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Worshiping in the Small Membership Church
By Robin Knowles Wallace
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2008 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWorship: A Convergence or Meeting Place
In [Jesus Christ] all things hold together. (Colossians 1:17b)
Jesus Christ, the Center
Many things come together in Christian public worship, yet they are all held together and make sense because of Jesus Christ. In worship we enter into the story of God incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ in human history. It is the power of the Holy Spirit that draws us to God, to community with each other, and to worship.
T. S. Eliot said it well in his 1934 play The Rock: "What life have you if you have not life together? / There is no life that is not lived in community / And no community not lived in praise of God." Christian worship is focused on praise of God, in acknowledgement of the One who has brought us through trials and sorrows, whose scriptural promises have been proven true for countless persons in history and across the world, who has made a difference in our lives. Worship is something we do with others in community, for we are relational beings, who find identity, love, and belonging through being with other people. When we intentionally come in community into the presence of God, we are blessed.
What Is Converging in Worship?
So, what are some of the pieces that come together around Jesus Christ in Christian worship?
Worship is encounter with the Trinity. We have an experience of the Holy as Trinity—our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Sustainer—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the community that is One, that is God. Of all the relationships we have in worship, God is the priority, for it is in loving God that we are moved and strengthened to love our neighbor. Worship that is centered in the Trinity is death-defying, life-giving, emancipating. It has egalitarian vision and sustains kin-dom living practices for the sake of the world. Worship that is trinitarian bridges church and world and the generations, spans the globe and history, does justice and loves kindness, because it is God who holds it together. It is spirit-filled, energized, solemn, joyful, and a means of grace.
Worship is biblical and traditional. It relies on the strength of God's promises. Therefore, we need to know the biblical story better than we know the "newspaper" story. Knowing our tradition and past tell us who we are and where we have been and can give us powerful resources for worship. Two Greek words help explain what being rooted in scripture and tradition does for Christians: Anamnesis is the word that we translate as "remembrance," as in the verse "Do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19, emphasis added). This is remembrance that brings the past forward into current time; in one way, what Jesus is saying is, "Do what you have learned from the past to know I am present among you now." The second word, prolepsis, comes from the future/ kin-dom orientation of scripture, and the sense of "already" and "not yet," which our lives have; other words used to describe this concept are anticipation and foretaste. While one hand reaches out to the past to bring it into the present, the other hand reaches out to the future to bring it into the present; thus we form the primary symbol of our faith, the cross.
Worship is sacramental. Not only is worship the essential context for baptism and communion, it is also a means of grace. In baptism and communion, we have a heightened sense of God being with us, which is the mystery pointed to in sacraments. Yet every worship time may also be a point of meeting God, because God is always ready to reveal Godself to us. And, when God meets us, we experience the undeserved gifts of acceptance, forgiveness, mercy, compassion, kindness, justice, and love that are God's grace to us.
Worship is communal and contemporary. It occurs through a caring community who experience God's presence, who celebrate, weep, struggle, and pray together, like communities we hear about in Acts and the Epistles. It arises out of local context, includes indigenous elements, and pays attention to who is present. This is why "worship-in-a-box" or videotaped sermons are not conducive to powerful worship experiences—worship must be tailored for local situations, gifts, and needs. Communal worship is responsive to current times and events, to what affects the congregation. One can pray alone and have a devotional/spiritual life as an individual—and those are essential practices to prepare one for worship—but worship properly refers to something that we do together.
Worship is missional. We have Good News to share with the world. We have the world to bring before God in prayer. This is what is meant by the word liturgy: the work of the people on behalf of the world. We are called to be ambassadors for Christ, that is, to follow his ministries of service, to reach out to those on the margins of society, to care for the least in our society and around the world, to heal, and to demonstrate the Good News through our lives and our interactions with others (2 Corinthians 5:20). Worship helps us discern the answer to the question, How is God at work in transforming the world, down the street, and around the globe?
Worship is holistic. It involves our hearts, minds, souls, and strength (Mark 12:29-31). This means that we bring our whole selves to worship, body and mind, the good and the bad of our lives, the mixture that humanity is of joy, awe, wonder, delight, doubt, disappointment, anger, grief, and lament. All of this comes with the memory and the reminder of what God has promised, what God has done with the lives we know from the Bible, and how those promises are being fulfilled in our lives and will be fulfilled in the life of the world. This means that we come to worship with memory, intentions, and expectations of meeting God, of relinquishing those parts of our lives that are not Christ-like, of gaining strength to be more Christ-like in the days to come. Because we bring our whole selves to worship, worship needs to appeal to our whole selves—to our minds, hearts, souls, strength, eyes, ears, touch, smell, and taste.
