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.


Creatures of Habit

Just watch students over the course of a semester. They have free wills to choose whichever seat they want. After the first week of classes, they have found the seat from which they will not depart for the rest of the semester. It is “his” seat. We have no need for assigned seating. We create our own assignments.

The same applies to worship. Liturgy repeats itself even in the most anti-liturgical of sectors of Christendom. Just ask Randall Balmer:

The biggest change in evangelicalism is its worship, which has become almost formulaic. Virtually every evangelical gathering these days opens with “praise music,” which generally consists of simple lyrics and a lilting, undemanding melody — all led by a “praise band” or “worship team” consisting of guitarists, a keyboardist, a drummer and several vocalists clutching microphones. The music is hypnotic. Members of the congregation raise their hands in the air, and the singing seems to last forever. As my friend Tony Campolo says, five notes, three words, two hours.

The second part of evangelical worship is the sermon or, as evangelicals prefer, the “message.” Whereas the preachers in my youth wore suits and neckties, the standard these days is jeans and T-shirts, and probably a nest of tattoos. If the first part of the service is “feel good,” the second part is “be good.” Again, it’s formulaic. Sometimes it’s a political sermon disguised as theology, but more often the preacher enjoins the congregation to behave, to adhere to evangelical standards of morality, which are usually expressed in negative terms, with a heightened emphasis on sexual behavior. And then, with a prayer and maybe another song, it’s over.

What’s missing here? When I attend evangelical gatherings these days, I generally leave asking myself, What was “church” about that? I sang a few songs and listened to a sermon, but where was Jesus? Yes, the preacher may have invoked his name a couple of times, but in the absence of the Eucharist or Holy Communion, evangelical worship these days strikes me as barren.

Whereas Episcopalians or Roman Catholics believe in the “real presence” of Christ, that they encounter Jesus himself in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, most evangelicals take a dim, even dismissive, view of the sacraments. At most, they offer communion once a month or even once a quarter, and the bread and wine (actually, grape juice, a hangover from the temperance movement) merely remind us of Jesus.

So are the habits good or bad?

How Evangelicals Can Prove their Environmentalist Convictions

This past Sunday my wife and I visited a Baptist church in a seaside town that fifty years ago would have been the worship option for our both sets of parents when vacationing. The half-hour of singing during the first half of the service, punctuated by insights from the pianist-minister-of-music, was not surprising. This liturgical practice of unceasing song is now standard almost everywhere that Protestants do not use a prayer book even though Pentecostals were the first to introduce the period of praise songs as the way to enter into God’s presence (the invocation used to take care of that).

What was surprising, though, was that this form of service – a half-hour of song, followed by a half-hour sermon – could transpire without an order of service in the bulletin. The songs appeared on the screen above the baptistry, the singers and musicians in the front found the right music, and when the singing was finished the pastor assumed his place behind the pulpit. It seemed to transpire in an orderly way. But what happened to a prayer of praise, one of confession, one of thanksgiving? Or what about different readings from parts of Scripture? What about the dialogue between God and his people? This seemed to be one monologue (song) followed by another (sermon). The only part of the service that remained unchanged from our youth was the Lord’s Supper that concluded the service. It was a memorial of Christ’s death.

As I struggled to think about the words on the screen during the first half of the service – I could not sing because the tunes are difficult, unfamiliar and only the musicians up front had music (so much for the priesthood of all believers) – I began to wonder how this congregation would do if the power went out. Well, they would not be able to sing because the projector would not work, the microphones would also be off, and some of the instruments would no longer function. Plus, the pastor would have to do without that nifty microphone headset that made it look like he was wearing braces. Still, the sun was bright enough to let us use the hymnals, especially if the sexton would have opened the shades that darkened the room sufficiently for the projector to do its work.

This led me to think that if evangelicals really are becoming green and owning their environmental responsibilities, then perhaps such statements as “An Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation” should include as one of its policy proposals the banning of all Praise & Worship worship. This would mean saving all the electricity that is used to support the praise bands, the singers, and the projectors and computers. The proposal should also call for worship music that uses only hymnals and pianos.

Of course, trees need to be felled to produce hymn books and to make parts of pianos. In which case, evangelicals might consider that the form of worship with the smallest carbon footprint is exclusive psalm-singing unaccompanied by musical instruments. Yes, the psalter still requires the demolition of trees. But unlike most hymnals that weigh in with close to 700 hymns, the psalter only has 150 songs, and so requires less paper. And without the need of a piano, organ, electric guitar, or synthesizer, psalm-singing further reduces the consumption of fossil fuels.

So if evangelicals are truly serious about the environment, one way to look for it is with a return to the worship of Geneva. Who knew Calvin was such a sensitive and trendy guy?