Monthly Archives: April 2014

What will church be like?

3627402797_7c933b4676While this image is not an accurate picture of what our church services will look like it reflects the underlying themes.

The tent is empty.  There is no one in sight.  The cross has fallen over, the sky is darkening, and even the sign promising God’s presence is faded.  Our frailty, weakness, and inability to make something happen are written large across this scene.  Yet, the sun has not set.  The faded sign speaks of a ghost, a holy one, and the arrow signifies of movement.  God is on his way and he revives, bring life out of death.  In our worship services we look to encounter the new life of God that comes along side the cross and meets in our desperation.

If I visit, what should I expect?  (note, we’ don’t have church services yet, but this is what I envision)
Hospitality  There will be someone to greet you at the entrance.  He or she will hand you a printed outline of that Sunday’s service so you know what to except.  The greeter can help you find a seat, direct you to the location of children’s activities, or answer other questions.
Children  You’ll see kids of various ages, some of whom will sit with their parents and participate in the worship service.  Others will go to the nursery (0-3) or childrens church (4-7) which happens during the sermon.  We’re so glad to have a wide range of ages at our church and exercise charity towards the fidgety, noisy, or sleepy regardless of their age.
Dress  You’ll see some in their Sunday best and others with jeans, or shorts, depending on the season.  Dress as you feel most comfortable.
Worship Our service regularly contains readings, prayers, music, singing, a sermon, an offering, and celebration of the Lord’s Supper (eucharist).
Money During our worship we take up an offering as an expression of our gratitude to God and faith that he will care for us.  As Christians we are committed to living generously and pursuing freedom from envy and greed.  If you are visiting please feel no obligation to contribute.
Time Our services run about an hour and fifteen minutes.  While this may sound long it goes quickly.  If you’re running late, still come.

Why do you… 
Our worship services have various parts (singing, prayer, etc) that we’ve thoughtfully chosen.  What we do in this brief but significant time in which we gather for worship both reflects and shapes who we are and what we believe.  Below are some of the big picture principles, a few examples, and some of theology underneath.

Principles & Examples
  The best way to lay out the principles is by unpacking the phrase “We worship God.”

-Christians believe that there is a God who has spoken.  When we worship we center our practices around what God has said about himself and the way he wants to be worshiped.  In our worship we give particular attention to what God has revealed about himself and this world by drawing deeply from the bible.
-Christians believe that God has been and continues to be active in this world.  Thus worship is not merely an intellectual or emotional exercise but an occasion when God is uniquely present among his people.  We look to the past to inform our worship because we belong to a rich history in which God has been present.  We also strive to reflect aspects of our specific time and culture since God is at work even now.
-Christians believe that there is a mediator.  The high and holy God who is pure and utterly beyond us has made a way for humans to know him and enter his presence  through Jesus the Christ.  Christian worship is centrally focused on Jesus as the hope of humanity and means through which we find life in God.  Our worship will reflect the reality that God is both transcendent and has come near.

-Christians believe that worship arises from both the individual and the community as a whole.  Our worship will encourage both sides of this continue with plural langue and personal responses.  As a community our worship will not only rise to God’s throne but speak to each other of truth and grace found in Jesus Christ.
-Christians believe that God wants people to worship him with their whole lives.  Our times of gathered worship are a culmination of the week and touch on every part of our lives.  The mind, body, will, and emotions are all engaged in worship because God cares about it all and wants the whole person engaged by his presence.
-Christians believe that the physical world matters, so we care about aesthetics.  While elements of the space, sound, scent, and feel of worship are beyond our control we strive to reflect the beauty of God’s presence in all we do.
-Christians believe that we worship not only in God’s presence but in the presence of a watching world.  We strive to make our worship understandable to those with little or no experience in the Christian faith.

Worship (practical examples)
-Our music will sound both contemporary and from another time.  We will use words and tunes written centuries ago alongside music written in the past few years.  This is not an effort to appease various preferences but a reflection of God working in the ancient times and today.
-Our language will reflect some of the majesty of old English found in older translations of the bile and the writings of Christians from other eras.  There will also be simplicity of wording and regular repetition so that children and those less familiar with English are able to engage.
-In our services there will be a working balance between singing, listening, reading, movement, and sacrament.  We will stand to sing, sit or kneel to confess, lift our hands to receive God’s blessing, and joyfully respond to the the word of God.
-We will plan out our services, pursuing excellence given our resources, but strive to remain flexible as we worship so that we can sing an extra song or linger in an extended time of prayer as God may lead us.

  This section is quite long so if you’re up for it read more below.

