Spiritual in the Flesh

10 02 2017

If our view of heaven and the afterlife has become white-washed intangibility with clouds and harps and bodiless spirits, it is largely because we have stopped believing in the Sacraments.   —  C.S. Lewis, from “Transposition” in The Weight of Glory


It is rather frightening to watch how consistently Hollywood depicts Heaven and the after-life:  a bright light, sky and clouds, figures dressed in pure white togas.  The lack of creativity is stunning.  Because this vision of Heaven is so monochromatic and bland, Hollywood must make movies about other worlds, dimensions, and galaxies that display in digital HD the stunning beauty we all long and hope for.

Recently, upon watching Rogue One:  A Star Wars Story, I departed the theater haunted by Eden.  Why?  While the plot and heroics were mildly inspiring, I could not get over the painfully beautiful  planetary landscapes.  Now, I realize our own planet has breathtaking beauty, but for some reason we want to see and experience that beauty in an entirely different, even mythical context.  We long for the other-worldly– somehow innately sensing that this world is not our true and final home.  All of it’s beauty and adventure just leave us increasingly homesick.


So, why do I have to go to the movie theater to have this experience.  Shouldn’t I be having a glimpse of the other-worldly at church?  Sadly, no.  At least, not in the tradition in which I was raised.  My honest confession is that I am weary to the point of being angry to have to attend Sunday morning services in my current context (which is overall good and necessary).  Songs and a sermon (with announcements and a few VERY brief prayers and Scriptures).  My particular ecclesiastical tradition seems to be terribly allergic to the tactile and aesthetic .  We are fearful where that may lead, so we keep to purely “spiritual” practices in our worship– like songs and sermons.  I arrived at home after the morning service and attempted to watch the Divine Liturgy on YouTube just to have some taste of what I longed for (alas!  The quality of the video was poor, and I found I was a mere observer and no real participant!).

For you churches in this stream of the Christian tradition related to Worship practices, hear me:  I would rather watch a movie or drive into the mountains than sit through your worship services.  And if I, a committed believer raised in the church, have this opinion, how much more so do the unbelievers who sleep in on Sunday morning.  Good grief!  Even the early church suffering under heavy persecution took the time and effort to make beautiful mosaics that decorated the floors and walls of their worship spaces which tended to be in the large homes of the wealthy.

Would it really kill our churches to make our worship spaces beautiful, rather than merely utilitarian?!


There is a good deal of irony being in a Holiness tradition– our walls are all white (or the same colors as the local Starbucks), with no art-work to be found (except for the occasional banner with a bible verse), our pulpits and communion tables have been removed to make room for the praise band and casually dressed preacher, but in many cases we still have the “altar”, which is actually the altar rail, where communicants, once upon a forgotten time, would kneel to receive the consecrated elements of the Lord’s Supper.   All furniture our forebears used in worship have disappeared except for a piece that is not used as originally intended!

Holiness churches, if we really want to be more spiritual, we need to become more physical in our worship services.  Christians have always done so until the Anabaptists.  It is the natural human inclination across time and cultures.  But sadly, being more spiritual does not seem toholy-communion-cross-in-cup be the goal.  Rather the aim is to be more appealing to visitors and outsiders so that attendance averages and budgets increase.  I know our leaders voice the belief that all such efforts are a means to the end of saving souls– getting people to Heaven and away from the wide highways to Hell.  But in all our efforts to be relevant and cool, we’ve forgotten the body of Christ who have been assembling with us all these years, and how they and we need the vision of Heaven constantly and consistently renewed before our five senses.   Maybe, just maybe, with the bright beauty of Eternity shinning out clear and true from our eyes, hearts and mouths we would all be more effective evangelists, a hundred-fold.  Then such scheming, marketing and contemporizing would not seem so necessary and we can return worship to the center and heart of Christian life as much more than a tool to attract and keep the new and hip.


