I’ll Take “Christianese” for $500, Alex

I am in a different church almost every weekend. Being in itinerant ministry for nearly 45 years I figure I have been in no less than 2500 different churches, participating in their worship services. I like to observe these services and imagine what a visitor, an outsider not familiar with church culture, might be experiencing. I like to try to view the service through their eyes.

On this Sunday, as I sat in the front pew waiting to take to the platform for my performance, I was treated to the litany of announcements coming from the pastor. There was the need for volunteers to help with the Children’s Ministry. The Hospitality Ministry was looking for someone to bring donuts to the service next Sunday. And the Parking Lot Ministry wanted to let us all know about the resurfacing of the parking lot happening next week, advising anyone coming to the Women’s Ministry luncheon on Saturday to park in the street.

So many ministries! When I was a kid growing up in the church, the word “ministry” was not thrown around so casually. If someone was in ministry, the assumption was that they were the pastor of a church or a missionary. The word “calling” was frequently used in connection to “ministry.” As in being called into the ministry. If you look up ministry in the dictionary you see this definition: “the office, duties, or work of a religious minister.” Clearly the word is used more in line with a vocation than with a simple act of service.

Today the word is used for almost any activity, service, group or project in the church. I am a little conflicted about the use of the word. I use it too, of course. I tell people I am in full-time ministry as a professional actor/storyteller. For me it is tied to the vocation and the calling that I have on my life. The main purpose of my work is to spread the Gospel.

The current use of the word seems to imply that anything you do as related to church life is a ministry. There is great emphasis in a number of churches on “finding your gift” and using that gift in service to the church. Acts of service can certainly be a ministry. Whatever your gift, talent, or ability, you can now have a ministry. I have no problem with that. But I wonder if using the word “ministry,” for many, is a way of letting ourselves off the hook. Does matching my abilities, talents and passions automatically make it a ministry?  If I like to play the drums and play in the worship band, is that a ministry?  If I like sports and play in the church softball league is that a ministry? If I pass the donut shop on my way to church and pick up a couple dozen donuts to take to the church coffee hour, is that my ministry? Perhaps the answers to these questions are more a matter of the heart of the individual doing the service.

On the other side of the coin, if we volunteer at a local school, bake a cake for a non-church related-fundraiser, or help the senior citizen next door with their yard work, is that a ministry? Because a lot of people do those things that don’t claim to be Christian or a part of a church.

I wonder what the church visitor is thinking. What does he or she think ministry means in the context of this worship service? Something to ponder as I take the stage to share my ministry. I look forward to being served by the donut ministry in the lobby after the service.

How to Sleep in a Bed

…and other things we take for granted

In the previous blog I talked about our new venture as hosts for an AirBnB apartment in our home. Although I am a well traveled person, I have rarely been the host to other travelers and am learning a few things as we go. I’m learning that things I take for granted are not neccesarily true for the people we are hosting…especially when it comes to people from other lands and cultures. 

We recently hosted some guests from another country and upon cleaning up after their week long stay we made some interesting observations. Wet towels were neatly folded and left on a chair in the bedroom, the trash cans were empty as they took their garbage with them.  None of the food items we left for them were touched, including fresh baked muffins. A spare toothbrush we left in a drawer was used and then put back in the package for the next guest, I presume. But the most interesting observation to us was that they apparently slept on top of the blanket instead of between the sheets, and used the duvet for their cover. 

Ah, the things we take for granted. Doesn’t everybody sleep in a bed the same way I do? Between the sheets not on top of them, right?

I often stop and think about the things we take for granted in other aspects of our lives, especially when it comes to how we do church. I’m a “guest” in a different church almost every week, and often in churches with many differing styles of worship. I like to ponder what is going on in the minds of people who might be visiting and are unaccustomed to attending church. We in the church, I think, take so many things for granted. Consider these as if you had never visited a church before:

  • The worship leader starts a song, and without being prompted, people stand with arms raised and sing along. 
  • The offering is received with little or no explanation.
  • People come to the altar to pray during a worship song.
  • The “turn and greet the people next to you” moment.
  • The spontaneous “Amen” or “Hallelujah” from members of the congregation.
  • Communion is received—in so many different ways. Passed in the pew or walking down the aisle and kneeling at the altar. Again, often without explanation.
  • Announcements about activities that carry the assumption that people will know what it is with no explanation (Shepherding Group, Celebrate Recovery, MOPs, etc). 

You get the idea. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with any of those things. But I do think there is a lot taken for granted in the average church service. For a time the church was extra sensitive to this with the introduction of the “seeker sensitive” worship service. While criticized by many, I do think it is worth applying that filter to the everyday life of the average church, especially when it comes to worship and the inculusion of guests. 

