This Sunday, we’re kicking off a new series at The First Mennonite Church called Sensing God Through Our Worship. The series was created by Arlyn Friesen Epp of Mennonite Church Manitoba and explores how we might experience God through all 5 of our senses.
This Sunday, we’ll be looking at Sight!
For me personally, there are two sights that often come to mind for me when I think of God. The first is Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son.
Of course, I’ve been personally impacted by much of Henri Nouwen’s writings on this painting, and this image often reminds me of things such as God’s grace, mercy, love, acceptance, belonging, and redemption. The Son finds true healing, true self-worth, and true self-value in the intimate embrace of the Father.
When I think of seeing God in nature, my mind immediately jumps to a very special place for my wife and I, Vespers Point at Camp Hermosa in Goderich, ON.
Not only do you get incredible sunsets and a view of Lake Huron that constantly reminds you of the amazing things that God has made; but this is where people have been taking time to worship God every summer evening for over 80 years. Marriages have been proposed here. People have shared vulnerable, gut-wrenching stories of loss here. People have made their first decision to believe in God and follow Christ here. Families have been meeting here for several generations. This sight reminds me of a very sacred place on God’s good earth.
What sorts of sights connect you to God? Or make you feel like you are experiencing something of the divine?
Recently Vineland area pastors received an email from one of their number inviting them to click on a web site of a U.S. church consultant to read about “Nine rapid changes in worship services.” A major U.S. university had done a survey of worship patterns in a variety of church traditions since 2000, and was noting significant changes within the past decade. Here they are.
- Choirs are disappearing. From 1998 to 2007, the percentage of churches with choirs decreased from 54% to 44%. If that pace holds to this year, the percentage of churches with choirs is only 37%.
- Dress is more casual. In many churches, a man wearing a tie in a worship service is now among the few rather than the majority. While the degree of casual dress is contextual, the trend is crossing all geographic and demographic lines.
- Screens are pervasive. Most churches today have screens. And if they have hymnals, the hymnals are largely ignored and the congregants follow along on the screens.
- Preaching is longer.
- “Multi” is normative. Most congregants twenty years ago attended a Sunday morning worship service where no other Sunday morning alternatives were available. Today, most congregants attend a service that is part of numerous alternatives: multi-services; multi-campuses; multi-sites; and multi-venues.
- Attendees are more diverse. There has been a decrease in the number of all-white congregations.
- Conflict is not increasing. In spite of “worship wars,” overall church conflict has not increased over a 20-year period.
- More worship attendees are attending larger churches. Churches with an attendance of 400 and up now account for 90% of all worship attendees. Inversely, those churches with an attendance of under 400 only account for 10% of worship attendees.
- Sunday evening services are disappearing.
While the study focused on American churches, many of these trends are also visible across Canadian congregations.
How does worship at The First Mennonite Church compare with these trends?
One of the things that we do fairly often at our church is say the Lord’s prayer together. It’s a good prayer that Jesus gave us. It’s a prayer used by churches around the world since the very first churches began meeting. So when we pray it, we are not only praying together as a congregation, we are joining together with the larger church, over space and time.
Last time we said the Lord’s prayer, I remember hearing the voice of one of our children in the church saying it along with us. Except that the child was one beat behind the rest of the congregation. He obviously knew each line, but it took him a moment to remember which line we were on. I could feel that as we said this prayer, everyone was listening to his clear voice praying along with us.
For me, this was a call to worship. I felt like this boy was calling us to worship. It reminded me of the fact that other older people, long gone taught me this prayer. What did I think it meant when I learned these words as a five year old? How have these words changed and deepened in my life?
This Sunday we will be talking about being called to worship. God calls us to worship, but we call each other to worship too. See you at our service!
This week’s prayer: Jesus stand among us, in your risen power, let this time of worship, be a hallowed hour.
I grew up in a church that had a picnic every year in June at Macfarland Park in Niagara on the Lake. It was one of my favorite days of the year!
Church picnics were startling for me, because I got to see people in regular clothes. The church I attended was very formal and all the men wore suits, and the women were very dressed up. Church picnic was the one time of the year I saw some of these people wearing regular clothes… Mr. Giesbrecht in shorts and a t-shirt! I don’t know why I remember that, but it was funny to me at the time!
I also grew up in a church that looked like an ark. It had only high windows, and it had a wall that separated the building from the road. When you went to church, it felt like you were hiding away. To go outside and have a worship service in a public place seemed strangely exposed and even brave. Here we are, praying in public. Here we are singing hymns for anyone to hear. Here we are listening to a sermon in public. That made an impression on me too.
