Event helps churches put passion, purpose back into worship

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Event helps churches put passion, purpose back into worship

April 23, 2008     News media contact: Tita Parham* 
tparham@flumc.org    Orlando {0836}

An e-Review Feature
By Erik J. Alsgaard**

GAINESVILLE — When it comes to worship, it’s not about you.

Participants at the “Passionate Worship: Divine Inbreaking” event at Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville April 11-12 raise their arms in response to the Rev. Matt Berryman’s invocation, “The Lord be with you,” as part of the great thanksgiving liturgy during communion. Berryman is senior pastor at Avondale United Methodist Church in Jacksonville. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #08-0814.

That was the message during the “Passionate Worship: Divine Inbreaking” events held in mid-April in Gainesville and repeated in West Palm Beach.

The conferencewide events focused on worship and gave Florida Conference United Methodists a chance to learn more about the first of five practices of disciple-making called “The Methodist Way.”

“Worship is the wellspring for disciple-making,” said the Rev. Dr. Jeff Stiggins, director of the Florida Conference Office of Congregational Transformation and host for the gatherings. “The engine that powers the rest of a congregation’s ministry to their community is regular, vital and transformative encounters with God. Our prayer is that this event will help leaders rev up a congregation’s engine.”

Passionate worship is not about style, although style certainly influences it, Stiggins said in his time of welcome at the Gainesville session, held at Trinity United Methodist Church. “Passionate worship is about connecting faithfully with God.”

‘Moratoriums’ on worship

The two-day event was structured as if it were its own worship service, focusing on the four areas of worship: gathering, Word, response and sending.

Each plenary session focused on a particular area, giving participants a chance to experience it, as well as time for questions and answers. In small groups, participants then examined how their own congregation connects faithfully with God — or doesn’t  — and how they could go deeper in learning how to improve worship.

Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker makes a point during his opening reflection at the “Passionate Worship: Divine Inbreaking” conferencewide event at Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville April 11-12. The session focused on the first of the five practices of The Methodist Way. Future events will help churches incorporate the other practices. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #08-0815.

Florida Conference Bishop Timothy Whitaker set the stage for the event with an opening theological reflection on the worship of God.

“Only in church do we worship a triune God,” he said. “Worship of God is always passionate … if our passion is somewhere else, it is misguided.”

Whitaker noted much of what passes for worship today isn’t really worship. Instead, he said, it is more like the old-fashioned “protestant preaching service.”

“Most traditional worship these days is passive,” Whitaker said. “Truly traditional worship is participatory. We need to pay a lot more attention to our traditional worship services.”

To that end — with “tongue planted only partially in cheek,” Whitaker said — he suggested three moratoriums on certain worship practices.

“First,” he said, “let’s have a moratorium on doing announcements during worship.” Instead, he said, they should be done before worship starts.

Next, he suggested declaring a moratorium on anthems by the choir. “When choirs do this,” he said, “this leads to passive worship. Again, worship needs to be participatory.”

And finally, Whitaker suggested, “let’s declare a moratorium on praying for Aunt Susies.” By that he meant people’s prayer intercessions should rise above the needs of their own church.

Not about you

The Rev. Roy Terry, pastor of Cornerstone United Methodist Church in Naples, spoke during the first plenary session on the first of the four elements of worship — the gathering. He reminded the assembly, both in word and through the T-shirt he wore, that “it’s not about you.”

“Too many times congregations get caught up in their own agendas, their own issues,” he said.  “The focus of worship shifts from being centered on God to what they (worshippers) kind of conceive worship to be, whatever that may be — the arguments between contemporary and traditional, the style of dress, and on and on and on.

Wearing a T-shirt reflecting the main point of the day, the Rev. Roy Terry leads a plenary session on the gathering, the second of four parts of a worship service, at the “Passionate Worship: Divine Inbreaking” event at Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville April 11-12. Terry is pastor of Cornerstone United Methodist Church in Naples, a congregation that has been called “radical liturgical” and “emergent” in books, articles and television programs. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #08-0816.

“If we really approach worship as being about God and not being about you or about me, some of those walls come down.”

Terry, who launched Cornerstone 12 years ago — a church that has been profiled in books, articles and television programs as a “radical, liturgical” congregation and an “emergent” church, among other descriptors — said the time of gathering moves people away from the world and into the practice of showing concern and love for each other; knowing each other and God.

