What I learned on Sabbatical
Over the past fifteen months, it has been my joy to worship with more than forty congregations from twenty different denominations as part of our family’s sabbatical in southern California. It would take a book to unpack all the things we experienced. For now, here is a brief report on eleven things that we noticed—some to celebrate, some to ponder, some to lament.
Things to Celebrate
- Dedicated, creative leadership teams. What a multitude of faithful, creative, resourceful people wake up every Sunday morning to preach, lead music, unveil artworks, express hospitality, and more! In most churches, a group of five to twenty-five people take key leadership roles—more, on average, than a few decades ago. In just about every place we visited, it was clear that these leaders were people of prayer, concerned about hospitality, eager to work on teams. This is something to celebrate!
- Pluriformity. Christian worship is offered in North America every week in an astonishing variety of contexts. The variety in congregational size, ethnicity, social location, and denominational background is bewildering—and wondrous! Regardless of where we work and worship, large segments of Christianity in North America are nearly invisible to us. I found myself thinking a lot about how this qualifies the universalizing judgments we are often quick to make (“All churches are now moving from __ to __”). This pluriformity is a recipe for humility.
- Learning congregations. As guests, it was relatively easy to tell which congregations were stuck in a rut, and which were on the move. Size didn’t matter, nor did ethnicity or the age of the congregation—nor did the “level of excellence” in the sound system or musical leadership. What really mattered was that the community and its leaders thought of themselves as a learning community and were growing more deeply into practices like prayer, psalmody, the Lord’s Supper, or relational evangelism.
Maturing multimedia. As we traveled in the high-tech, media-savvy world of Southern California, we noticed that some congregations were using presentation technology a bit differently than a decade ago. Some are working hard to link media to particular liturgical functions: using media to strengthen congregational prayer or to complement the sermon. Many are working to discipline their use of media, looking for times to shut the machines off as well as for times to enhance their use. What a lesson! By choosing to shut the machines off during part of the service, they actually made the use of technology more effective.
Things to Ponder
- Marketable sermon series. The vast majority of evangelical churches we visited built everything in worship around a marketable, memorable, relevant sermon series. Some were based on books (The Purpose-Driven Church), others on parts of the Bible (walking through Acts), others on felt needs (Seven Foundations for Faithful Family Life). We noticed lots of attempts to link Sunday morning with daily discipleship, as worshipers were encouraged to read, study, and pray through these themes all week long. But the constant marketing of themes also tended to crowd out intercessory prayer and the Lord’s Supper and call more attention to the pastor’s theme than to particular Bible texts.
- Accessibility and welcome. We experienced many efforts to make us feel welcome: handshakes, words of welcome, free gourmet coffee after church. But we noticed that many churches convey welcome by lowering barriers and expectations, saying, in effect, “Participating here is easy.” What a contrast to the messages we were experiencing at local gyms or children’s sports or arts groups, which say, “This will be hard work, but it will be rewarding”! How can we retain the warmth of the welcome but also joyfully talk about the challenging work of discipleship together?
Changing assumptions about audience. In a few churches we visited, pastors assumed that most of us were lifelong Christians (“we all remember the story of Daniel in the lions’ den”). Most didn’t assume that at all (“let me tell you who Daniel was”). The first can feel inhospitable to seekers; the second can feel patronizing. The most robust welcome emerged from churches that regularly rehearsed their expectation that participants included lifelong, brand-new, and emerging Christians.
If we would treat kids the way they are treated at soccer practice, we'd be much further along!
Things to Lament—and Change
- Intercessory prayer. As we traveled, we found all kinds of anecdotal support to indicate that sermons are getting longer, that churches spend more time on congregational singing, and that announcements are almost never trimmed back. But something has to give. What has suffered is public intercessory prayer. In a variety of congregations, there was no intercessory prayer at all. In others, there was a time to pray, but the prayer exclusively focused on the health needs of the congregation and a few upcoming ministry opportunities. We attended for several weeks without hearing prayer for the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or for homelessness or the economic woes in southern California.
- Generational segregation.Eight weeks into our visits, our kids said, “Will we be the only kids again?” It may be hard to imagine how segregated most congregations are on Sunday—by generation. Older adults arrive at church and go one place, the youth another, and the kids another. When it comes to kids in church, it often seems as if we are scared of them or that we think they are a distraction. If we would treat kids the way they are treated at soccer practice, we’d be much further along! If you worship in a congregation where kids and older adults, youth and younger adults are all together, say a prayer of thanks and do all you can to preserve the power of this intergenerational community.
- The Bible. Happily, every church we visited featured a Bible reading. However, in some places the reading consisted of a single verse sandwiched between the pastor’s first two stories. In another, the pastor referred to the Bible seventeen times, drawing on fifteen different translations, all chosen because the verse happened to best fit with the pastor’s point. Many congregations unwittingly reinforce a perception that the Bible is really hard to understand, unable to speak on its own, and slightly less important than the pastor’s own insights—exactly the opposite message of the sixteenth-century Reformers. Which congregations did the best job of including thoughtful, carefully planned readings of multiple biblical texts? The Roman Catholic ones! (As one of my Catholic colleagues says, “If only we could pair Protestant preaching with Catholic Bible readings, we’d have what the Reformers were really driving at”).
- Congregational singing. We experienced amazing congregational singing—amazingly good and amazingly bad. The worst singing was killed (week after week) by over-amplification, soloistic songs, and video screens that projected worship leaders larger than life and focused our attention on their skills in guitar playing or drumming. The best singing was enhanced by occasional unplugged moments, by adding acoustic instruments (including sax and flute) to the worship team, and by having the team lead from within the congregation. The best singing happened when leaders prioritized participation over performance.
This list of eleven things we learned on sabbatical reads like an analysis of the top themes covered in the last 102 issues of Reformed Worship. Perhaps this is a sign that worship is ever new, and that we must never tire of returning to the basics, imagining fresh ways to teach, to learn, and to practice these basics more faithfully.