasting life!"
What then are the ordinary channels of God's grace? Although they include things like prayer and Bible reading that we can do on our own (which we will discuss later), Wesley is talking about things we do together—participating in the weekly worship of God, and if possible in the sacraments with the body of Christ, and participating in the weekly study of God's word. In Wesley's own day it also meant attending the group meetings as well.
For a start, the normal Christian life involves doing one's best to observe the Lord's Day every single week. It involves coming prepared each week to wholeheartedly get caught up with the congregation in love and wonder and praise of God in Christ. We will say more about this, but participation in learning about God through Sunday school, Bible study, or small-group learning with fellow travelers—fellow Christians—is equally important.
The Christian life involves both education and transformation, both learning and loving, both fellowship and worship, both being lifted up in spirit and being enlightened in mind. The normal Christian life needs balance not only between work and rest and play; it also must include worship and learning. To some degree the Christian faith is something caught through participation in worship; to some degree it is something taught through Christian education. And in our biblically illiterate age, we need large doses of both. Let's start with worship, and more specifically singing, as a means of spiritual formation.
WORSHIP THE WESLEYAN WAY
John Wesley, a man who had rules for almost everything, had some interesting rules about singing in a manner that glorified God and edified one's fellow worshipers, which he published in 1761. Here is what he said:
1. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.
2. Sing lustily, and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of it being heard, then when you sang the songs of Satan.
3. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, as to be heard above, or distinct from, the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.
4. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before, not stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can. And take care you sing not too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
5. Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.
Almost every element in Christian worship is and should be focused on God. In other words, it should be theocentric, God-centered. The interesting thing about church music is that while it is in praise of God and primarily directed to God, the congregation is not, according to Paul, merely performing for an audience of one. Ephesians 5:18-20 preserves the balance correctly: "Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times." What Paul has in mind is: (1) while singing is a thank offering to God and its content should be in praise of God, it is also an act of spiritual formation of others—we are to sing songs of praise to one another for the purpose of spiritually forming one another. The phrase "in your hearts" is not meant to suggest one is only singing internally. If that were the case, others would not be edified. The phrase means singing to the Lord wholeheartedly or in a heart-felt way. (2) What is ruled out both by Paul and in Wesley's rules is singing for the entertainment of others. Church music is not intended to be the performance of the few for the "couch potatoes for Jesus" in the pews. In fact, the emphasis both in the New Testament and in Wesley is on congregational singing.
It is not surprising that in a narcissistic consumer culture, people have come to judge the merits of worship by its music and preaching as entertainment. This self-centered approach has had numerous bad outcomes. For one thing, people decide where they will worship with this consumer mentality: "I will go where I can get the most out of it." They pick a worship service like they pick a car or a movie. They never even ask, "Where would the Lord have me go to best serve him and edify God's people?" Part of the problem lies in not knowing the proper function of the elements of true Spirit-filled worship.
The function of music in a worship service is not merely to rev up the troops, nor is it mainly to set the mood. Music reaches people at noncognitive levels, at affective dimensions of our personalities, and the goal of worship, including congregational singing, is that our whole person—mind, spirit, emotions, and will—is caught up in love and wonder and praise of God. When this kind of worship happens, we become self-forgetful, and then, being wide open to God's Spirit, we become shaped and formed in ways that lead to growth and Christian maturity. Let us examine a little more closely what Wesley says about singing.
Notice Wesley says at the outset, "See that you join in the congregational singing as often as possible." Christian worship is not an American Idol contest, and you should not be afraid to sing, even if you don't think you have much talent for it. The idea is to make a joyful noise unto the Lord and get caught up with the congregation in loving and praising God with one's whole heart. Singing should be done in a self-forgetful, not a self-indulgent, way. The emphasis on singing in one accord is part of the process of consciously uniting one's self with the rest of the congregation in this act of praise. We must listen to one another and if possible harmonize with one another. It is one of the ways to both create and further solidify the unity of a particular body of believers. Indeed the rules for singing are much like the New Testament rules for Christian living—seek to be in harmony and in one accord (or even one chord) with one another.