A few years ago I created a video series called “There Goes Bob.” The series was inspired by the thought that more people would attend church if invited by a friend. In the 4th and final episode the invitee shares some of his observations about the church service he attends. I think it applies to this topic. Watch and see: 


Check out the entire There Goes Bob Series in our store.

I changed a few things in my checkin procedure for our next AirBnB guests, also from another country. While showing them how to operate the control for a Sleep Number Bed, I casually mention “Oh, and in our western culture we sleep between the sheets” as I show them where the covers get pulled back.

I don’t want to take anything for granted. 

If you are traveling to Salem, we would be delighted to have you consider our Sunnyslope Retreat apartment! Check it out!

The Seven Last Words of the Church

In the 70’s and 80’s I toured with a theater ministry based in Southern California. The director often quipped that the seven last words of the church were, “we never tried it that way before.”

(At the time I thought it was his original thought but have since learned that it is actually the title of a book published in 1973: The Seven Last Words of the Church or “We never tried it that way before” by Ralph Neighbour (no relation) published 1973.)

The director would bring this up when we would lament about churches that were reluctant to schedule us because it was something new, different, or foreign to the way they normally did things. This seemed to be especially true of churches that had a more liturgical format.

A lot has changed in church culture since 1973. For a time it seemed the way to go was to intentionally do things differently. Indeed, if I use the church I attended as a youth as an example, I am sure many of the “saints” would be rolling in their graves at what constitutes a worship service in today’s culture. The changes in dress, music, and a more casual attitude would, I’m sure, rock their world.

Having been in the middle of it, I experienced the gradual embrace of the dramatic arts as a part of worship, as more and more churches tried “new things.” The rise of such churches as Willow Creek spawned a movement of churches from all denominations embracing dramatic arts as an integral part of worship.

And then things changed again. Current trends reject anything that smacks of “performance” and demands that what comes from the platform be “real and authentic” (as if they can’t co-exist it seems). I am hearing again “we never tried it that way before” or a similar phrase which I think means the same thing, “what you do wouldn’t fit in here.”

Once you do something new that works a couple of times it can easily become the tradition. Being a non-traditional church establishes new traditions that can be just as entrenched and inflexible as the old traditions.

This week I heard from a pastor who said “we aren’t scheduling any productions at this time.”

I wanted to explain that it is not a “production” in the sense of sets, lights, and sound. It is simply me telling a story in place of a sermon. But I don’t think he would have listened.

Bottom line for him and so many others, “we never tried it that way before.”

Then the other day we had contact from a young pastor who was thrilled about bringing our ministry to his church. He had never heard of doing drama as a sermon before.

Everything old is new again.

Is it Live or…

Remember the old commercial with the slogan “Is it Live or is it Memorex?” The conclusion that Memorex wanted you to draw was that quality of the recording would be so good that you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. That you would prefer the recorded music to a live performance.

Technology has come a long way since that commercial (1972). If we are talking about sound quality alone, a professional recording would be hard to match in a live performance these days.

As a professional performer with a focus on ministry these last 40 plus years, I have seen the tides change on the “live vs. recorded” question, especially in the area of drama. I have written about it a few times, most notably here. For the church today, the consensus seems to be that live performance is “out,” video is “in.” And why not? Quality video is easy to obtain and relatively inexpensive. You don’t have to worry about an actor forgetting lines, and you don’t have to move anything on the platform to accommodate a living room setting (sofa, coffee table, and lamp) for a scene that only lasts 5 minutes. It is rare to find a church today that does not use video in some form at their church services every week.

And yet I hear from people in churches all the time that they miss live performance. So I decided to conduct an informal poll on Facebook. I wanted to see if the perception were true that, due to cultural shifts, more people would prefer video to live performance. I asked this question:

Informal poll for my church-going friends:

A pastor has decided he wants to launch his next sermon series with a powerful 5-minute dramatic scene. He has the option of having two professional actors perform the scene live, or those same two actors perform the scene on video. Both options will be professional in every way. Would you prefer the “live” option or the “video” option?

(along with your answer would you give your age group with a simple: teens, 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s?) Additional comments are welcome.”

There was great participation, with over 135 people responding to the question on 3 different FB sites in 24 hours.

Here are the results:

  • Prefer Live: 77%
  • Prefer Video: 17%
  • It Depends or 50/50: 6%
  • 75% of responses were people between the ages of 50-70.
  • 25% of those in the age 60’s category preferred video.
  • Of the 31 responses in the age of 40 or younger, 80% preferred live to video.

I know this not scientific. There is a bias in that most responders were in an age bracket closer to mine (between 50-70). It would be interesting to see how a mostly millennial sampling would have responded. And because of my connections in the arts, there are more responses from people in the performing arts than you might find in a more random poll. One responder questioned if the responses favored “live” over “video” because I, a theater person, was asking the question, rather than a person who does video for a living asking the question. Fair question and I am sure the results were skewed some because of that, but I don’t think that the vast majority were answering the question to satisfy the poller.

