Conversations On Worship (Sep-Oct 2002)

By Matt Dabbs

Editor’s Note: John Ogren recently spoke with Sally Morgenthaler and Marva Dawn, who have written and spoken publicly about worship and most importantly practiced worshiping in a community of faith. Their contribution to the conversation about worshiping outside the walls and inside the walls has challenged and powerfully moved many in the Body of Christ worldwide.

John: Should we feel tension between the church’s calling to be a worshiping community and its calling to be a missional community? And the related questions: Is there a healthy tension there? If so, how would you characterize that?

Sally: Is there tension? Absolutely! I think that a lot of our worship wars are over that tension, although let me say this: I believe that those of us who are intent upon changing our current worship to be more accessible to the culture out there that is not Christian have not always been sensitive—we have not been Christlike in the way that we have gone about change. So worship wars are not just because some people want to evangelize and others don’t. Some of it is just simply insensitive behavior and some of it is entrenchment—(the attitude of) we will not change, no matter how sensitive you are. So it’s a matrix of issues that I see all the time. Should there be that tension? I believe there is going to be tension whenever we pursue our major calling, and you have number one and number two right there. I believe worship is number one—that we are called not to just be disciplers or to be disciples, but we are all called to become worshippers, which to me is the ultimate disciple. And when I think of what will happen for eternity—and that is worship not evangelism—I believe that worship really is the priority. But number two then is the great commission of taking the person of Christ (and the reconciliation that Christ has brought, is bringing, and will bring) to the world. When we are involved in those two things and we are taking them seriously, watch out…because then we are actually being the church on earth, the church active. The powers that be do not like that.

John: Well, what are some mistakes that churches make at the expense of authentic worship seeking to be missional?

Sally: First of all, it’s great that we have figured out that there is a world out there, in the United States—it took a while to figure that out. Seeking to be missional in what I would say is a post Christian culture, one of the biggest mistakes that I see is the platform or event orientation where we ask people to come into an event and then we perform for them instead of saying, “Here’s the mission field: I’m first going to get into relationship with these people whatever it takes.” I would rather hear someone say, “I’m going to get to know my neighbor, the 7-11 clerk, the dry cleaning woman….” I would rather hear that than we got this hot band and we’re starting a new service.

John: Flipping that question a little bit. How does the loss of mission impact a congregation’s worship?

Sally: Usually what I see is that the worship has become mundane— we’re on autopilot. God knows that our ponds, if you will, need to have fresh intake/outtake, and when that’s missing our own experience with God becomes stagnant. I love to think back to a time when I heard a young woman give her “untestimony.” And this was simply telling the congregation that she had been coming for the last three months and was so excited. She had never been anywhere like this. She had never experienced anything like this, BUT she was very quick to say that she hadn’t “signed on the dotted line.” She said, “I’m still in process.” Now what that did for the rest of the congregation and their excitement about God and their sense that God is moving was enormous. So whenever we have in our midst the people that God is actually bringing to himself and those who have just accepted Christ recently, there is no better catalyst that I can think of. There is no video presentation, no new songs that can equal what happens in a congregation when they experience God’s saving power and God’s presence moving in people who are coming to Him for the first time.

John: Are there some other ways that you envision how the congregation’s worship assembly can be an occasion for mission? How do you see that happening in different places?

