Category Archives: Worship

Do Nativity Scenes Help Us Worship God?

On December 24, 1223 Saint Francis of Assisi made the very first living animal nativity scene in an Italian grotto. I imagine that Saint Francis made a live nativity because he loved animals so much (note the picture).This tradition carries on today; however, do living nativity scenes actually help us worship God come in the flesh? My wife and I visited her family last weekend and we went to the local church’s live nativity scene. I had never seen an actual nativity scene acted out like this, where there were literal animals. It was pretty intense, this Church went all out. Living animals, a choir, young girls as angels, men as wise men, little boys as shepherds, a young man and woman as Mary and Joseph, and the little baby Jesus being acted out by an anonymous newborn child.

My question still remains, do nativity scenes like this actually help us worship God come in the flesh? Saint Francis of Assisi would have said yes. As I reflect upon the nativity scene my wife and I witnessed, it is very hard to say. I was partially distracted by the 4 year old girl who kept waving at everyone and the wise men who had denim pants and sneakers underneath their robes, and the fact that there were horses eating hay…I always pictured more sheep, cattle, and camels in the real version.

The narrator read parts of Matthew and Luke, and the choir responded with songs of worship, including most Christmastime favorites (all of which were centered on Christ, nothing like Rudolph).There were several attending the nativity scene who were not a part of the Church, and the pastor invited them to join for their Sunday gatherings. After the nativity, people gathered together in the church building for more hot chocolate and cookies. This Church obviously saw this as a huge ministry and outreach, taking it very seriously.

At the end of the day, I have to say that attending the living nativity scene did bless my soul. My wife and I were able to wear our pea coats and scarfs, drinking hot chocolate underneath a portable heat stove, while singing worship songs and laughing with the little kids’ short attention spans and being able to spend time with old friends whom we had not seen for over 6 months. Praise God that He came in the flesh so we could worship Him, recalling His birth on that evening.

When is the last time you went to a living nativity scene? did it help you worship God Emmanuel?

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I Can’t Sing That! (Light from the Dark Ages 4)

The lyrics come up on the screen. I don’t recognize them. Looks like we’ll be learning a new song today. Good. I like to sing, I love to worship, and I’m always looking for new music. The drums lead off followed by both acoustic and electric guitars, and then the vocals kick in. The song sounds great.

I should know, because all I can do is listen.

The lyrics, range, and rhythm of the song are so difficult that you need to be a talented musician who has  practiced extensively during the week to sing the song. So, the worship team sounds great. The rest of us just stand mute.

I suppose that wouldn’t have frustrated me as much if they’d made it clear that this was “special music,” a performance that the rest of us were never intended to participate in, at least not vocally. But, with an invitation to sing along, the words on the screen, and the congregation on its feet, it sure seemed like we were supposed to be doing something. But we couldn’t.

So, we did nothing.

What happens when the complexity of worship leaves the worshiping community behind?

Photo by Michael Hiess (via Flickr)

That was a problem for the church in the middle ages as well. Some time ago, I started a series on 6 Things We Can Learn about Worship from the Middle Ages. I had to step away from that for a while, but I’d like to come back and continue reflecting on what we can learn from those who have gone before us.

By the time the church reached the early middle ages, it had well-developed worship practices. Liturgies, vestments, processionals, rites, and most other aspects of the church’s worship had been around for quite some time. And, these seemed to have worked quite well in the cultural context of the Roman empire, from which they developed.

As the church transitioned into a post-Roman Europe, however, problems arose. As we discussed in an earlier post (“Should we teach classes on how to speak Christianese?“), the average church-goer couldn’t speak Latin, the language of the church, anymore. And, although the strongly visual elements of the liturgy helped many stay connected  (see “I’m listening, but I still can’t see anything“), the new “barbarian” cultures developing in much of Europe left many struggling to understand even this aspect of the church’s worship. So, many simply stopped going (see “Do I really have to go to church?“). But others continued to attend, convinced that somehow just being there would make a difference. Even if they didn’t really know what they were doing.

With all of these factors in place, the medieval church struggled with (at least) the following issues:

  • Professionalization: Given the complexity of medieval worship and the widespread ignorance of the laity, professional worship leaders was almost a necessity. Who else could do it? And, there’s nothing wrong with supporting ministers/priests so that they can devote themselves fully to leading God’s people in worship. The problem is when worship itself gets professionalized, when worship is something only the pros can do. And, that’s where the medieval church found itself. The people still gathered, but the professionals did the actual work of worship.
  • Passivity: The second problem stems directly from the first. Disconnected from the act of worship, the people didn’t do anything. Now, don’t get me wrong, worship doesn’t have to be “active.” Hearing a sermon, listening to a song, or viewing a painting can all be acts of worship. The problem is when the people aren’t even doing that. Instead, they’re just there. Maybe they’re even enjoying themselves. But they’re not worshiping. Someone else is doing that for them.
  • Elitism: Professionalism does not have to become elitism. But it’s a short step. And, once worship itself has been professionalized, elitism always tags along. It’s just too easy to conclude that the one doing the worship is the one who truly stands closest to God. The rest of us hang out in the worship ghetto just hoping that they’re doing it right.

