Service or Worship? Chicken or Egg?

shutterstock_159858644An interesting article about the importance of worship begins with this illustration:


Kazimierz Bem, a UCC pastor, writes:

Around the year 1510, a delegation of Christians from Sudan, which had been recently overrun by Muslim conquest, went to the Christian Ethiopian court and begged the emperor to send them bishops and priests. The Christians remaining in Sudan needed clergy to lead worship, administer the sacraments, and teach the people. But the emperor refused, sending them away empty-handed.

With no Christian worship, within 100 years Christianity in Sudan became extinct and forgotten until the twentieth century.

The writer springboards into a lengthy discussion about the importance of worship as opposed to a modern emphasis on service.


I’m not sure the opening illustration is helpful.


You see, this is not 1510. Clergy are no longer leading communities that depend on them to read. Consequently, many of the rituals which this writer holds up as foundational — well, they just don’t make a lot of sense — especially to the overwhelming majority of people who are not growing up in the Church.


I argued 25 years ago, when Lutherans were uniting and revising their liturgical practices, that one little tweak, meant to convey one thing, would actually be interpreted to mean something totally different—actually opposite of Christian purpose.


In this case, the new liturgical practice was to invite laity to read the Old Testament and Epistle lessons, but they should then turn the Bible over to the pastor to read the Gospel. The reasoning was that the preacher would then segue seamlessly to the sermon. This would liturgically reinforce that the sermon is based on the Gospel. I argued that people would read this differently—that only clergy can read the Gospel. It wasn’t long before I heard the argument in a worship meeting, “But who is going to read the Gospel? Pastor Soandso can’t be here.”


Things that make sense to those who are deeply embedded in Church, just don’t make sense to those outside of Church tradition — most people.


And so I can’t help but wonder if back in 1510, had Sudanese Christians been equipped to lead worship and teach, would they have been more likely to find ways to keep sacramental covenants and Christian traditions alive without the Ethiopian emperor’s help?


It also raises another question: If Sudanese Christians had organized to serve, would they have been able to influence their Church’s destiny?


Would dedicated SERVICE have inspired them to keep worship traditions alive?

Or . . .

Would faithful WORSHIP have inspired service that grew Christianity’s influence?


It is a chicken/egg conundrum. Regardless of which side of the question you argue, the word SERVICE fits!


I suspect that one grows from another and that all benefit from education, which many congregations have all but abandoned. If people do not understand worship, it will drive them away from both worship and service.


EXAMPLE: A young woman who attended worship regularly came to members repeatedly with the same complaint. “We don’t spend enough time on our knees. We need forgiveness.” After a while, this young gal, who was always ten minutes late for worship, was starting to make people uncomfortable. I took her aside and went over the structure of worship — pointing out that worship begins every Sunday with repentance and forgiveness. “What you are looking for in the service takes place in the first ten minutes of worship, before you get here.”


This concept is taught in Catechism. But adults coming to Church today often skipped Catechism—and Sunday School—and Bible School.


When people first venture through the sanctuary doors, they are scouting, looking for something. They may not know what. For them, witnessing a Christian worship service is like watching a foreign language film with no subtitles. A medieval foreign language film!


This writer cites his ready response when worshipers complain that they aren’t getting anything out of worship. “Worship isn’t about you,”


He is wrong. Worship is a conversation with God. If people don’t resonate with what is going on, they are not worshiping. They are attending.


Worshipers who enter the sanctuary in listen-only mode will leave with a sense of exclusion. They are not likely to return.


Are they likely to suddenly find meaningful lives in Christian service? Probably not.


Which brings us to another question raised by this article and its readers. Is the Church being outgunned by the public sector in its ability to serve?


Next post.