Christian Worship Gatherings Both Large and Small

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Two weeks ago yesterday I sat in a large auditorium which not only dwarfs the building where my church gathers, but the neighborhood I live in.  An orchestra with double the members of my local congregation played behind a choir whose membership triples said congregation.  They stood atop a platform whose square footage might roughly equal the lower floor of my building and they led 20,000+ members of my denomination in popular hymns and choruses of our faith.  That congregation included citizens of over 100 countries and world areas.

One such song was the popular and powerful chorus called the Revelation Song which borrows much of its lyrics from Revelation 4, 5 and 7.  We sang through the chorus in 13 different languages from all over the globe.  There were 40,000+ eyes in the room and not one of them was dry at the end of that song.

It was an incredible experience which words cannot describe.  Many of us remarked afterwards that “this is what heaven will be like.”

Then yesterday, two weeks to the day later, a few members of our local congregation gathered in a country club ballroom to celebrate the Quinceanara of one of our own.  The ballroom was small, roughly the same size as my church sanctuary.  There were about fifty of us who gathered, not all of us Nazarene or even Christian.  Before we ate dinner and devoured cake, we had a worship service.  I was unable to secure an instrumentalist so we sang, or rather mumbled, three songs A Capella.  I shared a few short words about childlike faith and 2 Chronicles 7:14.  We confessed our sins, gave thanks and ate and drank the body and blood of the Lord together.  We then commissioned our 15 year old celebrant to march into adolescence with humility rather than arrogance.  We presented a Bible to her and encouraged her to read it.  I think the words I used were “immerse yourself in it.”  Then we sung the doxology and spent the rest of the evening eating, drinking, laughing and dancing.

It was an incredible experience which words cannot describe.  Many of us remarked afterwards that “This is what heaven will be like.”

Two such opposing experiences happening within a short time frame, provides a wonderful example of the juxtapositions and paradoxes of our faith.  There I was standing with 20,000 brothers and sisters belting out The Revelation Song in Mandarin despite not knowing the Mandarin language.  Then there I was with 50 close brothers and sisters belting out “Come, Now is the Time to Worship” without an instrument to keep any of us anywhere near a right key.  There I was crying tears of joy in celebration of God’s international mission with international siblings.  Then there I was crying tears of laughter as we celebrated the coming of adolescence with one of our own.  There I was singing next to someone I had only met that day, a suburban mom from Oklahoma whom I may never see again.  Then two weeks later, there I was singing next to some of my closest friends, people I gather regularly with to worship, study and pray.

Both experiences had the same emotional and spiritual impact.  I can’t help but believe that both were acceptable sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God which did not conform to the patterns of this world but helped us be transformed by the renewal of our mind.

It reminded me of a paragraph in N.T. Wright’s “Simply Christian” where he captures beautifully the call to gather in worship with groups both large and small.  He says, “Ideally every Christian should belong to a group that is small enough for individuals to get to know and care for each other.  .  .and also to a fellowship large enough to contain a wide variety in its membership, styles of worship, and kingdom-activity.  The smaller the local community, the more important it is to be powerfully linked to a larger unit. The larger the regular gathering.  .  .the more important it is for each member to belong also to a smaller group.” (Simply Christian p. 193.  It is also in a blog post you can read here.)

It also reminded me of a particular battle in our ongoing worship wars whereby we fight over the size of our congregations.  My twitter and WordPress feeds have often been filled with short, pithy, mean sayings fired over the internet at large church or small church pastors.  A large church pastor argues that “Small churches aren’t evangelizing enough.”  A small church pastor fires back that “large churches don’t care about people.”  A large church pastor laments that small church pastors waste their time on ridiculously menial tasks that don’t advance the mission of God and tells those pastors to get their act together.  A small church pastor laments that large church pastors don’t know the names of any of their congregants and claims, “Those mega church guys (and girls) could never do what I do!”  A small church congregation is frustrated that they don’t have a full choir, seemingly missing that they are the full choir.  A large church is frustrated that nobody seems to know the names of those who worship around them, seemingly missing that the participants in their Tuesday night small groups know each other’s names.  All the while researchers are trying to figure out what really is the “best” size for a congregation by choosing metrics that I think God couldn’t care less about.