And, these aren’t just problems for the medieval church. I think we can see many of them at work in the church today. When I visit a new church, I often check out the people during the worship service. And, in some  churches, I think I see a lot of people but few participants. I’m open to the possibility that I’m wrong, but it sure looks at times like the professionals on the stage have left the people far behind, worshiping for them instead of leading them to worship God as a community.

So, what can we learn from the medieval church for today?

  • Strive for quality without sacrificing participation. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be your best when you lead others in worship. If God gifted you for leading others in worship, do it well. But, remember that in worship participation trumps performance every time.
  • Lead people by bringing them with you. People often say that to be a leader, you have to have people following you. That’s simply not true. But, a leader must at least be trying to take people somewhere. And, if you’re a worship leader, you’re there to lead people to glorify God with their whole being (mind, heart, will, body, etc). So, your primary purpose is not to produce quality music, a great sermon, or (heaven forbid) a funny skit. Your primary purpose is to glorify God by leading God’s people to worship him. Everything else is secondary.
  • Beware the cult of celebrity. One might think that elitism would be the least of our problems. Evangelical churches in general are driven by the egalitarian notion that all are equal before God. We’ve learned the “priesthood of all believers” so well (at least we think we have) that we even struggle at times to honor our leaders as we should. How could we have a problem with elitism? Yet we do. The cult of celebrity is alive and well in our worship services. And, wherever the cult of celebrity  thrives, elitism tags along.

I could also mention that we need to understand cultural transitions and the impact that they have on the worshiping community. But, with the seemingly never-ending traditional vs. contemporary “worship wars,” I think that’s been discussed enough.

It’s important to recognize that complexity itself is not the problem. Many churches use highly complex liturgies to lead the people of God in meaningful worship. The problem is when we allow complexity to produce professionalization, passivity, and/or elitism. This happened in the medieval church with tragic results. And, if we fail to learn from those who have gone before, it can and will happen today.

Should a worship service have security guards?

You walk through the front doors. Although you’ve been hearing about this church for a while, you’ve never actually been inside. You’re wondering about the kind of people who will be there, what the service will be like, and since you just finished a large latte, whether you’ll be able to find the bathroom fast enough. Wiping the rain from your glasses (you’re in Seattle), you’re hoping to see an information table or someone who can point you to the facilities. You weren’t expecting to see a bouncer.

At least, that’s what he looks like. He’s big, serious, and he’s wearing a tight, black shirt with “security” printed in large, white letters. Confused, you pause, looking around for Bibles or a cross or something. Is this really a church? What kind of church has security? Then, a few feet away, you see two uniformed police officers, obviously on duty. With their guns. In a church. Why would a church need this level of security? Is the governor visiting today?

No, it’s just a normal Sunday at Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Every Sunday they provide significant levels of security at all their services, some more so than others. Explaining why this is necessary was the task of Nate Finn’s post, “Why Does a Church Need a Security Team?” And, to summarize his arguments, Finn offers the following basic reasons:

  • Effective Worship: They want people to “be able to come to a Mars Hill Church service and worship in peace,” something made difficult at times by the fact that there are people in Seattle “who are simply opposed to our church and the gospel of Jesus.” Specifically, they’re concerned about “the integrity of the service and how people are receiving the Word that’s being preached.” If there’s a disruption in the service, the ministry of the Spirit might be impeded.
  • Safe Environment: Given a number of prominent kidnappings and killings at churches in the US, they feel that it’s wise to provide some level of security in the church. Though Mars Hill has not yet faced any of these, they do struggle regularly with theft and vandalism. So, they see security as exemplifying wise stewardship.
  • Biblical Model: Finn uses the example of Israel in Nehemiah’s day as prominent biblical support for providing security in the context of worship: “God told Nehemiah to place guards along the wall to protect his people and the work, and we must place guards within our walls to protect God’s people and the work of sharing the Gospel.”

And, he closes the post with a quote from Mark Driscoll:

Opposition only comes to those who are doing something. There are many people out there who live their life without being criticized or attacked because they spend their time lying on the couch with their finger up their nose not doing anything. There is no reason to oppose such people. So if you are doing something, expect opposition and be encouraged because you are doing something.

What do you think? Mars Hill receives a lot of questions and criticisms for its practice of providing security guards armed police officers at its worship services? Do you have any problem it? Do you see it as wise stewardship or a lack of faith? Being as shrewd as serpents or being conformed to the world? Gospel living or fearful hiding? Obviously those are extremes, so feel free to land in the middle somewhere.