Worship as Prayer

27 10 2014

The first “contemporary” worship service I attended was at Willow Creek in the early 1990’s. I was in college and, in fact, attendance was part of a class assignment for a course on church growth. And even in those days when I possessed extensive ignorance in the areas of ecclesiology and liturgy, I noticed the distinct lack of prayer in the service. When discussing this in the classroom, it was argued this was intentional because it was a “seeker” service. The more intensive “praying” took place in small groups throughout the week. There were just too many non-Christians in the Sunday services to warrant the use of the very Christian act of prayer.


Setting aside, for now, the pros and cons of using Sunday “worship” services as the main evangelistic tool of the church, it must be pointed out that churches like Willow Creek influenced the way thousands of churches conducted their worship services in North America (and now, the world). Which means this lack of prayer in the main service has now become common-place in “contemporary” worship services in country, small town, suburban and urban congregations. When I sit through these sort of services (and sitting is about all that the “audience” gets to do, except standing to sing) I increasingly feel like I have been to some kind of a show that may be distantly related to Christian worship, but does not quite pull-off the real deal.


The truth is painful (and controversial) but it must be said and repeated: most of our Evangelical “contemporary” worship services would be unrecognizable to believers from Justin Martyr to John Wesley. The lack of a distinct and unified prayer of the people of God is an immense contributor to this very lamentable reality.


This lack of prayer in our “worship” services has, I believe, been a major impetus for the many prayer movements that have experienced dynamic growth in the last 20 years (The International House of Prayer, IHOP, comes immediately to mind– and while, on the one hand, IHOP takes “contemporary” worship forms to a new extreme with 24/7 worship music lead by a band; on the other hand, IHOP conceives of every facet of their services as prayer which is much closer to Biblical and historic perspectives of worship).


My concern and anger are piqued because most of Evangelicalism’s fastest growing churches are training Christians that prayer is either a minor component of Christian practice or it is something best left to the paid professionals. There may be a prayer here and there, and the pastor may pray, but when do God’s people learn how to pray as individuals, much less as a cohesive whole?


Hence my preference for ancient liturgies, East and West, and the emphasis on the worship service as the unified prayer of God’s people– a service that is prayer from start to finish. But Evangelicals, by and large, dismiss these prayers as wrote and unreal because they are not prayed from the heart. How can they be since they are just printed words mouthed in unison? But my rebuttal is based on the didactic importance of prayer: how can the heart, or mind, pray well when it has never been invited into the Church’s prayer life that has been going on for 3,000 plus years (going back to the Psalms)? Old and New Testament followers of God prayed written prayers as one. And so did Christians for the vast majority of Church history. How is it that some of us now know better or have graduated to a higher level than the giants of the faith who have gone before us?


I’m afraid we place too much emphasis on “heart-felt” emotional prayers and not enough on serious corporate prayer that forms and shapes those who join their voices to it into Christ-like, living sculptures. In fact, if our extemporaneous, “heart-felt” prayers too often seem inane, shallow and self-focused, we need not look far for one of the main culprits. Written, corporate prayers are not meant to replace other forms of prayer, but to breath life, vibrancy and depth into them. Our own time tends to pit written and extemporaneous forms prayer against one another– making them mutually exclusive. But they are meant, and have been used as such down through the millennia, to be the right and left lungs of the prayer life of God’s people. We dare not keep the Holy Spirit on a short leash by using only one prayer form to the utter neglect of the other.

Please take these following paragraphs from the late Robert Webber with the weight and seriousness they deserve. If we are no longer praying God’s story for the sake of the world, we are no longer Christ’s body or bride. We’re just another association with faded semblances to a vibrant Christian heritage. (What follows is from his final book: Ancient-Future Worship)


The first crisis of public prayer is its neglect. By neglect I do not mean to suggest that congregational worship has no prayer within it. Indeed, most if not all churches will do prayers. They may begin and end with prayer. A prayer may be said before a sermon or at its ending; intercessory prayers may be made for the sick, for shutins, for the needs of the congregation, local city, country, and even for the world (however, many contemporary churches do not have a place for intercessory prayer). What I speak of here as the neglect of prayer is the failure to conduct all of worship as the prayer of the church for the life of the world.

