A couple of years ago, I was able to visit a worship service with a friend in Florida. As we were leaving the service, he turned to me and asked, “Why do a lot of churches today feel the need to emasculate God?” (Perhaps some of us would disagree with his terminology, but let us not get caught up in a discussion on semantics and understand that he was using emasculate to mean the act of making something weaker and less effective.) His comment was not meant as a slander against gender, but was directed at the fact the service we had just attended was, for lack of a better term, fluffy. My friend continued by saying we had just sat through nothing more than a Christian group counseling session. Unfortunately, I can’t provide you with an example of this service to help you more fully grasp his point. However, I think my friend was hitting on something deeper that has affected worship in many ways today.
What troubles me is that in many ways I believe we are losing a sense of boldness in our worship. There are many ways in which this plays out – in our songs, our sermons, our prayers, our mindsets, our expectations… Books and articles could (and have) been written about each of these. In no way do I believe in a simple blog that I will be able to offer a solution to this problem. However, I do want to raise a few thoughts for consideration:
1.) Keep worship simple.
In his book, A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer writes the following statements as some of the markers of what a divided life may look like:
- We hide our beliefs from those who disagree with us to avoid conflict, challenge, and change
- We conceal our true identities for fear of being criticized, shunned, or attacked
He ends by saying, “Dividedness is a separation from our own souls.”
Today’s church lives in a historical anomaly. Over the past fifty years style has taken priority in worship over the content. Churches are known for the style of worship they have. Services are split because of style. Many people will often choose (or so we church leaders believe) what service they will attend based on the style.
Unfortunately, this has led many churches to divide their focus between culture and worship. This is true for any style of worship. We can hide behind safe, comfortable forms of worship just as much as we can hide by eliminating any distinct markers that make us Christians. Even more than this, we can also become too tolerant and too accepting of sin, which has nothing to do with our style of worship.
Eugene Peterson approaches this subject through his book, Subversive Spirituality. He writes: “Spirituality is always in danger of self-absorption, of becoming so intrigued with matters of the soul that God is treated as a mere accessory to my experience” (15).
What happens when we begin to lose our distinct character as a people who have been redeemed by God? Have we separated our souls by allowing culture to narrate our worship instead of allowing our worship to narrate the culture around us?
Maybe we’ve just tried to bring too much into worship. We’re trying too hard to relate to the culture instead of letting the profound truth of God speak. We are too divided. Let’s get back to the simplicity of delighting in God as his redeemed children. Then we can proclaim with boldness the truth we know. We can worship with boldness the Eternal God without being overly distracted by the temporal world.
2.) Expect God in worship.
This sounds so primary, yet it unfortunately often gets overlooked. Expect God in worship.
If we fail to convey in the very initial stages of worship that we have entered the presence of God, we make it much more difficult to do so in the latter parts of worship. Likewise, we make it much more difficult to enter deeply and fully into worship. There are some questions we must ask ourselves:
- What is our expectation of worship, both individually and as a community?
- As we begin worship, is the presence of God being revealed? How?
- Does the dialogue of revelation and response continue through worship?
- Are there ways in which we cause the loss of expectation of God's presence in worship?
- In what intentional ways do we prepare to enter God's presence in worship?
Tom Long wrote a great article on this very subject. (The full article can be found here.) Honestly, I can’t say anything better, so I’ll let him do most of the talking on this point: “Worship by definition should guide us to a larger place, should direct our gaze away from ourselves and toward the most vast, holy and mysterious of all horizons. But for all the over-the-top extravagance of many worship experiences, for all the invocations to an "awesome God," much worship today seems curiously trivial, inward and downsized… Just so, when even tacitly we think of the dramatis personae of worship as "just us," when there is no expectation of the whirlwind, worship becomes small and confining. True worship happens in response to the holy and dangerous mystery of God's appearing. Annie Dillard was right to name liturgy as ‘certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed.’ Or to put it in a more modest way, if we genuinely discerned that worship takes place in the presence of the burning bush, would we really spend the time licking the glaze off of a doughnut and sipping a latte?”
3.) Worship is evangelism.
Part of where I think we have missed the mark in worship is by trying to make worship more evangelistic. Instead, we should understand that when worship is done with boldness and truth, it becomes evangelism. Worship is relevant to every life. It doesn’t need to be made so.
In one sense, worship becomes evangelism through the lives true worship forms in us. In her book, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, Marva Dawn writes, “Worship will eventually be subversive of the surrounding culture, God’s truth transforms lives… Worship inverts values, habits, ideas as it forms our character… The worship response of service includes and demands social action leading to social change” (52, 72).
However, the very act of worship itself can also be evangelism. Walter Bruggemann writes in his book, Israel’s Praise: Doxology Against Idolatry and Ideology: “The worship of Yahweh creates a world of justice, mercy, peace, compassion…this is the real world, created in the moment of liturgy, which asserts that every rival claimant and candidate for the real world is false and destructive. Thus doxology is polemical because it means to uncreate – disestablish other worlds and affirm this is a better world” (53).
Let your worship proclaim to the world that God is real and wishes to create a world of justice, mercy, peace, and compassion. Let the world hear the narrative of God. Let your worship speak against any other ruler, power, or principality in this world.
Worship loudly. Worship unashamedly. Worship with boldness.