I’m listening, but I can’t see anything (Light from the Dark Ages 3)

I’m not sure how many sermons and lectures I’ve attended in the last thirty-nine years. But, it’s a lot. And, after countless hours spent in such oratorical contexts, I’ve learned one very important point. I don’t learn well that way. Unless I take a lot of notes and really force myself to pay attention, I’ll walk out with very little idea of what I just heard. Hearing is not my strong suit.

Indeed, my wife always gets frustrated with me in church. She’ll lean over during the sermon and ask a question. And my usual response is, “Oh sorry, I wasn’t listening.”

It’s not that I don’t care. I’m big fan of the Bible, and I think preaching is fundamentally important. Nor does it mean that my pastors don’t preach well. I’m fully capable of losing focus in the midst of the most outstanding sermon. I just drift. Within five minutes, the preacher will have said something that sparked a thought…and I’m gone. I’ll tune back in again a little later and try to pick up the thread of the sermon, but that usually doesn’t last long either.

I’m much more of a visual learner. What I see has a far greater impact on me than what I’ve only heard. I’m sure that’s largely why I love books and have always been fascinated by movies, TV, and the internet. It’s taken me a while to appreciate other visual arts, but I’m getting there.

I learn best with my eyes, not my ears.

And no, putting the main ideas on power point slides doesn’t qualify.

From what I understand, I’m far from alone. Lots of people struggle to learn well with their ears. Yet, the only mechanism many churches use to teach and train people is the spoken word. Should there be a greater role for the visual in Christian worship and education?

From its earliest days, the church appreciated the importance of visual elements in worship. Whether they worshiped in a house, a catacomb, or a church, the early Christians went out of their way to decorate their worship sites will all kinds of art. Such artistic productions stood alongside the written and preached word as a key aspect of Christian formation.

Despite this long history, two events in the early medieval church contributed to an even greater emphasis on the visual arts in worship. First, as I mentioned in an earlier post (Should we teach classes on how to speak Christanese?), the loss of Latin at the popular level rendered many people incapable of understanding most of the liturgy. Thus, the visual and kinesthetic (bodily movement) aspects of the liturgy took on an even greater importance. Hearing took a back seat and other modes of cognition rose to prominence.

At the same time, the iconoclast controversy provided greater theological justification for the use of visual representation in Christian worship. Without going into the details of the controversy, it revolved around the question of whether it was legitimate to have “images” in Christian churches despite the prohibition of the second commandment. After decades of turmoil and conflict, the consensus emerged that the doctrines of creation and the incarnation both support the legitimacy, indeed the necessity, of recognizing art as a legitimate expression of Christian worship. (For a good resource on this, see “Saint John of Damascus and the Iconoclastic Controversy.”)

Together, these two events placed the medieval church on a strong trajectory toward the use of the visual in worship and education.

I can see a lot of value in this development. But, there were some problems as well.

  • The neglect of the spoken and written word. To the extent that we are a people of the word, we simply cannot ignore or neglect the word spoken and written in worship and education. To be fair, the medieval church didn’t sacrifice this entirely, but it was often sadly neglected and underappreciated. Combined with some of the other weaknesses on this list, this left the medieval church exposed to all kinds of problems, setting the stage for the reaction against the visual arts in many segments of the Protestant reformation.
  • The neglect of certain modes of learning. An illiterate laity (often accompanied by an illiterate clergy) and an overemphasis on the visual led to an almost complete neglect of other modes of learning. As much as I appreciate the visual arts, there are some things they just don’t do well (e.g. explain complex ideas, sustain careful arguments, etc.). Losing these modes of learning weakened the church in devastating ways.
  • The failure to train viewers. Though appreciating the power of the visual, the church often failed to understand that people need to be trained to understand the visual arts well. If you doubt, just walk into a modern art museum. (Or, if you already understand modern art, take someone who doesn’t.) Look at those black and red splotches. You can “see”, but can you “see as” the art intends? Can your imagination be shaped by those red scribbles as the artist hoped? Probably not. If you’re like me, you’ll just be annoyed by the pretensions of the modern artist and wonder if you can get your money back. Christian art works the same way. Unless you’ve learned how to “see” the art properly, you may not see it at all. Or, possibly worse, you may end up seeing all kinds of things that were never intended to be there – which takes us to our last point.
  • The interpretive openness of the visual. One of the things that renders the visual arts so powerful is their openness to interpretation. Granted, all forms of communication bear a similar openness. But there’s something distinct about the ability of the visual to remain open before the interpreter and host a wide range of ideas and meanings. This is its power, but it can also be its weakness. Used casually or carelessly, the viewer can find meaning and application far removed the art’s original intent, subverting its own purpose. And, in the middle ages, this often contributed to rampant syncretism. Without proper training in how to see the art properly, people easily integrated it much of their pagan religiosity and superstition. The eucharist becomes a magical ceremony to appease the wrathful gods; Mary morphs into a fertility goddess; and God becomes Odin (or some other deity).

