By way of a follow-up to my previous post decrying the “culture of preference” issue in the Church, I’d like to touch upon a closely related topic: the nature of worship itself. For if the problem in many churches today is rooted in a worship that focuses on giving people something they want, then the solution, too, should be refocusing our understanding of what worship is.
The “culture of preference” that is thoroughly American in nature (or perhaps Western in general) reveals a major modern idol: happiness. Somehow or other, Thomas Jefferson got the idea into his head that everyone has rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” He wrote it into the Declaration of Independence, and it has been an American cultural marker ever since. Happiness is not a biblical virtue. Blessedness is similar, but not the same. Joy is similar, but not the same. Happiness is an emotional state; blessedness is a state of God-given grace; joy is a sense of peace beyond fickle emotion. And, unfortunately, this idol of happiness has crept through American culture to many American churches as well, resulting in what has been described as our “culture of preference.”
How has this played out in worship?
Our “pursuit of happiness” mentality has led many Christians to equate “happiness” with a spiritual experience of God. With that opinion in place, it becomes only natural to assume that true worship of God ought to make us happy. And so out with the stuffy old boring liturgical mumbo jumbo and ancient hymnals, and in with the flashy new multi-media experience complete with awesome music and a modern look. Problem solved? Maybe, but new ones come in.
In the past couple decades it has become painfully clear that bringing church worship up to snuff with current culture doesn’t work for everybody. Some people actually like those old hymn books collecting dust in the church attic. So now a church needs to branch out, to cater to these different preferences, for fear of losing part of the crowd. And thus preference-based worship came into vogue. At the heart of this mindset, whether people express it or not, is usually a very cultural (not biblical) attitude of experience dictating practice. If the experience is bad, then the worship is bad. This plays right into the hands of the “pursuit of happiness” framework, and, at the end of the day, reduces worship to entertainment. If we can just keep everyone entertained in worship, then they’ll all be worshiping in spirit!
“the true worshipers will worship the Father
in spirit and truth” (John 4:23)
At this juncture I’d like to point to someone else’s rant on this very subject. He makes precisely the points that I would (though I’d do my best not to use quite as many exclamation marks). He calls out this “entertainment-driven worship” as not true worship at all, but rather, worship of self! Why such a bold claim? It’s all about the end/goal/telos of worship: worship of God is about proclaiming God’s worthiness to him. Entertainment-driven worship is about producing/evoking the emotional responses in us that we’ve fooled ourselves into believing are themselves the spiritual encounters with God we so crave. At best, this is bad theology and misleading practice. At worst, this is like a drug, and we go to church to try and get our next spiritual ‘hit,’ and worry our heads off if it “doesn’t work this time.”
So what does “worship in spirit and truth” actually mean? How do we give glory to God without seeking out own spiritual encounters along the way? First of all, if worship is about glorifying God (or declaring his worth), then his presence has to be assured. In the New Covenant, we know the Spirit is with each of us individually, and that when we gather together, Christ is in our midst in an even more special way. We don’t have to experience God emotionally to prove he’s among us. We know he is, whether we feel it or not. So that’s the first step we’ve got to realize.
Second, then, we can turn to deciphering Jesus’ description “in spirit and truth.” I’ve written a little about this before, suggesting that spirit & truth refer (in part) to prayer and sacrament. Both prayer & sacrament are based upon the promise and certainty of God’s presence and activity in this world. Prayer is our spiritual connection with God (worship in spirit); sacraments are our tangible connections with God (worship in truth). Prayer & sacraments, then, are the building blocks of the practice of worship. From these spill forth everything else that we “do” in worship, and there is plenty of it. But we must not lose sight of these primary basics.
In short, worship is an act, not an experience. Sure, sometimes in the course of worship we do have experiences of God. Sometimes people are healed of diseases. Sometimes people are convicted of sin and weep. Sometimes people are so filled with God’s love that they rejoice! Sometimes people are moved in their spirits and are converted after God-knows how many years of hearing the Gospel but never quite grasping it. Worship can have many effects on us, but worship is not about that. Those are side-effects of what is really going on: the invocation and celebration of the presence of Emmanuel, God with us.