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Tod Bolsinger on Worshiping as the People of God

God calls us into a relationship that is intensely personal, but never private. This is an important distinction, yet one that many Christians miss. A feature story exploring our Worship as the people of God.

Soon after Tod Bolsinger became a Christian, his parents divorced and stopped going to church. Bolsinger bought a T-shirt that said "JC and me."

He recalls hearing the evangelical promise-that God loves and wants to know each one of us-as a message "that we can have a personal and private relationship with Christ." He saw his new spiritual relationship as not about church, his parents' religion, tradition, or ritual.

"It was just about Jesus and me, a sentiment that sounds good till you start reading the Bible," says Bolsinger, now senior pastor of San Clemente Presbyterian Church in Orange County, California.

During college he met Howard and Alice Thomas, whose example helped nudge him from an individualistic to biblical faith. Their fervent prayers in an evangelism committee meeting touched Bolsinger, and he told them so.

They asked for his name and photo and promised to pray for him every night. As Bolsinger married and had children, the Thomases added photos to their frig. They kept their prayer promises till they died.

"Today, in no small part because of those prayers, all the members of my family confess Christ and my mother and stepfather are both elders in the Presbyterian Church. That is the kind of relationship that we have to offer the world," Bolsinger writes in It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian: How the Community of God Transforms Lives.

To people who think they can follow Christ without going to church, and to churchgoers who see the church's purpose as offering support for individual journeys with Jesus, Bolsinger has a clear message. "The church is the only true means to be transformed into the likeness of Christ. Community with the people of God is inextricable to Christian faith," he says.

Model the church on God's life

Bolsinger observes pastors who lead worship "as if facilitating a serve yourself buffet. But I want to be the host of a Sunday family picnic where all the people see themselves as contributing something."

He uses Andrei Rublev's 15th century icon "The Holy Trinity" to explain that the church should be what God is and minister as God does.

In Rublev's painting, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sit at a table, symbolizing the Divine Communion that created and under girds the world. The painting's focus is "a single shared cup, bidding us to come, partake, and-in doing so-share in the fellowship and redemptive activity of God. Poured out, it reveals the true character of the communion for which our souls are restless, to which we are invited, and in which life is found," Bolsinger writes in It Takes a Church. 

In other words, though our culture sees individual will as the essence of humanity, the Trinity reveals God's essence as loving relationship, best understood in communion. And since we are made in God's image, communion is the essence of our humanity.

"The church is the Way.. To belong to the people of God is to enjoy relationship with God and live out the purposes of God. The church is God's present-day word and witness to an unbelieving world," he says.

Enact God's grace in worship

Bolsinger reminds his congregation that being transformed or inspired isn't the point of worship. The point is God's glory. But because God is gracious, he transforms us.

San Clemente Presbyterian has several ways to help worshipers see themselves as the people of God, rather than a collection of Christians. The church's tagline is "a community for a community."

During a year devoted to the theme "Becoming a kingdom community," wine-colored banners hung in the sanctuary so worshipers would see themselves as marinating in kingdom wine, letting the words of Jesus soak in and transform their lives.

Printed sermon application questions usually include a corporate or whole church question. A recent Heidelberg Catechism sermon asked, "What does it mean for God's people to 'represent Jesus' to the whole world? How does thinking of it as ' re -presenting Jesus' change your understanding?"

Youth and children's ministries are anchored in the whole church. Kids from kindergarten on up start Sunday worship with adults. Those who go out before the sermon (K - 6th) sing from the same body of music as adults do. They learn the doxology, the Lord's Prayer, and why and how to pass the peace.

During Lent and Advent, the whole church receives devotionals by email. Leaders use the same themes in youth programs and Sunday school.

"We make people move in worship, so they can't just stay spectators in the pews. They come forward for communion. At the beginning of the service, we ask people to turn and greet their neighbors. After confession and pardon, we ask them to stand and offer the peace of the Lord. We explain that a greeting is a welcome-but passing the peace is being a priest to your neighbor, part of being God's people together," Bolsinger says.

Take it to the streets

Worship must result in action. That's why San Clemente Pres committed to a long-term partnership in Malawi. Before the project began, the youth group and vacation Bible school focused on Africa and missions. Children joined adults on the first trip to Malawi. The congregation also reaches out at a nearby military base and to the city's growing Hispanic segment.

Still, as Bolsinger often blogs, he knows Orange County has its share of disenfranchised believers. In the 1990s, William Hendricks' Exit Interviews reported that people quit church deeply disappointed by irreligious behavior and lack of true community. George Barna's recent Revolution profiles unaffiliated Christians who say they can't find local churches that care about developing mature disciples.

"Churches have to be more authentic," Bolsinger agrees. "When people say they've been hurt by the church, you have to listen and affirm their hurt. Like Eugene Peterson says, the church is all about mystery and mess-the mystery of God and mess of people."

But unlike Barna, he questions the choice to let past hurts reinforce isolation.

"There's no other way to be transformed but to be part of the church, the community of God's people. We ask people to speak up when we step on their toes but to keep dancing. That's also why we need confession in every service, because we need to acknowledge together each week that we've sinned," he says.

How to Build Community in Church

Amid all the brainstorming about getting people through the church's front door, most church leaders know people are slipping out the back.

"People are leaving churches in droves. Not many pastors and church leaders are willing to admit that, because it can be seen as failure if not viewed for what it is," says Dan McGowan, worship and music director at Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Aurora, Colorado.

You may disagree with George Barna's enthusiasm for what he calls "revolutionary Christians, people who are more interested in being the Church than going to a church." The fact remains that church affiliation is dropping in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia.

Replace talk with action

McGowan suggests that church leaders discern the difference between their "fresh plans to get people into church" and God's vision of the church, as described in Acts 2:42-47.

