How did you learn that God loves you? Most of us could answer this on two different levels. There was the day we learned about God’s love, and then there was the day where it made sense, where we intuitively began to understand that God loved us and we started to live boldly and faithfully as a result. Most of the students I work with at Houghton College have many avenues to learn about God. There are required Bible and theology components in the curriculum, and more sound Bible teaching is available online.
Yet there are very few reliable guides to this second sense of knowing God’s love and helping move this knowledge from one’s head to one’s heart. It’s as if we think, “If we provide enough content, it will simply sink in.” We provide the toolbox, which includes classes, mentors, culturally relevant worship experiences, preachers, podcasts, daily devotionals and an online presence. We expect that lay people will simply choose the tools that are best for them and create a coherent, healthy spiritual life. But our churches are full of people who know about God but do not have a deep and unshakable sense that God is with us and for us.
This realization drove us to two daily practices at Houghton. Every weekday morning at 7:30, a group of Houghton faculty, staff and students gather for a fifteen-minute service of morning prayer. We sing a cappella, read a Psalm, Old Testament and New Testament passage, offer a prayer appropriate for the new day, lift each other’s burdens to God and bless each other before parting ways. Each week I choose Scripture around a different theme pertinent to the Christian year or the academic cycle, and if you attend all 140 morning prayer services in an academic year, you would hear each book of the Bible read at least once. (Attendance is voluntary and sometimes we have off-campus guests who join us for these daily services.)
We read these same Scriptures again at 3:45 in the afternoon, when we have a fifteen-minute Communion service. Here we also confess our sin, hear God’s forgiveness for us and sing a hymn about God’s love. We also pray a version of the Great Thanksgiving, which is an ancient prayer where we rehearse God’s salvation activity from creation to the present day, and we are reminded of the blessed part we get to play in this grand work that God is doing. We confess the places in our life and world where we sense a need for God’s Holy Spirit, and ask that his Spirit be in those places and in the very room we gather in.
All of these services are aimed at creating a steady, reliable rhythm of opportunities for people to encounter God. One service can teach the mind; a regular pattern of services can teach the heart. In a world where God sometimes seems silent, the Word and Table bear witness that God loves us. Each of these services is intentionally free of professionally-produced content: there is a cappella singing, but no professional musicians. The Scripture is read but there is no commentary or sermon. I most often lead but am not presenting any of my own ideas. To students who are used to churches providing content and tools, this can seem surprising and even dry. But the goal is not a show. The goal is to simply remember that God loves us and keep showing up. Over time, this sinks in, and the habit bears fruit. We expect that God loves us and can begin to act as if it really is true.
Michael Jordan is dean of the Chapel at Houghton College.