Weak on worship, strong on discipleship?

Sometimes on my blog I write to advance an argument. This is not one of those times. This is a a question post.

Dan Dick’s latest fascinating blog post – I’ll note he cheats by having actual data and information to share and not just idle speculation  – is about UM attitudes and understandings about worship. The big takeaway is that people view worship – for the most part – as something they do to get something for themselves. Quoting Dick:

For the vast majority of United Methodists, worship is both a personal and private affair. Though some come to church to see friends, during the worship hour 88% of worshippers are seeking something for themselves. What they seek falls into three broad categories:

  • comfort and encouragement
  • guidance (and sometimes, challenge)
  • knowledge (about God and about God’s will)

In all these cases, worship is about receiving more than giving. Different respondents explain how worship is like “a port in the storm,” “a filling station,” “a time for rest and recovery,” “a place to better understand God,” “a safe space (sanctuary) in a crazy world,” and “time to shut out the world.” Virtually no one in the sample, pastors included, frame their experience of worship as a “giving” experience rather than a “receiving experience.” This tends to be both a Western and a modern conceit of worshippers. Interestingly, there is very little difference between ages, genders, and races in this “giving/receiving” dynamic of worship.

There are many more facts in the post, but it basically boils down to the conclusion that worship reflects the culture. We live in world of consumers who do things based on the exchange value of the activity – what we get out of it – and we bring those values and expectations to the worship space. This is all qualified by the small percentage of folks who don’t fit that profile. Just as in Dick’s discussion of discipleship, he finds 10-20% who have a different set of expectations.

My question for myself is why to I react so differently to these two posts.

The discipleship post struck me as a sign of trouble for the denomination. The lack of interest in discipleship or accountability struck me as quite a challenge to the vitality of Methodism.

The worship statistics do not trouble me.

The fact that many Christians view worship as something they do to get something from the experience strikes me not only non-threatening but even as normal. I suspect we fall into anachronism when we believe it us modern Christians who go to worship to “get something” but Christians in earlier times or other parts of the world are all about “giving” something to God.

My guess is that what people get out of worship has changed and does change in different cultures. So, 21st century Americans say they go for comfort, guidance, knowledge, and to re-energize. But other Christians go and have gone to comply with social expectation or get a ticket out of hell or unburden their troubled souls or see the village girls or share solidarity with oppressed brothers and sisters or hold on to something solid as the world’s chaos engulfs them or …

Yes, people do go to give and be active participants with God as well, but in a congregation of any size, I imagine, there must be many reasons that draw people to worship on Sunday – including the promptings of the Holy Spirt that uses people’s inclinations to get them in the door.

But, in the end, I’m sure all these same arguments can be made about discipleship as a consumer commodity. So I find myself wondering to myself why I react so differently to them.

I think part of the answer has to do with my own faith experience. It was good preaching and a warm and welcoming church community that helped me move from the reluctant guy who attended church because his wife did to eventually being baptized and now serving a church. The Holy Spirit working through all these folks and plucking on my own attitudes, interests, and inclination pulled me in slow inch by slow inch.

How can we ever go to worship except out of our own sense of needs and desires to be there? Even if what we want is to focus on God and worship for God – rather than for ourselves – we are still doing this out of our own sense of joy, duty, desire, or need. We are still going to worship because something in us needs to be there.

If we feel that there are good reasons and bad reasons to want to worship, then I understand the argument. We are saying we can have wrongly ordered desires. But isn’t that part of what we are about in church? We get people in the door with their wrongly ordered desires and we try to put them in connection with a God who helps them re-order those desires.

This leads to discipleship. The reason why it is okay to be “weak” on worship but “strong” on discipleship is because one leads to the other. We encounter God in worship. We see the gap between us. We try to re-order our lives in light of God. We seek helps for this process. We become disciples.

I do not know if this makes sense. I am trying to figure out my own reactions to the information Dick shares. Maybe it makes more sense to you. I’d welcome your thoughts.