1.God centered and directed

God is the true and only recipient of our worship. This rises from the fact that he is the creator of the heavens and earth, the Holy One who we must acknowledge.(Is 6) In all this he alone is alone is worthy of praise as is seen in Revelation 4-5 where we have a glimpse of the heavenly throne room where God is the focal of the worship of all creation. Our tendency is to follow our darkened minds and worship created things rather than the creator (cf. Rom1). Even as Christians it is so easy to focus on ourselves, but God centered worship is what God demands and what we were made for.

2.Christ (redemption focused)

Worship must be focused upon Christ and his redemptive work because Christ is the one who makes our worship acceptable to God (Heb 9:22). It is Jesus who is our mediator (Heb 2:17) who brings us into the presence of God and only through him may we offer our worship (Heb 4:14-5:10). Moreover, as we acknowledge God’s holiness the powerful blight of our sin is revealed and we are driven to Christ. This principle is especially important today when pluralism is such a prominent worldview. Worship is only through Christ and we must counteract the voices saying that you can approach God however you would like.

3.Spirit led and filled

Worship must be led by the spirit and filled by the Spirit. This is the kind of worship God desires (Jn 4:24) and the worship that is inherent to God’s people since they are the temple of the Spirit (1 Cor 3:16). As we worship by the Spirit we will worship him with holy fear, powerful confidence, and freedom for heartfelt expression. This is what God deserves and what humans long for. Spirit filled worship will also look like commitment to the body of Christ and seeking unity within her (Matt 5:23- 24). This is important in an individualistic, consumer driven culture where the tendency is to stick around so long as it is good for me.

4. Word based and filled

Worship must be based on the word because God seeks worship in truth (Jn 4:24. It is our tendency to worship as we desire (Rom 1). Such worship is unacceptable to God, dishonoring him and defiling us. True worship will be filled with the word because that is what will edify God’s people and build them up (Heb 4:12-13). This principle is important because truth is held in low esteem in our society. This is reflected to varying degrees as Christians focus primarily on feelings or experiences as the ground for their worship instead of the solid rock of God’s enduring word.

5. Engaging the whole worshiper

Biblical worship should engage the whole worshiper because we are commanded to love God with all our being. (Matt 22:37) The mind must be engaged through theological content. (Rom 12:1-2), as well as our imagination via creativity (poetry in scripture). Our emotions are involved as we respond to the love of God (Ps 136) and bring to him sadness, anger, loss and doubt (Ps 73). Worship should also engage the will as people are called to repentance and commitment. (Ps 51). In addition this will involve the body (1 Tim 2:8) and our possessions (2 Cor 9). This principle is so important because God wants every bit of us, not just parts or pieces.

6. Every aspect of life

Worship should touch on every aspect of life as Christians offer all they do to the Lord. Scripture connects joy in creation (Ps 19), praise for God’s sustaining (Ps 104), delight in the moral law (119), and enjoyment of human nature (Ps 8, 139) to worship. We also bring our fallenness to him as we confess our frailty and sin (Ps. 90 that touches every part of life). Lamenting evil and pleading for justice is also a part of worship as well as praise for forgiveness and the deliverance of God’s people according to their prayers. (Ps 10, 3) In addition we pray for authorities, call all the nations to worship, and encourage the church in her mission of mercy and love. (1 Tim 2, Ps 117). Finally, we rejoice in the coming of the messiah. Such worship is important because we live fragmented lives and need a place that puts the pieces together.

7. Rising from the community of God’s people

Worship rises from the community of God’s people as they share their lives and their gifts. (1 Cor 12-14) United to Christ we are also united to his body thus, worship always has a horizontal and vertical element (Revelation 4- 5). This truth is important because it confronts the radical individualism of our culture. Worship is seen primarily as something I do with God which has little bearing on the people around me. At home watching church on TV or in a darkened room worshiping with my eyes closed forgetting about the other people, I am living out a misunderstanding of worship.

8. Out and up

Worship should be directed out to the world and up to God because his people are to be priests for the world. (Gen 20:17, Job 42:8). As we begin we call all the world to worship (Ps 117) and as we worship together our worship is to be intelligible to the unbeliever so they may know God (1 Cor 14). In our worship we are to pray for the salvation of all peoples. This principle is important because it reflects the missional nature of our God and because Christians so often have unintelligible language and practices which put up unnecessary barriers between them and the world.

