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9:23 A.M. Sunday morning. A young mother shouts upstairs to see if her five-year-old has finally brushed his teeth and found any socks that match. Emptying unfinished cereal bowls in the sink, she checks the clock one more time, knowing that if she changes the baby's diaper, the whole family will once again be late to church. The hardest part of the morning is containing her resentment against her husband, who has somehow found time to read the sports page while she has been expected to prepare herself and three crabby children. She'll have to put on lipstick in the car.
Across town a twenty-something young man presses his snooze alarm for the third time. Why did he cave in and agree to meet his friend at some church? To get the guy off his back after saying "No" on five other weekends. He wonders if it's too late to beg sickness, or if he should just get it over with and grab some coffee to give him a jolt and ease the slight hangover from last night's party.
A single dad honks the horn to pick up his fifth-grade son, hoping to give his boy a consistent religious experience and looking forward to their weekly donut stop after church. A grandmother carefully buttons her best dress and frets over the casual attire of most contemporary churchgoers. A thirty-two-year-old single woman catches herself smiling at a stoplight, filled with anticipation at the opportunity to go to church and thank God for the job promotion she thought would never come through.
A fifteen-year-old girl has fought with her mom all morning about why she had to get up so early on one of her only days off, why her skirt is too short to wear to church, and why a Diet Coke and half a donut aren't considered a nutritious breakfast. A young couple who have diligently prayed for a baby the last four years get into their sedan, longing to have need for a minivan someday. Going to church has become a painful reminder for them of the hole they feel, and they secretly hope they can emotionally handle the sight of so many happy families arriving in the parking lot.
Every Sunday morning a minority of people in your town and mine prepare to go to church. Each man, woman, and child has a story-a life that goes on from Monday through Saturday. Many of them rush to get to church on time. Some were on the fence all morning about whether they would really show up. So, for those who do arrive, who walk into a church and take a seat, what is at stake? How much does it really matter what takes place in the next hour?
Before we explore that question, we have to face reality. Getting people to church on Sundays is exceedingly difficult. That is true in the U.S., Australia, Europe, and most places around our world. In many cultures, church attendance is no longer considered normal, and most of the population never give it a thought. People have so many other attractive options on Sunday morning-sleeping in, lazily enjoying the paper, sports activities, errands, family outings, house projects. It is no longer much of a "should" in modern society to go to church. The majority don't go. Add to that the incredible pace of life and the assumption that a church service won't be worth the time.
That's sobering, hard-to-hear truth. And yet-there has rarely been a time when the local church has greater potential for spiritual impact! While people may not be coming to weekly services, we see a profound spiritual seeking in most places around the world. Many are facing the emptiness of a life without meaning. Countless families are in crisis, or wrestling with economic uncertainty. People are hungry for truth, for deep inner peace, for genuine community, for a sense of hope and raucous joy.
I have never believed more strongly in the potential of the hour on Sunday! From the moment the first note is played or the first word is spoken, opportunity hangs in the air. The hour can simply be sixty minutes for attenders to survive, a time for minds to wander aimlessly and hearts to go untouched. Or, just maybe, the hour on Sunday can be a time of wonder, a time of transformation, perhaps even a time of awe. That's precisely what the earliest Christians experienced. In Acts 2 we read that when those first believers gathered, "everyone was filled with awe." And beyond that, "the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved" (empasis added). Now that's a picture of church that stirs my spirit.
Sadly, very few churchgoers-and certainly not those who are unchurched-would use words like awe to describe the hour in church on Sunday. Most would describe their experience at church as tolerable at best. Which adjectives does the world most often use to describe church? I have asked that question in Australia, Germany, Sweden, the United States, and several other countries. I always hear the same words: Boring. Irrelevant. Mediocre. Hypocritical. Academic. Stuffy. Few folks expect to be moved or encouraged or transformed in significant ways because of that hour on Sunday. We must face the reputation we are up against. Most people carry a very low opinion of church. Does this bother you as much as it bothers me? It makes me mad and pumps me up!
We have an enormous job to do. Certainly God must be grieved that his bride, the local church, is viewed with such apathy and disdain. Our God longs to use the gathering time in communities of faith for some of his greatest work in human hearts. We can't blame God for the mediocrity and lack of awe in our church services. He has not changed. He is always ready to pour out his supernatural, anointing power. But too often we have not done our part. We are called to carefully craft services that are packed with potential for God to do his mighty work. It is a cooperative effort-and many of us are not holding up our end of the deal. When we give God our absolute best and he sends his Spirit to touch lives, the possibilities are truly awesome!
It All Begins with Sundays
Weekend services at any local church drive every other part of the ministry. They are the big kahuna, the whole enchilada, the first impression, and the front door. Any biblically functioning community of faith has many important ministries. A healthy church cares for the poor and the sick, ministers to the youth and the elderly, helps people connect to one another in smaller groups, and reaches out to those far from God. But all these ministries depend on the weekend services to provide people, resources, leadership, vision, and core values. Our pastor sees the services as the funnel for all the rest of church work and often says, "As the weekend services go, so goes the church!" In almost every case, sub-ministries in the church lean on corporate gatherings to thrive.
Something very significant can happen when the body of Christ gathers all together on Sunday morning. Those weekly services define what matters to a church and its leaders, what they will focus on all week, what part of God's Word will challenge them, and how they'll experience God's supernatural presence and power. When Sunday mornings inspire, envision, and equip those who attend, a buzz of excitement is generated that feeds all the sub-ministries and events. If church leaders become complacent about carefully preparing the hour on Sunday, they jeopardize the church's entire life and mission.
