...are the ones that make the biggest difference


Odd going back

Friday night we went with the mother-in-law to her church's Good Friday service (the father-in-law is in Africa right now). It was the first time I had been to a Protestant church since starting at St Nick's back in late August or early September. The church is fairly large with about 2000 members (I think) and 3 services on most weekends. I've met the senior pastor before and heard him speak on other occassions; he's a good preacher if a little frenetic at times.

The service was interesting. There was a spoken word portion that served as a set up for some of the songs, the brief sermon and the close of the service, which was quite well done. They had a goodly sized choir that did a couple of performance pieces but also backed up the worship leader on a couple of praise choruses. Aside from being poorly mic'ed, they were also good. The worship leader was definitely not to my taste - a lot of repetition of choruses and at one point he stood for a full minute with his tead tossed rapturously back. I will give him credit for picking a couple of older hymns that were God-focused (rather than me- or emotion-focused) and which were performed well. The SP gave a brief sermon about the Last Supper and we then proceeded to take communion after taking a few minutes "to do business with God." I have always found it quite remarkable that almost everyone's business with God lasts the same amount of time, ie, until someone gets the guts to stand up. Once that individual has completed his/her transaction with the Almighty most everyone seems to wrap their dealings up pretty quickly. It was one of those serve-yourself affairs with little cups of juice and pea-sized bits of bread. The SP seemed - to me, anyways, I'm sure I'm sensitized to it given our current church situation - to focus an awful lot on the "remembrance" and "symbols" aspect of communion almost at the expense of any other theme he was trying to develop. All-in-all it was a good service, though the flow of things was a little disjointed and it ended rather abruptly and in such a way that most people weren't sure if it was actually done.

But to me it all seemed vaguely foreign. Some elements felt forced, some felt overly emotional and it all felt very showy. Having worked at a church that viewed its Sunday service as an evangelism tool and not a time of focused worship (my mother-in-law's church isn't even close to the church I worked at, but it does share some of the same values in regards to its services) I know Good Friday/Easter Sunday are one of the prime "hook" events of the year - a chance to show the crowds what you've got and see if you can't hook some of them into coming back. There are a lot of motivations behind that "hook", some very good and some quite questionable. Whatever the reason, the quality of the performance on stage, be it music, drama, speaking or other elements, is a prime focus because that is what will bring people back. It is self-conscious to one degree or another and that is something wholly lacking in Orthodoxy. For Orthodoxy, worship is worship and meant for God alone. Whatever aesthetic qualities that are present are there to glorify God; that they please human senses is quite incidental to their purpose. I'm sure there are Protestant churches that strive for this ideal, but this seems like something inherent in Orthodoxy. And having imbibed of that un(self)conscious worship for the last several months, being back in the presence of it was unsettling. It just felt odd. Wherever this church journey takes us, it cannot be to a church that is concerned with how it looks to outsiders over and against how it looks to God.


Rhirhok said...

How would you respond to John Frame, who writes,

"Evidently, then, Christian worship is 'vertical,' directed to our triune God for his pleasure. The focus of our effort in worship should be on pleasing him. From this principle, some might conclude that we should not pay any attention to human needs in worship. Talk like that can sound very pious, but it is unbiblical. The God of the Bible is not like the false god Moloch, who demanded human sacrifice from his worshipers. Rather, our triune God wants to bless his people when they meet with him. There is no opposition between worshiping God and loving people. Loving God involves loving our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-40; Mark 7:9-13; 1 John 4:20-21). In worship, we should not be so preoccupied with God that we ignore one another. For example, worshipers should not ignore the needs of the poor (Isa. 1:10-17; compare 1 Cor. 11:17-34; James 2:1-7). And we should make sure that our worship is edifying to believers (1 Cor. 14:26). First Corinthians 14 emphasizes the importance of conducting worship, not in unintelligible 'tongues' but in language understandable to all. Even an unbeliever, when he enters the assembly, should be able to understand what is taking place, so that he will fall down and worship, exclaiming, 'God is really among you.' (v. 25). So, worship has a horizontial dimension as well as a vertical focus. It is to be God-centered, but it is also to be both edifying and evangelistic. Worship that is unedifying or unevangelistic may not properly claim to be God-centered."

Anonymous said...

This is true.

Nathan said...

Troy -

I would agree very much with Mr. Frame. My point is not that worship is meant to be so God-centered that it should be unedifying to those gathered to worship. Rather, that worship must first be directed towards God and then, and only then, can it begin to contemplate the "horizontal" dimension. Yes, loving God involves loving our neighbors, but it begins with first loving God with all our heart, soul and mind. Loving our neighbor is, after all, the "second greatest commandment." Any worship that begins first with the love of neighbor at the expense of loving God is not worship at all. We start vertically and then proceed horizontally.

My personal opinion is that starting vertically will organically expand horizontally so long as we don't fall victim to self-centered impulses, as St Paul describes in 1 Cor 14. (And I'm not meaning self-centered pejoratively, simply as a descriptor.) If we are loving God then we will inexorably be led to love our neighbor. If we are worshiping God, that worship will appeal to the unbeliever. And yes, we must sometimes be intentional in how we proceed horizontally but that cannot be our starting point.