I have been thinking about the United Methodist Call to Action Report – again! There’s so much to affirm in it, though most of you know that I have problems with the structure that it proposes and plan to vote to change some parts of it. I don’t want to throw out the good stuff though. The CTA and the Towers-Watson and Apex Studies have given us some great information and we need to take advantage of it. Recent news reports say how US citizens have a 62% favorable view of our denomination, far outpacing other faith groups. We want that 62% and more to actually come through our doors and experience Jesus. So we need to pay attention to what these studies have said are important factors for increasing our vitality.
Their findings say that we need more small groups, better programs for children and youth, a mix of contemporary and traditional worship, longer pastorates, more effective exit strategies for underpeforming clergy, lay empowerment, more people and money in missions, and evangelism. The Council of Bishops has said about the CTA, “For the sake of a new world, we see a new church.” There is no doubt in my mind that we have to do things differently to reach the world for Christ! We all know the popular adage: “Doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results is madness.”
But, we love rituals, especially church ones, don’t we? They give us a sense of order in our otherwise chaotic existence. When we can’t focus or concentrate, we can at least remember the words of the 23rd Psalm or the Lord’s Prayer. When all else fails, we are able to recall the rituals that have sustained us over the years. Their routine nature is precisely what gives them their staying power when adversity strikes.
But don’t most of us also abhor anything that is stale or routine? Even in interpersonal relationships we want to spice things up every now and then. Yet, what works better than what has already worked? As someone once said, quite appropriately, “Where water has once flowed it can more easily flow again.” How true! After a year of drought and parched earth, the rains don’t easily cut new channels. They flow down familiar paths. On the other hand Aesop did say, “Familiarity breeds contempt,” but, I dare say, the familiar is exactly what we long for when the rains come tumbling down.
The world has changed, though. Sure there are tried and true things we need to keep doing, but we better be open to new strategies to reach a culture that increasingly thinks that the church is out of touch. For instance, worship has changed over the years. The liturgical reform movement of the 70’s has continued to this day. It has pushed innovation in worship. Though reluctant at times, we have experimented with new things like contemporary Christian music, screens and projectors in sanctuaries, Holy Communion by intinction, and “passing the peace” during worship services. Some new-old things have been accepted more easily than others. Children’s Sermons, Advent wreaths and candles, Chrismon Trees, and the use of the Paschal Candle have been so welcomed that people think they’re age-old traditions. “Longest Night” services on December 21 are fairly new to me but are an example of creative worship innovation. What a wonderful way to help people deal with holiday grief.
It’s good to try new things while honoring the old. Jesus had something to say about this when he spoke of new wine in old wineskins. Unfortunately, the common errors of the church are: 1) Confusing tradition with truth, 2) Confusing rhetoric with reality, 3) Confusing practice with presence. Like the Laodiceans in Revelation 3, who had confused their practice with God’s presence, we also can get so busy that we miss what’s truly important – not what we do, but to Whom we belong. We end up lukewarmly selling out to hip worship fads that promote a consumeristic entertainment “Wow!” over the real deal. Therefore, our traditions must be infused with Divine Majesty. Empty ritual doesn’t cut it. For instance, George Barna, who does research on churches, says in his Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators, “Seven out of 10 adults (71 percent) say they have never experienced God’s presence at a church service.” How sad!
No matter what we do in worship, whether timeless or entirely unheard of, it should highlight and celebrate the real presence of God. According to Ron Rolheiser in his book, The Shattered Lantern: Rediscovering The Felt Presence of God, “God is always present, but we are not always present to God.” Indeed, for God’s epiphanies to become less rare we should open ourselves to God. Old ways, new ways – who cares just so it happens! For those who need it, worship should rattle their very beings with power, or for others’ needs, soothe their souls with the greatest wash of calm ever experienced. Whichever we need, worship is the very place where God’s epiphanies should most easily occur and be recognized.