Writing these posts on Sunday mornings always settles me a bit.
I awake early, sip coffee in a dark house, and think about the millions of people who will worship together today across this small little planet. I think about my own leading on Sunday mornings, of the worship set God has given me, and I have this quiet expectation that something profound will happen today. Something will change. And hopefully, prayerfully, not because of me.
My thoughts run circles around me, though. What happens on Sunday mornings, across the American landscape of church, seems to make very little difference. Membership in American churches has been on a steady decline in the last twenty years, with even further leaving in the next seven or eight. And, if you want numbers, the data suggests that somewhere between 3,000 and 3,500 people “leave” American churches every day.
Whatever we are doing, as an American church, isn’t working.
And so that’s what I think about on Sunday mornings.
People love to sing, and people have always loved to sing, but shame on all of us for believing that those of us who lead the music are doing profound things. We aren’t. People may feel good when they leave our sanctuaries. We may have led a favorite song or two. Our bands or singers may have successfully made every note, and their experience may have been fulfilling, but I’ve grown weary of the exaltation of that moment. It’s not special.
Because all of us who “lead worship” are doing so before an American church that is losing its influence. And its people.
Out of an entire week spent wide awake, only twenty minutes are spent singing and worshiping with other believers. And while those of us who sing professionally may be polished and prepared, we are still watching people leave our sanctuaries after a Sunday gathering. Everyone re-enters storms and crises and decisions, re-enters the vacuums of their careers, where they spend the majority of their days alone, and without any significant number of believers.
How do we lead worship, anyway? Isn’t worship something that happens within the hearts of those whose lives have been transformed by grace and mercy? Isn’t their adoration a natural flow of their infinite appreciation for salvation?
If leading worship means that I actually have to inspire someone to worship, then lives have not been changed. Being a professional singer is one thing. It is important, I think, to assemble people who are gifted with music. It’s incredibly biblical. It’s natural. It is important.
But our job is to not lead worship. May it never be. And may we never see ourselves as so arrogant that worship cannot happen without us and our gifts.
As I read through the New Testament in the long and short time of ninety days, I have, today, come across Paul’s time in Ephesus in Acts 19. All told, Paul probably spent two to three years there. Whatever Paul did was so powerful, that Luke tells us everyone in the province heard the Word of God (Acts 19:10).
Miracles happened. Paul’s clothing, when laid on the diseased, was the catalyst for healing. In the ancient city of magic, the power of the Word rendered all spells and incantations impotent. Even those who tried to duplicate this power were brutally beaten by the possessed, because releasing people from demons is no simple trick. And these things caused the name of Jesus was revered.
(Not — as we may rather have it read — awesome times of musical professionalism on Sunday mornings.)
Jesus’ name was so revered, that city magicians, who became believers, burned their spell books. And they did so voluntarily, losing the $50,000 invested in these scrolls.
And the worship of Artemis was threatened in Ephesus. Her temple was an amazing marvel of architecture in the ancient world, bigger, even, than the Parthenon in Athens. Ancient historians have concluded that she was so famous, in part, because of the sheer size of her temple. It was bigger than anything else like it.
Artemis of Ephesus was so famous, in fact, that across the Roman Empire, from Spain to Syria, there were 33 different cultic sites. And at each of those sites, there were small temples, or buildings, to honor Artemis of Ephesus.
And her temple, in Ephesus, was a place of prayer, where she was revered as a savior. Local artisans made smaller versions of her likeness, and these small statues probably adorned nearly every house in Ephesus, and in the surrounding area.
Yet those statue-makers were threatened because of Paul’s influence, and the invasive Word of God.
It is assumed that the Word must have had a wide reach, for a silversmith named Demetrius, and others in his guild, to feel their personal wealth may be threatened.
Because if Ephesians began to worship another savior, there would never again be a need for their little statues.
And Demetrius was right. A historian, about a hundred years after this event in Acts 19, did attest that the worship of Artemis, and sacrifices in her name, had lessened, specifically because of the rise of Christianity.
I confess that I read these chapters yesterday afternoon, trying to read ahead some. I spent the better part of my afternoon and evening thinking about this passage, about what God was speaking to me.
And all I kept coming back to was the idea that there was a difference made in Ephesus.
The city was different because of believers. It began to look different. It began to feel different.
And I lament the fact that our cities do not look different, or feel different, because of Jesus. Those of us in ministry believe our crucial moment is Sunday, when people come to us. And we love to preach New Testament Christianity. But New Testament Christianity didn’t look at all like what we’ve built. New Testament Christianity went into the heart of each city.
We, instead, ask people to come to us. Hear us sing. Listen to us preach. Marvel at our facilities.
I believe it can be different, though. I believe it can be better. And I pray for mighty winds of change to blow through the naves and sanctuaries of our gatherings today, and that people would breathe the spirit of God like air.
After all of the reading this summer, that’s what I’ve concluded. We are lifeless people, in big houses, without the spirit of God in our lives. We do not breathe it like air. We do not speak to it every moment. We do not follow its voice.
God, please, I beg of you, overwhelm us today. Overwhelm our churches, our families, our children. Make a difference in us. Make a difference in our cities. And let us believe that it can actually happen.
But no difference can be made while we hold on to our own “scrolls.”
What will we lay down today?