Why Worship Should be Uncomfortable

How do you package assembling in the presence of a holy and righteous God? For Roman Catholics, the way to retain the seriousness of worship requires spaces that elevate the senses to an awareness of divine presence (somehow a cathedral with beautiful stained glass and the stations of the cross is still here on planet earth):

Mass started looking less like the worship of God and more like a pep rally. Our churches stopped looking Catholic and were overrun by iconoclasts. We went from churches that exuded Catholic belief visually, to ubiquitous ‘sacred spaces’ that looked more like theaters.

Some places ran with the theater aspect. Worship transformed to entertainment. What I got out of it became much more important than what I put into it.

By ripping out the transcendent heart out of worship, we reduced Mass. It is little wonder that belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist plummeted. It is little wonder that priestly vocations plummeted. While the generation that ushered these things love them, the subsequent generations fled in droves.

With worship emptied of the transcendent, Catholic life soon followed. Devotional life in parishes dried up. Parish churches became Mass stations. It has been heartening to see a rise in Eucharistic Adoration.

Regulative principle type Protestants might be tempted to make a similar complain about the megachurch and the praise band. It all seems to reinforce the genius of revivalists like Billy Sunday, which according to H. L. Mencken, was to take the mystifying and make it ordinary:

His impressiveness, to the vegetal mind, lies in two things, the first being the sheer clatter and ferocity of his style and the second being his utter lack of those transparent pretensions to intellectual superiority and other worldliness which mark the average evangelical divine. In other words, he does not preach down at his flock from the heights of an assumed moral superiority — i.e. inexperience of the common sorrows and temptations of the world — but discharges his message as man to man, reaching easily for buttonholes, jogging in the ribs, slapping on the back. The difference here noted is abysmal. Whatever the average man’s respect for the cloth, he cannot rid himself of the feeling that the holy man in the pulpit is, in many important respects, a man unlike himself . . . .; his aura is a sort of psychic monastery; his advice is not that of a practical man, with the scars of combat on him, but that of a dreamer wrapped in aseptic cotton.

Even setting aside [Sunday’s] painstaking avoidance of anything suggesting clerical garb and his indulgence in obviously unclerical gyration on his sacred stump, he comes down so palpably to the level of his audience, both in the matter and the manner of his discourse, that he quickly disarms the old suspicion of the holy clerk and gets the discussion going on the familiar and easy terms of a debate in a barroom. The raciness of his slang is not the whole story by any means; his attitude of mind lies behind it, and is more important. . . . It is marked, above all, by a contemptuous disregard of the theoretical and mystifying; an angry casting aside of what may be called the ecclesiastical mask, an eagerness to reduce all the abstrusities of Christian theology to a few and simple and (to the ingenuous) self-evident propositions, a violent determination to make of religion a practical, an imminent, an everyday concern.

Sunday’s revivals may not have inspired reverence, but what if worship is transcendent without the bells and whistles of images, statues, and transubstantiation. What if simply reading the Bible is spooky? It is God’s word after all, and if God spoke to any of us in a burning bush I’m betting we might not sleep for a couple nights.

Isn’t reverence the key to setting worship apart from ordinary experience? A while back Steve Tipton refuted the idea that the problem of diversity in Presbyterian worship services was a failure to follow the regulative principle and concoct an order of service that everyone follows. He was against “liturgical sameness” and had a point. But why can’t we have “atmospheric” or “feng shui” sameness? Why, in other words, can’t a service be reverent no matter what the order of service? Incense could promote reverence until the snowflakes start complaining about second-hand smoke. Singing psalms only could also accomplish a unique experience, at least to push back against the Gettys. But what about praise bands or jazz quartets? Do they cultivate reverence? How about lots of Scripture? The Old Testament narratives sure are mystifying.

One of the most important features of Reformed Protestantism was its capacity to adapt to different settings. No single book of prayer or liturgy or edition of Scripture became required for membership in the club. But in all settings worship was reverent. People gathered with a fear of offending God. As the author to the Hebrews wrote, Christians do not come to Sinai but to Zion. But even there God is a “consuming fire.” (There’s that burning bush again.)

Maybe the way to recapture transcendence and reverence is to begin with a reading of the law and a reminder that we should not attempt to make God conform to our image of him. You can do that even in a storefront church.

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