This failure to grasp all of worship as a cosmic prayer has several underlying causes. The first and, I believe, most fundamental reason why worship is not seen as prayer is the failure to grasp that corporate prayer arises from the story of God. We think of corporate prayers as arising within ourselves. Yet the story of God . . .is the story of the world and of human existence. Worship prays this story. But this thought and the application of this thought for the content and structure of worship is neglected simply because it is unheard of by many.

A second reason why worship is not seen as the prayer of God’s people for the world is because worship has been turned into a program. Worship, influenced by broadcast communication theories of the media revolution, has become an entertaining presentation. The commitment to worship “programming” has been intensified by the contemporary Christian music industry. Because people are drawn by entertainment, showmanship, and celebrity, many local churches have turned to a presentational worship to attract the masses.

Consequently, the nature of worship has shifted from corporate prayer to platform presentational performance. Worship, instead of being a rehearsal of God’s saving actions in the world and for the world, is exchanged for making people feel comfortable, happy, and affirmed. Worship, no longer the public prayer of God’s people, becomes a private and individual experience. Beneath the privatization of worship is the ever-present individualism of our culture. This focus on the self results in prayers that are concerned with my life, my needs, my desires–prayers that seem indifferent to the needs of the poor and the problem of violence and war that devours nations and societies and ignore the works of God in Christ to bring to an end all evil, death, and sin. . . .

Worship as public prayer may be described as follows: “Public prayer lifts up all creation to the Father through Jesus Christ by the Spirit in praise and thanksgiving for the work of the Son, who has reconciled creatures and creation to God.” Because this is what the public prayer of the church does, the story of God is the substance of the inner content that shapes the outer form of public prayer. Worship prays God’s story.



Paul instructs the churches in Philippi, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” The “your” here is second person plural. This is a corporate activity flowing from and resting on the accomplished work of Christ Jesus. The prayers we pray when we gather for worship need to more intentionally unite us into the true story of Jesus. Written, responsorial, and Eucharistic prayers are indispensible for this task.

Pasta Bowl Worship

26 05 2014

I love pasta. In fact, I love all sorts of pasta: linguine, fettuccini, penne, spaghetti, bow-tie, and even good old fashioned “elbow noodles.” I even really enjoy different types of sauces: marinara, alfredo, traditional, and many others (as long as they don’t contain big chucks of veggies!). And toppings too! Meatballs, grilled chicken, ground beef, (I’m still not sure about seafood…). But something I do not like, is pasta all by itself. It is the combination of pasta, sauce and meat that make it a meal– a great tasting meal.

I am concerned that too many of our worship services are like bowls of plain pasta, without the other ingredients. Now, it is true that pasta by itself is still food that will provide the human body with some needed nutrients. My wife and daughter sometimes have pasta with just a little butter and it is enough. But most of the time they also crave flavor, protein and vegetables (the last item I personally do not have much interest in!). But a bowl of unadorned pasta would be poor fare day in and day out. There are many millions around the world who subsist on rice as their daily diet. Maybe one or two times a year they get to top that rice with other things, but it is a rare treat. Does this diet keep them alive? Yes, it does. Are they able to thrive and flourish? Not so much. Without vitamins and nutrients that come from other varieties of food, those who have access to only rice have poor or fragile health.

Many millions of Christians subsist on weekly offerings of pasta bowl worship. There is singing, there is preaching, there is some prayer, but the “meat” and the “sauce” of Word and Table are meager, rare, and all too often, poorly prepared.

I have heard and read about Evangelical leaders who say something like, “Why do we need to have multiple Scripture readings and weekly Communion, when thousands flock to our churches, get saved, and have transformed lives without it?!” I accept this as a good point not lightly swept aside. Such is surely evidence of the power of the Cross and the Holy Spirit. It cannot be said that those who worship with “simple pasta” are somehow un-Christian or will fail to make it to heaven. Not even Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox make such a claim. I believe it is the difference between simple subsistence and a well-rounded diet.

