Long-time readers of my blog know of my deep friendship with leaders and members of University Bible Fellowship. In July of this year I spoke to a regional UBF conference at James Madison University in Virginia. My host, and dear friend, was Dr. Joe Schafer, the leader of the UBF ministry at Penn State University where he is a professor (see photo with me at left). Joe has been reading, and commenting, on my blogs for a long time so regular readers will recognize his name. When Joe invited me to speak on worship at this gathering I jumped at the opportunity because of our friendship (one of my highest values is friendship) and because of the warm reception I have received from UBF folks in Chicago. After this event in July I asked Joe to write to my board and tell them about the time we shared. With his permission I now share some of that letter with you my blog friends. There is so much here to rejoice in and to take serious note of for many Christians so I think reading Joe’s thoughtful letter is profitable. Here is what he wrote about the conference itself:
The quality of our worship has been a concern in UBF. Our local chapters have been making small changes here and there. But those changes have been cultural rather than theological. Becoming less formal in appearance and dress. Incorporating contemporary praise music in addition to traditional hymns. Trying to make the Bible messages seem less dry and more relevant to newcomers and young people. Some of these changes were helpful. However, they did not seem to solve the fundamental problem. Becoming more seeker-friendly was not the answer. Going casual was not the answer. We needed to become more holy, not less so. We could not neglect worship for the sake of evangelism. I felt that something had to change in my ministry here at Penn State, but I didn’t know what. I was hoping that, through your visit, we could learn something about worship that would really help our local UBF chapters to improve our Sunday worship services to bring greater glory to God.
What happened at the conference? Our conference began on Thursday night and ended on Sunday at noon. On Thursday, Chris Kelly delivered a message on the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:1-4). Then one of our students, Carmen (Rocky) Allinger from Shippensburg, gave a short presentation on what she had learned about prayer from two books: Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Praying With the Church by Scot McKnight. She emphasized several points which to our members seemed new: (a) Most Christians learn to pray by imitating others in their church. This tendency is not bad. But our best role model is Jesus himself. (b) Christian prayer need not be extemporaneous; using prayers composed by others can be helpful. Believers have done this for millennia. Jesus did it as well. (c) Praying the Psalms is especially helpful because this is the prayer book of Jesus. If the words of a particular Psalm do not seem meaningful or applicable to us at this moment, so what? They will be appropriate to us in the future. And they may be meaningful right now to other members of the Body of Christ, so we should be willing to pray for their sake. (d) Working prayer into our daily lives by any means possible (e.g., fixed-hour prayers) can transform one’s life.
Rocky’s presentation helped us to open our eyes to see that there is much more to prayer than what we had previously assumed. At the end of the evening, we broke up into small groups to practice praying as Jesus taught us. We tried to de-emphasize the UBF-centric aspects of our prayer to focus on the main topic that Jesus gave: “Your kingdom come.” This was a seemingly small step. It was not an earth-shattering change. However, many began to notice that something was truly different. I could see that there will be beneficial and profound effects in our ministry over the long term if we continually and intentionally pray as Jesus taught us with attention focused on the kingdom of God.
The second big difference in our conference came on Friday evening when we gathered to hear you speak on Kingdom Worship (Revelation 5). Although your message was about 50% longer than a typical UBF message, no one was restless. We listened intently to what you said, and it truly made us think. Many of us began to realize how indispensable worship is in the life of the Church. One of our younger members, Susan Hong, summarized the message as follows:
His message on Revelation 5:1-14 was a powerful message that gave praise and honor to Jesus, the Lamb of God who sits on the throne of heaven. Dr. Armstrong’s prayer for the church is unity, and it is through the collective worship of God’s people that our corporate oneness is realized on earth. When the early Christian church faced problems, they worshiped God together. The message strongly exhorted us to come together in Christ-centered worship, as worshipers in spirit and truth, praising God as a kingdom of priests who will one day reign with Him. “This is our destiny,” Dr. Armstrong said, “and it is as secure as the Lamb on the throne.”
During the message and the subsequent Q&A period, you touched on many issues that are very salient to us. The points that we heard, loudly and clearly, were: (a) Worship is vital. We are going to be worshiping at the throne for all eternity, so we ought to start now. (b) Expository Bible preaching in a worship service needs to have solid intellectual and theological content. But the goal is not to convey information or even to teach relevant life lessons. Its deepest purpose is to magnify the Trinity and draw the listeners close to God. (c) We ought to develop a theology of worship, something which is lacking in many evangelical churches. (d) The tendency of modern churches to lighten their worship to make newcomers feel comfortable is not wise. Outreach to non-believers is necessary, but it should not shape the entire character of the worship service. There is a real sense in which non-believers cannot worship, nor should we expect them to. (e) Where worship is not taken seriously, fellowship loses its spiritual dimension and the Christian community suffers.
After the Q&A session, we went into an extended period of praise and worship led by a team from our ministry that included both senior and younger members. This was something new. For a long time now, we have been including contemporary praise music before our meetings and worship services. But I now realize that we regarded praise and worship as a way to engage younger people and to prepare our hearts to receive the message, which was the true centerpiece and focus of the service. In other words, praise and worship were seen as a vehicle for the ministry of the word. This time, we included praise and worship purely for its own sake, to honor and praise God. Some members were apprehensive, thinking that it might become concert-like and emotion-driven with too little content. But our praise and worship team did a wonderful job of putting together a program that combined old and new elements of prayer, music, praise and scripture in forms that were culturally appropriate for our group. Our members did not feel uncomfortable at all. They loved it. And they were deeply moved. They sensed that they had come into the presence of God. Many were weeping as they prayed and sang.
Tomorrow: More reflections on
this event from Dr. Schafer and some resources that might be useful to you as a reader.