Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Of Pharisees and Sadducees

In recent weeks the Revised Common Lecionaary has featured texts that feature the two main factions of first-century Judaism- the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  With that in mind I thought I would take an opportunity to describe who these groups were and how they related to Jesus' ministry.  Additionally, looking at them offers an opportunity for a critique of our contemporary church.

So who were these two groups?  The Pharisees are mentioned dozens of times in the New Testament and are a frequent foil in Jesus' ministry.  Because they are so freqently depicted as opponents of Jesus' ministry, they have have gotten a "bad rap" historically.  In reality they  were about the best of Judaism.  They realized that the world in which they lived was corrupt and evil, and their agenda was to try live righteous lives in that corrupt world without being stained by it.  Other Jewish groups- the Essenes and the Zealots shared that basic world-view but came to different conclusions.  The former group sought to withdraw from the world by moving out to the wilderness.  The latter group reacted to a corrupt world by violet revolution to change or overthrow it.

The Pharisees sought to remain pure within the world by strictly maintaining their Jewish identity.  They fastidiously kept the Laws of Moses, they fasted, they prayed, they tithed, they were in the synagogue regularly.  The Pharisees were much more commonly the party of the lower and middle classes of society.  In general, they were very knowledgeable in their scriptures (our Old Testament.)  One might say that to the extent that they so faithfully prayed, fasted, tithed, studied, and attended Synagogue, they would be ideal church members today.  What pastor would not want pews full of people who fast, pray, tithe and study faithfully?  Theologically, this faction accepted all of the Old Testament, believed in the reality of angels and demons, and the Judeo-Christian belief in resurrection of the dead comes from within this faction.  The great error of the Pharisee was not their actions, it was their attitude.  They are commonly portrayed in the New Testament as being self-righteous.  Even though Jesus comes much closer to being a Pharisee than anything else within Judaism of the day, their tendency toward judgmentalism and self-righteousness made them common opponents of Jesus' ministry.  Their judgmental nature and self-righteousness made them common targets of insults and ridicule from Jesus.

The other major party within Judaism was the Sadducees.  The Jewish ruling council, the San Hedrin was comprised of members of these two parties, with the Sadducees being a majority of the group.  The Sadducees were inveterate rivals of the Pharisees- socially, culturally, and theologically.  In fact at one point in his ministry (Acts 23) Paul was being questioned by the San Hedrin and was able to slip away when fists started flying between the factions over the issue of the resurrection.  The Sadducees commonly were the party of accommodation to society.  Whether it was earlier Greek/Hellenistic culture and society, or the Roman society of the New Testament era, it was always the Sadducees that sought to blend in to culture, and to accommodate it.  Because they represented the upper class of society, they would stand to lose far more by holding out against a pagan culture.  This was the party of the Jerusalem elite, the party of the temple and the priests.  Theologically, they only accepted the Pentateuch as being authoritative- rejecting the prophets and writings.  They did not follow the Pharisees' traditions and legal interpretations on how to obey the Law.  They denied the existence of angels and demons, as well as any form of eternal life or resurrection.  The common rhyme about the Sadducees was that because they did not believe in resurrection  of the dead, they were "so sad you see."

After encountering these two groups in recent sermon texts, I have been pondering the relation between them and our contemporary American church.  In some local churches one can still find healthy crops of Pharisees.  They are likely to be there every Sunday, in the same pew no less.  They zealously guard the church's traditions, and are careful to make sure that "sinners" are kept out.  Heaven forbid that some sinner might actually come to their church and get saved.  Standing guard against long hair, tattoos, recovering alcoholics, and addicts, they stand watch at the doors of the church because they are there whenever the doors are open.  Rigid adherence to the rules, whether they are actually Biblical or not, rather than being agents of light and grace characterize the modern Pharisee.