I realize the analogy with the pasta and rice is not without flaws as I am employing it.* However, it helps me explain why I think the ancient worship pattern of weekly Word and Table is so very important even though millions of Christians seem to get along just fine without it. To me it is the difference between getting by, on the one hand, and really living, on the other. It is the difference between possessing a part verses embracing the whole.

I have also noticed that those churches who make little use of Word and Table, the “meat and sauce”, find other substitutes. Every local church and denomination that does not make the Word and Sacraments central in their worship, will fill that slot with other things. And those other things, in time, become central to those believers: emotion-laded songs (contemporary and traditional), scholarly or emotional preaching, ecstatic prayer experiences, missions (foreign & domestic), social and political issues, even doctrinal distinctives.

Let me be clear! There is great value in every item on that list, and not one is bad or sinful. Not one of them, however, is meant to be central. God is meant to be the focus and center of our worship. And when we keep Scripture and the Sacraments central we have a time tested means of keeping God, and all His saving works in Christ through the Holy Spirit, central. (By the way, “preaching” is not the same as keeping Scripture central, because preaching is human comment and explanation of Scripture. To make preaching central is to dance the near the precipice of idolatry. The same is very much true of music and singing in our services).

I am no fool (usually) and I’m not too terribly naïve. I am fully aware that Scripture and the Sacraments are, #1, not a fool-proof way to keep God central in our worship gatherings. There are some liturgical traditions that have so many layers of words and actions that Christ in His church is obscured. Fortunately, there has been a “clearing of the decks” in the last 50 years with much positive liturgical renewal. And #2, I am painfully aware that the Bible and Communion have been sources of idolatry at various times and places within church history. In other words, some have become so enraptured with the symbol (which truly does participate with Divine reality, by the way), that they no longer see the real thing the symbol is trying to point them to. (For the Bible, think sola scriptura, or King James only; for Communion think keeping the consecrated bread on reserve in little tabernacles, or when lay folk are discouraged from receiving the elements on a regular basis).

Throughout church history, again and again, Word and Table have rescued God’s people from heresy and self-centeredness. But for this to happen in our day, we desperately need to employ the following sorts of things (as quickly as it can be tolerated, as church-folk are lovingly taught their importance):

  • Multiple Scripture readings every Sunday. And preferably not just ones that fit the pastor’s agenda or desires. Additionally, it is not necessary to comment upon or explain every reading that is made on a given Sunday. However, some time of silence after each reading is in order. Even in liturgical churches, there is the annoying habit of rushing from one reading to the next without time for reflection and contemplation.
  • A much greater use of the Psalms as part of our prayer and praise time.
  • Shorter sermons that allow time for longer uses of Scripture (readings and Psalms), longer times of prayer, and a truly full-orbed celebration of the Lord’s Supper that is not rushed to fit it in before everyone is late for dinner or the ball game.
  • Weekly Communion services. I realize that for most in non-liturgical churches, this is unrealistic– there would be mass mutiny as people fled churches implementing this, only to find or establish congregations where their own preferences are kept in high regard. However, the least we can do to remain obedient to Scripture and faithful to the wise saints who have gone before us, is to offer a weekly Communion service that is separate from the “main” service. But I really do hope that ALL churches will quickly realize that the main service should be celebrating the Eucharist no less than monthly!
  • Communion services that emphasize the fullness of Christ’s accomplished work beyond His atoning death on the cross. Protestants and Evangelicals are inheritors of the, often despised, Medieval church more than they will ever admit. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the way Communion is carried out– from Baptist, to Presbyterian, to Methodist, to Charismatic, to Lutheran. Our Communion services, with rare exception, are somber and heavy, myopically focused on sin and the Cross and seeming to lack in Good News. This may be appropriate for a season like Lent, or on a day like Good Friday, but Christ did and is doing so much more! Jesus also healed, rejoiced in His Father’s love, rose again, ascended into heaven, and is with us to the end of the age. Our Communion services must do a much better job of reflecting the full reality of Christ and his works.

