FOR THE FIRST TIME since I started preaching, I didn’t … for three consecutive Sundays.

Since April 1997, the longest I had gone without preaching was two consecutive Sundays. Even then, the two-Sunday-hiatus has only happened a handful of times.

During a stretch of several years, I preached fifty Sundays per year, and the two Sundays “off” were not consecutive. This was partly because I was a “single-staff” guy, and partly because I believed that the pulpit was where I was meant to be and preaching was what I was meant to do.

So not preaching for three Sundays in a row was, for me, unprecedented. And quite honestly, these three weeks and Sundays have been awkward and freeing, disorienting and wonderful, and strange and refreshing.

And I’ll do it again, gladly.

Several months ago, our Church Council Chairman, Dr. Neil Craton, shared with me that he was sensing the Spirit ”nudging” him to preach a series of messages on Jesus’s teaching from John 15 that we can do “nothing apart from [Him],” apart from our “abiding in the Vine,” and apart from His “abiding” presence in us.

The impetus for Neil was reading Bruce Wilkinson’s excellent little book Secrets of the Vine: Breaking through to Abundance. (If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and check it out: http://www.amazon.com/Secrets-Vine-Breaking-Through-Abundance/dp/1576739759.)

Wilkinson’s little book had a profound impact on Neil and others in his weekly accountability group, and he believed that the Lord Jesus would have him share some of what he was learning with our congregation here at Bethesda.

According to Bruce, there are three ”secrets” (or “lessons,” as Neil put it) from Jesus’s teaching about the Vine. Three secrets … three lessons … three messages … three weeks off for me!

Only, not really …

Importantly, shortly after I arrived at Bethesda in August 2007, we elders began talking about our need to create some space and find some time for me to do two vital things for our future:

     1- Do some forward-looking, vision-casting work that a weekly preaching/teaching schedule and administrative duties make difficult, or even impossible; AND

     2- Visit other churches from time-to-time to see what they are doing in our specific context here in Winnipeg.

So, over the last three weeks, I focused my “office” time, energy, and attention on new statements of vision, mission, and Biblical core values – along with Biblical and theological explanations for each – and visited other churches on Sundays.

I also fit in a three-day trip to Minneapolis for the Desiring God Conference for Pastors (www.desiringgod.org).

On the first of these Sundays (Jan. 30), Neil shared the first of his three messages, while I stayed on at Bethesda to shepherd the service, as well as to make the transition into Neil’s series and my next couple of Sundays away.

Then over the last two Sundays (Feb. 6 and 13), I visited four different churches – two per Sunday – in our beautiful city for one of their weekly, Sunday morning worship services.

Here at Bethesda, we have a mixture of older and/or more “traditional” folks (about a third) and younger and/or more “contemporary” folks (about a third).

Those two demographics and characteristics – older and “more traditional,” younger and “more contemporary” – often correlate. They also often reflect competing, perhaps mutually exclusive values among our people.

Our churches, it would seem, have difficulty seeing or admitting the correlation between various demographics and “styles” of preference, unfortunately, and making necessary adjustments.

But Bethesda also has a middle group (oddly, also about a third) that is open to, values, even embraces a variety of approaches to worship – traditional, contemporary, contemplative, and other “styles” of personal and congregational preference.

Accordingly, for my two Sundays “off,” I selected two more ”traditional” and two more “contemporary” style services in churches known to be doing those things well – at least, in the sense that they have significant constituencies for each.

Finally, the two churches whose “traditional” services I visited also have more ”contemporary” alternatives at other times, and the two churches whose “contemporary” services I attended have an identical service at another time.

So, what did I learn (an interim report)?

1- God is (clearly) not dead, Jesus is still Lord, the Holy Spirit is still working, and the Church is still alive in Winnipeg! Perhaps I’m stating the obvious. But in the media, in some of our local churches, and among some of our congregants, one might get the opposite impression ….

     Some churches are closing their doors. Importantly, most of them are older, most of them are more “traditional” in approach, and the times are – quite literally – passing them by.