In my opinion, the greatest failing of the American church is not that it is too Pharisaical, but that it too closely resembles the Sadducees.  For many years the broader American culture to a certain extent was "Christian."  Churches became accustomed to an elite privileged position in society.  The values of culture in many instances reflected values of church.    The result being many people who were "cultural Christians," without actually having any sort of true relationship with Christ. Being Christian was "comfortable."  As study after study has shown, the "cultural Christianity" is rapidly breaking down.  Given the growing distinction between culture and Kingdom, the modern Sadducee opts every time for culture.  Political power over piety, material excesses reflected in home and in church, morals shaped by politics and Facebook memes; on every score the modern Sadducee may "claim the name" of Christian, but judged by outward appearances, seem to be anything but.  The modern Sadducee may have a Bible in the home, but just like their ancient cousins won't believe a third of what is in it.  They wouldn't have any idea whether Isaiah is in the Old Testament or the New Testament, and would be scratching their heads looking in the table of contents of their Bibles if someone asked them to find "2nd Hezekiah."  They aren't standing guard at the church doors to keep out undesirables.  Where the Pharisee does his best to keep sinners out of the church, the Sadducee would be unwilling to even consider anything to be a sin without consulting Facebook or the most recent New York Times poll numbers first.  If asked if they are Christian, they will answer affirmatively, but would be so assimilated into the the culture that they are unrecognizable from their atheist/agnostic neighbors except that they may put up a Christmas tree.

Unlike these characters I created, he ideal Christian will be one who  prays, fasts, tithes, and studies "religiously" like the Pharisee, but who does so out of gratitude for all that God has done not out of religious duty.  Rather than standing guard at the church door to keep the sinners out, they will stand at the church door to welcome the newcomer.  They will believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ, take scripture seriously, yet not see the Gospel as something that needs to be defended at all costs in fortresses called churches, but as something to be spread through the land.

Monday, August 1, 2016

In the beginning...

  בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃  So begins Holy Scripture in the Hebrew Text, in English "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."  Genesis begins with two creation stories that seem to be complimentary.  This week our church is hosting its Summer Art Camp and creation will be the main theme of it.  In connection with that I will be preaching on the first of the creation stories next Sunday.  As I do from time to time, I thought I would address some things related to creation that won't fit neatly into one sermon.

One of the questions that many ask in considering the Genesis 1 creation account is when?  How old is the earth?  Bishop James Ussher in the Church of Ireland back in the mid 1600s is famous for dating creation to 4004 BC.  He did this by simply adding up the ages of all the ancient patriarchs mentioned in the genealogies of Genesis, and by assuming the days of creation in Genesis 1 were twenty-four hour solar days.  Some Christians today (most prominently Ken Ham with Answers in Genesis) still hold to an earth that is only a few thousand years old.  In reality both of the assumptions Ussher used are faulty.  Genealogies in the Bible commonly skip generations and are seldom the complete family tree that we might like.  Also, it is very clear in a straightforward reading of Genesis 1 that the "days" were not intended to be sequential 24 hour solar days.  In fact we find light and dark, and the term "days" before we have the creation of the celestial bodies.  In short, the Bible, accurately interpreted, is conspicuously silent on the age of the earth.  Modern astronomy and geology estimate that the earth is very old, perhaps as much as 4.5 billion years old.  When simple observation seems to imply an earth and universe that is incalculably old, and it takes great mental gymnastics to make scripture and observation point to a very young earth, I think it is a greater disservice to God and the Bible to try to believe that people lived with dinosaurs than it is to believe in a creation that is billions of years old.

In my opinion the most artful and appealing reading of Genesis is something referred to as the "framework hypothesis."  According to this interpretation, the six days of creation aren't consecutive at all, but are two sets of three.  Days one and four relate to each other.  Day one creates light and dark, while day four elaborates on that by describing the creation of the sun, moon and celestial bodies.  Day two had separation of the waters and while day five describes creation of sea creatures.  Day three describes formation of dry ground and plant life while day six deals with all the animal life and finally creation of mankind.

