At Bloom, we take “how” we gather pretty seriously. From the song selection to the readings of Scripture to the little “call and response” items to the Lord’s Table to the closing benediction… all of it is on purpose.
For those new to the Bloom universe, all of this may seem somewhat curious and unusual, and probably unexpected. (We’re a newer/younger church… don’t such churches usually work pretty hard to “up” the entertainment value of their services in order to draw more people in? I’m sure people wonder that.) Though there’s nothing rigid and rote to our gatherings, they certainly are more “liturgical” than your average evangelical church gathering. But why? Why the ritual? Why does it matter?
In Exodus 12, on the verge of making their dramatic exit from Egypt, the Lord gives Moses specific instructions on how it’s all gonna “go down.” Do this and this, like this, in exactly this way, making sure to do this, this, and that, so that this, that and the other thing won’t happen to you. And then he adds, “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD—a lasting ordinance,” (v 14) and proceeds to given even more explicit instructions on how in future generations this festival should be celebrated.
Wait… we’re supposed to KEEP DOING this amazingly complex thing? AFTER we’ve left Egypt? AFTER we arrive in the Land? AFTER we’re all settled and secure? Why can’t we just move on to bigger and better things?
The answer of course is that Yahweh intended his people, long after they had left Egypt, to remember who and Whose they are… to remember where they came from, why they were delivered, who delivered them, and what they were delivered for. For Israel to maintain its freedom, faithfulness, and identity as the Exodus people, it would need to constantly, through symbol, song, story, and ritual, rehearse and re-cultivate itself into the remembrance of Yahweh’s mighty deeds. To stay faithful in the future, it would need to remember the past.
In precisely the same way, the early Christians, when they gathered, through symbol, song, story and ritual, rehearsed and re-cultivated themselves into the Story of how God had brought salvation history to a climax in the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. To gather together – daily, weekly, monthly, yearly – enacting the Story again with Bread and Wine, taking the words on their lips, “And on the night that he was betrayed…” they would remember who and Whose they were. Apart from these rituals and remembrances, faithfulness would be tough to come by.
Worship, as we see it, is the soil out of which a robust life of faith and devotion springs. And when the soil is leached of its essential nutrients, living faithfully into our identity as Jesus’ people will be a tall order.
Years ago I visited a church that was becoming increasingly popular in the city where I was working. Our staff went to see firsthand the phenomenon. When we arrived, the lobby was filled with a mob of people, many of whom were standing around the flatscreen TVs in the lobby watching a band play a cover of The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony”. When I wandered over, I realized that the band was the worship band, playing this cover before the “experience” (they didn’t call it a worship gathering) began at 6:00. When the doors opened for said “experience”, amid smoke and intelligent lighting, the band seamlessly transitioned into some Wow Worship Top 20 hit, and played for approximately 18 minutes before a really cool looking guy got up and did announcements. The message for the day was delivered by a man preaching on a screen from another state, and his message was about how to manage your money. When the 30 minute message was over, naturally, there was an alter call, to which a handful of folks responded. After a few more announcements, we were dismissed.
I understand the reasons why churches put on services like this – they want to make their church gathering accessible to the average non-churchgoer so that people will be encouraged to bring their friends – but honestly, I felt sad when I left. That’s leached soil. It’s a B-grade Coldplay concert with a Tony Robbins talk and some vaguely Christian elements mashed together with an alter call. And it does not provide the essential nutrients for a deep and robust life of faithfulness. People will starve.
We think worship can and should be better, and that we can and must DO better than that when we gather. And so we seek to “enrich” the soil of our worship gatherings with nutrients that will provide the material out of which an explosive life of love and faithfulness can grow. We seek to create gatherings in which, through story, song, and ritual, the folks who come hear the gospel proclaimed over them, the kingdom announced to them, again and again and again, so that they can remember who and Whose they are… they are the beloved, the called, the chosen, the forgiven, the redeemed, the once-for-all-purchased… they are sons and daughters of the living God, grafted into the family of God, promised a redeemed existence in the new heavens and the new earth… they are the new-exodus people, a kingdom of priests, salt, light, yeast, ambassadors, bringers of the glad tidings of peace and salvation to the wider, watching world… the tasters of the Living Bread and the ones through whom that Living Bread will be presented to the world.
This is why, in our staff and leadership meetings, when we talk about what we’re doing in the Bloom universe, we don’t ask questions like, “How can we make our gatherings cooler?” “Cool” is not a theological category, and a “cool” gathering will likely form us in all the wrong ways. We don’t need cool. We need an ushering into the deepest recesses of holiness. We need be brought back again and again to the Living Word and the Cross, and to the Table where again we can renew our identity as the gladly obedient people of God. And so we fashion gatherings rich in remembrance… rich in the kind of good, deep, spiritual “work” (liturgy literally means “the work of the people) that can help us become all that God intends us to be.
And in reality, there’s a good chance that all of this will be deeply appealing to the unbelieving-but-very-much-interested world. About a month ago, after finishing up the training for our new house church leaders, one of them asked, “So… all this stuff that you do in house church is very liturgical… do you ever worry that when folks outside of faith come to these gatherings, they’re going to be scared off?” Almost before I could answer, one of the other couples, who have been with us now for over year, responded:
Before we moved here, the church we attended back home was very “seeker sensitive.” Cool music, “relevant” messages, etc. And all of it in an attempt to appeal to your average pagan. So we occasionally brought our non-Christian friends, but we were always a bit embarrassed. Since moving here and coming to Bloom, we’ve brought tons of our friends from school, and have not for one second felt embarrassed or awkward. Something about how “Christian” this gathering is, how “other” it is, and how comfortable it is with that seems to put the people we bring at ease.
Bam. Paydirt. Right there.
We’re not embarrassed about how “Christian” our gatherings are (as if we should be ashamed of it). Instead, we wear it on our sleeves, trusting that if folks feel drawn to Christianity and they wind up in our gathering, they’ll have the opportunity to suck down a hearty draught of what it means to be part of the family shaped by the reality of And on the night that He was betrayed…