"The first church had no light shows, no PowerPoint, no hot band. Yet somehow people gathered, encountered, and were transformed by the Lord!" McGowan says, listing these marks of the early church:

  • "People were devoted to and trusted their leaders and did not seek ways to back bite."
  • "People were devoted to one another. If someone had a need, the body took care of it. End of story."
  • "They sought God regularly and didn't worry about how much time praying took."
  • "They expected God to work wonders in their midst, through the power of the Holy Spirit."
  • "They met the needs of those outside church walls."

The contagious element that daily added members to the Church of the Acts, McGowan explains, is that people expected, and did, meet God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, without worrying how it looked to others.

That craving for authentic life-transforming community hasn't changed. When he asks people why they've left church, he often hears that churches talk a lot-but don't demonstrate-how to live as Christ's disciples.

Meanwhile, those who tell McGowan how a local church has helped them grow in faith usually mention the gifts of fellowship and accountability.

Expect to be transformed

So how can a church live out its calling to reflect God's communion in and with the world?

McGowan says the first thing is to help the congregation understand and desire grace. Sermons, songs, prayers, and other worship elements can create in worshipers the belief that, through God's grace, "they can and should be transformed."

His tips for helping people encounter God in worship include
 Limit the use of enhancers, such as media presentations, theatrical lighting, or special effects. "If an enhancer can honestly move the worshiper closer to God, then great. But steer clear of anything that could resemble a 'God show' or 'performance.' " 
 Build mutual trust between the worship leader and senior pastor, something McGowan is blessed to have in senior pastor Doug Klein. 
 Model a sense of expectancy through the praise team and choir. Musicians at Faith Evangelical Pres prepare songs ahead and usually sing them all, but know McGowan will sometimes feel led by the Holy Spirit to do something different. 
 Plan services that flow seamlessly "not from a production standpoint but from a 'model-teach' mindset." McGowan notes that worship is not just the music. It includes who the people are as they worship in song, prayer, sermon, offering, and so on. 
 Try new things, like putting a microphone in the sanctuary so people can share Scripture between songs and setting out rhythm instruments so anyone can play along during songs. Invite people to create worship-related art, display it in the sanctuary. Include a time during worship for walking around to view the art while singing familiar songs. 
 Have elders use prayer and holy oil for people who come forward during a monthly healing service.

Value truth, not uniqueness

Mark D. Roberts, senior pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church in Irvine, California, agrees that "genuine Christian fellowship is part and parcel of the gospel."

In a sermon series on church identity, Roberts said, "If you want to be a true Christian church, don't be preoccupied with what makes you different from all the other churches." Instead work toward the true Christian fellowship that has remained essentially the same for centuries-as described in 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, Ephesians, and 1 Corinthians.

Roberts wrote After "I Believe" to challenge individualism among Christians in North America and Western Europe. "Unlike the first Christians, we seem to think that 'fellowship' is optional equipment rather than a required component of true Christian living," he says.

Honestly seeking to worship in a way that models intentional, dedicated community has led Roberts to ease up on liturgical correctness.

Like many pastors, he used to see announcements as frustrating distractions that interrupt the flow of worship. But he's begun to appreciate how a verbal notice of a men's retreat helps more men connect or how one woman's spontaneous testimony about a ministry expresses and supports the church's identity as a community.

"The more I take seriously who we are as the body of Christ, the more I see announcements as one way to be the people God has made and saved us to be," Roberts explains.

Learn More

Don't miss the audio excerpts of Tod Bolsinger speaking on:

  • Bringing your best to God in worship
  • Individualism in churches
  • Long-term vision and pastorates
  • Representing Christ to the world

Check out blogs by Tod Bolsinger and Mark D. Roberts. Karen Ward, pastor of Church of the Apostles in Seattle, blogs about building Christian community among post moderns.

Read (online, for free) In His Steps, written more than 100 years ago by Charles Sheldon. A homeless man is turned away from a pastor's study, but shows up during Sunday worship and asks, "What would Jesus do if he was here?" The homeless man dies. The pastor ponders. He inspires his congregation to begin being Jesus' hands and feet in their town. Compare this perspective to today's WWJD ideas.

Consider reviewing one of these books for your church newsletter and donating the book to your church library:

Read Marva Dawn's tips on building community through worship. Check out community-building ideas especially suited for small churches. Plan services for Trinity Sunday. Get ideas on naming the Trinity in worship or designing whole services around this theme. Delve into Trinitarian themes in recent theological literature.

Browse related stories on creeds, being formed by Scripture, global worship, the Lord's Supper, and Trinitarian worship music.

Start a Discussion

Talk about growing together as the people of God:

  • How often do your songs, sermons, and other worship elements refer to "I," my," or "you" (in the singular sense) in contrast to "we," "our," "you (all)," "the church," or "God's people"? What does this ratio communicate about how your church understands the faith?
  • What do you think about Tod Bolsinger's statement that the church is the only true means of being transformed into Christ's likeness?
  • What we count is what we value. How does your church measure whether you are becoming a genuine Christian fellowship that reveals God to the world?
  • How many of your services include confession, assurance of pardon, passing the peace, communion, Trinitarian language, or reminders of your congregation's vision statement? What do these elements teach worshipers about growing together in Christ?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to help worshipers think of themselves corporately, as the people of God?

  • Did you create a checklist so a church education or youth group could analyze the "just me and Jesus" versus "we are the people of God" content in your worship services? If so, will you share it with us?
  • If you added something that made worship more participatory and communal, will you explain what you added and why?
  • Did you create new resources-perhaps visual, musical, dramatic, or liturgical responses-so that fellowship is seen as an integral, rather than optional, part of Christian faith?

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