So, what can we learn from all of this today?

  • The need to engage multiple modes of learning. Many of the Reformers responded harshly to the medieval emphasis on the visual. And, given some of the problems mentioned above, that’s understandable. But, we’ve also seen that medieval church had good theological, anthropological, and pedagogical reasons for its visual practices. And, we’ve seen that an overemphasis on one learning style alone can have negative ramifications for the church. So, we would be well advised to learn from those who have gone before and recognize the need for a more holistic approach to worship and education.
  • The need to retain the word written and spoken. At the same time, we should heed well the problems that the medieval church encountered and the serious objections raised by the Reformers. We are and must be people of the Word. We should, therefore, tread lightly and thoughtfully down any path that might take us away from this focus. The visual does not need to be one of those paths, but it has been before and it could be again.
  • The need to use the visual carefully. We teach people to read, to think carefully, and to speak clearly. But, for some reason, we think that everyone intuitively understands how to use and respond to the visual arts. We don’t talk about how to watch a movie, how to view a painting, or how to watch a ballet. Why not? Do we think all people have an innate ability to watch Glee well? Of course not. As we’ve seen, used carelessly, the visual arts can have tragic consequences for the church. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use them. (All modes of expression have their own potential for misunderstanding and misuse.) But, it does mean that we need to use them far more carefully than often seems to be the case. Indeed, the resurgence of the visual arts in many churches today makes me nervous for this very reason.

Many of us are visual people. And, from what I’ve seen of God’s creation, I think he’s okay with that. Yes, God spoke. And he speaks. So, let’s speak and speak boldly. But, God also painted, sculpted, acted, and so much more. Let’s learn from the medieval church and see if we can engage all of these modes of expression carefully, thoughtfully, and worshipfully.

(For the rest of the posts in this series, see 6 Things We Can Learn about Worship from the Dark Ages.)

Do I really have to go to church? (Light from the Dark Ages, part 2)

Sunday morning again. Great. I’m tired, I have a headache from staying up too late the night before, and my wife’s stupid cat won’t stop meowing. Not for the first time, I wish that I kept a BB gun or a large hammer next to the bed.

I really don’t want to get up. I work hard all week, and Saturdays are always full of chores, errands, and other responsibilities. Can’t I have just one morning to relax?

I’m pretty sure my wife didn’t sleep well either. She was up with the kids at least twice, and I’m sure she’s as exhausted as I am. She’s awake; I can tell. But she hasn’t moved yet. I can almost feel her thinking the same question that is running through my mind.

Do we have to go to church this morning?

Which leads to the question: What happens when God’s people start thinking of church as an optional activity in the midst of a busy life?

That’s exactly the issue that the church had to confront during its transition into the early middle ages. I’m sure this wasn’t a new problem, but it certainly took on a new level of seriousness as church attendance declined precipitously during this period.

At least five things seem to have contributed to this growing problem.

  • The professionalization of worship. By the middle ages, the professionalization of the clergy was well-established. A clear divide had developed between the average Christian and the priests, bishops, and monks who were the real focal point of Christian worship. Thus, as long as the professionals were there to take care of the business of the church, all was well.
  • The mediation of worship. Along with the professionalization of the clergy came the idea that the worship of God’s people was essentially mediated through the clergy. We saw in our last post that the language of the church contributed to this development as only the professional clergy really understood what was going on. It was a short step from here to the idea that the clergy really do the work of worship for the people. Once that becomes the mindset, is it any wonder that people began to think if their attendance was all that important? The real work of worship will happen just fine without them.
  • A “What’s in it for me?” Mentality. And, once people begin to view their participation in worship as optional, the only other reason for attending regularly would be the idea that they’ll get something out of it.  But, such an individualistic ethos only served to decrease attendance. Certainly my salvation doesn’t depend on regular attendance at church. So, although there may be some other cursory benefits, the bottom line is that my fundamental relationship with God remains unchanged even if I decide to skip church. Why, then, should I take time out of my life to do something with limited apparent benefit to me?
  • The Guilt Factor. The only real recourse that the medieval church had was to play up the people’s experience of personal guilt and to emphasize the eucharist as the only effective means for dealing with that guilt. But, the more they played that card, the more they made people feel unworthy to stand in the presence of a holy God. Thus, contrary to expectations, the guilt card actually made people less likely to attend church regularly. Instead, many came just once a year – the least they thought they could get away with and still be in good standing with God.
  • The Chaos of Life. We should also recognize that in many ways this was just a difficult time to be alive. The decline of centralized authority and the rise of regionalized powers (the barbarian “warlords”), along with other factors like the rise of feudalism, economic decline, famine, and the Viking and Magyar invasions, all contributed to a laity distracted by the complexity and chaos of everyday life. Such were the “excuses” of the early medieval period.

I think we wrestle with many of the same things today.

