I Miss The Bags

file000450585184As the interim Praise Team Leader at my church, December 24th found me playing guitar for our “family friendly” Christmas Eve service (the first of three that night). I also had a moment when I wondered if the other two services were less family friendly, had a two drink minimum, and featured a comic who started his routine with, “Two Jews walk into an inn…”

But I digress.

It was all very nice. We had shepherds and wise men in the requisite bathrobes, angels, Mary, Joseph, a real baby, candles, and we sang traditional Christmas carols. All to celebrate the most famous birth in history. And I thoroughly enjoyed it, because Christmas Eve services are my favorite.

But I missed Santa and the paper bags.

A lot of people don’t know about Santa Claus and the paper bags. Then again, not everybody grew up poor.

When I was a little boy, Christmas programs at the church were a little different than they are today. Oh sure, we acted out the nativity story in all its bathrobed glory and heralded the birth of the savior of the world with a plastic baby doll (often with a light bulb strategically hidden in the manger so we would know this was no ordinary baby). We would gather in the sanctuary, listen as the scriptures were read, watch as the holy procession came out mostly on cue, giggle as a shepherd or two picked their noses, and see an angel’s underwear when she got bored and pulled the hem of her angel dress up over her head.

Then, we would hear the jingling of bells followed by the unmistakable Ho Ho Ho of the second most important figure of Christmas (hey, we were Santakids): Santa Claus.

And Santa had a sack full of paper bags, all of which contained the most amazing Christmas treasures imaginable. Each small paper bag had an apple, an orange, lots of nuts (Brazil nuts, almonds, hickory nuts, and pecans), candy (Mary Janes, assorted hard candy, and a box of candy cigarettes), and a toy (a 25¢ cap pistol and a box of caps for the boys and a tiny plastic troll doll with frizzy hair for the girls). After we climbed on Santa’s knee and told him that we essentially wanted everything in the back half of the Sears catalog, he Ho Ho Hoed his way down the aisle and passed out the bags.

Back then those bags represented a special Christmas treat before his big appearance a few nights later. Today, with the perspective of half a century lived since those days, those bags represent something much more magical.

They represent the sacrifice of farmers, plant workers, bread truck drivers, and little old ladies (my grandmother included) who took in sewing to make a little extra money, all so a handful of children who most certainly wouldn’t be getting everything on their Christmas lists, would have a special Christmas treat. Those bags came from adults who didn’t have much in the way of money, but were wealthier than any billionaire in matters of the heart.

No, the piano wasn’t in tune, and yes, the pageant was less than perfect (then again, not having been at the original nativity scene, I can’t say for fact that no angels showed the assembled crowd their pink bloomers and no shepherds farted on a plastic sheep then rolled on the floor laughing while his mother prayed for the floor to open up and swallow her whole). But in those bags from a pillow-stuffed Santa who smelled suspiciously of Dutch Masters cigars, was a gift equal to the finest gold, frankincense, and myrrh. For in those simple offerings of nuts, candy, and trinkets was a massive sacrifice of love.

As I go back in time and look through the window of a small white clapboard church out in the country, I still get a true sense of the meaning of Christmas. The true spirit of giving.

And don’t get me wrong. We had a meaningful service in the here and now.

But I missed those bags.

 

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The Frog is Cooked

 

If you toss a frog into a pot of boiling water he will hop right out.

But…

If  you put him in a pot of cool water and keep turning up the heat a little at a time, he will sit in there until he cooks. Why? Because he will become so accustomed to the gradual increase in temperature that he won’t jump out of the pot. He’ll just stay in there and cook.

Well, I’m afraid the frog is cooked.

And we have no one to blame but ourselves.

What Happened?

Things that we accept as commonplace today were unheard of thirty years ago. Scores of people are turning from the church and seeking their answers in other places. From New Age thinking and Scientology, to atheism, society is now seeking the answers to the great theological questions within itself. Many of the churches who made the effort to intercept the early seekers early on became “seeker churches.” The problem is, after more than two decades they are still seeking. The questions they first voiced are still going unanswered, because the search has become the main focus and not the one being searched for.