Note that there are also several pastors responding to the poll. One of the more interesting responses from a pastor was this:

Live would be more impacting, BUT, as a pastor I would have to consider the actors afterwards. Will the focus be on them and their performance? Would the video allow the people to more easily integrate it into my message?”

The implication being that the live performance might “upstage” the sermon. I have long suspected that a pastor might feel that way, but had never heard someone actually verbalize it.

There were a few other surprises. There were some theater people that I would have suspected would choose “live” who actually preferred “video.”

Many of those who chose video over live cited more practical reasons dealing with “easier for more people so see and hear in a large auditorium” as opposed to the artistic impact on the audience. And there were many who, rightly so, said it would all depend on the actual piece; that some pieces would translate better on video than live.

I am frankly surprised at the results. I would have expected video to come out ahead, given the shift in how often it is used in the church. But maybe the overuse of video has a lot to do with these responses.

My take-away is that the shift away from live performance in so many churches today does not reflect the preference of the people in the audience. Many have suggested that this is a pendulum swing and that live performance will once again come back.  Me, I’m not so sure.

What do you think?

In the meantime, let me know if I can come to you “live.” No Memorex, I promise!

My First Communion

I often tell people I grew up in the church. It’s kind of a foreign concept in today’s culture…especially church culture. A church like the church of my youth is not as common today.

To “grow up in the church” meant you were either a PK (preacher’s kid) or one of the very committed that were at the church every time the doors were open. My family was committed. For me that usually meant at least 3 or more times a week: Sunday morning and evening services, Wednesday prayer meeting, and often a youth group function somewhere every other weekend. If you are reading this and thinking, “that sounds kinda Baptist” you would be correct.

Growing up in the church, like growing up anywhere, means you get used to routines that rarely change. Routines you take for granted. Routines that get so familiar you do them without really thinking too much about the meaning behind them. For me, one of those routines was Communion, or as we called it in our church, The Lord’s Supper (this was confusing to me as a kid because supper was an evening meal and we rarely did The Lord’s Supper at night).

In our church, as it is in many churches today, The Lord’s Supper consisted of crumbled up saltine crackers served on a metal tray and a half ounce of grape juice served in clear plastic serving cups.  The pastor would recite the story of the first Lord’s Supper from the Bible and we would eat the cracker crumb and drink the juice at the appropriate times. It was a somber service in which we were to make sure we were “right with God” before partaking.

In movies I would see scenes of more liturgical churches taking Communion in various different ways, but they were obviously not the same ilk as the church of my youth, so I didn’t give it too much consideration.

Fast forward my life.

I joined a theater company that toured the country and did much of their work performing faith-based plays in churches of all denominations. It was a religious culture-shocking experience for me. I was on tour with people who professed to be Christian and many of them not the slightest bit like the Christians I had come to know in the church of my youth. I was now expected to perform plays about my faith in all kinds of churches, many of them also not the slightest bit like the church of my youth. It was in this environment that I experienced what I have come to call “My First Communion.”

It was in a church in Northern California. The service was much more liturgical than what I had experienced in the past. The pastor wore a robe. Kids called acolytes processed and lit candles. There were a lot of responsive readings with the congregation…all very unlike the church of my youth.

Then came time for Communion. I watched and quickly adapted to what the others were doing. We lined up and walked the aisle to the front of the church, knelt at the altar and waited with our hands cupped in front of us, my eyes frantically scanning right and left to make sure I was doing this right.

The pastor stopped in front of each person, spoke softly to them, and gave them what looked like a white round plastic disc, which the person ate. He the offered the cup, (actually a chalice) so each person could drink from it. (My first reaction to this way of serving the cup was “yuck.” I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to put my mouth were all these other people had just placed theirs.)

Finally it was my turn. The pastor handed me the plastic thing. Looked me right in the eye and said, “The body or Christ, Chuck, broken for you.”

Uh…wow…I was taken aback. He just said my name, I don’t remember his. I ate the plastic thing.

Then he held forward the cup and again, looking me in the eye, said, “The blood of Christ, Chuck, shed for you.”

In that moment, I was overwhelmed with emotion (and it had nothing to do with the fact that what was in the cup didn’t taste at all like grape juice). Suddenly this Communion just became transformative. No one had ever said my name during The Lord’s Supper. Oh I had heard that Jesus died on the cross for my sins, that he shed his blood for me…heard that many times. I knew it in my head. But for some reason hearing it like this, spoken directly to me in the context of this Communion service…well, it all became very real…very personal…it hit me in the heart. For the first time it really sunk in that He did it for ME!

Sometimes we need to hear things differently for the message to sink in, to penetrate our hearts. For me, this was one of those times.

The Body of Christ, The Blood of Christ…for ME!