“One of the mistakes that I think most churches make is not spending enough time allowing (gathering) to happen,” he said. “Gathering has been pushed outside of the sanctuary to the narthex, and it becomes coffee hour instead of intentionally greeting one another, calling each other’s name and shifting our focus towards The One whom we worship.”

A thirst for the Word

The focus of the event was the biblical passage of Jesus and the woman at the well in John 4 and Jesus’ gift of living water.

The Rev. Candace Lewis, founding pastor of New Life Community United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, used the text from John during the second part of worship, the Word, to show how all the world is thirsting for the “living water,” the Word of God.

“If we admit it, we are thirsty for living water, too,” Lewis said to the pastors and worship leaders gathered. “Our worship services can be passionate. Why has it taken us so long to acknowledge that we, too, are thirsty? We have a lot of indicators that point to this.”

Instead of focusing on statistics that show decline in the overall United Methodist Church in terms of membership and worship attendance, Lewis said, “Who are we going to believe: the statistical reports or the Word of God?”

Living water, she said, is not forced on anyone; people have to give permission to the living water to enter in, just like real physical water.

“Living water is available to all of us,” Lewis said. “It is the pastor’s job, in worship, to tell the truth about God and to tell the truth about who the people are.”

Praise and worship leaders from New Life Community emphasized the point, offering living water in song and sight.

“Through the Word, we experience God’s light and direction for our lives,” Lewis said. “God’s Word is a lamp unto our feet, and God’s Word is a light unto our path.”

Responding as if Christ were here

During the third element of worship, the response, the Rev. Matt Berryman led participants in a rousing time of praise and thanksgiving, including communion that led worshipers to dance in the aisle. Berryman is senior pastor at Avondale United Methodist Church in Jacksonville.

“What would it be like if we actually took seriously the claim that Jesus was truly present,” Berryman asked during a question and answer time after the communion service. “Not just symbolically, metaphorically, but real; that the body of Christ is really here?”

How congregations approach worship and their response in light of that presence changes everything, Berryman said, because perspectives change.

 Tina Cannon, a liturgical dancer from New Life Community United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, helps lead worship through dance, illustrating how people in all stages of their spiritual journey thirst for the living water — the word of God. The dance was part of the plenary session on the second part of worship, the Word, at the “Passionate Worship: Divine Inbreaking” event at Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville April 11-12. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #08-0817.

One response that has been lost for many United Methodists is the sacrament of Holy Communion. Too often, Berryman noted, this act of response is not done at all, not done often enough or done poorly. He said his church, like Cornerstone United Methodist Church, has communion every week.

“What might Holy Communion look like from the perspective of the presider if we took seriously the real presence of Jesus in our worship?” he asked. “What implications are there for doing communion every week? How can we take back what is rightfully ours and make it relevant, exciting, fun and celebratory? That’s the work of passionate worship.”

Going back into the world

The last element of worship is the sending. The Rev. Vicki Walker, an ordained deacon, led the plenary session on that topic.

“As a deacon, we’re called to bridge the church and the world,” she said. “The sending forth is when we widely throw open the doors of the church — for the church to re-enter the world to lovingly share what we’ve learned and to invite the people of the world into the church.”

For Walker, on staff at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, the sending is the most important part of the worship service. While agreeing the other presenters could say the same about their elements, the sending is important, she said, “because we don’t just come to worship for ourselves. I believe we, the church, exist for the people outside the walls, so the sending forth is when we go back into the world, to make a difference, to be the salt and the light that the world needs.”

Woven throughout the whole worship service, Walker said, is the fact that congregations have to consistently care about more than themselves. The church needs to be praying for the concerns of the whole world, she said, and worshippers have to believe their prayers make a difference.

“It’s not like there’s a cookie-cutter formula for doing the sending,” Walker said, “where if you do this approach or say these words, it’ll work. What we really need to do is get into people’s hearts that they care about the last, the least and the lost; that they really want to know and be known and share this love of God with people who don’t know Him yet.

“That’s what has to change; we have to change our attitude, our heart, our desire. In the sending we have to realize that Jesus’ words of go make disciples starts today, starts here, starts with me.”


*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Alsgaard is director of communications for the Florida Conference.

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