What is most clear from this creation story is not a mechanism of how, or a statement of when, but a resounding emphasis on the who of creation and the orderliness thereof.  Read the first chapter of Genesis with emphasis on each time it says, "and God made" or "and God saw" or "and God said."  Like a reverberating timpani, the word God resounds, seldom even using the pronouns "he" or "him."  The cosmos, the earth, plant and animal life, human life at the apex of creation are not haphazard accidents, but come from the creative energy and will of the Almighty.  Genesis 1 portrays God as presiding over a primordial chaos ("in the beginning the earth was formless and void and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the deep...") and bringing order to it.  The witness of scripture as a whole is that God created everything out of nothing (ex nihilo), and church doctrine teaches creation ex nihilo, even though this isn't explicitly stated in Genesis 1.

I would also like to point this out about the created order of Genesis 1.  The world with its oceans, mountains, plant and animal life was good.  Humanity was very good and created in God's image.  Sometimes Christians are dangerously close to the ancient heresy Gnosticism than they are to orthodox doctrine when they create a physical/spiritual dualism that equates to evil and good.  The created order is not evil, our physical bodies are not evil, nor are they a prison for our souls.  In fact Paul himself said that our bodies are a temple for the Holy Spirit of God in 1st Corinthians 6.  All this was pronounced by God himself as good.  If God says it's good, then who are we to say it isn't?  The physical order is not inherently evil, was created good, and is to be valued by Christians.  In fact, this is one of the Biblical bases for a healthy environmentalism.  The original order, created good by God, but ruined by the fall in Genesis 3 will be restored and perfected at the End, as shown in Revelation 21.  What we believe about creation, connects to what we believe about Christ's resurrection, to what we believe about his ascension, to what we believe about our own resurrection, to what we believe about the ultimate end of the cosmos.

Monday, May 23, 2016

This summer I'll take some time to preach from the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah.  In case you're not too familiar with them, they are essentially an ancient Hebrew version of a dystopian novel, except that in this case the story is true.  George Orwell and Aldous Huxley got the the genre going earlier in the twentieth century with A Brave New World, Animal Farm, and 1984, but in recent years novels and movies of similar theme have become very popular.  The Hunger Games and Divergent series of books and movies are perhaps the most famous of them.  This type of novel is set in a future post-apocalyptic world, and features heroes and heroines who struggle against overwhelming odds to maintain or to rebuild some sort of normal existence.

The apocalypse that was in the background for these two books was the destruction of Jerusalem in 586/587 B.C. by the Babylonians and the subsequent exile of most of the residents of the kingdom of Judah.  Hundreds of miles from home, they longed and prayed for the day they could return.  The day finally came in 539 B.C. when the Persian Empire, the new big bully on the block, overwhelmed the then crumbling Babylon.  Cyrus, the Persian ruler, had a much different policy toward subjugated peoples than the Babylonians and issued a decree allowing the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland.

The return to Jerusalem and Judah would not prove to be easy.  Their beloved holy city lie in ruins, the temple was utterly destroyed, essentially nothing remained of the life they had lived in their homeland.  Other people had moved into the area including Samaritans from the north and people from other nationalities in the region.  This is where you can envision the heroes in one of the popular books now trying to restore order and normality in a future world against the backdrop of a shattered urban landscape after a global conflict or nuclear war.

In the case of Ezra and Nehemiah, these books tell the story of the valiant efforts to rebuild their homeland.  Under the leadership of Zerubbabel the first Hebrews returned to to their homeland, where they struggled to rebuild the temple against great obstacles, not the least of which was determined opposition from Samaritans.  The story contained in the Biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah is largely set during the long reign of Artaxerxes (465-424 B.C.)  The great struggle of the books is to rebuild the city- spiritually and physically.

