Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series.
By Johnnie Godwin
Contributing Columnist, B&R
“You missed your chance!” That’s what our pastor said to our church just after he made the climactic statement of his whole message. In the world of sports, we would say he had just hit a grand slam home run. He had delivered the knockout blow! It was a hole-in-one. Response? None! The pastor exclaimed, “Amen! Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!” Then he sat down on the front pew and faced the pulpit. Church was over.
I’ve lived a long time, and I’ve never seen or heard of such a thing in all my church-going life. What had the pastor expected that led him to do such a thing? I’ve been a pastor and served on both sides of the pulpit, so I’ve got an idea of what led to such a stunning conclusion of that service.
Worship is not a spectator sport — but praise to God! Pastors spend their lives preparing to preach. They pray, they plan, and they craft their Spirit-guided message the best they can. Then they come to the pulpit to plan to win for God. They expect response: souls saved, lives rededicated, prayers at the altar, and emotions that reflect God’s great truths they’ve just preached. But often nothing happens that they can see. A congregation sits like bumps on a log. No one may say, “Amen!” No one may applaud or raise a hand or nod in agreement — or even in disagreement. And the pastor is left high and dry with a dead or lukewarm church.
Now, churches vary widely in their make up and in their responses. You can’t make categorical statements about churches. That’s probably why there are seven letters to seven churches in Revelation 2-3. But there are principles of worship that apply to all churches and should be obviously present and active. One is response!
Cultures affect the responses of churches in worship. I’ve preached and worshiped over much of the world, so I know firsthand what I’m talking about. But let me narrow my focus to two different kinds of churches in which I preached the same sermon on the same day, and I got radically different responses.
Participative and responsive worship. Back to the pastor who plopped down on the front row. What might he have expected? He might have expected responses like these: Amen! Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! Hands applauding or raised. Heads nodding in agreement instead of asleep. A sense of feeling that God’s Spirit’s message got delivered, heard, and responded to.
When I was a young pastor in East Texas, my all-white Caucasian church and an African-American church swapped pulpits and leadership in worship on occasion. To say those two churches did things differently would be a vast understatement.
But what wasn’t different was my sermon. I had the same title, text, and notes. I was wearing the same suit and voice as I began preaching. But that’s when things got different. As I preached, each truth got greeted with “Amen!” “That’s right!” And then came, “Preach On!” My 20-minute sermon (at my church) lasted over 40 minutes in that church. What made the difference? Well, it was culture all right; but it was mainly participation and response. And most of our churches are greatly negligent in response. We want the music like we want it. We want the pastor to give us his best shot and not take all day in doing it. And then we want an “amen” so we can head out for grub and ballgames.
What might God expect in our worship? Well, whatever God might expect, we know He wants participation. And a great part of the fault of our lack of participation lies on the pulpit side of the church. We have raised a generation that may be like one or more of the seven churches in Asia Minor (Revelation 2-3). About Sardis, our Lord said, “I know you have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1, HCSB). About Laodicea, our Lord said, “Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of My mouth” (Revelation 3:16). The Lord’s commendations were great for those who deserved it. But in the churches that needed correction and change, the Lord’s message was both a command of warning and promise: “Repent or else … !” God expects living churches that listen to Him, respond to Him, obey Him, and do His will.
Conclusion: Remember the pastor who told the church, “You missed your chance?” Well, next time, let’s play like the pastor of that church stood back up and turned to the shocked people. Then let’s hear him say, “However — though you’ve missed your chance — now, repent or else!” God forgives when repentance occurs. In part two of this series, I’ll talk about responsive reading — which we had but seldom ever have now — being this: “O God, forgive us! We repent and return to you in worship and response. We praise you and worship you!”
— Copyright 2016 by Johnnie C. Godwin. Write the author, firstname.lastname@example.org.