Monthly Archives: August 2009

True Religion

The comparison below is admittedly hackneyed, nevertheless it is too revealing for comfort:

True Southern religious festivals begin this week, and throngs of followers are bristling with excitement. Most will be Sabbath gatherings, while a number of Latter Day and Second-Latter Day (Thursday) meetings will occur. The faithful crowds will clamor for prime seating. Large amounts of money will be offered as part of the ritual. Many attendees will dress in clothing that they wear only to such gatherings. Otherwise reserved, dignified people will freely display deep emotional responses to the events they witness.

Of course, the true Southern religion is football. Pro football almost doesn’t count. The truest of true religious rites – college games – start the 2009 season this week. (Roll Tide! I confess that I am as guilty as anyone of religious zeal for the sacred sport!) Bonds of allegiance to one’s chosen team may be stronger than ties to family, friends, work, or … church. College football stadiums will become the third or fourth largest “cities” in their states for about four hours during the college games. On high school Fridays, the gatherings will be smaller, but the passion of each team’s followers can be intense.

Gatherings of followers of Jesus – mostly occurring on Sundays – don’t often generate such excitement or ardent support. Oh, some people will wear clothes that are different from what they wear on other days. Crowds will be near capacity in a few venues. Emotional responses will be visible in a small minority of gatherings. Overall, however, the level of anticipation about what will happen during the Sunday meetings will not match that regularly exhibited at football games on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday.

While little of the passion of football fans for their team translates to their zeal for worship of God, quite a few attitudes do unfortunately appear to carry over. Football fans do not have to subject themselves to rigorous conditioning, honing their skills to offer their very best during the game, or preparing themselves for the specific demands of each meeting. They aren’t in the game, and they leave the grueling preparation up to the people on the field. Still, fans leave bragging about how we really won a great one, or how they really stunk if the team suffered defeat. Churchgoers may adopt these attitudes regarding what happens in the meetings they attend. They leave spiritual conditioning, prayerful preparation, and hopes to present to God the best gifts possible to the worship leaders, instrumentalists, and the preacher. Most fans and worshippers are content to be spectators, reacting positively or negatively to the action before them but not getting personally involved in the service.

Fans in the stands can choose to be very engaged with the gameday experience, or they can remain much more passive. Everyone ought to know the words to the fight song, but don’t have to know much else. A chant of a few words is usually all the response that is required. Many people in church will know the first and last verses of Amazing Grace and perhaps a couple other songs. They usually know when to stand up, when to sit down, and when or whether to say “Amen.” On this account, football fans and church people unfortunately may be very similar.

The day after the game many football fans will be able to quote chapter and verse of the most minute turns of the game. They will eagerly share what they have witnessed with anyone, anywhere – work, school, stores and restaurants, airplanes … and church. They will buoyantly hope to persuade others to convert to following the team they believe in. This behavior does not seem to carry over to worshippers of God. Few churchgoers will speak about anything that happened at church – unless it is an especially choice morsel of gossip.

Some fans with the ability to attend the game will instead choose to watch it on TV. They may say that they can see better, or that they don’t want to have to deal with the crowds, or that they don’t like to get all dressed up (never mind the casual, come-as-you-are venues). Better still, they can always get something from the fridge if their attention wanders. The gameday experience certainly will not be the same as sharing their hopes and support with those in the stadium. Large numbers of people take this approach to the worship of God, forfeiting the benefits of being part of a supportive community with shared hopes, beliefs, and experiences in order to watch a worship service with less effort and greater physical comfort. Both fans and worshippers lose with this habit.

Worship of God is not intended to be a spectacle eliciting the same responses as a football game. But some of the positive anticipation and excitement can translate appropriately from the stadium to the sanctuary. Passionate following of Almighty God can instill hope for celebrations that bring joy and encouragement to the faithful. Learning the stories of God’s actions in the past can inspire hope for God’s blessings in the future. Committing words and responses to memory can prepare followers of Jesus to be ready to tell people anywhere and everywhere about his victory over sin and death, and to become an active part of continuing Jesus’ mission of love and grace.

Worshippers of God in their best days have gathered with heightened expectations and confident faith. They have gathered as a community to share the joys of following God’s way to overcome challenges. Worshippers of God have become much more than spectators, finding their greatest satisfaction by becoming true servants of God and of others. A Psalm captures the ardent faith of the worshipping community assembled in the Temple. The enthusiasm voiced in the Psalm should infuse our worship of God:

      O God, we meditate on your unfailing love as we worship in your Temple.

      {10} As your name deserves, O God, you will be praised to the ends of the earth.

    Your strong right hand is filled with victory.

        {11} Let the people on Mount Zion rejoice. Let the towns of Judah be glad, for your judgments are just.

      {12} Go, inspect the city of Jerusalem. Walk around and count the many towers.

          {13} Take note of the fortified walls, and tour all the citadels, that you may describe them to future generations.

          {14} For that is what God is like. He is our God forever and ever, and he will be our guide until we die. (Psalm 48:9-14 NLT)

        I hope your team fares well this season (unless they are playing the Tide!). How does your fan behavior compare with your worship of God? I hope that you will invest energy and anticipation as you participate in the worship of God. Read the play-by-play accounts of God’s saving grace (the Bible). Know what to expect will happen in the worship service. Pray for the “coaches” (ministers and worship leaders) and the “players” (yourself and other worshippers). Let the drama played out in the service show in your emotions and in your accounts of God’s presence for days following the service. Let your true religion be evident to all.

        – J. Edward Culpepper

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