As with the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah were originally one book in the Hebrew canon, and were somewhat artificially divided many years later.  The names for the two books as we have them refers not to who wrote them, but to who the main character is in each.  Ezra focuses largely on the work of Ezra the scribe/priest, while Nehemiah is devoted largely to the work of the secular leader Nehemiah.  These two leaders were rough contemporaries of each other, and they are referred to a handful of times together in these books.  The composition of these books has been the subject of intensive study, but there is a strong tradition that Ezra/Nehemiah was written by the same scribe who penned Chronicles somewhere around 400 B.C. or not long thereafter.

Ezra/Nehemiah are tremendously valuable resources for the church.  In reading these books we are forced to ask ourselves,  "How important is worship in our lives?"   "How do we recognize and overcome opposition?"  "How important is scripture in our lives?"  "How we go about rebuilding our churches- not physically- but spiritually?"  "How do we deal with the ever-present reality of sin, and are we really willing to repent?"  Tune in this summer for how we rebuild our lives and churches one block at a time.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Church and Family

We have all heard people say, "our church is a family."  When stated of their own church, it is said as a matter of pride.  When spoken by a newcomer, or someone who is not a member, it is understood to be a high compliment.  The idea of family often inspires thoughts of love, acceptance, fellowship. In fact, it is true that churches should be places of love, acceptance, and fellowship.

With that as an introduction, allow me to play Devil's advocate.  We should not envision, or aspire for our churches to be a family!    "There are just so many people here now that I don't know."  "Our church is changing so much."  "I don't feel like we're one church anymore."  These statements belie an unspoken fear that a church has too many newcomers.  So begins the call for things to be done that would promote unity, that would promote nostalgic feelings of family.  How can it be a family if there are all those people I haven't known for years?  At this point churches have an invisible "No Vacancy" sign on the door. It is a sign they can't see, but which is clearly visible to everyone but them.

The fact is that any church with more than 40 or 50 in worship is not and cannot be a family.  The broader Kingdom of God may be viewed as a family where people are adopted in as sons or daughters of the King, but the local church should not view itself as a family.  Any steps to make it a family are likely to result in it becoming insular and closed, even if lip-service is paid to being welcoming and evangelical.  Let's think of it this way, families are by definition closed systems.  Someone doesn't walk into your home and say they want to be a part of your family.  You may welcome them and be hospitable, but they will never be family.  Families reproduce by making babies.  Churches that are families grow the way biological families do, by making babies.  The ancient Hebrews were a family, by nature they valued and cherished hospitality, but it was difficult to join from outside and they grew when their sons and daughters married and started families.  Too many churches are exactly like this.  The witness of the New Testament is that ancient Israel, using this model, failed to be the blessing to the rest of the world that it was intended to be.

The proper New Testament vision of a church is not of a family, but of a body.  Organisms, like our human bodies, are composed of cells.  Churches should look at themselves as bodies that are composed of cells, and the body as a whole grows as the cells divide and thereby multiply in number.  The people within each cell experience the love, acceptance, and fellowship that I had earlier mentioned in connection with the idea of church as family.  In even a medium sized church of 150-250 people (much less a large church!) it is impossible for everyone to know everyone and care for everyone.  Rather, there must be groups (cells to use this analogy) where people know and are known.  In such cells they are nurtured and challenged in the life of faith that is discipleship, where they care for each other.   The cells that make up your toes and ears probably don't "know each other" very well, but are both an integral part of the same body, nourished by the same blood and led from the same head.  The very fact that there are people you don't know is either an indication that you are not connected enough in the church, or that the church is a living body that is growing.  The next time someone in your church says, "I don't know everyone anymore," it is very possible that the best response is not a lament, but a resounding, "Praise the Lord!"