On another note, this week I learned that a church board decided not to invite me to their church. I share about Jesus through storytelling and acting. This board didn’t think that I what I did would be appropriate for a church worship service.

It was something different, that they had never done before.

The Greatest Story Of All

I recently had the pleasure to meet Grant Norsworthy at a gathering of artists in Nashville. Grant is a musician, speaker and music/worship mentor (see info box below). We chatted over lunch about work and ministry and I was impressed with what Grant had to say about story and the bigger picture when it comes to worship. I invited him to write this Guest Blog. (Note: Grant is Australian so read this with the proper accent for the best effect!)


J.R.R. Tolkien is best known as the author of two GREAT stories: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Both stories are incredibly powerful and wildly popular. I wish I could say that I’ve read both numerous times, but I can’t. Like most people (I guess), I had to settle for the Peter Jackson directed screen adaptations.

I’m a fan of both stories, but I do find The Lord of the Rings to be far more engaging. What about you? If you’re like me and prefer The Lord of the Rings, we are not alone! The Hobbit has sold about 100 million copies, while The Lord of the Rings has sold in excess of 150 million. The Lord of the Rings movies grossed over $10 billion at the box office, while The Hobbit trilogy gathered less than $3 billion. All impressive numbers, but the difference is huge.

Both of these incredible stories – like any good story – describe a conflict and its resolution: An obstacle that must be, and is overcome. But while The Hobbit is about some greedy dwarves and how they get their treasure back from a dragon, The Lord of the Rings depicts the incarnation of absolute evil in Dark Lord Sauron and the war fought by the good beings whom he would seek to destroy and rule over. It’s the supreme struggle between good and evil! What could be more compelling than that?

Generally speaking with stories, the bigger and more overwhelming the obstacle, the sweeter triumph over that obstacle tastes. The more difficult the conflict, the more satisfying the resolution. Stories with BIG conflict and a correspondingly BIG resolution will make a BIG impact. They engage us like nothing else can.

The story of a person from an uneducated, deprived background earning a Ph.D. is more compelling than a 5th grader moving from a B to an A in mathematics. The story of escape from a Nazi concentration camp is more compelling than escape from a large, wet, brown paper bag.

The conflict that is resolved is bigger in The Lord of the Rings than in The Hobbit. That’s why it connects more deeply and more widely. But, to me, there’s a story far more important and powerful than even The Lord of the Rings!

I believe the greatest and most important story of all is of God and his created human beings – you and me – all of us. It’s the story described in The Bible. It’s the ultimate struggle of God’s goodness versus the evil of Satan – the devil. And it’s not just some made up story! You and I are characters  in this epic, real-life, unfinished story.

In perhaps its simplest “elevator pitch” version, this great story’s central theme is worship. The plot? Having been rejected by His own creation in the Garden, God summons his beloved people to return to Him – to worship Him above anything else. He knows this is the only way that people will be able to truly live as we were created to live.

As God spoke through the first of His Ten Commandments:

“You shall have no other gods before me.”
Exodus 20:3

But forces of evil stand in defiance against God and use all manner of sinister deception, power and influence to entice people to worship anything but God.

The story has always been about worship: The worship of God or the worship of something – anything – else. From the dawn of time to this very moment, there has always been a monumental conflict for humankind between the worship of God or Satan’s counterfeit, idol-gods.

But where’s the conflict and resolution in the Christian “worship” of today? Where’s the irrepressible attraction of the greatest story if “worship” becomes something that happens only once a week inside a church building designated by very specific, semi-passive activities?

With the imperative attraction of conflict and resolution removed from what we call “worship”, is it any wonder that many people turn away – leave The Church –  or perhaps sit inactive and passive in a pew – unengaged, unmoved and uninspired?

And so, let’s expand our view of worship. Let’s move more deeply into the overwhelming, monumental conflict that is raging over our worship.

As we should have learned in school, the elements of story are:

• Setting

• Characters

• Plot

• Conflict

• Resolution

The setting of worship is not just inside a church building. The war rages anywhere and everywhere we find ourselves.

We are all characters in this great story – not just the people with microphones on the platform, or in the stories we hear from The Bible.

The plot of worship is so much more than what happens during that hour or two on a Sunday  morning. The plot is deep and wide and rich and woven through every facet of our lives.

And there is conflict. And there will be resolution to this epic, life and death – eternal life and eternal death – struggle of worship.

Therefore brothers, in view of God’s great mercy, offer yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, and let that be your spiritual act of worship.
Romans 12:1

Grant Norsworthy has spoken and sung in 5 continents & most US States at church services, conferences, colleges, youth events and more. He’s a Grammy® nominated & Dove Award winning musician. and a former member of Sonicflood & Paul Colman Trio. With More Than Music Mentor, Grant offers instruction to church leaders, musicians & techies via online resources and on-site workshops. You can connect with Grant at: grantnorsworthy.com

 

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