Friday, November 5, 2010

Worship That "Gets it"

Those of you who read this blog know my profound misgivings about so-called “contemporary worship.” Even the phrase I find unsettling suggesting, as it does, that worship that is not sufficiently “up-to-date” or avant guarde is, thereby, suspect. [I love the retort C. S. Lewis gave to a similar criticism of his theology when he published his reappraisal of the Christian doctrine of evil and the devil, The Screwtape Letters. “I know someone will ask me, ‘Do you really mean, at this time of day, to re-introduce our old friend the devil – hoofs and horns and all?’ Well, what the time of day has to do with it I do not know. And I am not particular about the hoofs and horns, But in other respects, my answer is ‘Yes, I do.’”]

So, as I’ve said before, there are many things that trouble me about the so-called “contemporary worship” movement afoot in our churches. Let me mention a few: (1) As I mentioned above, there is this notion that only the trendy and the avant guarde have value. Anything older than “yesterday” is arcane, out of date, and useless. To those who embrace that I have two words for you: leisure suit. (2) Then, there is the spiritual narcissism, egocentricity, and outright arrogance that reduces all spiritual value to the single criterion of “what speaks to me.” Sometimes called the “tyranny of felt needs,” it seems never to occur to such ones that at any given time in a congregation the “needs” are not only multiple but competitive! To satisfy one’s is to frustrate another’s. (3) Related is the infatuation with the ephemeral so characteristic of contemporary worship that cuts it off from the rich fecundity of 2,000-plus years of Christian liturgy and worship. It’s as though the worshiper exists on a desert island where they’re the first ever to have thought about, practiced, or experienced worship. Never mind that the Church of Jesus Christ got along quite well, thank you very much, without contemporary praise music or Power Point. There is no consciousness that when one worships in the Church of Jesus Christ, one has entered a stream that has been flowing for over 2,000 years and, God willing, will continue to flow long after I’m gone and forgotten. Such insular worship creates ecclesiastical orphans who can’t remember any farther back than their own birth, and what is more, see no need to do so!

But most disturbing is what I fear really drives the contemporary worship movement; namely, desperation and entrepreneurialism. The well-documented numerical decline of mainstream, and even evangelical, churches, particularly among that most desired demographic of 18-39, has led to the supplanting of the biblical mission and mandate of the church to be a community of the kingdom of God by the consumer church where “the customer’s always right” and where “whatever it takes” is the motto. Give the customer what the customer wants, or there’s always a “better show” down the street. To be sure, it’s rationalized by smearing a thin veneer of evangelism over it, but make no mistake about it; it’s driven by the desire for bodies and bucks. Not a hint in those “churches” of any awareness that the biblical mission of the church is enculturation – to enculturate people into the kingdom of God, a culture so utterly alien and peculiar to this world’s dominate culture that it takes a lifetime to “feel at home” in it. Not a clue in those “churches” of any awareness that becoming a Christian means enrolling in a Scripture-informed, Spirit-inspired, counter-cultural community that embraces a counter-value system captured in a counter-story that harbingers a new reality Jesus called “the kingdom of God.” Indeed, one rather suspects that such “churches” are more “club” than “church,” at least in the sense that Jesus meant it. If being baptized and joining the church doesn’t actually make one "Christian," that is, enroll one in this kind of Story and enculturate one in this kind of community, then we're just counting club members. Indeed, it’s more insidious than that. By enrolling new members into our “Christian club” and calling them “Christian” we inoculate them with just enough Christianity to keep them from ever “taking” the real thing.

That’s why I was so heartened this week to have coffee and conversation about church and worship with my friend, Tony Spencer. Tony is minister of music at First Baptist Church of Forest City, North Carolina. Cheryl and I attended there a few weeks ago and were pleasantly surprised at what we found; I told him so. The service was beautifully and meticulously crafted with the intention of being self-consciously theological, biblically faithful, and liturgically integrated so that the worshiper felt both a sense of the mystery and the majesty of the historic Christian faith. To be sure, the music was beautiful and well-presented, but that’s not what got my attention. Worship there wasn’t so much performance as participation in the stream of Christian liturgy that has bound the people of God together since the first Christians huddled in house churches 2,000 years ago. The ancient four-fold pattern was evident: the Gathering, the Word, the Table, the Sending. Moreover, there was an awareness that we had not “invented church” ourselves; rather, in the words of the writer of Hebrews, we were “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” whom we had joined, with whom we shared faith in Jesus Christ, and from whom we had been entrusted a liturgical legacy and a holy hope. For an hour at least, I was called away and called out from the mundane muddle that is euphemistically called “the real world” into “another world” that can only be glimpsed with the eyes and ears of faith. And I was claimed by something much older, much larger, much deeper than merely “my felt needs” or “good customer service.” It was an experience I had not had in church in a while.

So thanks, Tony. I’m glad to know that someone out there still “gets it.”


The Gunter Chronicles said...

Thanks Dr. Stacy,

The past couple of years I have felt led to read through historical writings of the church. Simply for my own edification! I picked up some Early Church Fathers, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin... and it really has blessed me and strengthened my faith that, as you stated from Hebrews, we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses. Now, most books I find written within the past 200 years or so just do not compare. I could go on... but I just wanted to say thanks. God bless.

Your former student,


Jeff Harris said...

Well said.