Change is in the Air – Part 1
Change is in the Air – Part 1
June 19, 2022
Scripture: Ps 42:1-4
1 As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, my God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?
3 My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
4 These things I remember
as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
under the protection of the Mighty One[d]
with shouts of joy and praise
among the festive throng.
The song we just sang is based on this psalm, which, according to the notes in the NIV study Bible, was written by the sons of Korah. It is a beautiful song of worship and dedication. However, when we read the psalm itself, we discover a lot more about the author and his situation.
In verse 4 there is a deep nostalgia coming to the forefront. The author laments that he can no longer be a part of the multitude of people going to the house of the Lord to worship. He misses that, and longs for the return of those days.
Placing the psalm into its historical context: the psalm most likely is from a time during one of the many incursions by enemies of Israel when some of the Korahites were abducted and exiled from the land. The author appears to be one such – he refers to being far from his homeland later in the psalm. The Korahites were descendants of the tribe of Levi, and appear to have been part of the worship team in those days.
The author used to be a part of the worship assembly, and probably played a leading part. He remembers leading the multitude to worship – and now he cannot. Not only that – he is taunted by those around him (probably his abductors) with the insult of “where is your God?”
When I read this and spent some time trying to understand the seeming contrast between verses 1 and 4 it dawned on me that the son of Korah, who wrote this psalm more than 3,000 years ago, could actually have been writing it today.
Allow me to explain.
“Church”, as we know it, has changed and is changing. I think the change started some 30 or more years ago, maybe earlier in some parts of the world than others. Some of us are mature enough in years to remember a typical Sunday morning routine: mom and dad and the statistically important 2.6 kids got dressed in their Sunday best and went off to church. The sanctuary was usually packed, and the Sunday School was full. After church there were social activities, and very often families and friends would meet for Sunday lunch at someone’s house. During the week there were prayer meetings, ladies’ groups, kids’ groups, young people’s groups, all members of the church and actively involved.
I understand that here at NLUC, in the 70’s and 80’s, Sunday mornings saw 250 or more people in the service, and the Sunday school was packed with 45 or 50 kids.
At Rosebank Union Church, which we attended in South Africa, there were two Sunday morning services, both with a packed sanctuary seating some 600 people. Then there were services in the afternoon and evening as well.
This Sunday routine played itself out in most Western countries and it was, I think, accepted as “the norm”.
Then things started to change. Also, here at North Lonsdale things changed. Young people who grew up in the church did not necessarily continue their involvement after leaving home and starting their own families. Worship attendance likewise experienced a decline – from 200 to 300 people on a Sunday morning early in the last decade we were down to around 120 to 130 just before Covid hit in 2020. Now we seem to average about 40 to 45 people in worship. From a Sunday School of 45 kids or more, attendance dwindled, and we are down to 4 or 5 on a Sunday now.
We can relate to the Korahite who wrote Ps 42; we can remember the “good old days” and we may hanker after the return of those days.
Many churches in Europe and in North America have closed or have been repurposed. The Logan Square Church in Chicago is now a circus school. Others have been converted into upscale homes or into restaurants, pubs and night clubs as I encountered in Aberdeen, Scotland. Here in Canada, I have also encountered repurposed church buildings. In southern Ontario, near Peterborough, there is a quaint craft brewery called the Church Key Brewery housed in a repurposed church.
It seems that most established, traditional denominations are struggling to survive.
What does this mean? Has God given up on His plan? Or have we failed miserably at the Great Commission as recorded in Matthew 28:19 and 20?
Neither – we’ll get back to that shortly.
I think it is important that we first take a look at worship styles and routines over the ages and then, maybe, we can put our situation, as it is today, into context.
In the days of the Korahite author of Ps 42 communal worship in Israel and Judah was centered on the tabernacle – the tent of meeting. Folks were not very mobile, so any personal worship would have been at home or in small groups. Once Solomon built the first temple, and later Herod the second temple, worship became very centralised. Synagogues were established in the larger towns, with the temple being the center of the major feasts.
After the Romans destroyed the temple in 90 A.D. and the Jews were scattered over the empire, worship reverted to a private or small group setting – the Jews worshipped in diaspora.
In the early days of Christianity worship took place in small groups – home church settings. The churches Paul founded on his journeys were established in peoples’ homes. It was only after 313 A.D., after Constantine had outlawed the persecution of Christianity, that church buildings came into being. These structures achieved their architectural pinnacle during the late Middle Ages, as we can still see today in the massive and impressive cathedrals in Europe and other early Christian lands. Worship during this period was very much centralized, and not only that – worship attendance was often mandatory! “Church” came to mean the building, not the people.
The Reformation brought about a change and early Protestant worship was again, in diaspora – small groups meeting in home churches. During the persecution periods such worship meetings were clandestine and by necessity kept small. Only later, once the violent persecution of the Protestant movement abated, did Protestant church buildings start to appear and worship again became centralized. “Church” came to mean the denomination and the building, not the people.
