Sunday 29th July – 9am Worship
Sermon Series: Passionate Worship
Bible Reading: Amos 5:21-24
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain
Let me tell you about something that you probably don’t know. When I was about 17, I and 4 of my close friends, started up a ministry group to work alongside little country churches to reach out to their communities. It last for about 18 months and we did probably 20 events during that time. We even had a name. We called ourselves “Josiah’s Ministries” – named after the Old Testament character, Josiah. (We even had a song … but I won’t go there)
Do you know the story of Josiah? It can be found in 2 Chronicles 34 & 35. Josiah was one of the kings of Israel in the time of the Kings. He was only 8 years old when he became king and had the naivety of youth. He noticed that the worship at the temple was a bit flat, that people didn’t really get into the worship and many people were not coming at all. (Sounds like some churches in modern society) Do you know what Josiah’s answer was to this flat worship? “Let’s renovate the temple!” If the temple looks modern and pretty then people will come back. (Also sounds like some modern day churches).
However in the renovation process, the workers find the old scrolls containing the stories of God and the law. When Josiah read them he realised that they had lost what was most important in worship – their relationship with the almighty God – and went about bringing the people back to a simpler yet God focused worship.
It was similar in the time of Amos which we heard in our bible reading … the people of Israel through that if they went through the motions, if they did the rituals, preformed the sacrifices, observed the special days then God would be happy but God wasn’t.
They had forgotten that worship is about God – and that true worship is lived out in their actions of justice righteousness and mercy.
I guess that is part of what this worship series on “Passionate worship” is about … to help us reflect on our own worship, as individuals and as a church, and ponder how we are going…
Are we a bit like the church during Amos’ time – just going through the motions and missing the connection with God? Or maybe we are like the people of Josiah’s time, where worship had become so flat or helpful that people are stopping coming to worship regularly?
There is a wealth of articles and opinions from different people and Christians leaders trying to get to terms with what is happening in the modern church. Some people are predicting that the “days of the church are coming to an end”. I don’t think that is true – but the numbers are not good.
Just in the Uniting Church, the number of congregations have decreased by 31 percent in the last 15 years. The number of attenders have dropped by 40% and their frequency of attending has also dropped. Almost half of Uniting Churches have between 20 and 49 people attending worship and ¼ has less than 20. (That means we are in the top 25% of UCA’s). Only 20% of UCA’s have youth groups and a 2 years ago I was stunned to find out that only 7 NSW Uniting Churches have youth groups which serve 50+ kids/youth per week.
Stunning numbers aren’t they.
And it is not just the Uniting Church. Nearly every other Australian denomination is the same. (Except for some Pentecostal churches and Sydney Anglican which both had periods of growth but are now both experiencing decline like everyone else – but not quite as fast).
And even with the people who are committed to a church or attending worship, the regularly has decreased. We have gone from people attending every week, to three out of four Sundays to now an average church member attends fortnightly.
What do we do with these numbers? What is causing worship attendee numbers to be declining so much? Why are people opting out of worship? I found one interesting article this week that gave 10 reasons why people are not attending worship as regularly.
- Greater Affluence – Money gives people options.
- Higher focus on kid’s activities (Sunday Sport)
- People are traveling more
- Blended and single families
- Online options such as podcasts and livestreaming
- The cultural disappearance of guilt
- Self-directed spirituality
- Failure to see a direct benefit
- Sick of churches valuing attendance over engagement
- A Massive cultural shift re: Spirituality vs initialised church
Have a look at the list and see which ones you agree with. I will give you 90 seconds and if you finish early talk to the people around you and come up with the 2 or 3 you think are most impacting here at Turramurra.
One of the previous NSW moderators, Rev Dr Brian Brown, took a slightly different tack when he suggested four reasons for the decline in worship numbers – particularly in the UCA.
- Many church members are elderly and … to put it sensitively … many have got to the point where they can’t come to worship anymore as they are not mobile or dead.
- We now live in a society that has many choices of what people can do on a Sunday and people are excising that choice. It is not that they don’t want to come to church, but rather they are choosing Sunday sport or shopping, or a sleep in or (this is the one I hear a lot) family time over church. (Just as aside … We need to accept that varying patterns of attendance is not a reflection on faith and spiritual growth)
- The way we do church is no longer working for some people. As Brian says “society is losing interest in sitting in straight rows and listening to one person talking to them”. We have got used to worship being a certain way and we find it helpful and good … but many people in society and many the next generation is struggling with it.
