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Spirit-inspired worship requires breathing life into dry bones

About 70 people join a ‘spirited’ Vital Congregations Zoom call

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Rev. Dr. David Gambrell

LOUISVILLE — Using Ezekiel’s stark vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, the Rev. Dr. David Gambrell elicited any number of innovative ideas from about 70 pastors and other church leaders during Wednesday’s videoconference on Spirit-inspired worship, one of the Seven Marks of Vital Congregations.

Gambrell, associate for worship in the Office of Theology & Worship, hailed the passage — Ezekiel 37:1-14 — as one that speaks both to Christians during Holy Week and people everywhere suffering through the coronavirus pandemic. It comes from the context of Babylonian exile after people had been overrun, scattered and driven from their spiritual home by a brutal enemy. “Does that sound familiar?” Gambrell asked. It’s a key lectionary text for the Easter vigil, “with one bony foot in death and the other in resurrection. That is right where we are. Am I right, church?” he said. As well, “I can’t imagine a more appropriate passage to lead us in a discussion of Spirit-inspired worship,” he said.

It’s especially “painful and poignant” to talk about breath and respiration as witnessed by the prophet Ezekiel “When COVID-19 is attacking the lungs and the breath of loved ones around the world,” Gambrell said. “It really does feel like we are standing in a valley of dry bones and the dust of death is all around us.”

Drawing from the Vital Congregations Immediate Toolkit, Gambrell identified four qualities of Spirit-inspired worship:

  • It’s God’s gift to humankind, and it’s a gift of God’s self — a double gift.
  • It’s a calling, both a calling in and a calling out. It’s an invitation into a deeper relationship with God and others, and it’s the invitation to mission and service in Jesus’ name.
  • It’s a witness to the resurrection, our opportunity to bear witness that the crucified One is risen from the dead.
  • It’s a way of life, flowing from the sanctuary to our workplace, home, neighborhood and community. It’s connected to everything else the church does, including the formation of caring relationships, lifelong formation for discipleship and the other marks of vital congregations.

Then Gambrell did a smart thing: he stopped teaching and asked participants to talk about their own experiences with Spirit-inspired worship, beginning with how they’ve seen the Spirit moving and working during the last few weeks of online worship.

One participant has been watching church families seated on their sofa reading Scripture together during worship. “I get to see the homes of families where I have never been invited into their homes,” this participant said. “The Spirit is working in an expansive way.”

The Rev. Michael Umbenhaur, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Orange, Texas, said the past few weeks have demonstrated “that homebound ministry will take on more importance for each and every church. It’s a scary sight, but an exciting sight.”

The pastor at Community Presbyterian Church in Redmond, Oregon, the Rev. Andrew Hoeksema, said he believes worship “can bring a moment of hope in this horrible crisis,” during which he’s declined to preach sermons “that won’t comfort and encourage people.” The church is also “selective about which songs we are singing” during worship, because “we don’t want to give people cheap hope.”

The Rev. Alfredo Delgado, associate pastor for community outreach and church renewal at Placentia Presbyterian Church in Southern California, recalled the lament over the destruction of Jerusalem as recorded in Psalm 137. “They hung up their harps because they weren’t encouraged to worship in a removed place,” Delgado said. “That is a temptation we might feel.”

The Rev. Charlotte Lohrenz, pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, said she’s seen “a spirit of gratitude, a clear recognition of the love and power of worship” over the past few weeks. “I think people realize how much they hunger for and appreciate true worship,” she said.

The pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Beatrice in Nebraska, the Rev. Zac Wolfe, said families at that church have provided prerecorded personal messages that are shared during worship. “They are messages of comfort and hope,” Wolfe said. “What they say is often more meaningful than any message I could give.”

Dr. Cheryl Carson, associate executive presbyter at Central Florida Presbytery, said pastors have been checking in with the ways they’ve seen the Spirit at work “in all the creativity” that’s been occurring in churches around the presbytery.

A woman who does children’s ministry made a video depicting her walking around the empty church building and describing how much she missed the congregation’s young people. Another pastor has been beginning worship using the Zoom platform 30 minutes early to give church members time to visit with one another before the service begins.

“I don’t think God caused the coronavirus,” Carson said, “but I think God is using it to help us get into the 21st century.”

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