December 31, 2012 marks a personal anniversary: the twenty-fifth anniversary of the preaching of my first sermon, a few minutes before midnight in a home in the Indiana countryside. [Editor’s note: the home of Rev. Bill Rogers.]
That it was in a home is an interesting presaging of our work today. I’m certainly not a fan of house church as it’s presently construed (an inch deep and an inch wide), but I am passionately committed to the ideas that:
- Church is intended as a cluster of households;
- We are to do our church work in the existing structures we inhabit (both physical and social);
- 1 Timothy 3:1-5 (which reminds us that pastors have no business pastoring churches until they demonstrate their knowledge of discipleship in their families) is the painfully, painfully neglected foundation of all pastoral training.
These are three of the themes I develop in Church is for Amateurs, so I’ll leave them here for now and simply note that my first sermon twenty-five years ago tonight, just a few minutes before midnight, was similar to the sermons I preach today in one respect: When I finished, people looked very, very puzzled and uncomfortable. Though in my preaching these days that happens on purpose, on that night it happened entirely by accident, and I realized a lesson that has permeated my ministry and teaching (and led to the kind of puzzling, uncomfortable preaching I do today):
Always opt for faithfulness over novelty and creativity.
In retrospect, I should have busted out a Watch Night service for my preaching debut.
Rev. P. Kimberleigh Jordan has a nice summary of the origin and contemporary manifestations of the Watch Night service, which is well worth a click-through and reflective read.
Oddly, I’ve never been especially fond of Wesley’s own service, though I like the treatment the Confessing Reader gives it here. I think my lack of enthusiasm for the service is less related to the service itself and more related to its use outside the context of a formal discipleship structure and method. Left to its own devices, the service is a bit melodramatic, espousing and predicting Big Things For And From Us in our passivity rather than as those actively cooperating with the Holy Spirit to be shaped in the image of Christ. Certainly that’s not at all what Wesley intended, since no one was a bigger advocate for such active cooperation than Wesley. But we Wesleyan types have a habit of co-opting the grandeur of Wesley’s vision without the grinding grace of his methods. Big mistake.
In any case, whether you’ve used the Wesley Watch Night order of worship before or no, let me commend an alternative rendition of the service for your use. It comes from the Salvation Army and includes a nice message, excellent Scripture-soaked liturgical pieces, and even a few hear the Word/do the Word elements.
It’s the service I wish I would have used twenty-five years ago for my preaching debut. But that’s one of the truly great things about God, about discipleship, and about ministry:
He can even teach an old preacher dog new tricks.
Happy New Year, dear reader.
And happy 25th anniversary, dear Lord–thank you humbly and sincerely for these first twenty-five years of ministry. What an inestimable, peerless privilege.