  • The professionalization and mediation of worship. Although Protestants have long emphasized the priesthood of all believers, we continue to struggle with the dynamics of a professionalized clergy. As long as worship is really what happens on the stage, is my presence all that necessary? Surely I can miss a few Sundays without impacting anyone. The worship team will still be there.
  • The “What’s in it for me?” mentality. Why not sleep in today? Am I really going to get anything out of the service? Who’s preaching anyway? I bet it’s that one associate pastor who doesn’t do a very good job. I never learn anything from him anyway. Or (maybe just as likely) I think I’ll go visit another church today; I hear they have better worship. Clearly this mentality did not die with the middle ages.
  • The Chaos of Life. This is really what I was alluding to at the very beginning of this post. Life is hectic and complicated today. And for many people, the background noise of everyday life easily overwhelms the unconvincing reasons they have for attending weekly worship. They’ll still attend on occasion, but only as it fits in their otherwise busy schedule.

So, many of the factors that contributed to a declining emphasis on corporate worship in the early middle ages are still with us today. And, just like in the medieval period, The Guilt Factor really doesn’t work. The more people feel guilty for missing church, the less likely they are to go. Hiding from your guilt is often easier than facing it.

The problem today, and in the medieval church, is a failure to cast a compelling vision of what corporate worship is all about. Ultimately, corporate worship is about the people of God manifesting the glory of God in the midst of the creation of God so that all people everywhere can see how amazing God is.

And, if God’s people don’t show up, it can’t happen. It’s not something that anyone can do for us – it can’t be mediated or professionalized. We can pay people so that they have more time to prepare to lead us effectively in this process, but they can’t do it for us. And we shouldn’t want them to. Why would we want to miss out on the opportunity to be involved in something this special, this amazing – the very reason for our existence?

But, when we fail to cast this vision for God’s people, a vision of what corporate worship is all about, it’s easy for it to become a burden – something to be avoided when we’re tired and distracted. That’s when attendance turns into attrition, and the pews sit empty.

[This is the second post in our series on 6 Things We Can Learn about Worship from the Dark Ages.]

Should we teach classes on how to speak Christianese? (Light from the Dark Ages, part 1)

Church is boring.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that from one of my high school students. Probe them a bit, though, and you’ll discover that the problem isn’t just that church isn’t exciting like a video game, an action movie, or a first date. Instead, the problem is often that they don’t understand what’s going on or what it has to do with “real life.” Listening to the songs and sermons, the language seems so odd, so removed from everyday life, that they struggle to understand why any of this matters.

And, like most of us, when faced with an hour or more of something they don’t really understand, they get bored.

And, if we’re honest, teenagers aren’t alone in this. Many people have a hard time understanding “church language.” Faced with words like “sanctify,” “redemption,” or, heaven forbid, “ebenezer,” they feel like they need their own personal translator just to keep track of what’s happening.

Indeed, some people have grown so accustomed to not understanding church language that they don’t even notice anymore. I’m sure I could drop “image of God” into a sermon and it wouldn’t even phase most people despite the fact that they probably have no idea what that phrase even means.

What do you do when the average person doesn’t understand the language of the church?

That is exactly the problem the church faced during its transition into the early middle ages. After the fall of the Roman empire in the West, the church had to deal with the fact that most people no longer spoke Latin, the official language used in all church services. In such a situation, what should the church do? Should it retain its traditional language, or should it try to translate itself into its new linguistic context?

In the early middle ages, the church opted to maintain its language. And, I think that we’re all aware of at least some of the consequences. Few people ever learned Latin, meaning that they often had very little idea of what was taking place in the service. And, as a result, the worship service often became something that the priest did for the people, rather than something that the people actively participated in. Indeed, regular attendance at church services declined significantly as people came to think that even their presence was unnecessary.

When we choose not to translate the language of the church, we risk alienating God’s people from God’s worship.

But, what about the other option? It’s easy to criticize the church for making what looks like an apparently obvious mistake. Why continue worshiping in a language that people don’t understand? But, what if the church had chosen differently? Suppose that it decided to recognize its new context and translate its worship into the various languages of the people. Although I think this would have been a good idea, we should recognize that the church had good reasons for concern.

  1. Something always gets lost in translation. Just ask a translator. It’s never quite possible to capture everything when you move from one language to another. And, when you’re talking about important truths, losing something along the way is never a good idea.
  2. The church risks its “catholicity.” The early church was deeply concerned to emphasize that regardless of what part of the world you are in, you are still part of the one church of Jesus Christ. That is the church “catholic” (i.e. the church in its unity). And, for them, common worship practices and a common worship language were powerful and visible declarations of our Christian unity.
  3. You may end up with a lowest-common-denominator Christianity. If our focus is on what the “average person” is able to understand, and if our goal is to make sure that our worship makes sense to that person, do we not run the risk of “lowering the bar” so much that we lose some of the depth and substance of Christian worship?