This trend lasted until the latter half of the previous century, as noted earlier.
What can we learn from the cycles of worship styles and routines?
There are a couple of lessons:
- Worship routines and practices have changed over the ages – but God did not. The Great Commission is the same today as it was in the beginning.
- The early church, once it became an organization rather than an organism, appears to have lost sight of the central element of the Great Commission. From the history of the Middle Ages, we know that the church leaders of the day very often used their position for self-aggrandisement and enrichment, instead of focusing on the basics. Unfortunately, this is not only ancient history but often contemporary news.
- Whenever there was a major shift in worship styles, away from centralised to smaller or private groupings, it was often associated with a spiritual renewal – and vice versa.
So - what about today?
We could – if we were negatively inclined, stop and lament with the writer of Ps 42. We should however, rather be wired with excited anticipation to see what God has in mind for us wherever we are, and especially for North Lonsdale United Church!!
God is at work in the world. He has not changed and never will. I believe that the last 20-odd years – and especially the last 3 – have indicated to us that we are behind the 8-ball as far as what God is doing today.
There is change in the air – in all the world. The Gospel is thriving!
There are over 600 million Christians in Africa today, and membership in Christian churches in Africa is growing faster than anywhere else in the world. A 2015 study estimates that there are close to 7 million Christians from a Muslim background in Asia - this despite an increase in persecution by radical Islamic groups that often result in torture and death for their Christian neighbours, as happened recently in Nigeria.
Why is the faith spreading there and, it would seem (and I stress that this is an impression – not reality), not here? If we break out of our comfort bubble, we will discover that Christ is indeed very active in North America. Smaller, non-traditional churches are thriving. In many cases, those who identify as “spiritual” but not “religious” may reject the traditional, established way of “doing church” but have not turned from Christ. This is particularly prevalent among young people.
Barbara and I had the privilege to attend a worship celebration with a church on Lower Lonsdale a couple of months ago. They had moved from their own facility to the Jubilee Auditorium so they could accommodate more people while keeping within the Covid occupancy restrictions. Within those limits, the auditorium was packed – with mostly young people. The music was more in line with a rock concert, both in energy and volume while about a quarter of the congregation were dancing in the aisles. The message was to the point, sound theology and was Bible-based. It was a 4-hour service!
I came away wit the deep impression that God is at work! I also realised that I had fallen into the trap of thinking that God is present only in places where people worship like I am used to worship – I had put God into a box. He showed me how wrong I was!
Here at North Lonsdale United Church we have moved from full-on in-person worship services before Covid to full-on digital worship via the internet in 2020. This was not our choice, and it was not easy. There were technical challenges, and there were (and are) perception challenges.
Now we have progressed from the full digital world to the hybrid world of in-person worship, combined with livestreaming. With the advent of livestreaming, we are welcoming many more people to worship than what the physical numbers indicate. Over the last number of Sundays an average of 70 people logged on to the livestream service – compared to 40 or 45 physically here. In addition to that – these people are not necessarily from around here. They could be anywhere in the city, the province, or the country. Or anywhere in the world, for that matter.
Worship styles have changed, indeed! I do not think we will ever go back to the old way of in-person services only.
In a way, God has used the restrictions caused by the pandemic to shake us – and the church in general – up to start thinking about a new way of doing things.
Change is in the air – God has a plan in this new reality of the post-Covid world.
Getting back to the two questions I threw out earlier:
To the first question: Has God changed His plan?
His plan has not changed. The end objective of God’s plan is the same today than what it was when Isaiah prophesied, about 2,700 years ago, that “every knee shall bow and every tongue swear to God” (Is. 45:23) and 2,000 years ago Paul referred to that when he wrote to the Philippians (Phil2:10,11)
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
That end objective has not changed.
To the second question: Have we failed in the great Commission?
Matthew recorded it in Matt 28:19 and 20:
19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
No – we have not failed – but I think we may have missed an important point. It is not our task to convert people to become members of this or that or the other denomination or church. Our task is to make disciples. The most effective way that we can influence others for Christ is to live as a disciple of Christ. If absolutely necessary, we may even use words to influence them!
The instructions on how to work with God to achieve this end objective have not changed either.
God is at work, and He is doing great things in all parts of the world. Also here in Canada, and in North Vancouver.
Our task – to make disciples – has not changed. The way that we, as the church in general and possibly we as individuals, go about it must change. The changes that were forced on us the last three years may be pointing the way for us. We should indeed look forward with a sense of excitement to what God has in mind for us, as individuals, as well as for the church body.
There is a question I suggest each one of us think about during the coming week before we talk about part 2 of this series next Sunday.
That question to ask yourself is:
In this new reality after Covid, what is my part in God’s plan?