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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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Who is this God I worship?

Since I’m teaching on Augustine’s Confessions tomorrow, I thought I’d post one of my favorite pieces from Book 1. Confessions opens with Augustine praising this amazing God who has pursued him so graciously and transformed his life so completely. And, here is where he just breaks out in stunned admiration of God’s incomprehensible perfection.

“You, my God, are supreme, utmost in goodness, mightiest and all-powerful, most merciful and most just. You are the most hidden from us and yet the most present amongst us, the most beautiful and yet the most strong, ever enduring and yet we cannot comprehend you. You are unchangeable and yet you change all things. You are never new, never old, and yet all things have new life from you. You are the unseen power that brings decline upon the proud. You are ever active, yet always at rest. You gather all things to yourself, though you suffer no need. You support, you fill, and you protect all things. You create them nourish them, and bring them to perfection. You seek to make them your own, though you lack for nothing. You love your creatures, but with a gentle love. You treasure them, but without apprehension. You grieve for wrong, but suffer no pain. You can be angry and yet serene. Your works are varied, but your purpose is one and the same. You welcome all who come to you, though you never lost them. You are never in need yet are glad to gain, never covetous yet you exact a return for your gifts.” (Confessions 1.4).

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.]

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.

Flotsam and jetsam (2/8)

HT James McGrath

Motivation matters here. Yes, personal blogs may be a tool of self-promotion. That’s a given. But if the blogger is motivated solely by the desire to self-promote, then the blog is about building a readership for the blogger’s benefit rather than for the reader’s benefit.

For some, the term “apologetics” has taken on too many negative connotations to continue to be useful. They believe it is time to dispense with the term altogether. I am not convinced. Saving the term, however, is less important than revitalizing and re-contextualizing the concept. Christians need to continue to talk about the best way to communicate the heart of the gospel and the saving message of Christ in compelling and coherent ways. To that end, apologetics (or whatever one may call it) should be evangelistic, integrative, holistic, communal, and contextual.

Because we worship our way into sin, ultimately we need toworship our way out.

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.

Flotsam and jetsam (12/10)

  • Craig Carter offers a post In Praise of the Lecture, arguing that the lecture is a moral event, a personal act, and a tribute to metaphysical truth. HT

Today, the lecture is out of favor in politically-correct circles. Like dead white males, high academic standards and absolute truth, it has been consigned to the dustbin of history by enlightened, late-modern, progressives who do not quite believe that God grades on the curve, but who do hold it against Him that He does not.

To all Christians and other lovers of Lewis I would say this—- please during this Christmas season come out and support this film, not least so we may see more of Narnia in the future.  This is certainly a film appropriate for families to see, though a couple of the scenes in 3D with the big sea monster may be a little too intense for wee bairns as small as Reepicheep.  Be that as it may,  we must say— Well done good and faithful servants at Walden.   Inherit the Kingdom yourselves.

But our longing for “authenticity” also bears a suspicious resemblance to the latest plot twist in the story of consumer culture: the tendency to rapidly replace the squeaky-clean franchise with the “authentic” franchise.

Hearing what he called “the still, small voice of love” amid the cacophony of secular voices calling for attention needs special effort: “It requires solitude, silence and a strong determination to listen.” The Internet has not made the spiritual life any easier.

Flotsam and jetsam (11/4)

The theology that is taught in almost all theological institutions around here is an ill-fitting version of Christianity that simply does not work here. The Christianity that results is not transforming lives or churches or communities or cultures or nations. In that sense, rather than reflecting what is happening theologically, these Western theologies may actually be erecting barriers preventing people here from experiencing the transforming power of the risen Christ.

“I cannot help thinking that the incarnational analogy may be more trouble than it is worth.  Chalcedon was designed to clarify the being of Jesus Christ, not Scripture.  Please do not misunderstand: there is nothing wrong with Chalcedon, just as there was nothing wrong with the paper clip I used so cleverly in my skateboard to replace a screw.  However, that improvisation ended with a broken arm.  I wonder, then, about the wisdom of using language formulated for one truth to express another.”

Here’s our context: they are bringing the ark to the house of Obed-edom, the future site of the Temple, and they are sacrificing. The context is cultic. The modern correlation to worship (i.e., singing) is false.

  • I forgot to mention earlier, but James McGrath has posted a link to what looks like a really useful set of resources from the Wabash Center for evaluating online resources. If you’re a teacher or student, check these out.

Human ritual and spiritual formation: antithesis or synergy?

Yesterday Brian LePort commented on The Ecclesiology of Starbucks. He was specifically referring to Starbuck’s new ad campaign, “Take Comfort in Rituals.” Brian quickly noted the strong parallels between this add and the kind of language that we use to describe the church, a place where ritual (liturgical practices) are both comforting and formative. And, Brian noted that this way of thinking also had resonance with James K. A. Smith’s recent book, Desiring the Kingdom, which we discussed some time ago.

Brian’s post has sparked a lively discussion, particularly between Halden (who blogs at Inhabitatio Dei) and Smith, as they’ve traded jabs on the nature and purpose transformation, the role of ritual, and the nature of theological discourse in the blogosphere. Several others have contributed their thoughts as well, making this a fascinating discussion to check out.

So, if you have any interesting the the church, worship, ritual practices, and the nature of spiritual formation, you should definitely head over there and check out Brian’s post and the comments that follow.