    Many in the Evangelical universe hope and pray for revival in our churches because so many are struggling and genuine conversions seem few and far between, while many believers live blatantly immoral lives. Just such a revival may come with the renewal of Word and Table in our Sunday services. As churched and un-churched are confronted with the fullness of God’s Word, and immersed in the saving acts of THE Word, Christ Jesus, week in and week out, revival (although quietly and largely unobserved) will come. It may not be the revival of our immediate forbears where the “altar” was lined with weeping, penitent sinners, or the raucous emotionalism of revival tent meetings; but rather the steady growth that takes place because the roots are spreading deep into nutrient rich soil and pure subterranean water-ways. It its season, such a revival will produce a crop thirty, sixty and a hundredfold. A revival of the ole’ fashioned kind burned hot and bright but quickly died away. The next revival must be slow and deep enough to transform, not only individual lives, but the whole culture as well.

    A diet of plain pasta worship, from generation to generation, has and will fail to make disciples of the sort Jesus has commanded us to go and make. I long for the day when Word and Table is renewed and loved across the land, across denominations. Lord Jesus hasten the day.

    *I do, however, like to make the analogy that the different types of sauces and toppings are like the different styles and expressions of Word & Table worship that organically grow out of the many different cultures and “tribes” of the world.

    The analysis of “worship style” by the late Robert Webber, in his last book, Ancient-Future Worship, is spot on:

    The style of doing Word and Table is a matter of making the content and structure of worship indigenous to the local setting. The greatest error I have seen in the style of worship–both traditional and contemporary–is to program it. Traditional worship strings together Scripture readings, prayers, psalms, choir, solo numbers, offering and announcements and then adds a sermon and benediction at the end. Usually there is little thought given to narrating God’s story and vision. On the other hand, most contemporary worship leaders think in terms of opening with thirty minutes of songs and choruses strung together, followed by a time for announcements and offering, followed by the sermon (not generally regarded as worship). The sermon is usually topical, often supplemented with a few Bible stories, but seldom about the Good News that God has won a decisive victory over the powers of evil and will eventually set up his kingdom forever. Consider what is happening in our world today with militant terrorists who wish to cast Israel into the sea and scale the wall of the Western world and bring it to ruin. What is more relevant: a therapeutic sermon that makes you feel good about yourself, or a sermon that speaks to who narrates the world? (pg. 78)

Dangerous Power

2 05 2012

Music is a powerful, emotion-laden tool. As with most things imbued with power, it can do great good…and great harm. Note the horrendous effects of the “worship-wars” that have taken place across all denominations over the last 30 or 40 years. All because certain types of songs and styles of music evoke such strong emotions. The worst part is that so many well-meaning believers have reduced the concept of “worship” to the music portion of our Sunday morning gatherings. Certain styles of church music are incorrectly labeled “praise and worship.”
The following quote is by David Walker, who is asking what we should do when we find ourselves addicted to the music of worship. My response to his question follows.
I’m a worship leader in a church that immensely values the musical expression of worship. I love music that connects and gives people an opportunity to respond

to God. With all that is in me, I feel this is a good thing.

But what happens when this musical expression becomes the central focus, instead of the King who it is for? As worship gatherings happen all over the world week in and week out, how much time is the church actually spending worshipping the King of Glory, and how often are people instead worshipping worship itself?

From what I have seen and experienced, this addiction to worship is a common problem. So how do we break out of worshipping worship?

Pasted from <http://weare3dm.com/wayfarer/we-are-3dm/when-worship-becomes-an-addiction/#comment-237>

I have overcome worship addiction through the use of time-tested, ancient worship practices, aka “liturgy”. It is like a marriage or family– don’t we all have little rituals we do at home with spouse and children. Don’t we frequently say, “I love you” even when we don’t necessarily feel loving? Sometimes liturgy is boring, or even feels dumb– but so too with our family lives. But our little family rituals always, no matter if they’re exciting, normal or boring, point us back to the love that binds us together. So does ancient liturgy: boring or thrilling, it ALWAYS points us to the Trinity, and helps us enter into the eternal love, joy and strength of the Trinity. That same-ness so many find boring in liturgical worship is also the thing that keeps us properly centered– just like that silly thing your kids and my kids insist that you or I do for them every night (a song or funny face or whatever it is)! Saying “I love you” every day is sometimes full of emotion, sometimes devoid of it– but it is ALWAYS a powerful symbol and icon pointing us to the truth that holds life together. So with liturgy.