We have taken the search for spiritual growth from the realm of the supernatural to the realm of the programmed. Many churches have substituted church and program involvement for a relationship with Christ. Ideally the church serves two purposes in the life of a Christian. In the early stages of Christian development the church is the primary source of influence in the burgeoning Christian’s life. The church helps the new Christian as they develop a relationship with Christ and move closer to Christ. Then, as those Christians begin to live a more Christ-centered life, the church’s primary responsibility for them is to provide opportunities for service.

But often the church hopes the quest for greater service fills both roles.

And that doesn’t work.

According to a 2004 Barna Group study, ” Six out of ten adults also contend that Satan does not exist but is merely a “symbol of evil.” Only one-quarter of all adults (24%) strongly reject the idea that the Devil is only symbolic. Slightly more than half of all adults (55%) say that a good person can earn a place in Heaven. Only one-fourth of the population (28%) strongly disagrees with the concept of salvation by good deeds.” ¹

Our Blocks Have Toppled

We are afraid of offending people. Afraid of speaking the truth for fear that we may be seen as unsympathetic or exclusive. So we water down the gospel and we allow society to dictate what we as Christians can say and do. and in so doing, the church loses sight of one of her primary responsibilities; to help people develop the habits of regular prayer, scripture reading, confessing our sins, and setting aside time to listen to God. We mention it, but as the church we don’t make it an ongoing priority. Our classes hint around at it and mention it, but there are precious few churches who make that concept their teaching and preaching core.

Hence, the building blocks of a Christ-centered life are neglected in the guise of ministering to the urban mindset.

So what’s the Answer?

Oddly enough, the answer is pretty simple. It comes down to people’s understanding of and engagement in the act of worshiping God. we need to help people find the passion to connect with and worship God. For years the church seems to have been more concerned with the shape of the worship service, the “brand” of worship (contemporary, traditional, blended, Taize, etc.), and trying to make every service meet every person’s needs, when our overriding need is the need to actually worship a holy and deserving God. Not on our terms, but on His*.

It is quite telling that many people in the congregation have no idea what the true nature and purpose of worship is. “Only three out of ten church-going adults (29%) indicated that they view worship as something that is focused primarily on God. One out of every five attenders admitted that they had no idea what the most important outcome of worship is.” ²

We talk about God and the worship of God in general terms, or worse yet, as if the people in the congregation really know what we are talking about. Or that we do too.

We often confuse worship and praise. Worship implies that we have and are developing a deep devotion to God. An intense love and admiration for God. And notice the italics. Worship is not half-hearted singing or recitations. In worship we are invested in what we are doing. We fully expect God to move in our lives and reveal Himself in some fashion. And praise is our expression of that love, devotion, and admiration.

The truth is, too often neither the congregation OR the worship leaders go into a worship service expecting something to happen we don’t expect to leave the worship space somehow fundamentally changed. Nor do we take our worship home with us. We worship at “church.”

How do We Change?

So how do we as a church change? We begin by understanding the nature of worship.

  • what it is
  • the importance of true worship
  • where worship takes place
  • how worship changes us

It is not enough to “design” a service for a specific demographic. It is time to start with the ministers and other worship leaders and rediscover (or discover for the first time) the depth of true worship. A worship where silence (more than just a few quiet seconds before a prayer)  is perfectly acceptable and taking time to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit is our ultimate goal. We must realize that true worship involves a surrender and dedication of ourselves to God in body,mind, and spirit.We must lose ourselves in the mystery of God, not the ambiguity of endless questions.

“This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” (1st Corinthians 4:1)

Then we must guide the congregation.

We must have expectations.

Because God has expectations.

 “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is —his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2)
 
 

“Religious Beliefs Remain Constant But Subgroups Are Quite Different” March 19, 2004 ¹
“Focus On “Worship Wars” Hides The Real Issues Regarding Connection to God” November 19, 2002 ²
* No, I’m not politically correct.