This past Sunday, I had the privilege of preaching at the Sharon Community United Methodist Church, a vibrant and growing African-American congregation in Sandy Springs. Eight years ago, when its present pastor, Henry Bush, became pastor of the church, its church rolls had dwindled to just four active (white) members in a “transitional” community. The church was on the verge of shutting its doors permanently. Today there are more than 100 active members, most of whom had packed into the small sanctuary on Sunday. The church is running out of room—a good problem to have!
On one level, the opportunity to preach at Sharon was an “assignment” as part of the ordination process—yet another hurdle to clear, another obstacle between me and full ordination in June. The assignment was to preach in a different cultural context than the one with which we are most familiar. I sought the help of my district superintendent, who put me in touch with Pastor Bush.
Until I got there on Sunday morning, I felt uncomfortable with the assignment. I joked with friends that I have too much respect for black church tradition and preaching to want an African-American congregation to settle for me on a Sunday morning. But how much of that is only a smokescreen? How much do I secretly enjoy the privileges of being a member of the racial majority—which means, among other things, that most of the time and in most places I have the luxury of not feeling self-conscious because of my skin color?
Regardless, this was a new experience for me and a great blessing. The service started at 10:00 a.m. and ended at about ten till noon. Maybe this is obvious to point out, but it didn’t feel long. The service followed a traditional Methodist liturgy, but no liturgical element felt rushed.
By contrast, how often do I, as pastor, feel as if worship is a race against the clock? “O.K., people… We have to get all these things accomplished by 12:00 sharp!” I sometimes feel guilty when Vinebranch runs until 12:05! Why? Am I still that 6-year-old kid squirming in “big church,” checking off each item in the order of worship with the little golf pencil found in the pew rack?
I can justify my anxiety by saying that I want to be considerate of people’s time, but—good heavens!—we’re here to worship the Creator of the Universe! Do we have anything more important to do on Sunday morning? Although I’m a big believer in worship planning and orderly worship, maybe, ultimately, we don’t get to say how long that should last. We are communing with God and with one another. God has some word to speak to us through singing, praying, greeting, scripture-reading, preaching, and celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Time is fluid. It takes as long as it takes—not a minute more or less.
At least that’s how it felt at Sharon on Sunday. I would like to bring some of that spirit to Vinebranch. This experience reminded me (as if I should have needed reminding) that worship is not something that we—pastors, worship leaders, musicians, liturgists—impose on the congregation. It’s what all of us—both those of us standing onstage and those of us in the chairs—offer to God together.
The Greek roots of the word liturgy mean “work of the people.” It doesn’t belong to me as pastor; it belongs to all of us. And we offer it to God. God is in charge.