It has never been said that I am boring. Many other adjectives have been used, some not so kind. I love poetry, literature, food, brewing, making stuff, remodeling, gardening and working in my urban orchard. I have come to accept that I am what my mom thinks I am, a renaissance man.
I am also a pastor. A young one at that (33 yesterday). Put my love for the beauty of this world, my age, and my job title into a mixing bowl and what ought to result is a deep and abiding passion for creative worship and cutting edge trends like ‘visual liturgy.’ Yet step into the church where I pastor and the first thing that strikes you is just how plain and stripped down our worship is. I know it appears this way. People have told me. Some people have not stuck around because of it.
Why am I in the position I am in? Did I inherit an old congregation of people stuck in their old school ways? Am I just biding my time, as any young and new pastor should, longing for the day when I can bust out some sweet graphics, some mood lighting, and a stool I can sit on so I can have some insightful ‘conversations’? No. Horror of horrors, I am actually the founding pastor of the church. The church has only been around for two and a half years. By God’s grace we re-planted in an old church building. If anything I have led the charge to strip down the worship area and remove the clutter. As Matt Price, my fellow conspirator here, said last time he saw it “the place looks like an old school Baptist meeting house.” And so it does. Is that only because I am retro? Sporting a 50’s cut, a beard, and some vintage flannel? Wrong again.
You see, I actually believe (strongly) in simple worship. Don’t get me wrong, I hate boring. But simple worship does not have to be boring. Why do I hold this particular, strange, backwards, contrarian position? Because I believe in the sufficiency of scripture and am mindful of the ways we undermine it all the time.
Jesus was a firm believer in the sanctifying power of God’s word – John 17:17 – “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” It is a well known verse, but I truly wonder how many of us believe that Jesus believed this. If we are sanctified by the word then why do we seem so intent on distracting people from it as much as possible? I’m throwing rocks at each and every part of worship. Our goal ought to pray the word, sing the word, preach the word, eat and drink the word. Week in. Week out. Our goal in this ought to be to remove as many hindrances to the reception of the word as possible.
Jacques Ellul, a hero of mine, wrote a lot about the tragedy of incorporating the worlds standards of power and success in the church and thus robbing Christianity of its subversive power. I believe this is the tragedy we so often commit in worship today. I cannot count the number of times I have gotten into discussions about the need, the need, to innovate and get creative in worship because we live in an era of screens, multimedia, and entertainment. I simply disagree.
I am not about to pull a Luther and offer 95 theses on how we need to reform our worship. I merely offer three suggestions in closing:
1. Be self critical – is there any way what you are doing (or, for those who are not involved with worship planning, is there anything you crave in worship) that distracts people from God’s truth? Are you doing the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way? Do you care what God thinks about your service? Are your people being fed? Can all kinds of people worship with you? Is what you are doing today going to be shamefully remembered 20 years from now? Could any potential visitor “get” what it is you are doing on a Sunday morning?
2. Embrace being different – I live in the hood. There is gentrification happening all around us, but it is still rough. I work at a youth center with some tough kids. They come to church every once in a while. Mentally handicapped people come on and off to our services. We have young people and old people. Why bring this up? Because I have some legit “street cred” in the ‘difficult church situations’ category. Our services are different…only in that their simplicity is so much different than what our visitors are accustomed to. Yet in our church one thing has been verbally expressed to me over and over – while it is not what some are used to it is clear that we take God and the bible really serious. Embrace being different. The gospel itself is different, just go with it.
3. Trust the word – Seriously, God will use it. He has promised to. We have made it thus far. It is slow going. Trust it.