Irrelevantly Relevant

27 05 2010

One of the constants in discussions concerning church growth and evangelism is the issue of “relevance.”  At a popular level, “being relevant” as a church or ministry means to do things that are considered normal in the world outside the church.  Large projection screens, worship music with drums and guitars, preachers in blue jeans, and café style seating are all attempts at being relevant to the culture at large.  The argument goes that unless we do such things all the lost sinners in our communities will never come to our churches to hear the Gospel and, consequently, our churches will shrink and die.  To be “irrelevant” (which I suppose means things like using an organ, singing old hymns, the preacher wearing a suit or vestments, sitting in pews, etc.), therefore, means to turn people away from the Gospel, condemn them to Hell, and slowly watch our churches die.  Of course, many mega-churches and other contemporary churches have the stats on their side in this argument—many success stories.

But I have a question.  What if what is relevant to the culture at large is irrelevant to entering the Kingdom?  Which leads me to more questions:  What if in our striving to look like the world in order to attract the world we inadvertently proclaim a false gospel?  What kind of disciples are we making through our “relevant” worship services and ministries?  And what will the church look like in a generation from now as we reap what we have sown?

Let me be clear:   I’m not advocating a return to worship spoken only in Latin, nor am I calling for sermons that only doctoral students can understand.  I am calling for a serious engagement with the practices of the ancient Church that brought about unbelievable growth, solid disciples, and longevity to the Church.  Practices, by the way, that have by and large been jettisoned in favor of more culturally sensitive things.

The counter-argument claims that it doesn’t matter what we dress the Gospel in (jeans or an alb, crosses or art-deco walls) as long as we stay true to its content.  The flaw in this reasoning is exposed when we realize that humans are not merely verbal creatures—but also auditory, visual, and sensory.  I would not go so far as to say, “the medium is the message,” but I think it is obvious that how a message is packaged communicates a great deal to the recipient about the nature or value of that message.  I suppose I’m just odd, but to see the Gospel Book carried high in procession to the middle of the congregation, handled by robed worshipers as people sing, bow to and even kiss the Scriptures speaks a great deal more about the value of God’s Word than a preacher in blue jeans with no pulpit who reads only those passages relevant to his sermon.

But wait (it is often argued)!  The pastor in blue jeans is communicating to the average person out there that the Gospel is for everyone and is accessible to all and can be understood by all.  High-falutent liturgy just makes it seem like God’s Word isn’t applicable to daily life.  Perhaps… but God’s word is also holy, life-giving, and worthy of our rapt attention.  And quite frankly, in my daily life I don’t need another common, easily accessible word.  I need a high and holy Word and that is above me, able to rescue me and to instruct me in the Way that will set me free from my daily anger, selfishness, and fear.  The preacher in the blue jeans does not reveal the other-worldly power of God’s Word.  And it is power from that other world, God’s Kingdom, that I need the most, that is more “relevant” to my need.  I don’t need more advice, even Biblical advice.   I need God’s very power and love coursing through my physical and spiritual veins.  I need a Word that I ought to bow to and give my undivided attention to, not a word that I can passively listen to while sipping my latte.

If the people in our churches are missing the full and powerful and confrontational Gospel because of the relevant garb we have dressed it in, then we must come to confess, sooner or later, that we are proclaiming a half-gospel; or more likely a false gospel.  A gospel that proclaims, “It’s all about you and what you like!  Whatever you want we’ll do it just so you’ll come to our church.  Big screens, espresso machines, a cool preacher, symbol-less décor, lots of fun for the kids—whatever it is, we’ll provide it!”  This sounds suspiciously like a wide and easy road to me. . .

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matthew 7:13-14

My advice:  Let’s save our blue jeans for the actual café down the street where we can invite our un-saved co-worker to discuss life issues over a cup of joe.  And then, when that co-worker is ready and the Spirit leads us, invite him or her to a whole new world—the worship and community of the Church.