So, faced with a difficult situation, the early medieval church had two choices, both of which came with significant risks.

And, both sets of risks are worth keeping in mind as we deal with a similar situation today. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we too struggle with a “church language” that most average people find hard to understand. What will we do?

  1. Will we choose like the medieval church to retain our language, convinced that it conveys important theological truth and maintains our connection to one another and to the broader Christian tradition? If we choose this path, we need to understand that we’ve got our work cut out for us. We must do the hard work of educating our congregations to understand that language, or we risk alienating them from the worship life of the community, leading them to grow frustrated, disconnected, and bored. And, we should also recognize that the tide flows against us in this task as the biblical/theological knowledge of the average person today continues to recede.
  2. Or, will we choose to translate our worship into the language of “the people”? Down this road likes the possibility of greater engagement and understanding. But, I’ve attended worship serves at many churches who opt for this path, and we should also be aware that this can be a road that leads to a theologically shallow spirituality that tries to develop in isolation from the broader life and language of God’s people through time.

As with most difficult decisions, I don’t think a simple either/or will suffice; the truth certainly awaits us somewhere in the middle. Our task is to recognize the dangers on either side and address the challenge with eyes wide open. And, that’s most easily done when we seek to learn from those who have navigated these difficult waters before us.

[This is the first post in our series on 6 Things We Can Learn about Worship from the Dark Ages.]

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6 things we can learn about worship from the Dark Ages

Yesterday’s post on 9 things worship leaders need to stop doing raised a number of concerns about modern worship practices. But, as I was reflecting on those issues a bit more, I realized how similar some of them are to difficulties that the church has faced before. And, if God’s people have dealt with these challenges before, wouldn’t it make sense to take a look back and see what we can learn?

So, I thought it would be interesting to start a short series on what we can learn as we wrestle with some of the same challenges in a new historical context. Specifically, I want to look at challenges that developed in the church’s worship practices during the early middle ages, particularly as they relate to the Eucharist (communion), and how that can help us understand the difficulties we encounter today.

For those of you who aren’t into church history, I realize this might sound a little abstract. What could we possible learn from the “Dark Ages.” Well, first, “Dark Ages” is a horrible label for this time period. Far from being a time of unrelieved darkness, the early middle ages are a fascinating time of exploration and discovery in the face of tremendous challenges. But, more importantly, regardless of what we call this time period, it’s still a time in which God’s people sought to carry out God’s purposes in God’s world. Unless we want to believe that God abandoned his people during this time (he didn’t), then we should still be able to learn plenty. So, stick with me.

Here’s what I have in mind. As we look at the eucharistic practices of the early medieval church, we’ll find them wrestling with 6 key issues that I think have parallels to today’s worship struggles. I’ll tackle these one at a time over the next week or so and see what we come up with.

  1. The Difficulty of Language
  2. The Problem of Attendance
  3. The Role of the Visual
  4. The Complexity of Worship
  5. The Design of the Churches
  6. The Understanding of the Act

9 things worship leaders need to stop doing

We ask a lot from our worship leaders today. They’re not just song leaders anymore. Instead, they’re supposed to craft and lead worship “experiences” that people walk away from saying, “Wow! I really met with God this morning.” So basically, they have to create worship so amazing that God actually shows up, because apparently God doesn’t attend the really boring services down the street.

So, worship leaders have a tough job. And, having served as the worship leader in a number of venues over the years, I understand what that job is like. So, I don’t want to pick on worship leaders any more than absolutely necessary.

But, I really enjoyed Philip Nation’s recent article on 9 Thoughts for Worship Leaders. He does a nice job highlighting a number of mistakes that we can make when we forget that we are “leading” others in worship – i.e. we’re not just doing what we like or what sounds good. And consequently, we have to keep in mind the people that we are leading.

Check out the article to see all of his comments, but here were a couple that really resonated with me.

2. We don’t sing La-La-La.

For some reason, songwriters will substitute words with Ooh’s, Aah’s, and La’s of different progressions and combinations. Though it may sound really cool on the radio, most of us just feel stupid standing around singing La-La-La-La. And, anyway, it doesn’t feel like worship when I’m just cooing like a baby at God.

4. Stop singing in the key of “Tomlin.”

Let me say it plainly: if the worship leader is singing toward the top of his/her vocal range, then you have left everyone behind about seven bars ago. If you can sing like Jason Crabb or Chris Tomlin, that’s great. For you.

9. Love Jesus more than music.

All leaders face the temptation to love their work for God more than God Himself. It is our own temptation toward idolatry. To speakers, I would say that they should love Jesus more than their words about Him. For worship leaders, love God more than the music about Him. No matter what else happens on the platform, it will be obvious where your passion rests.

Although I think there are a number of other things that could be added (e.g. we need to stop referring to ourselves as the “worship” leader if we’re only responsible for music), he does a nice job of highlighting some issues worth considering.