Our bodies grow by division and multiplication.  The cells divide, thereby multiplying the number of cells.  In the early days of Methodism, the movement grew the same way, and the church today can grow the same way.  The cells  take care of their own and grow and as they grow they will need to split to make two cells, which will then split to make four.  The church is a body, a living organism that grows by dividing and multiplying.  It is not a family at rest on the front porch in the cool of the evening.  At its best it is a strong, active living body that is always pushing forward.  It is always dividing, multiplying and growing to be an unstoppable force in the world.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Washed With Water

In the coming weeks we will be baptizing several infants.  We look forward to these days in worship; they are among the happiest occasions in the life of any church.  Unfortunately, it is a part of our Christian heritage that few things divide us as much as baptism.  Even though all Christians would believe with the Apsotle Paul that there is, "One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all," we don't live it out very well.

Some churches insist upon believer's baptism, and do it only by immersion.  Others immerse infants, some pour water on believers, and many who baptize infants do it by sprinkling.  Ideally, all Christians would be of like mind about this very important sacrament.  In fact we don't even agree with the term "sacrament."  Many Baptist churches, prefer not to use the term "sacrament" and use the terms rite or ordinance instead.  Given the many differences we have over baptism, what do we do as United Methodists, and why do we do it?

First, who is to be baptized?  In our tradition baptism is for adult believers and for their children.  We happily baptize infants, but it is not for any and all infants.  It should not be administered if there is not the likelihood that the child will be brought up in a Christian household.  It is a sign of the grace of God, but is not magical.  In the baptism of infants as well as adults, we follow the vast majority of Christians in the history of the faith.  This practice goes back at least as far as the 2nd century A.D., and it is possible that the "household baptisms" referenced in Acts may have included infants as well.  The greatest objection  to infant baptism comes from the fact that there is no explicit Biblical mandate for it.  I would argue that there is no explicit mandate for "infant dedications" as practiced in some churches.  Neither is there Biblical mandate for guitars, microphones, pianos, or any number of other things that are part of any worship service.

Historically, the church has practiced baptism by three methods, immersion, pouring, and sprinkling.  In our tradition we recognize all three of the methods, though by tradition sprinkling is by far the most common.  In this we are in line with Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Roman Catholic churches who commonly practice sprinkling of infants.  Though baptism in our churches is most commonly done by sprinkling or pouring, United Methodist churches will accomodate a request for baptism by immersion.

Probably the most important thing to point out is what baptism actually is.  In our understanding baptism does two things.  First, it is an initiation into the body of Christ, and as such is analogous to the rite of circumcision in the Old Testament, where that ceremonial rite initiated the infant male into the covenant community.  Likewise, in the New Testament converts to the faith were baptized.  In Acts 2 the three thousand converted were baptized.  Philip baptized the Ethiopian Eunuch.  Households were baptized.  As Peter told the crowd who responded to his Pentecost sermon, to "repent and be baptized" is the proper response to the Gospel.

Secondly, we recognize that baptism is a symbolic act.  In Romans 6, the person being baptized  is uniting symbolically with Christ in his death and resurrection.  The water of baptism is a sign of the washing of sin that is accomplished by the Holy Spirit.    In this way, baptism is a very powerful sign of God's grace.  The infant, before he or she knows anything, receives a sign of divine grace, very much in keeping with our belief that God reaches out to us before we know him.  We don't come to God on our own initiative, but only as a response to prevenient grace.

When we unite around the water of baptism in the coming weeks, let us take seriously the oath we take to help raise the little ones to know Christ.  Let this water be a reminder that we who call upon Christ have been washed and cleansed by the Holy Spirit.  Let it be a reminder that the grace of God which we believe is reaching out to these little ones, also reached out to us before we ever knew God.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Family Reunions

My paternal grandmother's family, the Howards, was quite large- she was one of ten children who lived to adulthood.  I vividly remember family reunions from my childhood, when most of those original nine and their spouses were still living.  Among those original siblings whom I remember were Esther, Bob, Ed, Harry, Ruby, Dee, and Anna Bell (whom they called "Sis Dick") my grandmother.  For a time the reunions were twice a year, and then they became annual.  Though all of the original siblings and their spouses are dead now, the tradition of the family reunions continues even though it has been some years since I have been able to attend because I live out of state.  Among the most vivid memories I have are of Uncles Ed and Bob swapping jokes, stories, and tall-tales with my grandfather Ed Blair who, like them, was about as good as they come in the story telling department.  I remember Aunt Dee's key-lime pie and copious amounts of Eastern NC barbecue (the good stuff, as in nectar of the gods good).