But most of all I remember the trees. Big green leafy trees swaying all around us. Instead of looking up and staring at the light fixtures during the sermon, I could see the world alive and vibrant. Birds zooming around, planes in the sky, wind blowing through our hair. The word of God in tune with everything around us.
And did I mention the ice cream?
This week’s prayer: Bless our church picnic this year, in tune with everything around us!
In my silent retreat this week at a monastery in New York, the worship services began with a bell ringing. A big bell is a beautiful sound that draws your attention. It’s no surprise that many religious traditions begin services with the sound of a bell. But Mennonites are not bell ringers. Long ago we decided that we didn’t need fancy bells and whistles to get our attention. We will come to church without external calls to worship, and assemble on time for our services. We come to worship because we want to hear what God is saying to us.
One of the things that I particularly appreciate about First Mennonite is that people pay attention when I’m preaching. Having listened and worked hard to hear God’s good news message for our church, I appreciate that people are respectful and listening, even though I know that not every sermon speaks to everyone equally.
I would like to see the same sort of respect and attention given to the scripture that begins our service. God calls us through scripture, and each week the call to worship is like a bell that should draw and focus our attention. I wonder if you notice that I do not begin the service with some chitchat about how I am and what nice weather we’re having. If it was chitchatting, then it wouldn’t matter very much to me if people drifted in gradually and others buried their head in the bulletin reading the announcements.
The call to worship is proclamation. It is God’s word from scripture that sets the tone and theme of our worship service. Because it’s the first thing that we hear in a service, it’s strength and power has the potential to reverberate in us throughout the week.
To enable us to hear this call to worship, I am asking that if you are in the foyer when I reach the pulpit, please remain at the back of the church until people stand for the first song. You may think you are being inobtrusive, just slipping in. But I can assure you since I have a view of everyone’s eyes, many people’s heads and most people’s eyes are turning to watch you take your seat. So not only are you missing the call to worship because you are walking in late, you are distracting everyone else’s concentration.
I wonder whether part of this inattention has to do with preparation for worship; we aren’t quite tuned in at first. By the time the prayers of the people and the sermon come around we are more focussed. Perhaps we need to begin our preparations at home with this week’s prayer:
Dear God: You know I need good news this week; you have words that will touch the deepest longings I have. On Sunday morning as I get ready and come to church, give me an expectant and open heart so that I can hear all you have to say to me.
My first experience of Taize style worship came when I was studying theology in Toronto. I remember the service because of its simplicity. The music was striking; simple beautiful melodies which sank into my soul. The gentle repetition of phrases in the music such as, “God is forgiveness, ” “Love, and do not fear”, anchored them deep within me. The reading of scripture punctuated the music, and because there were few words spoken, they seemed to be clearer. And there was light…candles and icons, a feast for the eyes. I came away feeling fed.
Since then I’ve learned more about the Taize community, and how it was founded in France in the 1950’s by Brother Roger. This intentional ecumenical community served the community, eventually evolving into a centre of worship, particularly for young people. I have never been to Taize but a number of people from our congregation have been there, and were profoundly moved by the experience. It is characterized by simple music, scripture, a visual focus and an international flavour. All designed to draw people together to worship God, who is love.
This Sunday our evening service will be a Taize service. Those who are able will be invited to sit on the floor for worship…I wonder how this will shape your experience. Perhaps it will remind us that we all come to God humbly, as children.
This week’s prayer: Prepare our hearts to come to worship you.
For more information about Taize, go to http://www.taize.fr
There’s been a lot of to-do in the media this last while about the census. Long form, short form, mandatory, voluntary. Censuses have been around since Jesus’ time. The Emperor Augustus decided that “all the world should be taxed”, and Jesus was born in Bethlehem because his parents went to be counted, so that they could be taxed. Our census has nothing to do with taxes, in fact all of the information on it is completely confidential.
As Christians, we can stand up and be counted, because we have nothing to fear from our government. We can check the Catholic or Protestant box and not worry that there will be secret police knocking on our door the night after we hand in our forms. This is not the case in many countries.
In September, Phil and Julie Bender will be visiting us and speaking of their work with Mennonite Church Canada’s Witness program in China. China is a country where church and state have a different relationship than in our country. I’ve been reading about the history of Christian mission in China, it’s a fascinating story, filled with courageous stories as inspiring as the book of Acts.
How would our worship change if it was illegal to be a church in Canada? Where would we meet? Who would risk having our worship service in their home? How would it affect our faith if people from our congregation were in prison, being tortured for their faith in Jesus Christ? This may not be happening in our community, but we live in a world where our brothers and sisters in Christ do suffer like this. Do we want to hear their stories?
This week’s prayer: God, in our free country it’s easy to become complacent about our faith. We pray for our sister churches around the world who suffer persecution…give them strength and courage. Open our ears to hear their stories.