9. Love Jesus more than music.

The Heidelberg Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism was written and approved by the Synod of Heidelberg on January 19, 1563.  The catalyst for the writing of this document was Frederick III, the sovereign of the Palatinate from 1559 to 1576.  He wanted to combine the best of Lutheran and Reformed teaching in a manner that would be easily accessible to the people of his territory.  He also wanted to counteract the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, and so the Heidelberg Catechism based each of its statements on Scripture.  It consists of fifty-two sections (one section to be read on each Lord’s day) and has 129 questions and answers dealing with the fall of man, his redemption, and proper response to the Lord.  It became one of the most popular Reformed Catechism’s and was used extensively by Reformed churches in several different countries.  Its influence reached the Westminster Assembly who used it in the formation of the Shorter Catechism.

Question 1. What is thy only comfort in life and death?

Answer: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

Review: Worship and the Reality of God by John Jefferson Davis

Many thanks to IVP for sending me a review copy of John Jefferson Davis’s Worship and the Reality of God: An Evangelical Theology of Real Presence (IVP, 2010).

★★☆☆☆

I had a difficult time assigning a final score to this book. On the one hand, I picked it up ready to be convinced by its basic argument: evangelical worship is often theologically shallow and driven by pragmatism and experientialism.  And, indeed, Davis offers much food for thought in this direction. But, on the other hand, I found many of Davis’s core arguments unconvincing and his criticisms of evangelical worship either unfair or insufficiently explained. So, although the book provided a useful occasion for thinking through what God’s “presence” in worship actually means and why evangelical worship is often frustrating and shallow, I’m not convinced that Davis offers the kind of meaningful engagement necessary to provide a helpful way forward.

Summary

Davis opens the book by laying out his fundamental concern: evangelical worship focuses more on “worshedutainment” (great word!) than on fostering “a vivid awareness of God’s presence as the central reality in worship” (9). This lack constitutes “the growing God-vacuum in modern American evangelical worship” (12).

And, this problem stems from our failure to understand (1) the importance and priority of worship; (2) the nature of worship; (3) the participants of worship; (4)  the elements of worship; (5)  the “ontologies” of modernity and postmodernity and how they undermine true worship; (6) the need to learn new behaviors and new ‘doxological skills’ for the enjoyment of true worship.” Thus, evangelical worship suffers from a terminal shallowness and captivity to non-Christian ways of thinking and acting in the world.

In response to those problems, Davis calls for us to develop churches that are deep, thick, and different:

that is, a deep church that is marked by the depth of its encounter with God in worship and the spiritual disciplines, rather than a church oriented toward numerical growth; a thick church characterized by thick relationships and commitments rather than thin personal relationships of consumerist and postmodern culture; and a different church of ‘resident aliens’ (Hauerwas) that is unashamedly distinct from the culture in its ontology, theology, worship and moral behavior. (32).

Such a church will be very different in its beliefs and practices from any group formed by one of the competing ideologies of the modern world: scientific materialism and digital virtualism. As Davis explains,

The real problem lies at the level of ontology—that is, at the level of a fundamental background theory of the real that is operating in the hearts and the minds of the people, the preacher and the praise band, even before they walk through the door of the church or onto the stage. (14)

So, any real solution to our problem requires that we ground ourselves in ways of thinking and being that orient us around the true ontology – Trinitarian theism.

Each of the four main chapters of the book focuses on helping us accomplish this very task. In chapter two, Davis explains three key problems in evangelical worship: Your ‘God’ is too ‘light’; your vision of the church is too low; your view of your self is too high, and consequently, your worship is too shallow” (38). Instead of being grounded in a robust theology, Davis contends that our worship is pragmatic and shallow:

The personal presence of God in the ecclesia, by virtue of his covenant promises, his Word, sacraments and Spirit, invests the ecclesia with an ontic weight that does not obtain with merely  human organizations and assemblies. In practice, it seems that ordinary evangelical Protestant concepts of the church reflect notions that are more sociological than theological, more functional and pragmatic than ‘mystical’ and ontological, more Pelagian that Pauline and pneumatic—that is, an eviscerated ecclesiology in which the church is viewed as a voluntary human organization gathered for certain activities. (63)

Chapter three focuses more particularly on the question of God’s presence in worship.

Christian churches need to constitute in their practices—especially in their practices of worship—alternative plausibility structures that can embody and experience the presence of the divine in a way that directly challenges the suffocating naturalism of the dominant culture. (83)

Davis argues that the revivalist background of modern evangelicalism often causes us to focus more on bringing the individual to a point of decision than on the centrality of God’s presence in worship, regardless of how Trinitarian or orthodox our theology might be.  So, in place of this individualistic revivalism, Davis calls for and understanding of worship that orients space and time around God and his Kingdom.