Sally: I first see (mission) very much involved in the worship service itself, but also in the planning and crafting of worship. I’m very excited to see when that planning and crafting, number one, is done in community and, number two, when that community is not insular— when it is touching outside the bounds of membership, outside the bounds of denomination—and when it is bringing in the gifts and talents of those who are seekers. Of course I’m not talking about a non- Christian leading worship, but I’m very excited to see God’s handiwork involving people who might never come through the front door of the church to actually be experiencing the “pre-presence of God”—if you would—when God is visiting the planning of our services.Then it’s not just a matter of what happens after the invocation or the gathering prayer, but it is something that is happening in a dark room or in a computer lab. It’s happening in a little basement where some dancers are getting together, and it’s happening whenever Christians are meeting with those seeking God who also have artistic gifts and poetic gifts, who are intrigued by what we’re doing, who are invited into the process and then in the process they meet Jesus with skin on. That’s the pre-presence part. In terms of worship as mission, I start way outside of what happens on Sunday morning. Then on Sunday morning when we are crafting true, what I call, “Isaiah experiences”— when we see God for who God is, and see ourselves for who we are, and we are realigned as created to Creator—we are driven, we are compelled to adore. By “crafting” I don’t mean that we’ve got the service segued out to the nanosecond. What I mean by crafting is understanding first and foremost that worship means that we as human beings in all of our frailty, vulnerability, weakness, and limitation are encountering that which is not limited, frail, or weak and still experiencing the greatest love in the universe.We often tend to craft worship experiences that are about us. When we craft worship experiences that are about us primarily —let’s say what our felt need for the day is or what we want to get out of this service—we miss God and therefore we miss the very first part of Isaiah 6.We miss seeing God for who God is and then, here’s the other thing we miss, we don’t get to see ourselves for who we are. And then the third thing, we are not driven into adoration because that encounter and that divine alignment is what drives us into adoration. So worship that evangelizes really must be that kind of Isaiah experience—not the we’re going to try to call God down or, you know, re-enact the temple experience…

John: But there’s a sense in which authentic worship occurs on his terms.

Sally: Yes, worship is seeing God first and foremost. It is having our eyes full front toward God, and this is what is often missing. Evangelism in the worship setting has everything to do with whether or not there is room made for that or not.

John: Backing up to the planning stage and the pre-worship, there is presupposed in what you were saying, it seems to me, an active renewal of the arts or engagement with the arts.

Sally: Yes! What an opportunity this is, but I don’t look at it first and foremost as being about the wonderful production that we can put on. I look at it as an opportunity to give the community its responsive voice. With a renewal of the arts the dialog of worship moves beyond music and preaching only. The arts provide the congregation and the community ten or twelve ways to hear God, to act with God, and respond to God. And the unexpected payoff of doing this is a gathering around tasks, which opens up avenues of communication and expression. It’s not just about a Sunday production, but there is a creation of sacred space both in and outside of the sanctuary.We have the opportunity to meet a whole lot of folks who used to draw, used to paint, used to sketch, used to dance, and would very much like to have something to do besides sitting in the back row and doing nothing.

John: In your observations of Churches of Christ, what challenges would you offer us in light of how our conversation has unfolded in regard to worship and mission?

Sally: I think that in the Church of Christ there is often the idea that if we change we’ve got to do it so radically that we will not then have any heritage to take forward. Unfortunately—and I work with Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ, a lot of different denominations—when that’s the thought, it’s going to be very hard to actually move the conversation past any kind of debate or committee stage because people aren’t going to want to give up their Church of Christ identity.

John: So part of the challenge then is to seek renewal while maintaining continuity with the tradition.

Sally: That’s exactly right! Your emphasis on communion, for instance, I would see that as being so key and so central in a culture that is now becoming almost self-sufficient in terms of ritual. People are not waiting for us to create services in order to express grief, to celebrate, to mourn, to express their questions. Take a look at what happened just a couple of days ago when the nine miners were freed and the kind of rituals that are typically extolled in these human experiences.You look at what happened after 9/11 and the ad hoc shrines that went up on the streets of New York. At Columbine we certainly saw that. People are not content—they’re not going to wait for us to do (rituals) and they find something to see and to touch and to smell—something tangible to be able to express the intangible. There’s a marvelous book about this. It’s called Mass Culture, Eucharist as Mission in a Post-Modern World (Author Pete Ward, Bible Reading Fellowship, 1999) For a church body that knows the centrality of communion—how the great story is encapsulated in the celebration of communion—this book would encourage the folks out there that are saying,“Yeah, but what are we going to have left?” You see, we’ve got to do two things that seem totally opposite and paradoxical. We’ve got to reach down in the treasure box and pull out those jewels and then we’ve got to be brave enough to put them in the kinds of settings we never would have thought about.New Wineskins

John Ogren

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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