So, what’s the difference? Cultural? Style? Does God prefer liturgy over music? Blue jeans over suits?

I miss Rockland!

Not that it necessarily does things the best. Not that it provides the most appropriate format, preaching, liturgy, song selection, choir, baptism, communion, view, coffee, donuts (I like the jelly-filled ones), or friends. It’s just that . . . . I grew accustomed to the way Rockland does these things. Rockland even let me in the doors well enough ahead of the first service where it gave me quiet time. Time to read scripture, meditate, and try to get the snooze out of my sometimes heavy eyelids before the big event. Even inspiration filled me more easily when “things went the way they should”.

For the past three weeks or so, I visited other churches. Making connections. Hitting up church leaders about a personal discipleship opportunity. Experiencing different ways to worship. Immersing into different styles. I look forward to my Sunday to usher, the first one of the month, the first service, the one that seems to suit my propensity to want to worship the way that I grew accustomed.

For two Sundays in a row, I attended Christian performances. This most recent Sunday, not quite the performance orientation.

June 10th, Foothills Bible Church. A widely dispersed congregation. A big, wide and deep stage. A sound and visual experience that consisted of a carefully choreographed mix of musician placements, instruments, voices, lighting, song selection, upbeat singing, blue jeaned performers. Big screens to follow the words to the song. No liturgy, or precious little of it . . . that I can remember. No song books. Maybe a Bible passage reading. (Glad I brought my own Bible.) Then a hip pastor took the stage. A talented speaker. A charismatic personality. A polished, practiced man of God. That was the early service.

I traveled across town to attend the later morning service over at Waterstone Community Church. A few football fields east of Foothills Bible Church. Same set-up. Just about. Again with an elaborate coffee bar and social opportunity. Didn’t know the words to any of the songs at Waterstone, either. Didn’t know the music either. Couldn’t reach for a hymnal to help out. Just had to enjoy the raised arms, swaying torsos, all-out joyful singing of my fellow congregants. Wished I could join in on the fun! Wished I could have enjoyed the singing, just like they did. They didn’t sing, “How Great Thou Art” or stuff to which I could easily relate. Different to be part of a big party where I knew nobody. I faked it, like I had fun. But, a good message. Just a weird way to worship.

Last week I mixed it up a bit. Early service, I attended The Rock Community Church. A carbon copy. (Oops, they don’t use carbon paper anymore. Must have been a copy and paste.) Big stage, comfortable theater seats. Flashing words of songs to which I couldn’t relate. Stayed silent, while everybody else participated in a song-fest. Wished I had brought my ear muffs. Too loud! Harkened back to my discotheque days. Gifted senior pastor, again. Reminded me why I never found attraction to a publicly advertised New Years Eve bash! How could a person celebrate without knowing friends, the songs, the festivities?

Later that morning, I attended Grace Covenant Church. Closer to where I lived. Smaller. Much! A stage, again. Not as many musicians this time. Not quite as glitzy. Not quite as theater-like. Couldn’t duck introductions. People came up to me. Introduced themselves. Exchanged greetings. The guy behind me, quick to hand me a small wooden cross to stick in my pocket. His version of sharing the gospel with a stranger. With friends, too, I suspect. Nathan, the missions outreach coordinator and “itinerate missionary” and his father shared the stage. Told of their adventure to Papua, New Guinea. Told of handing out Bibles, translating the written one into a talking Bible and distributing them. Told of tribal dispute, of getting in the middle of a Hatfield and McCoy war. Somebody killed somebody else from the other tribe, just when Nathan and Dad were going to conduct a seminar or something like that. The service, a bit more personal. No, that’s not quite true. Way more personal. Met an old young friend. Made connections, more easily. Sung a song or two to which I knew the words and music. Still no songbooks, but that was OK. I got used to not using songbooks at Rockland a while back. Couldn’t carry a tune with one. Still can’t, even when slurring into the next note that I don’t always anticipate correctly. What’s the difference?

Visited Green Mountain United Methodist Church this morning. The eight o’clock service billed as the “Meditative” one. Very traditional! A break from the hip culture of the ones of the prior two weeks. A bit more liturgy, this time. Personal, couldn’t escape introductions. Couldn’t even slip into the sanctuary without Bruce collaring me and telling me all about what to expect. Yes, I could take communion, if it suited me. Told me where the regular late-comers sat (in the back, of course). The pastor wore a robe! Maybe blue jeans underneath. Couldn’t tell. But, I don’t think so. More my age. Much less hip. No choir. No stage, other than the more traditional crosses, fonts, and front-of-the-church architecture, furnishings. Donuts and coffee after church, but nobody stayed for the fellowship opportunity. They all darted toward one of two Sunday School classes, never to be seen again.

Except, I got to chat with a couple students and their two adult leaders. They came from Naples, Florida. Slept in the church overnight. Intended to go to Loveland later to participate in a mission experience for the coming week. The best conversation I had before or after any service in the last three weeks! Even exchanged a business card with Ted, their adult co-leader. Will exchange emails with him later. Might be interested in discipleship, the kind that I’ve been talking about. Talked to two students. I could relate. My in-laws have a condo in Naples. Common ground. Literally.

Attended St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church at 10:30 AM. Never been to an Episcopal church before. Lot’s of liturgy. The whole service was liturgy, for Pete’s sake! (I think I mean, “For St. Peter’s sake!”) Procedurally correct. Couldn’t sleep a wink. Up, down. Read this, then that. Chanted, responded (I faked it). Took communion. Needed to kneel on a kneeling bench at the front. The pastor came around with the wafers. I could dunk it in the follow-up chalice or drink right from it. Didn’t want to share somebody else’s cold, so I dunked.