9. Contemporary, Culture Specific, and Transcendence

God’s timeless message enters specific times and places. The poetry of the psalms contains Canaanite literary conventions even while undermining Canaanite beliefs. Our worship must reflect our call to be all things to all people and sadly Christians are often resistant to this idea. We hold onto our preferences without consideration of God’s broader design of worship which reflects both our roots and our future. The tendency is to get “stuck” in certain rituals of worship, whether this is the past or present. Some believers are overly impressed with their specific cultural moment and abandon anything that speaks of age and tradition. As our faith is inseparable from those who have gone before us our worship must in someway reflect our roots. As our faith is alive today, it must also speak to our current situation. This not only ties into music but other aspects of worship.

10. Beauty

Christianity is not merely true, or just good, but lovely. As we read of the tabernacle, temple, and associated vestments we see in various details that they are not simply utilitarian but are meant to evoke the grandeur and glory of God (Ex 26-28). All aspects of our worship should attempt to reflect God’s beauty and thereby help worshipers believe in the God of the bible.

photo credit


Foundations for mercy & justice

When starting out (in almost anything) it is easy to bite off more than you can chew.  As we begin Grace Pres. Worcester we’re working to lay the foundations for a spiritually vital church that has some balance among the different purposes.  As we think specifically about expressing Jesus’ commitment to mercy and justice there are four basic pieces

1.  Concept – Poverty and Renewal  When our first parents walked out of paradise the death which had entered the human soul stained everything else about us.  In a helpful diagram from When Helping Hurts the authors depict poverty as a fracturing of the essential aspects of the human person: relationship to self, God, others, and the created world.  So poverty includes realities such as loneliness, powerlessness, mental breakdown, moral corruption, oppression, and violence as well as hunger or a lack of material resources.  When we have a broader definition of poverty it helps cut through the appearance that some have it together and others only receive.  In fact every human is in some manner impoverished and missing essential components of wholeness.  A fuller definition of poverty also pushes to distinguish what aspect or type of poverty we are seeking to address.  Is our goal to make those who are relationally rich and materially poor, materially wealthy even at the cost of loneliness and isolation?  We must accurately understand the nature of poverty, seeing both its common roots and manifold expressions.  An accurate definition of the problem goes hand in hand with understanding and receiving the solution.  The bible describes salvation as renewal, both for the individual and creation as a whole.

[You] “have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”  “Put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Col 3, Eph 4)
“He who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new’.”  Rev 21

A Christian is made right with God in such a way that the healing effects flow out into the other essential aspects of human life: relationship to self, others, and the created order. On a bigger level (societal, environmental), everything that went wrong when we fell into sin is, in some manner, going to be set right by God.  As we recognize the complex nature of poverty we must have a similarly complete and compelling vision of what it will mean for things to be right.  This then is our aim –  the reconciliation of people to God and the renewal of all things.  Wow!

2.  Concept – Mercy and Justice  These two are deeply intertwined such that it is hard to account for one without considering the other.  If mercy is related to compassion meeting needs, and justice is related to making things right, at some point being merciful will lead to a pursuit of justice.  On the other hand if we look to make things right it must include addressing the consequences of what has been unjust.  Concretely, being merciful to those suffering racial discrimination is not only engaging the pain (emotional, financial, physical) of their mistreatment but addressing the forces inflicting this pain.  Or I think of children in one area of the city whose quality of education, healthcare, and nutrition is much lower than those living two miles down the road.  If we want to move towards justice, then it must mean compassionate engagement with these children in the midst of physical and emotional challenges.  As I think about the complex reality of poverty, mercy and justice are complementary and necessary.  While Christians often quote Micah 6:8,

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”  

We underestimate what the Lord requires of us, landing only in the “justice,” “mercy” or “walk humbly with God” portion of the verse.  We fail to see how these interrelate, do not act, and are not good.  

3.  Practice –  Where do you start?
 Fortunately as a young church our limitations are quite clear.  In fact having few resources (people, money, facilities etc.) almost makes it easier because it helps us focus on doing one “small thing” well.  We want to begin by providing some sort of relief in a manner where we can build a connection to those we serve.  From providing relief and really knowing those we serve we can then begin to address some of systemic issues of injustice which are more complex and harder to understand from the outside.  Some of my hopes in this approach are…

-through relationships we will engage the less visible aspects of poverty (isolation and powerlessness for example)
-we will learn how to best serve others and not simply serve in ways which make us feel good or fit our expectations
-we will be reminded of our common identity as broken people in need of renewal
-we will work hard for the betterment of individual lives and the quality of life in the city
-we will cling to God for change that only he can bring, joining others in their suffering
We’ve started by praying (that God will lead us), learning (about poverty, ourselves, and the city) and networking (with various people and institutions).

4.  Practice – Plod vs. Splash  The title says it all.  We’re not here to do something flashy with high ideals and immediate results.  We want to start small, build wisely, and stick it out.  Yes, we’ll need to take risks and do things that demand faith, but these happen in the midst of a path that is followed at a steady pace.

