WHERE’S THE SACRIFICE IN THE “SACRIFICE OF PRAISE AND THANKSGIVING”?

I’m struggling or, I’ll be honest, I’m continuing to struggle with the self-centered, fairly vapid ideas on the marketplace today about how people go about growing congregations or doing Christian ministry.

My particular lens, these days, involves the work we’re currently engaged in at St. George’s, Valley Lee: expanding our music program and helping take our worship life in new directions.  I’m finding a rich world of music and worship thought-leaders, both within and beyond The Episcopal Church, but most often there’s this underlying implication, this nagging insistence connecting growing music and growing churches.

Sure, those connections are there.  But they may not be related causally.  And I suspect they’re not linked as much as we might think.

Life-giving worship has everything to do with what the Prayer Book calls “the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,” that very phrase which is grounded in scripture (Hebrews 13:15, Psalm 100:4) and which Archbishop Cranmer himself inserted in the original text.  That worship is a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” reminds us that the church is not about us — not about re-sacrificing Christ on the altar, not about a priest standing in persona Christi.  Worship is for the purpose of proclaiming, once again, the work that God in Christ has already done, namely, reconciling the whole of creation to its Source and Creator.  Worship is about God, adoring God just like the Angels and Archangels apparently do without ceasing for no other reason than that is “right and a good and joyful thing” to tie our story to the divine.

The problem, however, is that current thinking about dynamic congregations has more to do with technical, mechanistic, directorial, astonishingly secular business models of ‘leadership,’ models we’ve been fed as clergy and lay leaders in mainline (old-line?) American Protestantism.  Even more astonishing is that in spite of the obvious crumbling of those cathedrals of thought — consider, for instance, the effective shuttering of The Alban Institute — they’re the very same models we keep feeding ourselves, time and time again.

We’ve drunk the Kool-Aid of cultural criticism and post-modern analysis.  I read this stuff, too, and I know it has, potentially, positive gifts, but I’m afraid too many of us mainliners are better able to quote cultural trends and talk about the end of Christendom than we’re able to re-tweet the words of Jesus in the gospels.

We’ve borrowed the language of post-modernity, whose self-critical apparatus was actually supposed to lead to some series of profound change, in order to prop up our decidedly modern, self-obsessed institution.  We steer close to and then quickly run away from the fact that that death, that seed which needs to die so it can grow into something new (John 12:24), also involves us, involves The Episcopal Church, and involves getting over the fact that we may not appear or even act as competently and be as effective as this secular world needs its so-called ‘leaders’ to be.  “‘Effectiveness’ is not a Scriptural concept,” writes the Rev’d Justin Lewis-Anthony, “and neither is it one affirmed in traditions of Christian theological reflection.  The foundational model of the Christian Church, that of Jesus and his disciples, was expressed in a radical powerlessness.”  (Lewis-Anthony, You are the Messiah and I should know, p.33)

At St. George’s, we’re exploring a new model of music and worship.  I’ve promised I’ll more intentionally blog about this and share, at least, my own thinking.  Just last week, I already started doing so on the Episcopal Church Foundation’s ‘Vital Practices’ series (click here).  Similar pieces will come, both on this blog and at ECF Vital Practices.

Before we begin, though, we also need to be exceedingly clear about our purpose.  Ever since I arrived in Valley Lee, now, seven summers ago, we’ve been at work on a huge goal, and we’ve been pulling this thread through every other aspect of our life together at St. George’s.  We’ve revised our By-Laws and our approach to financing and budget-making.  We’ve effectively changed how we share ministries and authority and power.  Fundamentally, the goal is to make this institution, this organization in St. Mary’s County, Maryland vastly more like an unmistakably Christ-centered organism and less like a self-obsessed consumer of people’s time and energy, much more like the early apostolic fellowship of believers, a gathering that also drove them to serve and live more boldly in the world, and less like an institution that appears to take more it gives.

We haven’t yet touched Sunday mornings.  That is where we are right now, and it’s going to require the same level of clarity, self-critical reflection, strictly theological discernment and, perhaps, sacrifice as those processes which led to the other changes in the ways we function and relate to one another.  It’s going to require us to be honest about the purpose of worship and the role of music and, above all, to be exceedingly cautious whenever we stray near the dangerous, solipsistic thinking that growth in music will bring about growth in the church for the purposes of growing the institution called ‘church’.  To be fair, these pitfalls are already there in the dominant literature’s careless assumptions, forgetting at its core that there’s sacrifice involved in the “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.”

Some weeks ago, I invited the Rev’d Justin Lewis-Anthony to join us at our southern Maryland Episcopal clergy gathering.  The Associate Dean of Students at the Virginia Theological Seminary, Lewis-Anthony is also the author of the wonderfully challenging book, If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him (subtitle: “Radically Re-Thinking Priestly Ministry”) and has recently published an equally excellent book, You are the Messiah and I should know (subtitle: “Why Leadership is a Myth (and probably a heresy)”).  His talk that afternoon was as thorough and challenging as his corpus of work — and, yes, as witty as is his clear knack at titles.  He’s helped deepen and challenge, for me, dominant strands of thinking about music and worship and the life and work of the Christian church today.

Take our southern Maryland Clericus as an example, you see.  A group that averages fifteen or so come out once a month from September through June for lunch and prayer and conversation.  From time to time, mostly when I get around to it, our afternoon is enriched by a guest conversation partner, someone to pick our brains or stimulate our thinking or, too often, someone who’s part of the institution called The Episcopal Church / The Episcopal Diocese of Washington and who may have a great idea or who has to suffer through listening to what we think is a great idea.  Mostly, however, our purpose is fellowship because, frankly, when we do get some brilliant idea — or when someone else’s brilliant idea is imported to our lunch table — it generally goes nowhere.  People on the bishop’s staff are busy taking care of what the bishop wants taken care of and when those rectors leave that lunch table they, too, are overtaken by the matter their senior warden needs them to think about or what the altar guild chairperson is busy fussing about this week.  The Christian church has figured out a remarkable way to serve itself — dioceses serve the goal of dioceses and congregations serve their own purposes.  Even more frightening, we’ve developed a whole language of management and ‘leadership’ to justify doing what we do and why we do it.

Because it’s about us.

But it’s not, is it?  It’s not about us, nor has the purpose and mission of the Christian church ever been. If we really are Christ’s body, we’d better start acting like that self-sacrificial organism and learn, in turn, what “glory” really means.  And if our primary gathering is worship, that work which we’re now focusing on at St. George’s, we’d do well to re-discover the particular role of sacrifice in that “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving”.

For my own part, I’m considering Justin Lewis-Anthony’s words of caution:

“We do not know what we are talking about when we attempt to talk about leadership.  When we do talk about leadership, we are, unknowingly, not being theological, in the sense of speaking coherently about the God who revealed Himself to us in the Scriptures, in the traditions of the Christian church, and, pre-eminently, in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ.  There is a savage disconnect, between attempts to treat leadership in a pseudo-theological manner and the real nature of leadership, which should become apparent in the remainder of this book.  We are, dangerously, attempting to yoke ourselves with unbelievers.  We are pretending that heresy can be put in the service of the church.”  (Lewis-Anthony, You are the Messiah, p.34)