I have been away in Chicago for three weeks where I am working on a doctorate in ministry degree. Before I say anything more, please know that I will not be receiving this degree for another two years and in no way do I want to be called “doctor” upon its completion. I simply want to know more.
During the downtown Holy Week services that Hines Memorial CME hosted this last Holy Week, Ernest Davis from Bethel AME preached a sermon entitled, “Towels not Titles.” It was on the passage in the gospel of John where Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. The theme of the sermon was that Jesus did not go for titles like “reverend,” or “pastor,” or “doctor,” or anything else of the sort, instead he took a towel and did the servant’s work. So while I am well aware that my mother will address anything she sends to me with the title “Rev. Dr.” attached, I am also well aware that in the kingdom of God those titles do not mean a thing.
With that aside out of the way, let me press on. While I was in Chicago I was in a class where the professor, Craig Satterlee, told us that worship should be thought of as a river experience instead of a mountaintop experience, or a plain experience.
Let me explain. I have often been accused, and rightly so, of wanting to create a mountaintop experience in a worship service. I wanted to drag people up this mountain where we could all encounter God together. If you have gone to church much you have probably experienced something like this. Many of our churches have revivals or special services that are geared just for such an experience. It is mystical, transformative, awe-inspiring, we knew that God was there. Then, if I was the preacher, I would tell you all to leave the doors of the church on the strength of that experience and go do the work of God in the world.
Other churches prefer the plain experience. This is more of the contemporary feel, which, in my opinion has done wonders for bringing people into the church. There is not the work of getting up the mountain. The sermon is probably called a message and is more geared to “How to be the best you,” or something of the sort. There is no climbing. You come as you are and leave as you are, but with some tools that you may need to live better.
What both these models of experience fail to recognize is that worship is a work of God! That is a big time statement right there. Since I do not have the luxury of speaking in front of you and letting some pregnant pause give you a moment to soak that in, let me say it again. Worship is a work of God. Yes we are the ones worshipping God, but in the midst of the worship service while I do my work and the choir or the band does their work and the people in the congregation do their work God is the one most at work.
This is why we pray and ask God to show up in our services. But often times we go on ahead with our services, trying to make them a climb to some glory, or a place of some ease, when we have invited the living God into our midst. God is not a mountain or a plain.
What my professor suggested instead was that God is more like a river. Now before I go on, please do not comment about how crazy it is to compare God to a river. No metaphor is perfect, and when we speak of metaphors for God all metaphors widely miss the mark. But think of a God in the midst of worship as a river for a moment. The river moves on. It is moving when we get into our places of worship, and it is moving when we leave them. God is always moving, inviting us into the movement and work of God in the world. We can stand at the edge of the river and contemplate getting in. We can sit along the banks and only play with the water. We can get in and try to swim against the current (this might explain most churches best). We can get in and stop moving completely and drown. We can build a dam and try to stop the river, but then it will only build up and find a new path, the river will not stop (this explains some other churches). Or we can get in, and work to stay afloat and let the river take us where it will.
This is a very different form of worship being explained. This is not the people focused worship that has become so common in America today, and you know it. People want to go to the church where they can say, “Hey I like that music,” or “That person really knows how to preach!” or “I just feel most comfortable there.” I understand this, I have even said this, but it misses the mark. Worship is not about us, it is about God, and if God is the principle actor of a worship service we better get ready to be moved from where we are comfortable to somewhere else in a hurry!
When I was in high school I went on a canoe trip along the Colorado River. Being as white as I am I tried to keep myself shaded out there in that big river. The seats hurt, the campgrounds were okay, but the fellowship was fun. However, one day the current was moving fast and we were not paying attention and we missed our campsite. The leaders were a little nervous because they did not know any of the other campsites. What if they were bad? What if they were full? “What if” is a question people like to ask when they are scared. But there was no moving back so we pulled into a new campsite a couple of miles further down the river. We pulled into something unknown and as we sat around a fire in a wonderful campsite telling stories and laughing and having fun it seemed just about perfect. We did not plan it that way, but it was good.
I hope worship can be a bit more like that. Instead of wondering if we liked a worship service, what if we looked at it and asked, “Where did I see God at work today?” That changes everything. It makes things about God and not about me. It may also take me to places I never thought of being, but will be very glad I found.