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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Why the Church?
October 14, 2010

Keeping it Fresh

Our Book of Order lists six “great ends” of the church, in a formula adopted by the United Presbyterian Church of North America more than 100 years ago. In this series, I am exploring what it might mean for our presbytery to be purposeful in working toward these “great ends.” Today we begin to explore the third item on the list, “the maintenance of divine worship.”

If any of the “great ends” seems to fit our way of being church, it is this one. What is a church, if not a place where people gather to worship? Every other program and mission engagement may fall away, but as long as a congregation gathers to worship God, we consider the church to be alive and kicking.

John Calvin tied the essence of being “church” to worship – wherever the word of God is sincerely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there we have a true church. This was a radical departure from the standard view of his day, which tied “church” more to having a duly authorized priest than to having God’s people join in Bible-shaped worship. In most cases, the Mass was something people watched rather than something in which they had any active role. Because true worship had become so removed from the people, the Reformation was first and foremost a worship renewal movement.

But maintenance?! Maintenance is such a pedestrian term – we naturally revolt against it, pitting “maintenance” against “mission” as two very different and opposing understandings of the church’s vocation. We’re called, so it is often said, not to institutional maintenance, but to world-changing mission. That is true, but do we not give “maintenance” short shrift if we construe it as nothing more than spinning our wheels in place? It is through vigilant maintenance that we preserve for future generations the treasure that God has given us.

The minute I walked into the church that was calling me as pastor, I was captivated by the beautiful windows, all of which celebrated the lives of saints gone before, some from many generations back. I had once been part of a large church that had known great recent growth, and we celebrated how vital that church was, until it suddenly went into a tailspin and crashed over a leadership crisis. Two years after it had dedicated a new multimillion dollar campus, the entire thing was razed and a Holiday Inn put up in its place. But now amid the storied windows I saw a new kind of vitality – a vitality that can be sustained for generations. I was overwhelmed and humbled to be part of a witness durable enough to stay strong for more than two hundred years. They found a way to maintain their witness while others came and went.

I am a musician, and have had the privilege of doing several concert tours. Each night you make the same music as the night before, then you pack up your bags and repeat. One year I gave something like 150 concerts. I discovered that it was much easier to learn and play a new song than to maintain its vitality over time. It is easy to get weary of anything we repeat, no matter how grand it may be. Only by engaging disciplined maintenance does it stay fresh.

Maintenance of divine worship entails that we keep the worship going, and keep it strong. Keep it fresh even as we repeat the same thing week in and week out. Like the concert musician, we engage it each time as though it were the first. It takes discipline and perseverance. We stay the course even when the course seems routine, because nothing in this world is more important than worshiping God rightly. It takes hard, repetitive maintenance work. It’s sometimes the most mundane thing – just show up and keep doing what you always do, whether it be shoveling, sweeping, repairing, polishing, preaching, or singing. But don’t give up, ever. For this is what we were made for: To keep glorifying God, above all else.

Next week we consider what this “great end” might mean for presbytery as a worshiping community.

Keeping it fresh,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Presbytery

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