In attending a worship service the last Sunday of my recent sabbatical, I had the realization that I was like a guest at a family reunion.  There were lots of folks who knew each other very well, and me the uninvited guest who was barely acknowledged as even being there.  At first I was far from happy with this thought, but as I thought more about it I realized that all of our worship services are family reunions.  The family (brothers and sisters in Christ) has reunited to worship him on Sunday morning.  Like local churches, some families are very cordial and loving, others tend to be more aloof with each other, and some are just plain dysfunctional.  Every church, like every family has its own DNA if you will.  Some of this DNA is denominational heritage, some is specific to the local church.  

At times, we in the church are called to task for being too "churchy" in our services.  Upon thinking about it, I don't think we should stop being "churchy" whatever that term actually means.  The "churchiness" is what distinguishes us, just as the family reunions I remember were characterized by key-lime pie, barbecue, and story telling.  We can no more quit being "churchy" than a cat can stop chasing mice and birds.  It's who we are.  A Krispy Kreme will smell of donuts, a Starbucks will smell of strong coffee, and a church will be a church.  They real issue isn't the "churchiness" but the willingness of the church to invite others in, welcome them, and show them to the really distinctive and cherished parts of its family reunions.  

My own opinion is this.  If it is your church's DNA to have an "invitation/altar call" at the close of every service by all means do it.  It's who you are.  If it is to be very high church with kneeling for prayers and sung responses, then do it.  One of the great ironies in Shakespeare's plays is found in Hamlet.  There the bard puts the great wisdom of the phrase "this above all, to thine own self be true," into the mouth of the sophomoric character Polonius.  You can no more be who you are without these distinctives than our family could have a reunion without the key-lime pie.  The problem isn't with "churchiness," it is with the inability at times of the church to welcome guests in to the family reunion.  

In my opinion the issue with worship isn't that some styles are inherently better or worse than others, or even that some styles are inherently more inviting and "visitor friendly" than others.  The issue is that some churches are more inviting and visitor friendly than others.  We too often lay at the feet of worship style the blame for a church's failure to grow or even for it's decline into death.  In my opinion a church that is cold and aloof will be cold and aloof no matter what the style, because its members are cold and aloof.   My suggestion is to focus on how we welcome our guests and show them around our Sunday morning family reunions.  Identify what is best in your church, most distinctive, and welcome your guests to it just as much as you would welcome a guest at your family reunion to the best dishes on the table.  Don't stop trying to be "churchy."  Don't stop being high church, low church, charismatic, or something in between.  Don't stop being the Joneses or Smiths or Howards.  Instead, genuinely welcome the newcomers to your family reunion and invite them to become a Jones, Smith, or Howard.

Monday, May 4, 2015

We Need Salvaton, Does Our Worship, pt. 2

A couple of days ago I mused about the nature of some of the worship in our churches.  My point was that some of what we do in the name of "worship" may not even be worship at all.  Worship is by definition participatory, it can't be merely occupying a spot in a service and being a passive spectator.  However, this is becoming more and more common.  I'm not the only one to notice this phenomenon either.  A quick google search will yield virtually countless articles, studies, and blogs about the marked decline in congregational singing, particularly in "contemporary" services.  Of the services I attended during my sabbatical the most participatory, with the best singing was by far the most liturgical and formal.  In fact, it was more liturgical and formal than what I perfer in a service.  The purpose of my marination today isn't to broadly condemn contemporary services, since I lead one every week.  Rather it is to think about why this might be the case, so that we can make our services better.

