Monday, June 15, 2009

The Worship Wars 1

The war over worship has opened a new front in my family. I went away to college and fell in love with a history-conscious, liturgical-sacramental, "high" Church style of worship, but, since I've returned home and we have started going to a very formal, liturgical Presbyterian church, it has become apparent that my mom and little sister are not as enamored with this traditional form as I am. They've informed me that they haven't felt "spiritual" since we started attending Broadway Pres. and that they must struggle mightily to remain awake during the services. What his wounded me the most is that my baby sister Samantha thinks that Presbyterians are just plain "weird," that the music is dreadful, and that the liturgy is basically an invention dropped to the earth from an extraterrestrial spacecraft. Mom misses the simplicity of the Baptist service and all the old hymns she grew up with.

It had been expressed over the past few months leading up to my scheduled move to St. Louis that after I left, Mom and Sam would no longer have to suffer through such boring Sunday morning services and that they would start going to the Celebration Center—the south campus of multi-site First Church United Methodist. In other words, they were going to exchange the boring, formal, traditional, liturgical worship I had gotten them into for trendy, contemporary, informal, uplifting worship at a place that has a movie theater, a coffee shop, a bookstore, and whose "sanctuary" is a big auditorium that doesn't even look like a church.

Well, the move fell through, I'm still here, and we've had to reach a compromise. We are doing Saturday night at the Celebration Center and Lord's Day at Broadway Pres. That's fair enough. Even Broadway is trying to do the same thing. They've started a more contemporary, informal service on Saturday night, "Morning Light" at the early service on Sunday, and traditional worship at 10:30. I would like us to try the contemporary service at Broadway, but since Samantha has connected with the youth group at First Methodist, it's best that we worship there with her.

I can tend to be a little dogmatic and pushy; I must admit I've become somewhat of a formal old prude in my insistence on a Christianity that has roots plunged deeply into the past and that is committed to sacramental and liturgical renewal. The mainstream evangelicalism that I grew up with as a Southern Baptist is no longer enough for me. I don't mean to belittle those who are quite content with mainstream evangelicalism and find themselves fulfilled and fruitful there, but, from my experience, that tradition has serious shortcomings in its individualism, subjectivism, and otherworldliness. I can't go back there. This is why I am going to continue to be a voice calling for the reform of mainstream evangelicalism until it develops a robust and thorough communal and covenantal emphasis, until it values the sacraments and the Church in their full biblical and patristic glory, and until it fully rejects Gnosticism and gets serious about reclaiming the world for God's glory and Christ's Kingdom.

Yes, I'm an old codger and, yes, what I'm doing may very well lead us back to being a bunch of stuffy old confessional Protestants or, worse, a godless horde of Papists (sorry, my "Romish" friends, you know I say this jestingly), but I am not opposed to contemporary Christian music on principle or to the "emerging church" or any other trendy new form or exercise of Christian faith that has as its aim the true worship of God and the advance of Christ's Kingdom. I don't think these things are necessarily bad. Like anything, they can be used for God's glory and the benefit of His Church.

In my hurt feelings that my family does not find my traditional Presbyterianism the "bees’ knees," I have used certain disparaging terms, for their benefit, to refer to the kind of worship that goes on at the Celebration Center. For instance, I've hurled the "Gnostic" label, and I've used "Pietist" in an unflattering fashion on numerous occasions. I've also pulled "McChurch" or "fast food Christianity" out of the hat a few times, which to my disappointment are not at all original but are already being used by opponents of multi-site churches.

Okay, for mainstream evangelicalism, we can avoid Gnosticism by building churches that actually look like churches, not big empty spaces filled with nothing but . . . well, nothing. We can refrain from making so many of our songs and so much of our preaching refer to "flying away" or going to heaven, because, remember, Christianity also has a this-worldly element called discipleship and eternal life is not going to occur for us in some disincarnate plane of existence but in material bodies in a material heavenly city. We can also avoid Gnosticism by keeping in touch with history. Say the Apostles’ Creed, at least, for Christ's sake, or do something else to show that you give a hoot about the 2000 years of Church history that have passed. Finally, we need to take the sacraments seriously. God doesn't just want to touch us on the level of our feelings or our minds but to also appeal to us according to the senses and to seal our faith with objective realities like words, people, water, bread, and wine. Also, "seeker churches" like the Celebration Center must not shirk on the Bible reading in their services. Read some Scripture to those heathens you're trying to convert! Our faith is not based on purely subjective feelings and experiences but on the objective witness of Christ, the Word of God in history, and Scripture, the written Word of God.

Mainstream evangelicals can avoid the worst abuses of Pietism by replacing some of our "I's," "me's," and "my's" in our trendy praise and worship anthems with "us's," "we's," and "ours's." Our public worship isn't just about how Jesus saved me and you and you but about how Jesus has saved us and made us corporately His Bride and Body. Certainly let's sing about "our" salvation, and occasionally about "my" salvation, but let's also sing about Creation, the Church, and God's might displayed in both acts of power and in the humility of the Incarnation and the cross. After all, doesn't salvation encompass all of this and show us how wonderful it all truly is?

Finally, let's not do the "fast food Christianity" thing where we run a bunch of people through our churches like it's the drive-through window at the local Wendy's. Worship isn't about our convenience but is about offering something to bless the heart of God. We can go longer than an hour. We can trade a few worship songs for a time of communal confession in the service, we can put Bible readings in, we can do the Lord's Supper in such a way that it isn't just a tack on at the end of the service, and we can say the Apostle’s Creed and observe the liturgical seasons in a meaningful way. I don't think this is inconsistent with the contemporary style of worship, unless the whole goal of contemporary worship is just to please ourselves.

Next time, I'm going to recap my little sister's complaints about the traditional liturgical style of worship and discuss how more formal worship can avoid the pitfalls of the excesses it is itself prone to.

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