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.

Weird Liturgies: The Happy Birthday Song

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Like all churches, my church has a liturgy.  We have a set worship structure with consistent worship practices that form and shape us every Sunday morning.  We read Scripture three times.  We sing 4-5 songs, guaranteeing a proper mix between ancient hymns and newer choruses.  We pass offering plates and listen to a sermon.  We pray about 4 times.

And we sing “Happy Birthday.”

We don’t sing it every Sunday out of the year.  But every week where someone in our congregation celebrated a birthday, we sing it.  We also note the anniversaries but nobody has yet penned a “Happy Anniversary” song so we don’t sing about that.

I usually pepper the announcements of birthdays and anniveraries with a cycle of corny jokes that I have borrowed or penned throughout my years.

“Happy Birthday Tom!  We are glad you were born!”

“Larry was born and actually lived to tell the tale!”

“Lisa turned another year younger this week!”

“Ann managed to stay married to Bob another year and that is quite the accomplishment!”

“Happy 46th anniversary Yvette and Wendell!  But watch out.  I hear year 47 is the really tough one!

“86 year old Harriet turned 29 again this year!”

“The Thompsons anniversary is on Wednesday, so if they manage to stay married until then, Happy Anniversary!”

A few people laugh, most (my wife included) roll their eyes.  I personally think they are hilarious.

Some people in our church are flattered we remembered their birthdays.  More are glad that we noted their anniversaries. Others are embarrassed.  They try to hide from me and I am always overjoyed when someone snitches on them.  To be fair, I don’t go around mentioning my birthday either.  .  .and someone always tattles on me.

Still, we don’t make the announcement and sing the song to flatter the children and embarrass the old.

We announce the anniversaries because marriage is a sacrament.  God uses marriage and the married couples to provide grace to the entire congregation.  Also, I have found that the grace marriage gives increases exponentially the longer people stay in it.

So we announce the anniversaries and make the jokes because  behind all of this is a recognition that God has given us a gift through the married couple.

Then we sing, “Happy Birthday.”  We sing it because we are one body and each of us is a part of it.  We sing it because we really are glad that the people in our church were born and are still around.

But we also sing “Happy Birthday” because we know that in our older congregation we might not get to sing it next year.  At least one or two will not be around in 365 days and while they are here, we celebrate their presence among us.

We also sing it because even in a day of great technological sophistication, still-births and miscarriages happen.  They are every bit as tragic and heartbreaking as they always have been.  So we sing Happy Birthday because we know that every live birth is a miracle and it is worth celebrating even 86 years after it happened.

So Happy Birthday to you whenever your birthday may be.  I hope you live another year.  I hope you have a congregation that loves you and loves life enough to completely embarrass you.  I hope you love your wife enough to tattle on her birthday to your pastor.  I hope the church choir hits the 3 part harmony perfectly right at the, “Happy Birthday, God Bless You” and I hope your mock surprise and red face are signs of the coming Kingdom!

Happy Birthday to You!