A story is told that in Morehead City, NC that years ago First Methodist and First Baptist Churches were virtually across the street from each other.  In the days before churches were air-conditioned the sanctuary windows had to be open to let fresh air in during the summer, with the result being that the congregations could hear each other's singing.  As one might expect from rival denominations and churches, Sunday mornings at times became competition to see who could sing loudest (if not best.)  Even if we don't have that sort of environment now, what has happened to the thought of an entire congregation singing their hearts out in praise of the Triune God?

It's not hard to imagine dear old Aunt Sephonia dutifully banging out hymns on an old upright piano in little churches all over the land in years past.  The purpose of "Aunt Sephonia" banging out hymns on the old upright was to enable the congregation to sing better.  There's not much thought of her actually performing on it, and a lot of the time nobody would have wanted to hear her actually just perform.  However, she got the people started singing and played the four part harmony in the denominational hymnal.  This gets to what may be at the heart of some of the issues with congregational singing today.  The purpose of musicians in church is primarily to lead, encourage, and enable the congregation to sing better.  The average band in a church cannot perform one of Kristian Stanfill's great worship anthems nearly as well as what you hear on the radio.  It doesn't need to though, it needs to be able to do it well enough to encourage and invite everyone else to join in.

Contemporary worship has several issues to address.  First, it is a given that the music that is used is indeed very, very popular making those popular services.  You get to hear and sing much of the same music you hear on the radio in the car.  A drawback to this is inherent in the music.  It is all unison.  Without access to written parts everyone sings melody.  The difficulty for music leaders is finding a pitch that is comfortable for everyone.  The key that works well for some people will be very difficult for others, thereby discouraging them from singing.  Another issue isn't so much with the music itself, but with the way it is done.  At one service I attended during my sabbatical, the band was quite good, but was so loud that I couldn't hear myself sing, and looking around the large auditorium,not another soul was singing either.  One last issue that constantly needs hard work is the technology that is inherently necessary for a good contemporary service.  They are much more technologically demanding than a "traditional" service.  The church must have good A/V and sound equipment and people.  If there is a problem with the computer communicating with the projector or if there are sound bugs, the entire service comes off the tracks resulting in a metaphorical trainwreck.

I think the key to improving this worship lies in part in addressing the issues mentioned above.  First, regarding music.  It's not practical to provide four part harmony in a contempary service so nothing can be done there, except that the music leaders need to be sensitive to the key they choose.  Leaders should be intentional in inviting the congregation to sing, and this may mean turning down the volume.  Music leaders should also be mindful that not all good music is necessarily conducive to being sung congregationally.  As much as possible, the music should reinforce the message of the sermon, so that the service is a cohesive whole.  Second, the church cannot do a good service on the cheap.  It must be willing to pay for good equipment and to train good people.  If it isn't willing to do this, then it shouldn't undertake a contemporary service.  Third, there must be ways to involve the whole congregation.  Obviously, congregational song should actually be congregational.  Beyond that, what in the service invites the people to participate?  Is there a place for the Lord's Prayer, is there some form of creed or response from the people?  Fourth, there should be multiple voices in leadership.  The pastor shouldn't do everything.  For example, I don't do the children's sermon because there are several people in the church who are much better equipped to do it than I am.  If there is involvement from others, then the service becomes more the worship of the people than a production put on for the people.  Lastly, worship should be a family affair.  We shouldn't segregate off younger children for their service, the youth for their own service, and then expect them to magically appear at the "adult" service when they turn 21.  Part of worship should be teaching and training younger children in what we do when we worship.  Inherent in the greatest commandment in all of scripture, the Shema in Deuteronomy 6, is the command to teach our children.

When you go to church this Sunday think about what you are doing there.  What do you do beyond breathe and occupy a seat?  What are you offering to a sovereign God beyond passive attendance?  What is being asked of you during the service and as you leave the service?  In a couple of days I will turn to one more iten relating to worship that has been marinating since worshipping at two very different churches yesterday- worship as a family reunion.