This passionate post was inspired by an article entitled “How the World Lost Its Story,” by theologian Robert W. Jenson (re-published in the March 2010 issue of FIRST THINGS).

In it Jenson points out that the postmodern culture around us has rejected the idea of a true story—a story that all can have a part in and that is heading towards a happy ending.  He argues that the Protestant churches have spent the greater part of the last 200 years striving to be relevant and acceptable to the modern culture surrounding them.  So the language of worship was changed (even the terms used for the Trinity!), the embarrassing parts of the Bible were carefully explained away, outdated art and liturgy was removed, and the church became a major political player in order to “save” society.  Liberal Protestantism was born—and is now already near death.  I would ask, do we think our current attempts to be relevant will prove to be any more successful 50 years from now?

Jenson argues persuasively that:

“In the postmodern world, if a congregation or churchly agency wants to be ‘relevant’, here is the first step:  It must recover the classic liturgy of the Church, in all its dramatic density, sensual  actuality, and brutal realism, and make this the one exclusive center of its life.  In the postmodern world, all else must at best be decoration and more likely distraction.”

He goes on the state that in conjunction to this, the Church must also be the place where the Gospel story is realized—a place where the promises of Scripture become real and tangible.  For example, how can the “seeker” believe that God will keep His eschatological promises if His people do not keep their promises within their own community?!  The Church must look something like the Kingdom it is proclaiming.  As Jenson puts it, “The assembly of believers must therefore itself be the event in which we may behold what is to come. . . .  ‘Going to church’ must be a journey to the place where we behold our destiny, where we will see what is to come of us.”

Lastly, Jenson asserts that if we are going to communicate the Gospel narrative successfully in a postmodern world, it will require not only the classic liturgy, and a genuine Kingdom of God community, but also a re-appropriation and use of sacred art.  The clean, blank walls of our churches must once again surround us with the Gospel story.   Jenson states:

“If we in our time rightly do apprehend the eschatological reality of the gospel promise, we have to hear it with Christ the risen Lord visibly looming over our heads with His living and dead saints visibly gathered around us.  Above all, the Church must celebrate the Eucharist as the dramatic depiction, and as the succession of tableaux, that it intrinsically is.  How can we point our lives to the Kingdom’s great Banquet if its foretaste is spread before us with all the beauty of a McDonald’s counter?”

Feeling Religious in Worship

22 04 2010

Feeling Religious in Worship

As we continue to bask in this season of Easter (celebrating the risen Christ and preparing for His ascension and for Pentecost) it would do us well to reflect on how and why we worship.

For the past 40 years the question of how worship should be conducted seems to have been the controversy from which no church and no denomination has escaped unscathed.  Even the Roman Catholics who experienced a major change in their worship after Vatican II (1968) remain mired in debate and unsettledness.  In the Evangelical world the current controversy seems to center around differing notions of “traditional”, “contemporary” and so-called “emergent” forms for worship.  No end to the fighting is really in sight.  Some churches, who in recent decades, have managed to move from “traditional” (organ & hymns) to “contemporary” (praise band & choruses) now find themselves in controversy once again as a new generation rejects both “traditional” and “contemporary” in favor of things like candles, incense, chant, contemplative prayer, and frequent Communion.

I humbly propose a complete re-evaluation of two items that are at the heart of the “worship wars”:  the church and why she worships.

For most Evangelicals, there is a good feel for what the church does (outreach, Christian education, works of compassion, etc.) but relatively little thought about what the church is in her very, God created, nature.  In short, we Evangelicals desperately need a much clearer ecclesiology.  What the church does should flow out of who she is.  Precisely because this is so often misconstrued or not even discussed, the nature and purpose of worship is also misunderstood and misappropriated.

Too many seem to believe that worship is mostly about what it does for them or for the seeker instead of what it does for our Triune God.  Put bluntly, too many are addicted to the particular feelings that certain hymns or praise choruses evoke.  Naturally, there will be emotionally violent reactions and plenty of hard feelings when church leadership makes changes to the worship music.  How could it be otherwise?  The focus has become too much on ourselves and not nearly enough on our rescuing, holy, redeeming God.

