I’ll bet you are smiling right now. She wasn’t smiling because I smiled at her. This smile was just a pure gift to me. And yes, it made me smile. Still does. Perhaps you have noticed how when certain people walk into a room they seem to have the ability to change the whole emotional […]
Perhaps you have invited Christ into your heart, but have you invited Christ into your mind? Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians 2:5 “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” And to the Romans 12:2 “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing […]
Dear Worship Critic,
For most of my life I have listened to you criticize the way people worship. I first heard it in my own home church. The chief criticism was against those who clapped occasionally after a particularly moving musical offering. The main concern seemed to be that if we clap to express how we feel about what just happened we might be encouraging others to believe that what just happened was a performance rather than a form of worship. To me clapping means two things: appreciation and/or encouragement. Two good things in my opinion. But the critics are right, in that, what happens during a worship service should not have the aim of entertaining people. And if you clap, then it must be evidence of being entertaining and THOU SHALT NOT BE ENTERTAINED. Right?
However, there are other reasons people clap. Clapping is an imperative in ancient worship. “Clap your hands all ye people” (Psalm 47:1 among many other Psalms). If you have ever experienced Pentecostal worship, you know that people clap all the time. When you believe the Spirit is urging you to clap, then you clap. It could be during a sermon, musical offering, or even during prayer. It may sound foreign to you, but that doesn’t make it wrong. It may mean you have something still to learn.
As I began being exposed to a broader portion of Christians and church traditions, I began to hear a second criticism. I heard it from more charismatic (Pentecostal) Christians after having experienced a traditional worship service: There is no Spirit here. The assumption was that because the worshippers were not vocal, did not clap, and did not jump up and down that the Holy Spirit must not be present (I know of a church that split because some worshipers began raising their hands). And I used to worry about this criticism because it seems like we should be excited about the Good News of God, the presence of Christ, and the movement of the Holy Spirit. But I have found that some of the most deeply spiritual people I have encountered take a very reverential and quiet approach to worship. Sometimes there is powerful current in deep waters.
For the past five years or so, I have read countless blogs criticizing contemporary worship, particularly in megachurches. The critique is a combination of the first two critiques. It essentially goes like this: The emotional reaction of attenders of contemporary megachurches is evidence that the worship of God has been replaced by the false idol of entertainment. The Holy Spirit is not present in this style of worship. The clapping, the crying, and the shouting for joy are all just entertainment fueled hysteria. Or something like that. And to some degree they are probably right. There are those who put the worship experience above the practice of following Christ.
Old testament prophets also criticize worship but it was very different from any of these critiques. Their critiques were always on what worshippers did or didn’t do outside of worship, which is usually where the evidence of whether the Holy Spirit is at work in a person or not.
Worship is what happens when we encounter the living God. There is no shoulds or oughts in worship. It can happen in quiet moments of solitude and it can happen in a room filled with a thousand people. And if it is an encounter with God, then we cannot manufacture it. However, God is always present. So, really it is about us becoming present to God.
At the beginning of our worship services the pastor usually says, “Let us prepare our hearts to worship God.” I usually take some deep breaths and pray for the Holy Spirit to open up my whole being to encounter God. And then hymns, scripture reading, preaching, and the sacraments open me up further to an encounter with God. I also find that it helps to be with other people who are seeking the same thing. It’s like I find a resonance in their spirits with my spirit. And when my whole soul starts to vibrate with expectation I experience worship. When I worship in a contemporary style it happens a little differently. They prepare for encountering God by singing several songs in a row. It can being very powerful. The key, no matter what style of worship or by whatever level of competence the worship leaders are leading, is to seek to encounter the living God.
Believe me, it doesn’t happen every week and perhaps that is because I am leading worship. Although, as a preacher I get to experience the presence of God in a very powerful way and that is as I am preaching God’s Words. It often feels like a river flowing through me.
I am not saying that worship services should go uncritiqued, but I simply hate when people critique other people’s worship. I can’t stop you from being a critic, but I want to challenge you to begin with your own worship. And if you feel the Spirit is leading you, help others to prepare their hearts to worship God with the knowledge that everyone prepares differently. Help people to find their way of encountering God.
Alright, now, bring it on ye critics.
Yours in Christ,
Rev. Paul Burns
Pastor of First Presbyterian Church
One of the annual missions of our congregation is called Project Joy an Appalachian Ministry. Every year, with the help of 24 other churches and dozens of folks that live in our neighborhood, we gather warm clothing, school supplies, food, children’s books, and bibles and travel to Harlan, Kentucky. The National Guard allows us to set up in its armory.