- Finally, Brian observed that some people have left the church over what the church believes and teaches. And this works from both ends of the theological spectrum. Sometimes people leave because they feel that the teaching or practices of the church are moving away from some of the fundamental doctrines of the church or bible … and others have left because they just are wrestling with some of the traditional teachings of the church … and feel that if they ask questions they are judged or shamed or excluded..
Well, this hasn’t been a very encouraging sermon so far has it. All I have said is that worship attendance numbers are declining and many people are opting out or attending less because worship is not just working for them.
But I do believe there is hope. This is actually a hopeful sermon – as long as we – the church as a whole – recognises that there has been a seismic shift in the way that people approach Sunday worship and “going through the motions” is no longer an option.
Here are my 4 hints, or insights that I have nicked from other people – on how we make sure that our corporate worship is strong and relevant moving into the future:
- Our Worship Gatherings must be REAL and ENGAGING – we can’t just go through the motions. This is what God was frustrated about in our Bible Reading from Amos.
Those words are confronting – the Almighty God tells the people in Amos’ time that their worship stank, that he hated their pretence and wanted them to stop the songs. Why? Because they were going through the motions. God doesn’t want empty praise … God wants our worship to be reflected in all we say and do … WORSHIP needs to be real. Let justice and righteousness flow like rivers.
A word that I keep coming back to in “Engaging”. When we gather for Worship has to connect with the rest of our lives. If it doesn’t then people will stop coming. People don’t attend worship out of duty anymore. They come because worship is helpful in their lives and faith.
I actually think we do this OK here at TUC – and part of that is that we provide space for questions and doubts and wrestling with issues. We try not to just give simplistic teaching but acknowledge the complexity of faith and life.
So … worship gathering must be REAL and ENGAGING. Going through the motions is no longer an option.
- People are looking for connection – so things like welcome, friendship, food, relationships and opportunities to make a difference are probably more important than the quality of the songs and sermon.
As someone who wants to believe that you only come to Sunday worship to hear my sermons … this is a hard point to admit … but it is true. Ken Callahan (who wrote heaps of leadership books about 20 years ago) says that the way people feel loved and connected affects their experience of the rest of the service. If a person feels loved, welcomed, connected – they will score average sermon an 8/10. If they feel unloved, not welcomed and disconnected, they will score an excellent sermon a 5 or 6/10. That is scary. That means I can produce 10/10 sermons week after week – but it comes down to the welcome, connection and feeling of love that people get from you guys that makes a bigger difference – and will encourage people to come back.
One of my old mentors summed it up in an even more succinct way. He said that in his 50 years of ministry experience there was one single reason that he has seen for people coming to church regularly … one thing more than any other that keeps them coming back week after week … that they have a friend who is also comes to worship.
Are you hearing the importance of friendship and welcome and showing love to each other? Suddenly morning tea becomes a critical aspect of Sunday worship. You drawing alongside someone, making friends, inviting them out for coffee or lunch outside Sunday worship … that makes the biggest difference in maintaining church growth and life.
- We might to be open to explore some Alternative Approaches to Worship. I am not suggesting replacing our normal worship services with something alternative – but rather maybe some other worship gatherings that might meet the needs of people for whom our regular services don’t work as well. For example,
- Faith on the Rocks
- Messy Church
- House Worship / Worship in the park
- Walking Worship
- Worship connected to justice issues or service opportunities
- And lastly … as I mentioned last week – we need to keep Jesus at the heart of worship. If we lose this focus, then worship is going to be effective for anyone …. And people will stop coming. If we lose our focus on Jesus, I will stop coming!
I will finish with a story. I am not sure if you have heard the story behind the song “heart of worship”? Mat Redman was on the music team at SoulSurvivor church in England in the late 90’s. The Pastor sensed that their worship gatherings were going flat spiritually, that the congregation was going through the motions, and worship wasn’t flowing from the heart like true Christian worship must.
“There was a dynamic missing,” says Redman, “so the pastor did a pretty brave thing. He decided to get rid of the sound system and band for a season.” Can you imagine it – no music at all. “Instead”, Matt explained, “we had more periods of silence or if we did sing, it with just our voices. We needed to refocus.”
After three months they brought the band back again and the first song they sang was the song that Matt Redman had written out of the experience…
I’ll bring You more than a song
For a song in itself
Is not what You have required
You search much deeper within
Through the way things appear
You’re looking into my heart
I’m coming back to the heart of worship
And it’s all about You, it’s all about You, Jesus
Yes we are moving into interesting times when the usual ways we have been doing corporate worship as a church don’t seem to be as effective as they used to be – and maybe we might need to trying some different ways – but if we keep Jesus at the heart of worship then there will also be a depth, a significance.
Let’s sing this song now as we move into our offering and prayers.