Phil Dillingham is a friend in ministry, a neighbor, and the pastor of the Priest Lake Christian Fellowship here in Antioch. Priest Lake is an interesting place, birthed in the charismatic renewal of the traditional Churches of Christ here in Nashville. It’s a place that doesn’t get much publicity, and Phil is a pastor who probably doesn’t get listed on many top ten lists of influential preachers in Nashville. And yet, the more I am with Phil and hear about his congregation, the more I am convinced that they are doing a great work of God here in our community.
Phil and his colleague Guy Pierce (a former missionary to North India) recently came out with a small booklet they distributed to all of us at the area preacher’s prayer meeting today. The title is a play on the 16th and 17th century tracts and booklets that folks like the Wesley brothers distributed to their followers: A Short Discursive Guide to Young Pastors Attempting to Think Through Issues Related to Being And Developing New Churches of the Body of Christ. The booklet is an attempt to share what they have learned in the 17 years or so since their congregation was started, focused in particular on a theological and philosophical basis for ministry in a new, of for that matter any church.
I had some time waiting in the car today, and so I began to flip through the booklet. Frankly it gets confusing at times for they are writing in the first person and sometimes have to identify who the “I” is that is speaking in the moment. However, it was a passage in the first chapter, Toward the Ontology of the Church, that grabbed me today, and I am sharing it with you to hear your thoughts (as well as to lift up the work of a good friend).
What’s happening as we gather together as God’s people on Sunday morning? Actually, the Sunday morning part is incidental. The question is really directed at any time God’s people gather together as the body of Christ to worship Him. Here’s what I [Phil] came up with:
We are in way over our heads. There is more going on around us and in us than we can possibly know or get our minds around. Christ is here! He is here in me. He is in others. He is in us together. 1 John 4:12 says that no one has ever seen God, but if we love each other His presence is perfected in us. The perfected presence of the living Lord Jesus Christ is being experienced through very imperfect people as we love each other. And this love is from him. It is deep and wide – so deep, in fact, that we swim in it and cannot touch the bottom. Christ is the foundation of this love. He’s the ground and substance – the ontology –behind, in, and through all we do. It is Christ behind and in the Word of God that we preach. We are not just disseminating information that makes good disciples if applied well; it is Christ Himself through his Word that is coming to us. It is Christ behind, in and through our ethics as we encourage people to live a high ethical calling in Christ. It is Christ himself in us who empowers and embodies this ethic. The church that is gathered is the body of Christ, not just metaphorically. The metaphor is pointing to the reality, an unseen reality, that we need an icon for, like the icons on a computer screen. The metaphor of the body is pointing to the reality of the corporate “we” and Christ is the center of that. It is Christ in, through, and under the Sacraments we practice. It is He who meets us as we take the Lord’s Supper. It is he who meets us in baptism. A mystery far beyond our ability to comprehend or explain is taking place. We are swimming in a great sea of love as we gather together, and we cannot touch the bottom. And yet, we are floating along, to some extent effortlessly in this love. In short, a reality penetrates and pervades all that we are doing. It is an unseen spiritual reality, but it is there.
How often do those of us who lead worship fall into the mechanics of worship without considering the metaphysical realities that surround us as we gather? For that matter, how often do we think that “successful worship” (whatever that means) is dependent on our skills and gifts? Are we ever willing to think about what is happening at the spiritual level, or does metaphysics simply pale in the face of logistical concerns?
What Phil reminds me is that there is so much more happening in worship that what we see and hear. This isn’t to suggest that we can be mediocre in our worship practices and expect God to pull it off. No, this vision helps us understand that what we do every Sunday is very important, for it involves the connection between head and heart, between the physical and the spiritual, that God is made known. Yet, far too often I get caught up in the stuff of worship rather than thinking about what’s going on “behind the scenes” (so to speak).
This is where the Eastern traditions of Christian faith have something on Westernized Christianity. I have never forgotten the local Greek Orthodox priest in Atlanta tell us that their communion believed that worship happened in their place through the communion of saints with Christ looking down from heaven 24/7, whether a living congregation was assembled or not.
What difference would if make in how you approach worship if you truly began to believe that Christ at the center is engaged in stuff that is “way over our heads?” Do we really believe that worship is the place where the presence of Christ is mediated? If not, then we are we then engaged in putting on a show?