The late and legendary W. A. Criswell used to tell of the weekend he visited Manhattan. On Saturday night, his group attended the Broadway play “Hello, Dolly.” It was light and bright, happy and spirited, and left them with a song in their hearts and a lift to their steps. On Sunday, they visited a cold church where the songs were unsingable, the members were unfriendly, and visitors felt like intruders. The contrast between the Broadway play and the frigid church was so stark, Criswell said, “If they’d given an invitation, I would have joined ‘Hello, Dolly’!”
I had a similar experience on my first visit to Cincinnati some thirty years back.
On Friday night, I attended a baseball game at the old Riverfront Stadium and saw the Reds play the way only the “Big Red Machine” of the 1970s could play. Everyone around me was friendly, they were enjoying themselves, and they included me in the mix. At the end of the game, they were all shaking my hand, saying how good it was to have me in the Queen City, and inviting me back. Bear in mind that I was alone and had not known a soul in the city. It was a charming experience.
On Sunday, I attended a worship service across the river in Covington, Kentucky, that was a clone of the Manhattan church Dr. Criswell attended. Cold, formal, irrelevant to anything in my life.
Thereafter, when I have reflected on that experience, I have adapted Dr. Criswell’s line and said, “Had they given an invitation, I’d have joined the Cincinnati Reds!”
What made the difference? Figure that out and you will go a long way to determining why some churches are growing by leaps and bounds and others are dying on the vine.
I’ve not spent hours sorting this out, and your opinion on this is as good as mine, but a few things seem clear. With both “Hello, Dolly” and the baseball game, we were watching professionals do what they did best. These were people who had devoted their lives to their craft and took it seriously. They were well-trained and highly prepared. Every detail of their presentation–whether the songs and acting of the play or the baseball game’s announcers, organ music, seating comfort, and the hot dogs–had been gone over time and again and made as good as they could make it.
And the church? My opinion about dead, cold churches will color my analysis, of course. You get the impression that the worship leaders care little about what they are doing, that they are bored as well as boring, that their main purpose is to get through the service, and that someone actually enjoying what they present is the farthest thing from their minds.
I used that little word “enjoy” on purpose. It’s a lightning rod and draws the ire of many a “pure” worship leader. “We’re here to worship God, not enjoy the service.” Mostly, I agree. However, I’ve noticed that when I worship best, I get a lot out of it myself. And I’ve also learned that if my emotions are not involved and my intellect challenged, if this is just an act my body is performing and words my mouth is uttering, I may as well have stayed home for all the good it’s accomplishing.
The huge question, the massive consideration that must be dealt with by every church staff team planning a worship service is this: how and at what point do we engage the congregation?
If you started at the beginning of these articles on fellowship in the church–and this is the seventh one as you can see–you’ve noticed that we have repeatedly made the point that the interaction between members which constitutes “koinonia” happens primarily outside of the worship service itself. Church dinners, work projects, prayer meetings, home sessions, Bible studies, and ball games are some venues fellowship may and should happen.
But when fellowship breaks out in the worship service, you have something special.
At this point, I have painted myself into a corner.
I am no expert on worship. I know how to worship, I think, and certainly know when real worship is taking place in a service. But when it comes to telling others how to put together a service that will meet all the goals of such a time, well, I’m still the amateur.
Often, in my limited experience, worship just “happens.” God decided to show up that day, and the effect was life-transforming. People were moved by the music, humbled by the message, elated by the holiness, and blessed by the decisions made. And where the results were not visible, it still felt “okay,” because you knew you had been in the presence of God and that gave it an authenticity nothing else can produce.
In those cases where the Sovereign God just “showed up,” it might have been because He was honoring the prayers and heart-hungers of His people. Or, it could have been all about His mercy. I find myself falling back on Psalm 115:3 lots of times. “Our God is in the Heavens; He does whatever He pleases.”
It’s tempting here to say one cannot plan a service that will accomplish this. However, I’ve seen it done often enough to convince me otherwise. If the worship planner is Spirit-filled and knowledgeable about what he or she is doing, services can be planned that will move a congregation a long way down the road toward meeting God.
When I was pastoring, frequently on Sunday mornings I found myself praying, “Lord, do something today not in the worship bulletin.” That is, something we had not planned. Surprise us.
The last time I did that, something memorable occurred. Just before the service began, a deacon sidled up to me and whispered, “Pastor, we have a motorcycle gang with us today!” He wasn’t sure whether that was good or bad. But I was fairly certain it was the local chapter of the Christian Motorcycle Association on their monthly “Steeple Search.” They meet for breakfast, then pick out a church to surprise.
Surprise is the right word, too. Imagine the typical church, assembling for a routine service, nothing much going on, when suddenly the front door opens and thirty men and women walk in, decked out in black leather and denims, the men rather oversize and mostly bearded, all of them heavily tanned and sporting tattoos. The second surprise is discovering what radiant believers they all are. They ‘amen’ the pastor through the sermon and infuse the hymn-singing with a gusto and zest worship leaders dream of.
That’s what happened in our service that morning. I introduced the club members, the congregation applauded them in welcome, and the rest of the service was electrified. Our guests brought laughter, joy, and emotion into our worship that day.
If it was left to me, I would have them in my church every Sunday.
One of my favorite Scriptural insights is found in the Old Testament book of Ezra, when the people of Israel were gradually returning from Babylonian captivity and trying to rebuild Jerusalem. One of the first things they did was to clean up and restore the foundation of the Temple. And when they finished that portion of the work, they stopped for worship.
Here are the final four verses of Ezra chapter 3.
“Now, when the builders had laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord according to the directions of King David of Israel.
“They sang, praising and giving thanks to the Lord saying, ‘For He is good, for His lovingkindness is upon Israel forever.’ And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.
“Yet many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ households, the old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of the house was laid before their eyes, while many shouted aloud for joy,
“So that the people could not distinguish the sound of the shout of joy from the sound of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard far away.”
Now, that was worship! There is a generational difference here, as the older people cried and the young folks laughed, but it produced a blend which was surely lovely in the sight of the Lord.
They were celebrating.
Now, all we worship planners have to figure out is whether we have anything to celebrate the next time the people of God come together in our church.