Reflections on Worship

I wrote this last year around Easter and I wanted to reshare it. The thoughts and conclusions about worship are just as relevant today – this Holy Week – as they were last year. Hymns or choruses? High liturgy or free-flowing? Electric or acoustic? Contemporary or traditional? Energetic or reflective? These worship questions have caused the fracture of many churches, and the battles fought have left many wounded and disenchanted with ministry. They are also questions which I do not address in my first book, The Divine Commodity. Apparently there is an excerpt from my first book, The Divine Commodity,  floating around the web from which people have incorrectly concluding that I favor a particular style of worship over another, or that I am somehow anti-contemporary worship or would judge one style as “wrong.” The very idea that a style or worship can be wrong is funny to begin with. That’s like saying the Spanish language is better at communicating a mother’s love than Japanese. The misunderstanding probably arose from out-of-context remarks in the book about the rise of “meticulously controlled staged environments” as a means of advancing Christ’s mission. When we believe external experiences are how lives are fundamentally transformed, I argued, it necessitates a dramatic change in the pastor’s role. The pastor was originally seen as a shepherd tending Christ’s flock, but now the role conjures images of a circus ringmaster shouting, “Come one, come all, to the greatest show on earth!” When Christianity succumbs to Consumerism the shepherd becomes a showman. For those who’ve not read The Divine Commodity, and who may have seen it quoted around the web, let me clarify my thoughts on worship a bit. First, I am not anti-attractional church. I recognize that we are both sent on mission and that God has made us to be a light that attracts the attention of a lost and broken world. Our gatherings should also embody both of these elements. After all, what could possibly be more attractive than the beauty of our God, the resurrection of his Son, and the Good News he has announced to the cosmos? Secondly, I’d like to offer some context to the excerpt that’s already been posted elsewhere. The examples of contemporary “entertainment-driven” worship cited in chapter 4 of The Divine Commodity are followed immediately by this sentence: “To be fair, there is nothing new or innovative about entertainment-driven worship. American Christianity, going back to the 19th Century revivals of Charles Finney, has employed staged experiences as a tool of spiritual transformation” (page 75). This statement beings a 500 word segment about the use of music and performance in churches dating back to the 1830s to reach the lost. And I don’t know anyone who would call the worship styles employed by Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday, or Charles Finney “contemporary” as that word is currently understood. In other words, the chapter is not critiquing contemporary style worship, but rather the widely held assumption that external experiences (whatever their style) result in lasting transformation. This belief is just as likely to be found in a Roman Catholic church with a high mass as a contemporary megachurch with a worship band. Finally, again for the sake of context, here is a longer excerpt from chapter 4 that should explain more fully the issue at hand. Coming down the mountain In 1515, Michelangelo completed a sculpture of Moses. The marble figure depicts an old but very muscular Moses seated with the Ten Commandments under his arm and a billowing beard. But tourists are often shocked to see what appear to be horns protruding from Moses’ head. The figure looks more like the Devil than Israel’s deliverer. The presence of horns on Michelangelo’s Moses can be traced to a mistranslation of the Bible in the 5th Century. The story from Exodus 34 says that after meeting with the Lord on Mount Sinai, Moses came down the mountain with the Ten Commandments. When the people saw him they were afraid because, “the skin of his face shone.” It seems standing in God’s glory somehow transfigured Moses’ appearance. His face was literally radiant. The Hebrew word refers to a beam or ray of light. But when St. Jerome converted the ancient Scriptures into Latin he mistranslated the word as “horns.” So, when Michelangelo read his Bible he believed the people were frightened by Moses’ appearance because he had grown horns while meeting with God on the mountain. St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, had been used for nearly 1,000 years before Michelangelo’s sculpture was made. The erroneously-horned Moses reminds us that questioning popular assumptions is important. But unfortunately Moses’ experience with God on the mountain is still widely misunderstood, and largely unquestioned, today. We no longer foolishly depict Moses with horns, but our misunderstanding of his mountaintop experience is still embarrassingly displayed every Sunday. In Exodus 34 we are told that Moses covered his face with a veil so that the people would not be frightened by his appearance. In truth, according to the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, Moses covered himself with a veil so the people couldn’t see that the glory was fading away. Whatever transformation Moses experienced in God’s presence on the mountain was temporary, and the veil hid the transient nature of this glory from the people. His mountaintop experience was genuine, glorious, and full of God’s presence-but it did not bring lasting transformation. This is the critical part of the story we seem to have forgotten. Moses’ experience is all too common among Christians today. Through the influence of our consumer culture we’ve come to believe that transformation is attained through external experiences. And, as we’ve already seen, many churches have engineered their ministries to manufacture these experiences for crowds of religious consumers. We’ve come to regard our church buildings, with their multi-media theatrical equipment, as mountaintops where God’s glory may be encountered. One pastor, explaining why his church opened another location across town, said “We decided, if you can’t get the people to the mountain, bring the mountain to the people.” Ascending the mountain every Sunday morning, millions of Christians want to have an experience with God and this is precisely what churches promise. And not disappointed, many leave these experiences with a sense of transformation or inspiration. They feel “pumped up,” “fed,” or “on fire for the Lord.” No doubt many people, like Moses, have authentic experiences of God through these events. Others may simply be carried along by the music, crowd, and energy of the room. Whether a result of God or group, what is beyond question is that many people depart feeling spiritually rejuvenated and capable of taking on life for another six days. The problem with these external experiences, as Moses discovered, is that the transformation doesn’t last. In a few days time, or maybe as early as lunch on Sunday, the glory begins to fade. The mountaintop experience with God, the event you were certain would change your life forever, turns out to be another fleeting spiritual high. And to hide the lack of genuine transformation we mask the inglorious truth of our lives behind a veil, a façade of Christian piety, until we can ascend the mountain again and be recharged. This philosophy of spiritual formation through the consumption of external experiences creates worship junkies-Christians who leap from one mountaintop to another, one spiritual high to another, in search of a glory that does not fade. In response, churches and Christian conferences are driven to create ever-grander experiences and more elaborate productions to satisfy expectations. Ironically, these worship spectacles, according to Sally Morgenthaler, are failing to produce real worshippers. She writes:

We are not producing worshippers in this country. Rather we are producing a generation of spectators, religious onlookers lacking, in many cases, any memory of a true encounter with God, deprived of both the tangible sense of God’s presence and the supernatural relationship their inmost spirits crave.

Ministries that focus on manufacturing spiritual experiences, despite their laudable intentions, may actually be retarding spiritual growth by making people experience-dependent. Like caged animals, consumer Christians lose the ability to do what they were designed by God to do-have a vibrant self-generating relationship with Christ. Instead, they become dependent upon their zookeepers for life and nourishment. This captive/captor relationship is unlikely to change as long as both the church member and leader are satisfied with the arrangement. But is this what the Christian life is supposed to be? What about the tangible sense of God’s presence we crave in our inmost spirits that Morgenthaler writes about? In the New Testament, Jesus and his Apostles do not emphasize external experiences as the means of encountering God. Instead, the focus is upon a mysterious communion with God made possible through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Contrasting the fading glory that Moses experienced on Sinai, the Apostle Paul says that we are being transformed “from one degree of glory to another,” and that this comes from the Spirit. This transformation is not from the outside working in, but from the inside working out. What Jesus spoke of in John 4 has come to pass. We no longer worship the Father on a mountain nor in Jerusalem, but in spirit and truth. To encounter the glory of God no longer require ascending a mountain, but learning to embrace a divine mystery-“Christ in you, the hope of glory.” When we expect transformation to occur through external experiences we are opting for an inferior model of spiritual formation. As a result, many consumer churches have inadvertently dismissed the new covenant in Christ and returned to the shadows of the old covenant-building temples and climbing mountains to catch glimpses of a fading glory. The reason for this regression is simple-New Testament spirituality, properly understood, is immune to the forces of consumerism. An internal communion with God through the Spirit cannot be packaged, commoditized, and marketed to religious consumers. It cannot be bundled, branded, or put on display to draw a crowd. We should be careful to not assume worship gatherings are the problem. The early Christians gathered regularly for worship, and the writer of Hebrews even commands his readers to not neglect meeting together as some were in the habit of doing. [inlinetweet prefix=”@skyejethani” tweeter=”” suffix=””]The problem is not our gatherings, but what we expect from them. [/inlinetweet]If corporate worship is an external display of an internal reality, the glory of Christ that abides within, then these gatherings will not be full of passive spectators. These events will be where Christians gather to show a watching world the continual worship that marks their lives-whether it is celebratory, reflective, or even repentant. However, if people have no sustainable communion with Christ through his indwelling Spirit, they will come to worship seeking a temporary filling; a transient dose of glory to carry them along. And rather than reflecting the full spectrum of the human-divine relationship as revealed in Scripture (particularly the Psalms), these gatherings will fixate on only one element-the celebratory. Over time as the familiar experience offers a diminishing return, religious consumers will either demand more energy through innovation, or they will shift to another church looking for a “new” experience. They will be drawn by promises of transformation and a genuine encounter with God, but we must ask whether people leave these experiences radiating the unfading glory of the Lord, or merely sprouting the horns of consumerism.

Excerpted from The Divine Commodity (Zondervan 2009)

© Skye Jethani

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