With the strong emphasis on God’s presence in worship, it is no surprise that chapter four focuses its attention on the nature of God’s presence in the Eucharist. Davis deals briefly with some of the major perspectives on real presence, but focuses on the reality of God’s special presence in the Eucharist (however it is understood) as the focus for most Christian traditions. So, Eucharist should be a key focus as we seek to retrieve a sense of God’s presence in worship today.

And, the final chapter focuses on identifying some practical applications for the theological and theoretical insights developed throughout the book. So, he focuses in this chapter on offering some specific thoughts for developing churches that recognize and manifest the real presence of God in worship by being deep, thick, and different.

Strengths

Probably my favorite part of the book was his emphasis on how the way that we view ourselves, our churches, and reality as a whole affects worship. To put it another way, ontology matters.

Davis also joined the growing chorus of voices criticizing the evangelical church for an unhealthy focusing on preaching as the almost exclusive focus of the service. Although I think he goes too far in his critique of preaching-centered services, he does do a nice job pointing out the danger of becoming unbalanced in this area. It does seem interesting that seminaries typically requires multiple preaching courses but few classes on worship (if any). Without a robust theology of worship, a “worship” service can easily lose its way and find its focus in some other purpose (e.g. instruction, entertainment, outreach).

I also liked his call for us to think through each aspect of our worship services and wrestle with what these practices really signify in the life of the congregation. I didn’t think his presentation was as theologically nuanced as that offered by James K. A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom, but he still presents some interesting ideas worth considering. I particularly appreciated his emphasis on understanding the formative nature of technology:

Such cultural artifacts are real and have ontic weight to the extent that they display internal structures and coherence, embody intentions, meanings and symbolic references, encode information, have stable existence over time, and have the power to shape and influence behaviors and institutions. (109)

I’ll make some more critical comments on this point in the next section, but we do need to realize that such technologies are value-laden.

Weaknesses

One of my greatest frustrations with the book was the fact that Davis repeatedly claimed that evangelical worship lacks an awareness of God’s “presence,” but he makes very little attempt to explain or justify this conclusion. For example, after attending one evangelical service, he comments: “A sense of the presence of the holy in the administration of holy Communion was  obvious that morning” (113). But he offers no justification for this conclusion. He routinely points to liturgical practices as offering a deeper sense of God’s presence and at one point compares American evangelicalism unfavorably to the more Pentecostal worship of the global south. But, in neither place does he explain why these different worship practices necessarily evidence God’s presence better than those he is criticizing. Indeed, he leaves himself open to the charge that it is merely his preference for liturgical worship that causes him to find other forms of worship unsatisfying. (I don’t think this is the case, but the shape of the argument makes it look like it.) So, at the end of the day, his central conclusion – “contemporary evangelical Christians have lost their awareness of the presence of the living and holy God as the central reality of all true worship” (100) – seems unjustified.

Additionally, he failed to provide any explanation for why liturgical acts are better suited for shaping Christian worship and identity. Like many proponents of liturgical worship, Davis claims that such practices shape time/space in particularly Christian ways and are, therefore, more conducive to truly Christian worship. Regardless of whether I agree or disagree with this, his failure to provide any meaningful argument for this liturgical perspective seriously undermined the value of the book. If he is going to suggest that liturgical practice is a key part of the solution to the lack of God’s presence in modern worship, I would have liked to see a much stronger  defense of that conclusion.

I also didn’t like the fact that all six of his areas of deficiency were phrased in entirely cognitive ways. I teach for a living, so obviously I think understanding things is important. But, I don’t think it’s sufficient to say that the weakness of contemporary worship is simply a failure to understand. I also found the emphasis on cognitive failure rather odd given his similar strong emphasis on liturgical practice as the solution.

His discussions of technology could also be more nuanced. While I appreciated some of his comments (see above), he consistently painted technology in a very negative light, often neglecting even to mention that there are other perspectives. For example, he commented at one point that technology is “altering the nature of human consciousness itself” (15). This is a highly contentious statement that should be defended rather than asserted. And, even if true, it fails to engage the fact that this would be true for all technological development – not just the recent ones. This may seem like a small matter, but since he made technology central to one of this three primary worldviews, digital virtualism, this actually became a real weakness.

As a result of all these weaknesses, his suggestions for practical application remained unconvincing. He concludes that we need to move toward an “ancient-modern blended worship” that highlights: (1) liturgy, tradition and ritual, (2) visual arts; (3) right use of electronic media; (4) promotion of spiritual gifts; (5) ancient-modern musical canon; (6) weekly Eucharist. I’m not against any of these things, but he did not succeed in convincing me that these come from theological conviction rather than personal preference. And, it’s hard to see how we can deepen our worship practices by moving from newer personal preferences to older ones.

Conclusion

Overall, Worship and the Reality of God gave me a lot to think about and some interesting ideas to chew on. But, in the end, I found its basic argument unsatisfying and insufficiently nuanced at key places. It is probably best suited for someone wanting to become more familiar with some of the ideas behind recent criticisms of evangelical worship.