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For the last couple of months, on and off, we’ve been using this space to explore some of the reasons the church in the West is experiencing difficulty in connecting with emerging generations. The church in the West (North America/Europe) is an important qualifier. We can tend to become myopic and assume that things around the world are the same as they are here. They’re not! The church continues to grow and break new ground in the Global South. And there are important lessons to learn there, because that growth is not coming the same way Western churches think growth will come (incorrectly, judging by the results): either theological compromise or low-bar, watered-down, comfort-driven attractionality. Apparently spell-check doesn’t think that last word is a word, but hopefully you get a sense of what I mean! In many parts of the world, the church is growing the same way the church in Acts grew, and that’s what I want to focus on in the next part of this series. How do we move forward? What are the kinds of commitments that will help bring about the renewal of the church in the West?
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Let’s start with this one: worship. One way of defining worship is that it is taking our eyes off ourselves and turning them to God. It is making God the centre of our attention. It is praising Him in various ways for who He is and what He has done. Something that happens when things aren’t going well (as is the case, broadly speaking, in the Western church) is that we focus even more on ourselves. We become consumed with fixing this or that, like someone obsessively gazing at themselves in the mirror and straightening out every stray hair until everything is absolutely perfect. The problem is that as soon as you smooth down a few strands, other strands begin popping up, like a game of hair-whack-a-mole!
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When it comes to the church, the issue here is that we were never supposed to the focus of attention in the first place. We are meant to point to Jesus. Jesus is the one that the world needs to see. Jesus is the one who is truly good, truly awesome, and he is the one who can save. Our purpose is to bear witness to Him. However, the church in the West has tended to become obsessed with its own image, and so we have lost the plot. If we are to once again effectively point people to the One they need to see, then we ourselves must be focused on Him. We must have our eyes turned to Him. We must be people who are committed to worship.
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Without a doubt, this was true of the early church. Acts 2:46-47 says that “every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts…praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people.” For the first disciples, worship wasn’t even just a once-a-week habit. It was a daily commitment that fuelled their life together as a church.
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And notice, in Acts, in the Scriptures as a whole, and wherever the Kingdom is breaking into this world, that a massive component to worship is that it is corporate. It is together with other people. It is not only corporate. It can be an individual act, absolutely. But the emphasis lies on its corporate nature, and the corporate nature is essential. The idea that you can live your life as a believer alone, worshipping God in solitude in the mountains, is nonsensical. Again, that worshipful solitude should be a part of your life in Christ. That’s great. But you also need to worship God in fellowship with other believers. “Every day they continued to meet together”. This wasn’t even just a once-a-week thing, corporate worship was much more frequent than that! And the temptation to disregard that was apparently present in the first century, a temptation as perilous then as today: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encourage one another- and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)
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In one part of this series, I talked about the impact of COVID, especially in the way that it has broken the discipline of meeting together, in the flesh. Most churches I know of have seen a fraction of in-person attendance from before the pandemic. Along those lines, can I say that watching a church service online is not nearly the same as being with the people, in the flesh? Now, it’s better to watch a service online than not at all! I’m so grateful for those who have stuck with it for the last two years. But if you’re someone who needs to stay away from large groups of people at this point, consider other ways you can worship in smaller groups of people: being part of a discipleship group, watching the service with someone else who is in the same boat, participating in some other small group. Whatever the case, we must once again commit ourselves to the life-giving practice of corporate worship. We need, together, to set our eyes on Jesus and worship him. The world desperately needs to know him, God has chosen the church as His primary instrument of making Jesus known, and we can only do that if we ourselves know Him. We can only do that if we ourselves are worshipping Him, becoming alive in our awe of Him.
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How do we move forward and see renewal in this generation? Worship.