A helpful contribution to this discussion has recently come from a Pentecostal, Evangelical Christian from Singapore:  Simon Chan.  The following quote comes from his 2006 book (IVP Academic Press) Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community (pgs. 148-49).

Here Chan emphasizes that worship (the liturgy) should transform us more and more into Christ’s disciples—that worship is not just about giving expression to what we feel and think about God, salvation, etc.  Rather, the liturgy uses certain tools like praise, confession, prayer, Scripture, and sacraments to shape God’s people.

Chan states:

The liturgy is a “school” using these tools to train worshippers in the way of Christ.

[Chan then quotes Philip H. Pfatteicher, The School of the Church: Worship and Christian Formation (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1995) 104-5]

“The purpose of the liturgy is not to express our thoughts and feelings but to develop them, and like any good school the liturgy expands our horizon, liberating us from captivity to the moment and to the familiar. . . . Because the liturgy does not always express what we think or feel it has the potential to transform those who share in it.”

Theologically, we could say that the liturgy and Christian living are ontologically one.  The liturgy itself is the primary expression of Christian living, and Christian living is actualized primarily in the liturgy.  In the words of Joyce Zimmerman [from her book Liturgy as Living Faith: A Liturgical Spirituality (Scranton, PA: University of Scranton Press, 1993), p. viii)]:

“The deep, dynamic structure of liturgy is identical to the deep, dynamic structure of Christian living.  Liturgy and life are essentially related because they share a generic dynamic structure that gives access to an ever-deepening experience of their common referent:  the Paschal Mystery [the death and resurrection of Christ].  Herein lies the key to our understanding of liturgical spirituality.  What we celebrate in liturgy is none other than what we live as Christians committed to entering into the ongoing redemptive work of the Risen Christ.  What we live is the content of what we celebrate.[emphasis mine]

Liturgy and everyday Christian living “are but two expressions of the one gift of God’s paschal Presence to us.” [quote from Zimmerman]  If . . . to be a Christian is to be in the body of Christ then there is no Christian living apart from living out what is celebrated in the liturgy, since the liturgy is where the body of Christ is primarily manifested and actualized.  The objective celebration of the liturgy can therefore provide a way to critique our own inadequate Christian living.  It is perhaps more in its challenges to us than in reinforcing positive religious feelings that true spiritual formation through the liturgy takes place.  For if the liturgy only makes us feel good and never challenges us, perhaps the liturgy is not shaping us but we are simply making use of it for our own ends.  Keeping the critical function of the liturgy in view will have a significant effect on the way we approach liturgical celebration, as Zimmerman points out: [p. xii]

“When we celebrate liturgy and experience emptiness or boredom, we might see this as a critique of our life.  Pastorally, we generally assume there is a problem with the ritual itself or the way we celebrate liturgy (and often there is).  But there is another possible explanation:  If the thrust of our Christian living is not response to the Paschal Mystery [that is, Christ’s saving acts] , then no matter what we do to the ritual, its depth meaning will still escape us.  We worship neither to be entertained nor to feel good but to be transformed into the Body of Christ.” [emphasis mine]

In summary, liturgical spirituality begins with the fact of our being Christians, that is, baptized into the body of Christ; and by enacting the gospel, that is, the paschal mystery, the liturgy constantly challenges us concerning the living out of our baptismal faith within the body.  This challenge should lead to new appropriation of and a deeper penetration into the paschal mystery that the liturgy celebrates.  All these understandings help us see what it is about the liturgy that makes it formative.

Chan goes on in this chapter to talk about how believers cooperate with the Holy Spirit in worship to be miraculously transformed and healed, individually and corporately.  Ironically, the more “free” we try to be in our worship services in an effort to not stifle the Spirit, the more worship becomes man-centered and increasingly leaves little room for the Spirit to work.  The ancient liturgy of Word and Table infused with Prayer goes a long way to help us walk with the Spirit and thereby be transformed more and more into who and what God intended from creation.