St. Joseph’s service constituted the polar opposite of those of the prior two weeks. If a person’s salvation depended upon liturgical propriety, this congregation stood first in line. They said all the right things. Scripted. Printed for their (our) reading. Friendly guy, Paul, spotted me in the pew before the service began. They don’t get many visitors, I suspect. I stood out, kind of like a mzungu in a Swahili-speaking Tanzanian church. Talked for maybe five, ten minutes before inviting me to sit by him so that I could more easily follow along. He knew quite well that any Episcopalian mzungu would not keep up with the liturgy by himself. So, after the service began, he adroitly switched me between the blue hymnal to the other one, pointed me to the written liturgy in the bulletin and handed me the book of liturgical doctrine printed in the pew red book. Whispered to me the communion protocol, but we got separated, when I needed to take a path to the final kneeling spot on the left and he needed to take the first one on the far right. That was OK. I winked at him as much, across the semi-circle of preacher pasture-land.

I recall attending Pastor Abel’s church in Ilboru. His was the more liturgically oriented landscape of traditional, deeply extending narrowly-rowed congregation and front-of-the-church artifacts. But I also remember a combination of musical presentation. The choir sat sideways to the preaching center. They stood and performed in place. But when the young performers did their thing, they made traditional front-of-the-church landscape their own. They whooped it up and made musical enjoyment a use-it-or-lose-it opportunity. (Couldn’t hardly sleep through that, anyway.) When the whole church sang, a few of the women filled the otherwise pregnant musical pauses with whooping and other sorts of vocal garnishment. When Pastor Abel, adorned in his priestly robes, invited Lota and me to the front to tell everybody what I was doing down there, we both sported very casual wear. I don’t think I had even taken off my wind-breaker jacket. The whole service honored traditional ritual as well as contemporary singing and liturgical interruption.

When I attended Arusha Community Church, I remember a comfortable mix of formal liturgy, contemporary music, traditional music, casually assembled musical performers, informally-clad guest preachers, and ritually-performed self-introductions by visitors. Generally, the guest preachers did not share the same gift of stage-presence and inspirational message as the senior pastors of recent experience. But the overall Godly, spiritual connection probably came through more easily than anywhere.

As I make my way through the reading of Chronicles, I find that Israel seemed to follow a fairly scripted and rigid set of rules for worship, especially when it came to sacrifices and sharing of gifts with the Levites and priests. Of course, Israel strayed from these practices when their leaders found the worship of Baal more appealing and hence led their people into the wrong directions. But when they found true religion again, they always returned to traditional customs. The ones that Moses scripted for them. The ones that King David restored for them. The ones that custom said were those ordained by God.

But Jesus came and upset things. Besides turning over the money-changers’ table, He made it OK to heal the sick and find the lost sheep on the Sabbath. I think He skipped church during His forty days in the wilderness. I get the impression that He didn’t always sit still and contented-like just listening to the church leaders of His time. Don’t think they used guitars, drums, microphones or worn-out blue jeans. Don’t think they used overhead lighting, directed by some lighting expert in the back.

Beginning in Acts, I sense that worship format developed from a creative sense of purpose. As I read between the lines, they emphasized Interpersonal connection. Apostle Paul wrote of sharing, getting along, avoiding traps of false teachers a bit more than liturgical format or musical performance. I might be wrong, but they probably didn’t follow such things as the Apostles Creed, or the Nicene Creed. Maybe they winged it. Maybe they got it wrong, according to how we seem to have perfected liturgy and invented newly choreographed musical entertainment.

Did it matter? Um, does it matter, now?

I’m sure they did it just the way Rockland does it now. The way that I feel most comfortable in my worship. You know, just the right blend of stuff. And the great view, and inspiring opening of the curtain to God’s majesty just west of us.

When I visited Tanzania last year, I kept looking for “culturally significant experiences”. Things that would constitute different ways of doing things than what I grew accustomed to here in the States. Since Abraham began his first worship regimen, churches seem to have developed worship cultures of their own. They are different from each other, to a certain extent.

Just like people from the US are different than people from Tanzania, to a certain extent.

Just like the people from my block are different than the people from another block.

Just like my friends are different from your friends.

But, are they really different? Is one style of worship better than the other? Of course, the style that I’m used to must be the best. I would know, because I can tell rather quickly if it suits my taste.

On the other hand, maybe they are really all the same. Maybe, to God, each church, when celebrating the same gospel, harmonizes worship experiences like good music to His listening ears. Probably a raft of imperfection, made beautiful by the spirit of wanting to honor His name.

And, maybe we’re pretty much all the same, after all. Except, we harmonize our differences into a chorus of worship and thanksgiving.

And, when someone like me slurs into the next note or two, it still harmonizes. Because, it’s still worship. And, when someone else hits a well-intended, but off-tune variation, maybe it harmonizes just like my valiant attempt.

Are talents like that? We all seem to have different talents. None seem to exactly replicate another. Are mine better than yours?

Maybe, talents are like notes to an ensemble. Maybe, when sung in harmony, they make music.

Or, maybe when they stay silent, God doesn’t hear.

Maybe, we should just all join the choir, or an ensemble of talented disciples.

And maybe, if we sing thanksgiving, humility and the true word of God, we harmonize. Can’t hit a wrong note then, can we?

June 24, 2018