How hot does my own zeal burn for God's house? How concerned am I when I see my own church fail to reach its full potential? Is my passion for the bride of Christ increasing or waning over time? These questions inspire me to periodically measure my zeal factor, and to care most about what God cares about-the establishment of his kingdom here on earth. I believe God is honored whenever we devote ourselves to improving our churches and to carefully planning weekend services that increasingly reflect his awesome power, grace, and love.
Recently, I have been challenged by the passion of Jesus himself for what takes place in God's house. In John 2, we read about Jesus' angry response toward those who had turned the temple courts into a strip mall, shamelessly marketing their livestock in a house of worship. To do justice to the scene described by John, we have to imagine Jesus on fire with disgust-this is not a portrait of a man nicely offering constructive criticism! Jesus crafted a whip, literally driving away offenders and boldly overturning their tables of commerce. His disciples must have been shocked. What a display of unbridled emotion, in front of casual shoppers, curious onlookers, and religious leaders who completely doubted his authority.
Jesus' actions reminded his disciples of a verse from the Psalms: "For zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who insult you fall on me" (Psalm 69:9). Jesus could not stand by, watching his Father's house compromised in any way. He saw the temple as the gathering place for a community of faith, and it would not be long before the Son of God would describe the church as his "bride"-the ultimate treasure whose excellence and beauty must be upheld and cherished.
The hour on Sunday matters to me because it matters to God. During that hour, people are forming impressions of a faith community-but they are also forming impressions of God. We have an opportunity either to draw them closer to their heavenly Father or push them farther away. More than ever, I am convinced that modern day miracles can take place when people enter our churches. That sixty minutes can be a time of wonder, a time to quiet souls, spark deep emotion, and prompt turning points with eternal significance.
The Wonder of a Quieted Soul
The service's first potential wonder is the wonder of a quieted soul. How much time for quiet moments, outside of sleeping, does the average person have in our culture? Some of us who make time for solitude are simply out of touch with most people's daily lives.
All day long, folks are bombarded by noise and information. The technology explosion-including cell phones, PDAs (personal digital assistants), e-mail, and voice mail-has created a culture of people who are never out of reach. Add to that the relentless barrage of radio, television, magazines, the Internet, and stacks of books. The pace of our society keeps escalating. Everyone always seems to be in such a hurry!
So when people do come to church, they rarely arrive expecting to be still, to receive a touch of the divine. Most men and women have not experienced a quieting of their soul all week long. Even getting to church may feel frantic after navigating traffic and hunting for a decent parking place. In a sixty-minute service, we have the magnificent opportunity to give attenders an enormous gift-the gift of slowing down, encountering the presence of God, and wrestling with life's deeper issues. They can't reach such quiet immediately. Our job is to guide them there, and then pray that God will do his work.
I recently experienced my own soul being quieted at church. It happened at a Saturday evening service, after a day filled with a daughter's soccer game, errands, and house cleaning. I had not made any time for solitude or spiritual reflection. The theme of the service was community-that we were created from the beginning to long for significant connection with a few other people who truly know us and love us, even the nasty parts of ourselves we try to hide. Music early in the service began to prepare listeners by revealing songs in our culture that clearly express this desire for community. I felt my own pulse down especially as I listened to a passionate recurring lyric: "I don't want to be an island anymore." And then the moment of stillness happened for me.
It came during a drama sketch of a man who lived much of his life in isolation, then risked tasting the power of connection in a small group. He joined the group because his new girlfriend insisted, and he laughed every time he heard the phrase "small group," because it was such a foreign term. Yet, that group of friends became extremely significant in his life. Through narrative we learned that the guy married the girlfriend, and they eventually moved out of state. Sadly, the marriage began to fall apart, and the man moved back to his hometown. One day he ran into one of that original circle of friends. I noticed, as the scene grew more serious, how quiet the audience became. Up on the platform, the small group invited this man to join them, and once again, made a circle to surround him with support. They accepted him just as he was.
The auditorium was still. No one coughed or moved a muscle. We were witnessing together a portrait of what we all long for. The Holy Spirit was at work, speaking to a diverse audience in many ways about our individual needs for authentic community. There was no applause when the drama ended. As our pastor came up to lead us in prayer and to teach, most of us had soft hearts ready to hear truth from God's Word. Though I'd rushed to hurry my family out the door, through traffic, and into the auditorium, my soul now felt much different-quiet and reflective.
Many people who attend church on Sunday morning haven't truly connected with God in a long time. Those of us privileged to prepare church services can offer attenders an opportunity-during the service-to be touched by God. Even for people just beginning their spiritual journey, this is an incredible gift. Author Garrison Keillor once said:
If you can't go to church and, for at least a moment, be given transcendence ... then I can't see why anyone should go. Just a brief moment of transcendence causes you to come out of church a changed person.
I contend that most people would consider the gift of a quieted soul well worth any time spent in church.
The Wonder of a Deeply Felt Emotion
The second amazing wonder possible on Sunday is the wonder of a deeply felt emotion. Most people do not expect to be moved by anything in church. Occasionally, they may feel deep emotions at a movie or a powerful theatrical production. But they most often assume that church will engage only their heads, not their hearts. So, if and when we help attenders access deep feelings, laugh from the gut, relate to something sad, or get angry about injustice-we serve them well. God designed all of us to be both thinkers and feelers. We definitely need to use our heads in church, to learn truths about God. But it is equally vital that we be moved.
Excerpted from An Hour on Sunday by Nancy Beach Copyright © 2004 by NANCY BEACH. Excerpted by permission.
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