The following is an open letter to the saints I serve at Second Reformed Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis:
The way you worship matters. You do not see everything I see in worship as your pastor, and so today, I’m writing to tell you some of what I see.
It starts in the hour before worship. I gather with ESL (English as a Second Language) students who come for worship along with one elder's wife who brings her large heart and multilingual abilities. You know these students through your work with them in the Wednesday evening ESL classes. In the hour before worship, they read the Scripture passage through which I will preach and we work through the text. Though most have advanced degrees, they have very little experience with English. They usually have even lesser knowledge of the Bible. For instance, few begin with the understanding that the Bible is a single story, rather than a collection of wisdom literature is the case with most religious texts.
So, through language barriers and against the pressure of the ticking clock, we labor for the hour to understand the gist of the text and the central point of the coming sermon. We read together, explain English words, tell the story, compare cultures, explain illustrations that will be used in the sermon, and answer questions. We have a great time. By the end of the hour, the white board may be covered with an assortment of sketched maps, rough-hewn timelines, English words, characters from other languages, Pictionary-like pictures, or lists of books of the Bible. When faces still wrinkle in puzzlement, charades sometimes help (and oftentimes fail). Smiles always help. Lots of smiles. Big smiles. Going both ways.
Hopefully, by the time the bell rings, we have communicated something of the love of Christ and our love for him in addition to technical aspects of the English language. On certain weeks, it feels more like the Tower of Babel than Pentecost. I wonder if we have been clear enough for the students to understand anything at a spiritual level.
Then, as the elder's wife wraps up the class, I prayerfully move downstairs to gather with the elders to pray. What I am waiting for next, especially with new students, is where you come in as a congregation. It is hard to communicate the power of the gospel through a foreign tongue one-on-one or in a small group. But as worship begins, these guests witness the power of the gospel in you.
When the singing begins, I see them look around to see people who sing to God and to one another like they mean it – even if our guests do not understand all of the words themselves. They see people giving attention to the reading of Scripture. They listen to prayer uttered with passion and feel the reverberation of you praying the Lord’s Prayer in unison. They watch people freely and joyfully giving to the Lord. Through the Holy Spirit in you, Psalm 50:2 comes to pass, at least in part, “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.”
Then, as the Scripture reading and sermon begin, they are at least a little more able to understand as a fruit of the previous hour. But their language skills are not yet sufficient to grasp a great deal of the sermon. What I do see is that they look around at you as you give heed to the word read. They observe the children answer rhetorical questions with nods or smiles, the saints locked in on the preached word, and notes being scribbled. They hear the communal laughter at certain points along with groans and amens. They see tears shed. They witness a spiritual transaction.
In short, they see what Paul saw in the Thessalonian church when he wrote that, “when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thessalonians 2:13). Our guests cannot always articulate to me what they see, but when they try, they recognize that something unusual is transpiring…something they tell me they have never seen before in their home countries.
Then, they hear you talking about the Scriptures after worship as the assembly disburses or in your homes over lunch. I do not get to see all of that, but I am so thankful that from the pulpit I get to see the power of God's word made manifest through your worship, by the grace of our Lord.
I am deeply grateful to serve a congregation that so deeply loves God and his word. So, you just keep serving the God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in worship. Keep loving his word and keep receiving it for what it really is. Know that others watch the way you worship; your witness is loud and clear. That is what your pastor sees in worship.