Harlan is a coal mining town whose heyday was some 50 years ago. Many folks live up in the hills and have very little of anything. Children often go without. Winter is harsh.
The poverty cycle in Harlan is extreme. We realize that one day a year probably won’t break it. Our hope is to provide some needed goods, some hope, and some joy.
A few years ago, we decided to put up a prayer station near the exit. I put out two chairs, one for me and one for another person. …
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Sometimes something happens that is so incredible that I find it hard to write about. I still sit here amazed by it. I will do my best to tell you this story truthfully and faithfully. This is how it happened…
I have written multiple stories about Mike and Jo. I am convinced that if you followed this couple around you would witness a multitude of miracles.
Two and a half years ago Mike went to the hospital with a minor infection. When I arrived to pray with him and Jo, it was clear that Mike’s mind was not right. Yes, Mike already suffered from a variety of mental and emotional challenges, but this was different. It was dementia.
He was transported from the hospital to a nursing facility. After a few months it became clear that Mike wasn’t going anywhere. This would be where he would finish his days. The dementia was increasing. He was on a puree diet and strapped to either a wheelchair or a bed. I hated to see him that way.
Jo resigned herself to the new reality. Things had already been going down hill for Mike before this and he was becoming more than she could handle. In a way it was a blessing for her. She too is greatly taxed emotionally and Mike’s worsening conditioning was taking a greater toll on her.
After he had been there almost two years, Jo told me that she wanted me to pray that Mike would experience a full recovery. Now I have witnessed miracles. Jo in fact had been healed of cancer the year before. It was incredible. She had a double-mastectomy and twenty-four malignant nodes removed. Twenty-four! She remains cancer free. But this was something different…or maybe not.
At any rate, I had a hard time wrapping my faith around it. Jo was insistent, though. She kept on asking me to pray every chance she could. I honestly did not have any expectations of recovery. Every time I visited Mike it seemed impossible…until last Christmas.
We had been praying for recovery for about two months. I walked into the common area of the nursing facility where about thirty residents were being entertained by a “singer” and a karaoke machine. It was painful, but most of the people seemed to enjoy it. Mike was. I found him sitting in his chair with his legs crossed and keeping the beat. I was used to finding him with his head sunk into his chest and his feet resting helpless on the ground. You couldn’t even push his chair without his feet dragging under it.
I sat down beside him and he turned and said, “Hey, Paul. I sure am glad to see you!” He knew what day it was and was asking about church the next Sunday. He hoped to be there. And he was. We went on to have the most normal conversation I have ever had with him even before the dementia set in. His mind was as clear as a bell.
Before I left, I found his nurse and asked her what was going on with Mike. She said, “We have no idea. It just happened all of a sudden. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Mike started coming to church regularly in his chair. He told me he wanted to walk again. Most nursing places don’t want their folks walking around. It is too high of a fall risk. I wondered if they would even let him do this. I said, “Mike, there is absolutely nothing wrong with your legs except that you haven’t used them in two years. Start doing the physical therapy.” And we prayed that he would walk.
About five months later Jo called and asked if I could attend the next family consultation about Mike’s condition and progress. We sat around a table with the staff involved with Mike. They wheeled him in and moved him to a regular chair and the woman in charge of the meeting said, “Mr. Mike, say goodbye to your chair. You won’t need that anymore.” He looked as surprised as Jo and I. The woman in charge went on to say, “Today we are going to make the plans for Mr. Mike’s discharge. He’s going home.” Jo in her joy began singing “To God be the glory great things he has done…” She sang the entire first verse and might have launched into the second had the administrator not gracefully continued with the meeting. I asked her how all this came to be and she said, “It’s what you think it is. We have no other explanation. It’s a miracle.”
When we finished making plans, they brought out a walker for Mike to use. He stood up like a man of forty years. I actually have it on video. He had no balance issues and seemed strong on his feet. He took hold of the walker and we followed him to his room. We could barely keep up with him. One week later he went home.
When he walked into church the next Sunday, people were blown away. I realize that you would have to see it to believe it. I did.
Miracles are not something to be understood. They are to be celebrated. One could ask, “Why doesn’t it always work like this?” Well, it isn’t magic. It is the work of God…a very mysterious God.
I know one thing for sure. If someone asks me to pray for something, regardless of how impossible it seems, I will pray and trust God. What God did for Mike’s mind, he did for my faith.