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Friday, April 17, 2020

Participation

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.
-1 Corinthians 10:14-17 (NIV)

Wes McAdams posted this on his blog, Radically Christian, this week: Five Tips for Participating in Online Worship. Here are his five. His comments on each are worth reading: 

1. Don’t Be a Spectator, Be a Participant
2. Don’t Criticize or Compare
3. Limit Distractions
4. Take Notes
5. Discuss Key Takeaways


     I thought McAdams' thoughts were obviously very timely; many Christians, probably most, will be participating in some sort of online worship this Sunday. For some, it'll be their preacher or main teacher sitting in front of a computer. For some, it'll be a multi-camera blockbuster shot with professional equipment. For most, it'll be something in between. The majority of us, though, will have the experience of picking up a tablet, phone, or computer and settling in for a prerecorded or live-streamed worship service. 
     Every week since most churches suspended Sunday gatherings at their buildings, I've had conversations with church leaders about that very thing. We ask each other how we're doing it. We share things we've learned. Some of us have maybe even compared our final products. I think most every church leader I know -- especially those whose churches haven't already been live-streaming -- is trying to learn on the fly how to do online worship.
     There are how-to videos available. (I saw one where the video went to black for about 3 of its 7-minute runtime. I didn't take much of that guy's advice.) Companies who would love to consult with us on how to do online worship better. We're thinking now about how what we're wearing will look on camera (solid colors are best), how not to look shifty-eyed (look as much as possible straight at the camera), how to frame a shot (rule of thirds), and what the background should look like (simple, with nothing that could look like it's coming out of your head). 
     Until a month ago, I never gave anything like that a second thought.
     What I haven't seen is much help for those who will be participating in these online worship services that we're all blundering around trying to create. Which is why I appreciated McAdams' post so much.
     Here's a fact: when we watch videos online, usually it's as consumers of content. I'll sometimes watch something funny someone's posted or sent me. Sometimes I'll stream an episode of Clone Wars or something. I like watching musical performances on YouTube, or maybe a clip from an old Tonight Show. (Yes, kids, it existed before Jimmy Fallon. Or even Jay Leno.) 
     I do occasionally watch a how-to video, but that's still as a consumer. I'm trying to learn a new skill, something I'll try to do for myself later. Sometimes I'll watch a video of a sermon, but it's still not the same as participating in a worship service online. I'm still consuming. 
     So what we're doing on Sunday when we watch our church's live stream is different. We're not even just watching. Or, at least, we shouldn't be. 
     It's easy enough to think like a consumer when you get in the car or hop on public transit and go to a building with other people for worship. But when all you have to do is grab the device that you usually watch The Bachelor or cat videos on, or play Candy Crush on, and you don't even have to comb your hair or change out of your pajamas -- well, it's not surprising that might not feel like worship.    
     McAdams uses the word participation in the title of his post. That immediately made me think of Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 10 -- that when we share in communion, we're participating in the blood and body of Jesus. It's a case where looks can be deceiving, right? At first glance, we're sitting in a big room together. Yes, in some churches participants (there it is again) get up and go to the front, but it still seems passive. You're receiving something. Someone hands you a tray, or you receive a wafer or a cup. But Paul says we're active. We're participating -- with other believers, and even with the Lord himself. 
     Paul makes this point because he sees a connection between participation in worship and fleeing from idolatry. Some in Corinth who thought eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols meant nothing weren't taking seriously enough the power of participation. Paul, in effect, asks them if eating and drinking the Lord's Supper means nothing as well. "You know it means something," he says. 
     It's in participation, in other words, that we show what we worship.
     That takes discipline, whether we're worshipping at church or at home. That's why McAdams' five suggestions sound kind of like work. Taking notes sounds a lot like school, doesn't it? But it will help you take a more active part. Talking about the worship with others both connects us and makes us accountable. Limiting distractions takes some planning and self-control. It's kind of automatic to criticize the production values of whatever we see on a screen, and compare it with other stuff we've seen. 
     Worship is active. It's participatory. So Sunday, when you're sitting in your living room or at your kitchen table or wherever and it's time to sing, then sing. Think of brothers and sisters from your church singing, and sing with them. God hears your voices blended with others. When you share communion, remember that others are sharing it all over the world. When it's time for prayer, lift up your prayers too, knowing that they are blending with the prayers of all the saints. When it's sermon time, dig into the text as well. Trust me: your preacher is hoping and praying that you will.
     Worship, right now, takes some sanctified imagination. I love the imagination in Hebrews 12:22-24: 
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.  You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all,  to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator  of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. 
     The writer's point is that, where Jesus is involved, worship is always more than what we see. It's a trip into the city of God. In worship, we unite with angels. And we share in worship with those whose names are written in heaven as we come to God through Jesus and the new covenant he brought about with his death. "Let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe," he concludes. "For our God is a consuming fire."
     May we all worship acceptably, wherever we find ourselves. 


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