Another target

62946137_6648f75499If we don’t know what the bullseye is, we’ll have a hard time hitting it.  In thinking about where our church hopes to be in six months, two years, and five years there are common themes which will extend through these different seasons of church.  What you’ll see below isn’t particularly new but has some specific elements which reflect our unique strengths (and weaknesses) as well as our context.  In all of this I am drawing on the work of others.

Main idea:  We don’t get to pick the target of who we want the church to be.  Since the church belongs to God and is headed by Jesus he sets the course and defines the destination.  When you look in the bible and consider who God’s people are meant to be you’ll actually find five mutually informative “bulls eyes,” which a church, desiring to be faithful to Jesus’ vision for his followers, must hit.  While we won’t hit dead center on everyone of these – or maybe even none – we need to be somewhere in the black (see above image) on each.  So we’ll start with a passage from the Acts of the Apostles which lays out these five purposes.

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.  Acts 2:42-47

Worship & Prayer  – The church must honor the triune God by gathering to worship him and by promoting greater devotion to God in every church member’s life.  Vital worship will balance vertical and horizontal elements, the transcendence and imminence of God, and the corporate vs. private aspects.
We will gather weekly on the Lord’s day to worship the living God in Spirit and truth through the only mediator Jesus Christ.  With preparation and prayer we will strive to worship God with excellence, reflecting both our historic roots and the reality that God is at work today.  Our worship will be accessible to those less familiar with the Christian faith as various elements (music, reading, preaching sacraments) are explained and the congregation is equipped to more fully engage.  Our gathered worship fuels and rises from the regular worship of individuals and families as the are equipped and encouraged to seek God’s presence daily.

Discipleship and learning – The church must teach Christians to obey everything that Jesus has commanded us, living in the light of his presence until he returns.
We will have a clear picture of Christian maturity towards which various process and programs work in a coordinated manner.  We will embody a culture of continued learning and self-evaluation in which a developmental mindset is embraced by all ministry leaders.  Disciples grow in number and depth through decentralized ministries and creative educational approaches emphasizing truth, care, and accountability.  Children and teens are woven into this disciple making process so that the church is characterized by growing health and wholeness.

Fellowship – There must be a sense of responsibility and affection between members of the church as together we are the body of Christ.
Whether gathering on a Sunday for worship, sharing a meal in someone’s home, or serving together we enjoy each other’s company and seek it spontaneously as well as through programed events.  Our mutual love and care points to the love of Christ and is expressed through a decentralized ministry model which connects believers along lines of geography as well as interest.  We pursue unity through regular  face to face interaction and biblical conflict resolution.

Evangelism – The church must equip members to share their faith as well as develop a passion for the global progress of the gospel.  Gripped by the good news of Jesus our enthusiasm for the advance of the kingdom will grow.
We are committed to equipping and encouraging believers to engage their non-Christian contacts with the gospel.  We will have an atmosphere of spiritual sensitivity and wisdom so that non-Christians connected to the church feel loved and challenged.  Nearly all ministries will have an outward face providing various points of contact, while unique events will also be designed for outreach.  We will regularly pray for those who do not know Christ, both locally and globally, instilling dependence on God and providing a framework in which sacrificial giving supports multiplication of churches and ministries.

Mercy & Social Concern – The church must remember the poor, being filled with compassion and driven to action on behalf of the needy in the church and the broader community.
We will regularly explore the implications of Christ’s redemption of all things and the reality of all people bearing God’s image.  Through member’s mutual love and concern we will care for many of the needs within the church.  In our community we will partner with a few organizations,  providing relief, building relationships, and eventually addressing systemic issues of mercy and justice.

Out of these five targets I think we are better positioned to hit the first two (worship & discipleship/learning).  We need to do all five and have some pieces coming together to make sure that our natural weak spots don’t undermine our strengths.

We believe

Depicted to the right is the first council of Nicea, held in 325, which sought to gather Christian leaders from across the Roman empire.  They met to establish a consensus regarding Jesus’ relationship with God the Father and the nature of his divinity.  The Nicene creed which emerged forms the most common definition of the Christian faith and is used widely across the many branches of the Christian faith.