So I love how N.T. Wright in that beautiful paragraph above cuts right through the battle lines and gets at the heart of the matter.  Both are worship.  Both are powerful.  Both are good.  And every size in between is as well.

20,000 people in Indianapolis and 50 people in Utah would certainly attest to that.  I know this pastor certainly does.

What’s Pastor Kevin Listening To: Mumford and Son’s “Not With Haste”

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I was at the county fair this morning and ran into a wonderful family from my church.  Their sons were in the sheep showmanship competition and did rather well.  While we watched the kids and the sheep (no pun intended) their mom gleefully informed me that there had a been a singing competition the night before and that the winners had both sung “Christian” songs.

I was delighted that the Christians had thrown down on those lousy non Christians.  I was even more delighted to find out that these songs had invited Jesus into their hearts to be their personal Lord and Savior.  I am so glad to know that the sins of these songs had been forgiven so that they could go to heaven when they die.  Certainly this is a sign of God’s great grace because most Christian songs I know have a lot of sins that need forgiving, like generic melodies, random key changes, less than clever lyrics and annoying vocals.  Still I am less excited about the prospect of these songs getting into heaven, or thinking these songs are the only ones we will sing there.

But it got me thinking about N.T. Wright and how he argues in “Surprised By Hope” that many expressions of every culture will survive Jesus’ second coming and be performed and enjoyed in the New Jerusalem.  I don’t think that will be limited to “Christian” music.  In fact, the lines we draw between secular and religious are weak human attempts to divide God off from the world that God wants to save.

Mumford and Sons’ album “Babel” does a lot to undo those frivolous lines.  Are these songs about a religious pilgrimage or a broken romantic relationship or both?  You can find scores of internet forums debating that question.

Being a pastor I have found the songs speak to my faith in ways “Christian” music seldom does.  And while I could write a 2 week long series in which I review each song individually, I will stick to the one that brings that album home at the very end.  After the highs (“I Will Wait” and “Lovers of the Light”) and lows (“Hopeless Wanderer” and “Broken Crown”), a brilliantly simple ballad called “Not With Haste” proclaims, “We will run and sing.  You will dance with me.  We’ll fulfill our dreams and we’ll be free.  We will be who we are and they’ll heal our scars.  Sadness will be far away.”

While many hear in those words the benefits of a healthy romantic relationship, I instead hear echoes of the New Creation.  In fact this week I told my wife that it might be one of the best songs about heaven I have ever heard.  For when we talk about the kingdom that is coming we are talking about being free and fulfilling dreams and sadness being far away.

And when Jesus comes we will certainly “be who we are.”  God didn’t create us to bear the scars we bear or wound others the way we do.  True humanity is not sinful.  We were made for love.  So when Mumford and Son’s proclaim, “we will be who we are” they might be talking about the freedom that arises from being and doing what you were created to do.

Beyond that the song is ultimately about hope.  Both secular and religious alike agree on that.  One internet comment I found proclaimed, “These are such unashamedly hopeful words. It’s not a reckless, foolish hope, but a hope that’s grounded in what he’s learned in the past. He’s not throwing caution to the wind, he’s believing with faith that the hopes that he’s clung to so tightly, even through the storms, will now come to pass.”

This week I needed unashamed hope.  Over the last two weeks I have experienced a lot of pain and suffering.  I have seen the scars in this battered and broken world.  I have talked to abused children, spoken to heartbroken parents, seen friends use and abuse each other, and watched a church do further harm.  I have been broken and on my knees (which are more beautiful lines from the song).  I have been tempted to put up a guard and struggled to keep my candle bright.  So I needed Mumford and Sons’ “Not With Haste.”  And I believe with faith that the hope I cling to as a Christian pastor will come to pass, even through these violent storms.

In that glorious hope, I long to see God save the entire “Babel” album and let it into the New Creation.  Otherwise we will be stuck singing “Jesus Freak” for all eternity and nobody wants that.

Until His Return, cling to hope.