The last paragraph of Wesley's rules on singing is the most important. Wesley asks us to sing spiritually, not neglecting the meaning of the words; thus, meaning what we sing and singing what we mean. Think of yourself as tuning up for the heavenly choir, practicing here for the glorification of God what we will do there in the afterlife. Corrie ten Boom once said that she imagined Bach up in heaven being given the opportunity to direct the heavenly choir. The point is that worshiping here is already participating with the saints and acting "in concert" with them. It is sometimes said that Methodism was born in song. This is a bit of an exaggeration, but it was certainly carried along by singing, because of the efforts of Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts and others, and to this day singing is a crucial means of conveying our faith and forming our spirits.
While I was doing my PhD at the University of Durham in England, most weekends I was asked to preach somewhere in the Durham and Darlington circuits. There was one little chapel way out near Pity Me (yes, that's the name of a small coal mining village outside of Durham) that I preached at a couple of times in a three-year span. The second time I preached there it had been a while since the first visit, and quite naturally I was preaching out of my sermon barrel, not having a lot of time to write new sermons. At the end of the worship service one elderly lady came up to me and said, "You certainly like that hymn by Saint Francis, don't you, because we sang that the last time you were here." Now as it happens, I only had one sermon in which that was a hymn I had selected to sing. The old lady, being the good Methodist she was, remembered I had chosen that hymn before; but what she didn't remember was that unintentionally I had managed to preach the very same sermon twice in that church! This was a good humbling experience for a young Methodist preacher.
In the Methodist tradition, there has always been an awareness of how the grace and spirit of God often transform people when they are sharing together in inspiring worship. Francis Asbury, when he was praising the large camp meetings that took place in early nineteenth-century America, called it "fishing with a big net" not only because such large worship services are good tools for evangelism, but also because in a large group people unconsciously relax and let their guard down, perhaps feeling there is safety in numbers. And what happens when one relaxes and lets one's guard down in the presence of God, in the presence of God's Spirit, is that life can be suddenly and wonderfully changed. There is no spiritual formula or formation more important at the beginning of the Christian life than the new birth, conversion itself, and Asbury was quite certain that this could most easily happen in large groups. He once exulted, "Camp meetings, camp meetings—Glory, glory!"
Asbury knew as well that such large-group meetings were also meant to revive the flagging zeal of all Christians. Postconversion spiritual growth and formation most easily happened in the collective, when the church met as the body of Christ and experienced life in that body. And herein lies an important point: the body of Christ cannot directly minister to you in a hands-on way unless you actively participate in its gatherings. As the book of Hebrews exhorts, we must not neglect the gathering of ourselves together. Even the metaphor of the body helps us see this.
I need my hands to tie my shoes. My feet cannot do it for me, nor can my shoulders or my legs. The different parts of the body have different functions, and most important, they all need one another. As Paul says, "The head cannot say to the feet, 'I have no need of you.'" Why then should we think we should mainly do spiritual formation all by ourselves in isolation from the rest of the body of Christ? The idea of spiritual formation as a lonely pursuit of nirvana all by one's self, with a how-to manual in hand, is a distortion of what the Bible and the Wesleyan tradition teach. Consider the early church, the church in its infancy as depicted in Acts 2 and 4.
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who 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. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God's grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. (Acts 4:32-35)
These two rich paragraphs need to be unpacked. Notice that the earliest Christians were always together—together in their homes, together in the temple courts. Notice second that Christian formation took place through their sharing not only in the apostle's teaching and prayer, but also through the ordinary activities of eating together and equally sharing their property so that there were no early Christians in want of a meal or a coat or a roof over their heads. Can you imagine what a witness it would be if there were no hungry, naked, homeless Christians in the world? Can you imagine how it would form you as a part of a body of Christ that took so seriously the whole gospel for whole persons in the whole world, ministering wholeheartedly? Don't you believe that the world would have to take notice?
Third, notice that this shared worship and fellowship was done with glad and sincere hearts. We are not talking about dry and boring, mere going-through-the-motions ritual and calling that worship. No, indeed. The energy and enthusiasm of the early church was contagious. And this brings me back to this point: spiritual formation happens when you forget yourself and get caught up in acts of piety and charity—the spiritual and social dimensions of the gospel.
Excerpted from A Shared Christian Life by Ben Witherington III. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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