This practice of summarizing and establishing touchstones for faith and practice has deeper roots as hinted at in one of the apostle Paul’s letters,

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

You can find even earlier roots in the book of Deuteronomy, which comes from Moses,  “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

As we work on a website and and consider how to communicate what we believe, here is a first shot…

We believe that there is a God who speaks.  There is an ultimate reality behind this world who has not remained silent.  We stand within the rich stream of Christian faith which affirms that this God has communicated in history and this has been accurately recorded in the literature we call the bible.  We adhere to ancient documents such as the Nicene and Apostles creeds which faithfully summarize essential teachings of the bible.  In belonging to The Presbyterian Church in America (our denomination) we affirm the Westminster Confession of Faith as our doctrinal standards.

Here is an outline of the essentials…

-God is real, personal, beyond us, but knowable.  He sustains us moment by moment and is active in this world.  Our lives are not random or senseless but have meaning and purpose.

-Humanity was made to resemble God so that every person possess dignity and worth, reflecting something of his goodness.

-This world is not right.  While our families, societies, and even the physical environment may warp or damage us the problem ultimately lies within.  The human soul has been corrupted by placing the self at the center of reality rather than God.  This pollution, called sin, leaks out tainting everything else.  The Christian faith makes sense of our loneliness, pain, disillusionment, and inability to make things right.

-God’s plan to set things right culminates in Jesus.  In Jesus, God takes on our human nature and lives the life of goodness and love for which we were destined but failed to realize.  Jesus dies a violent, cursed death taking our sin on his shoulders but rises alive triumphant over our corruption.  Through Jesus life, death, and resurrection we can be made right with God and can be certain that evil will be vanquished.

-Being a Christian involves ethical change and moral renewal but these arise only from the transforming power of the gospel.  The gospel, or good news, tells us that we are worse than we’ve ever realized but more loved than we ever hoped.  The life of the Christian is both exciting and daunting as God changes us by his Spirit and uses us as agents of his renewal in this world.

-The church is essential to life and growth as a Christian.  Jesus calls his followers friends and creates a new relational world that softens our sense of isolation and uniquely shows who he is.  While the church does not save, it is the community of the Savior.

-Part of our unique calling is to love and serve the city of Worcester alongside other churches, ministries, and institutions.  While God’s love stretches to all nations we have a particular responsibility to our neighbors.

Grasping more of Worcester

Two weeks ago I joined Hillary and the kids at Mechanics Hall for a “brown bag” concert series.  It runs during the lunch hour and is sponsored by local businesses.  The pictures are inadequate in describing this awesome venue with great acoustics and stunning aesthetics.    I’m continuing to learn more about Worcester as I speak with people from various sectors of the city and different walks of life.  Here are a few more pieces of the puzzle…


Locals  For it’s size, Worcester has a much more local feel than cities like Providence or Hartford.  It seems like there are a lot of people who grew up here and never left, left and came back, or who are married to someone who has roots in Worcester.  On the other side of this are those with no familial connection to the area and feel on the outside.  One woman who moved here with her husband almost ten years ago said that it wasn’t worth trying to befriend couples who both have roots in Worcester.  You’ll never belong in their world.  There is this small town vibe that pops up in Worcester that is both attractive and off-putting at times.

Old Boy Network”  This is tied into the previous theme of locals and has been repeated by various people with whom I’ve spoken.  There seems to be a certain set of people who, for a number of years, have held power or shaped who has access to it.  Tied into this sense of a consolidated group who has influence is a seeming indifference or unwillingness to participate by those on the “outside.”  Speaking with one of the African American pastors in the city, he said that of the 12-13,000 African Americans in the city usually about 2,000 vote in local elections.  He went on to say that whatever network of power there is in the city is reinforced by the large number who do not vote and therefore need not be heeded.  In speaking with a representative of one of the many non-profits here he said that their board (~100 people) had only one minority member.  There are more pieces of this puzzle that I’m piecing together.  Various networks will always develop, both for ill and for the benefit of the community, and I am thinking about the perspective that the bible takes on sharing and holding power.

Hope & fear  Where is Worcester headed?  Do its strengths balance out the weaknesses?  Have we made it past the tipping point where we are gaining momentum or do we have our hands full of good things that we’re about to drop and break?  Some people will exhibit more optimism and others more apprehension, but everyone seems to have a some of both.  There is a longing to believe better days are ahead of the city but a reticence to do so in the light of the many challenges that this post-industrial cities faces.  This area of longing and fear is one where God continues to give me inspiration for our church.  Christians have an eternal city with God and can live in challenging circumstances with both realism and hope.  Christians can love and serve the city of Worcester, working for its good, certain of God’s care.  When we buy a home here it may work out well or property values may plummet.  When we educate our children, participate in community service, join hands with local agencies and intertwine our lives with the life of Worcester we may help this city take the right steps forward or be pulled down in the next stumble.  Both have happened to Christians and neither will be our ultimate hope or ruin…

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  – Romans 8



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