Worship is participatory. We each make contributions to the whole experience: singing, praying, bringing the flowers, collecting the offering, testifying, listening, and responding. Worship is not a devotional, where one person reads something that someone else wrote and then we pray together. Worship is not something done by professionals; it is done by lovers of God who thus love to worship.
Worship includes. Jesus was very clear that outcasts were part of his ministry and outreach, whether they were poor, imprisoned, mentally or physically or spiritually ill. His message crosses borders of gender, age, and caste (beginning with his claiming of Isaiah 58:6 and 61:1-2 in Luke 4:16-21). We are also called to make certain that all are welcome in our worship times and in our congregation; sometimes this is easy, but other times we may be challenged to follow this practice of Jesus.
Worship is formational. It is a place to practice kin-dom living. It helps us to look inward as well as beyond ourselves, to confess our shortcomings, and to put our lives more in line with that of Jesus Christ. This is why we come to worship week after week—to get reshaped into our baptismal vows, to discard that which is old and sinful and take on that which is new and holy. In order to be ready to live as God has promised in the end, it is important that we worship together—children, youth, adults, elderly, Sunday school teachers, farmers, office workers, homeless, wealthy, single, married, divorced, differently-abled, different races and cultures.
Worship is authentic. To be authentic is to be fully trustworthy, genuine, sincere, and real. Worship becomes authentic as we seek to understand the impact of God's huge story on our small ones. Authentic worship is our best effort to express the realities of our lives in the particular culture we live in, knowing that the culture is judged by the story of God, not by its own story. Worship is not "playing church" by going through the words and motions that someone else taught us and that we have not made our own. To be authentic, worship needs to be in harmony with the universal church, our denomination, our local church, and individuals.
Distinctive Features of Worship with up to One Hundred Persons
First, we are "the right size," no matter whether we are two or three, seventeen or fifty, for whenever even two or three are gathered, Jesus has promised to be among us (Matthew 18:20). We may be missing some "regulars" or occasionally wish we were a larger group or had more resources, but we need to begin where we are and acknowledge the present blessings that God has given. The Good News of Jesus Christ says that we are accepted as we are, and that means us as individuals, us as small group, us as worshiping community.
Second, small groups can build on our shared experience. We often share a "heart language" whether of geographic place, family group, values, life experiences (age, race, singleness, children, grandchildren, divorce, job loss, marginalization), hopes, concerns, care for the poor or a particularly challenged group in society, love of certain kinds of music.
Third, every person can add their gift to worship leadership in a small group. Larger congregations can be tempted to let professionals lead worship; small groups by necessity allow for greater involvement of each person. Some literature on this phenomenon lifts up the nature of "participatory democracy" in small groups in organization and in worship. Everyone can have a voice in how we worship and in helping that worship to happen.
Finally, we are a "workshop" for Christian life together. For caring and authentic worship to happen in a small group, we are called and challenged, just as the disciples of Jesus were, to love as Christ has called us to. That means we get to practice Christian love while we are planning, preparing, and worshiping, setting aside ego and pride and false humility, learning to serve and be served, rejoicing in one another's gifts, weeping with those who mourn, and living in a more Christ-like manner. This is an incredible and challenging gift that has important implications for our life in the world. Groups of three to seventy-four can find this particularly challenging, because the behavior of each person has greater influence on the group, and it is easy to slip into patterns that are not spiritually mature. Tackle this work with prayer and scripture—1 Corinthians 12:12-30 and Titus 3:1-11, 1 John 3:11-24. Encourage each person to grow up in love and to put Jesus Christ first in their lives and between them in relationships with each other. Charles Wesley has some wonderful hymns that describe and pray for our life together—"Jesus, united by thy grace," "All praise to our redeeming Lord," "Christ, from whom all blessings flow," and "Jesus, Lord, we look to thee." Also consider looking at the hymns of contemporary writers. Sing and study these songs together, that they may sustain this difficult and rewarding task of learning to truly love our worshiping neighbor that we may learn to love the world.
In this chapter we have described worship as an encounter with the experience of God as Trinity, as biblical and traditional, sacramental, communal and contemporary, missional, holistic, participatory, including, formational, and authentic. The distinctive character of worship in gatherings of up to one hundred persons begins with the foundational understanding that this gathering is the right size, "where two or three are gathered."
This worship builds on shared experience, where every person can add her or his gift to worship leadership. Worship in groups of this size is a workshop for Christian life together. The next chapter begins the task of discovering the gifts for worship God has placed in your community.
Excerpted from Worshiping in the Small Membership Church by Robin Knowles Wallace Copyright © 2008 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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