A while back I had begun to crave more time for listening corporately. I like open worship, but I wanted more time. Back when NFC held three services, I used to attend unprogrammed worship at North Valley before going to NFC for third service. I missed those times I had shared an hour of intentional listening with other members of the body. So I asked Gregg about facilitating an unprogrammed meeting for worship during first service, and you can imagine my delight when he answered with a resounding, “Ask Steve Fawver.” … And then I asked Steve and he said, “That would be great!”
Steve noted that previous attempts had been made to do this same thing in the past, and they had lasted a little while and then tapered off. Undeterred, I figured it was worth a try, even if it was for my own selfish want of some space. I knew that my wife, Korie, craved that space, that my mom wanted that space, and that surely there must be others who would get something out of that space as well. Even if it ended up being a kind of Buerkle family house church held at 9 a.m. on Sundays in Barclay C, then so be it. Steve graciously agreed to print off the week’s scripture so that we could center on the same thing as the rest of the congregation, and I wrote up a short explanation of unprogrammed worship for anyone new to the process. We began the second week in August, with—if memory serves me—three people, including Steve and me.
Meeting for unprogrammed worship is truly life giving for me. Working through the week’s scripture and my own wrestlings, hearing what other people hear in those words and how they apply it to their week or the things they wrestle with or the issues being raised by world events—these are great sources of encouragement to me. Being able to share an experience of listening for the Spirit in our midst with other seekers is life giving. Sharing that experience with only two or three people, though, is admittedly not as life giving to my ego.
Attendance peaked at six or seven people, and then summer ended and Sunday school classes began. Surprising for a congregation purportedly full of introverts, the social (and, okay, far more focused and directed) environment of Sunday school seemed to have a bigger draw than sitting in silence for the better part of an hour. We were back to three or four people on any given Sunday. But as we open with prayer each Sunday I remind myself and anyone attending of the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:20, “where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.” I know this verse is taken totally out of context, and that Jesus is present with any one person at any time, but well… there it is. The thing is, I need to be reminded of the real, living, present, risen Lord Jesus. I also want to console myself with this out-of-context verse because there were so few people coming to a ministry I had endeavored to take up.
When you look at the context of Matthew 18:20, Jesus is talking about discipline within the church. If someone sins, one person should point it out and talk with them. If they keep doing it, two or three witnesses, in accordance with the law, should speak with the offender. If that doesn’t do the trick, then the entire church needs to intervene. Failing that, the church must “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” What the church decides has staying power, and Jesus reminds his disciples that whatever they agree on will be done, because where two or three gather in Jesus’ name, there he is with them.
As we gathered again last Sunday morning (October 18), only Steve Fawver, Phil Smith, and I were there. I opened with a prayer for Jesus to speak and for us to listen and for us to take what we hear through our week. Again I invoked my out-of-context verse about two or three gathering. After about half an hour I spoke about how James brings up all kinds of dichotomies, but James seems to recognize that all these black and white things blend together into gray in each person. But what stays black and white is the source of these things: either words come from our tongue or from God; either wisdom comes from the world or from God. As we examine the fruit of our lives, we can tell if it comes from selfish ambition or from God.
When after a bit Phil prayed to God, who was in the room. And then Steve prayed to God, who was in the room. And then I realized I had been just talking about God as if God were not in the room. And so I prayed to God, who was in the room, and confessed the good news of Jesus, for myself. In the silence God prompted me. God talked to me and pointed out my sin. God noted that in the same breath that I confessed the source of life I forgot the source of life. God opened my eyes a little wider, and bid me dig a bit deeper, and I saw something dark at the source of my words and actions. I saw selfish ambition. So with no small amount of pride swallowing, I confessed to Phil and Steve and God, who were in the room as witnesses, that I was speaking because I wanted to seem wise. I wanted to be seen as a leader (while “leading unprogrammed worship” is the height of self-contradiction). I show up for prayer with those leading worship before the service because I want to be seen as a leader, as someone important. My motivations for this ministry are gray. I am doing this ministry because God wanted to use it for something good. I am also doing this ministry for myself, as a self-seeking thing, and for my own vanity.
Jesus corrected me with those two witnesses gathered on Sunday. He set the verse back in its proper context when we agreed that unprogrammed worship has nothing to do with me and everything to do with God. It is a place to listen corporately for the real, risen, living, present Jesus Christ, who is in the room. Unprogrammed worship is still life giving for me, even if difficult and humbling as well. And while I am taking a trip this weekend and won’t be there on Sunday, Jesus still will be. And that’s the point.