For a while now I’ve been feeling more and more out of touch with contemporary Christianity. It feels as if the problems it’s trying to solve, and the concerns it has, aren’t part of the world in which I live. This sense of displacement is felt more keenly in the way people perceive worship.
I am not a formal person. I’ve got no problem wearing shorts to church in the Summer, and consider the very idea of wearing a tie to be rather silly 1. I’d wear a robe, but in my tradition they serve no liturgical purpose and I’d rather not look like a reject from Harry Potter if I can help it 2. Worship at Central is a worship pursued by misfits. We are a bunch of people who probably wouldn’t fit in a lot of churches but who have managed to figure out how to live life together. Because of this there’s a familiarity to worship among the congregation 3. But even in our informality there’s still a sense this is worship — a practice which is deliberately separated from the ordinary rhythm of the week. We don’t typically listen to people read out loud from a sacred text or participate in religious litanies in our “normal” lives, after all. Worship, casual as it may be at Central, is different.
What I experience in contemporary Christianity, however, seems to be the opposite. “Church things” are filtered so they feel normal to the people in worship, especially for visitors. The problem is, in our culture “normal” means “being entertained.” And so worship has become a show. Smoke machines, professional lighting, incredible musical and sound production, and a state of the art projection system.
I’m not saying worship shouldn’t be engaging, of course it should be. There’s nothing particularly pious about coming out to a weekly event you find irrelevant, and personally resent 4. Worship should engage our whole being.
But engagement and entertainment are not the same thing. A congregation, a people gathered for the purpose of offering service to God, is engaged. An audience is entertained. The former is focused on the one whom they are called to serve. The latter is focused on what makes them, personally, feel good. I do sometimes worry what contemporary Christianity truly worships is the self — it just happens to be a “self” dressed up in a Jesus costume.
The problem with pursuing worship as entertainment is it’s a dead end. PBS aside 5, people do not consume entertainment in order to have demands placed on their lives. They consume entertainment in order to be pleased with the state of their lives 6. When the show is over, the channel is flipped 7 and we head off on our merry way back into normal life. Entertainment gives us something to talk about, but if it demanded we change our lives to fulfill some higher purpose we’d despise it.
When we are engaged with the Gospel, on the other hand, things are much different. It wouldn’t matter if a church never needed to pay a bill, or have repairs done, or needed to be cleaned. It wouldn’t matter if a congregation refused to take an offering or the pastor worked for free. When we are engaged with Christ and his Kingdom there are demands placed on our very existence. Demands which are exemplified on the cross of Jesus Christ.
Worship exemplifies the cross when it calls us to deny ourselves.
Worship exemplifies the cross when it calls us to remain obedient to the Way of Jesus.
Worship exemplifies the cross when its expressed from weakness instead of strength.
Worship exemplifies the cross when it’s expressed through both grace and mercy.
Worship which submits to the demands of humility, faithfulness, weakness, grace, and mercy is worship which transforms. It’s the type of worship contemporary Protestantism would do well to rediscover.
- I mean, what type of a person thought that particular bit of torture up? ↩
- Though I suppose if I could get it in Ravenclaw trim I might reconsider. ↩
- To be honest, there may even a bit too much familiarity for a lot of visitors. ↩
- Though I’ve met people who’d disagree. ↩
- And even then we resent the pleas for donations which interrupt Dowton Abbey. ↩
- Or escape from the state of their lives. ↩
- A metaphor which makes almost no sense anymore. ↩