     Some congregants are losing their hope – personally and congregationally. I believe this to be the case, because at some point along the way, they tied their hope to their way of doing things.

     For sure, this will be the most controversial thing that I say in this post, but I would be less than honest if I didn’t say it: In the more “traditional” services that I attended, there seemed to be less hope for today and more of a sense of holding on to the end.

     Now, even a cursory reading of both Scripture and history reveals that this has always been true, throughout the history of divine-human relations. God’s people have always tended, at some point, to stop reaching hopefully and joyfully forward into the unknown and unseen work of God and turned our gaze backward to the familiar ways of old.

So this is not a new phenomenon, but it’s also not the whole story – in Scripture, in history, in Winnipeg. Not even close …

     (There was an excellent opinion article that appeared recently in The Winnipeg Free Press, “Shrinking churches preach incomplete message,” and that spoke into this reality. Check it out at http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/fyi/shrinking-churches-preach-incomplete-message-113752224.html.)

2- Worship “styles” are largely cultural and seasonal, which is to say that they are not intrinsically (or even particularly) Biblical or spiritual.

     That’s not to say anything goes, when it comes to what constitutes “worship.” It’s just not as easy as we might think or assume to separate our methodology from our message.

     Indeed, much of what is called “worship” today is man-centered rather than God-centered. This means that much of what passes for “worship” comes closer to idolatry – even false worship of the self – than the authentic worship of the One True and Living God.

     And neither pole of the worship-style-continuum has more of a tendency toward such idolatry than the other ….

     Not too long ago, at a gathering of local ministry leaders, a prominent local pastor and his worship leader publicly reminisced about their “epic Rock’n'Roll Sunday,” when their “worship music” was drawn from Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, and other “classic rock” bands.

     Now, I’m a “classic rock” kind-of-a-guy – coming of age, as I did, in the 1970s. But I see no correlation between these groups, their music – both their style and their lyrics, and worship of the One True and Living God!

     In fact, precisely because I am a “classic rock” kind-of-a-guy, and know the content and context of that genre, my first (and persisting) thought was, “WHAT COULD YOU GUYS POSSIBLY BE THINKING?!?!”

     But anyone who reads the Old Testament – particularly, the Prophets – knows that the “contemporary worship” folks aren’t the only ones with an idolatrous tendency toward self-worship or worship according to “our” style.

     Rarely do most consumers of “worship” pause to ask, “What does God want in our worship of Him?” Some seem even to equate mere personal preference with what God prefers and what constitutes true worship.

     I’m not the first to observe that there are no orders of worship, or any sort of style indicated anywhere in the Bible. This makes it very difficult to frame arguments for, or against, any particular worship style from the Scriptures.

3- There is a place – a niche, if you will – for any local church with a clear identity, deeply held values, and a distinctive style – of worship, of preaching, of fellowship, and of ministry.

     My most exciting discovery, as I visited these four other churches in our city, was this: None of these churches are alike … at all!

     One was Pentecostal, and one was Baptist; one was charismatic, and one was Mennonite Brethren. And if I had the time, I would have visited other churches of other traditions and denominational affiliations.

     Yet, each manifested a vibrancy in their ministries – not necessarily reflected solely in their “worship service,” I must note – and there was clearly no formula for their success. Any vibrancy went beyond any one worship service or style, of course.

     And none of them were any more like Bethesda Church than they were to each other, which was not at all! To me, this indicates that the Lord Jesus [still] has a place for us, but only so long as we are willing to be who and what He continues to create us to be.

     So long as we remain open to His Spirit’s calling upon us and His work in us, among us, and through us; we have a bright future and a sure hope, indeed!

     But if at any point we choose to close ourselves off from His renewed activity, becoming settled in “the way we do things around here” – either personally or congregationally, then our flame will surely and sadly and slowly and painfully diminish.

And Jesus will just as surely remove our lampstand from His power and His presence.

But here’s the thing: It doesn’t need to happen; we have a choice in the matter ….

God’s grace and peace from me and mine to you and yours!

Pastor Mark

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