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Worship: Experiencing grace in community

As society loses touch with its history of Sunday being a day for church and rest, United Methodist clergy are encouraging congregants to remember their roots and the importance of worship today.

While people offer many reasons for "skipping church and the decline in church attendance," the Rev. Karen Westerfield Tucker believes gathering for worship is "absolutely" still important.

"Christianity is not a solitary religion, and John Wesley certainly made the case that it is a 'social' religion — both in its worship and in its concern for the care of the neighbor," she says.

Tucker, professor of worship at Boston University School of Theology, says gathering for worship is "a necessary part of life for those who intend to follow Jesus."

"By being with others, we learn to pray for others. We learn to confess our faults as the body of Christ, and to find pardon together," she continues. "Worship gives an opportunity for reconciliation of differences and to share Christ's peace with our neighbor."

The Rev. Steve Manskar, director of Wesleyan leadership at the General Board of Discipleship, agrees.

Grow in love

"Wesley knew, and Scripture teaches, that human beings are essentially social creatures," Manskar says. "We encounter God and his grace through relationships and practices that foster growth in loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Grace is given and received most profoundly in the practices of Christian worship, especially in the sacrament of Holy Communion."

Though Wesley does not specifically mention worship in his "Means of Grace" sermon, scholars say it is clear that he viewed it as a means of grace. Wesley likely did not mention it outright, says Manskar, because the Wesleyan audience would have known that attending public worship was "central to the practice of Christian discipleship."

Tucker notes in one of her published works that, when gathering for worship, Wesley commended Methodists for not focusing on appearances but rather on "looking upward and looking inward, in hearkening to the voice of God, and pouring out their hearts before him."

"By encouraging simplicity in worship and all of life, and by urging persons toward a heartfelt, vital religion," Tucker wrote, "Wesley and the Methodists strove to 'stir up' and enliven the worship of God in their time."

The Rev. John Collins, co-pastor at First United Methodist Church in Abilene, Kan., says he thinks gathering for worship was important in early Methodism because "Wesley recognized that community was a big part of being reconciled to God and to other people."

Not a solitary faith

In worship, "we encounter God together," he says. "There is something about being together and nurturing that relationship with God and with one another that fits with Wesley's understanding of salvation."

According to Manskar, Wesley is well known for a quote from Collections of Hymns, in which he wrote, "'Holy solitaries' is a phrase no more consistent with the Gospel than holy adulterers. The Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness, but social holiness."

Social holiness, according to Manskar, is "Christians regularly gathering together in community to watch over one another in love and to offer themselves in service to God in worship through word and sacrament."

Wesley emphasized the need for Methodists to gather with one another in order to receive grace in its various forms.

"Worship is not only something we do — offering praise and offering ourselves, but through worship, we receive grace," says the Rev. Karl Kroger, pastor at Grace United Methodist Church in Piedmont, S.D. "We receive God's grace as we encounter God in the hearing of Scripture, the sacraments, prayer, praise, unity and one another. In worship, God pours forth grace, sanctifying both individual believers and the body of Christ."

Kroger views worship as "the primary means of grace to instill and strengthen our collective identity as God's people."

"I have experienced grace in corporate worship through my sisters and brothers in Christ," Kroger said. "Fellow believers have been vessels of grace through their beautiful voices, encouraging words, tender prayers, inspiring testimonies."

On his blog "From Behind the Pulpit," Collins wrote about his sympathies toward those who feel the desire to stay home from church, but he urged them to go anyway, because of the grace they'll find. Collins admitted his own feelings of hesitation about going to a service on a Sunday afternoon. Even as a pastor, the appeal of an afternoon nap can make it hard to remember the grace that comes in worship.

Expect grace

Collins went to the service and experienced God's grace "in such an overwhelming way," he says. Because of that experience, he wanted to share the blog post, hoping it would motivate the people of the church to do the same.

"[Worship] brings together so many of the means of grace," he says. "You go to worship expecting to experience God's grace."

Manskar believes gathering and participating in liturgy together "helps us to know that we are not alone" and reminds us of our mission.

"We are part of a community centered in the life, death, Resurrection and mission of Jesus Christ," he says. "In praise, confession, prayer, singing, sacrament, we offer ourselves, individually and corporately, to God in service. [God] teaches us in his word, forgives our sins, feeds us at his table and sends us into the world to serve with Christ in his mission of preparing this world for the coming reign of God."

Emily Snell is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

'Means of Grace' online

This is the final story of a yearlong series produced collaboratively by Interpreter and The Upper Room. 

For further reading

A Quiet Pentecost: Inviting the Spirit into Congregational Life, Dwight Judy, The Upper Room,

Patterned by Grace: How Liturgy Shapes Us, Daniel Benedict, The Upper Room.

That We May Perfectly Love Thee: Preparing Our Hearts for Holy Communion, Robert Benson, The Upper Room.

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