A necessary caution & comfort

These days it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate misguided sincerity from crass advertising, but differing motivations can share the same deleterious effects.

Some time back I posted a quote from Thomas Weinandy on a pitfall of modern theology:

Many theologians today, having embraced the Enlightenment presuppositions and the scientific method that it fostered, approach theological issues as if they were scientific problems to be solved rather than mysteries to be discerned and clarified.

This statement made a lasting impression on me as I realized that the problem-solving quest isn’t unique to theologians but is part of the Christian culture in general. With decreasing attention spans and sound bite theology exploding on social media, it should come as no surprise that we have a very low tolerance for the mysterious, the unanswerable, the unmanageable.

Nowhere is this more evident than in so much talk about spiritual encounters in a worship setting. These days it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate misguided sincerity from crass advertising, but differing motivations can share the same deleterious effects. So for those tempted to buy into the hype that exhilaration is proof of God’s presence, Lewis offers a word of caution. And for those tempted to despair because they have no proof of God’s presence, Lewis offers you a word of comfort.

The presence of God is not the same as the sense of the presence of God. The latter may be due to imagination; the former may be attended with no “sensible consolation” . . . The act which engenders a child ought to be, and usually is attended by pleasure. But it is not the pleasure that produces the child. Where there is pleasure there may be sterility: where there is no pleasure the act may be fertile. And in the spiritual marriage of God and the soul it is the same. It is the actual presence, not the sensation of the presence, of the Holy Ghost which begets Christ in us. The sense of the presence is a super-added gift for which we give thanks when it comes.

Worship in ‘the age of authenticity’

Philosopher Charles Taylor has called this period of Western secularism “the age of authenticity.” From his explanation in A Secular Age:

I mean the understanding of life which emerges with the Romantic expressivism of the late-eighteenth century, that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.

Unless you’ve been in a coma for the last 10 years it’s hard to argue with Taylor’s assessment. But we Christians are adept at dichotomizing the secular and the spiritual so that we attribute the authenticity quest to the godless while we saints float above it all. Of course, this is naive. We’re shaped by our culture more than we like to admit–even in the church.

In an early chapter of You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith depicts Christian worship as a formative process that is especially effective when encountered through a traditional liturgy. The problem, according to Smith, is that too many of our churches think of worship as an expressive endeavor:

…we also assume that worship is basically an expressive endeavor. This is why we now constrict “worship” to the song service of our gathering, the time in our service when we can express ourselves. . . When we think of worship in this way, then we also assume that the most important characteristic of our worship is that it should be sincere. If worship is expression of our devotion to God, then the last thing we want to be is a hypocrite: our expression needs to be honest, true, fresh, genuine, “authentic.”

We might protest that Smith paints with too broad a brush but his basic point rings true. The discomfort of having our foibles exposed becomes slightly unnerving when we also consider how neatly an expressive worship fits in with Taylor’s “age of authenticity.” One would be forgiven for connecting the dots and concluding that secularism has seeped into the church more than we like to think.

In one sense, Smith is suggesting that we do exactly what our culture tells us not to do–surrender to conformity with a model imposed on us from the outside. But maybe what the culture sees as surrendering to conformity is actually submitting to the Creator’s design. As Smith explains:

If worship is formative, not merely expressive, then we need to be conscious and intentional about the form of worship that is forming us. This has one more important important implication: When you unhook worship from mere expression, it also completely retools your understanding of repetition. If you think of worship as a bottom-up, expressive endeavor, repetition will seem insincere and inauthentic. But when you see worship as an invitation to a top-down encounter in which God is refashioning your deepest habits, then repetition looks very different: it’s how God rehabituates us. In a formational paradigm, repetition isn’t insincere, because you’re not showing you’re submitting. This is crucial because there is no formation without repetition. Virtue formation takes practice, and there is no practice that isn’t repetitive. We willingly embrace repetition as a good in all kinds of other sectors of our life–to hone our golf swing, our piano prowess, and our mathematical abilities, for example. If the sovereign Lord has created us as creatures of habit, why should we think repetition is inimical to our spiritual growth?

Maybe real authenticity comes not by expression but by submission. Maybe surrendering to conformity isn’t always a bad thing (Rom 8:29).

Back it up, Don!

Donald Miller has created some buzz with his most recent blog post in which he confesses not going to church much because (a) he doesn’t experience intimacy (with God) in a traditional worship service (b) a traditional lecture (i.e. sermon) doesn’t suit him as a kinesthetic learner (c) he’s discovered he connects with God by working.

Whatever your thoughts on Mr. Miller’s confession I found his explanations disappointing in the absence of biblical support–even more so considering his stated erudition. For the life of me I can’t understand why he wouldn’t buttress his revelation(s) with any number of relevant passages that come to mind:

Exodus 20:8-10  “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy in the way that suits you best.  9 “Six days the kinesthetic learners shall labor and connect with Me,  10 but the seventh day is a break  from the LORD your God; they shall not do any work for they have worshiped Me for six days…

Ezra 7:9-10  the good hand of his God was upon him.  10 For Ezra had set his heart to build his company and expand it, and to sell his product among the people.

John 17:17  “Sanctify them in their business; Their business philosophy is truth.

Hebrews 5:12  For by this time you have studied psychology and education reform long enough to know a traditional lecture isn’t for everyone and you have need to learn by doing the oracles of God, you have come to need kinesthetic learning.

Hebrews 10:24-25  let us consider how to stimulate our co-workers to love their work 25 not forsaking the assembly of the team, as is the habit of some, but laboring together; and all the more as you see the weekend drawing near.

1 Peter 2:2-5  like eager entrepreneurs, long for a fulfilling career, so that by having your hand on the plow you may grow in respect to salvation,  3 if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord who gave you your mission and your team.  4 And coming to Him as to a living cog which has been rejected by the owners, but is choice and precious in the sight of God,  5 you also, as little cogs, are being built up as a spiritual machine to offer up tangible goods and services acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

1 John 2:19  They went out from us because they were not really auditory learners; for if they had been auditory learners like us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that the church is all around us.

God is not looking for ‘passionate’ worship(ers)

“But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” {John 4:23-24, ESV}

It’s amazing how ingrained certain interpretations become. One of the benefits of lifelong Scripture reading is the refinement that comes to our understanding of God’s revelation, and thus, of God himself. A prime example of our need for lifelong, remedial reading is found in John 4:23-24 where Jesus describes the kind of worshiper the Father seeks. For the longest time I took Jesus’ call to worship “in spirit and truth” as a call to balanced worship. That is, true worship consists of emotion/passion/style (i.e. spirit) and doctrine/theology/content (i.e. truth). But this understanding misses the point for at least two reasons.

First and foremost, the statement concerning worship is grounded in God’s nature. That is, worship must be “in spirit” because God is spirit. “God is spirit” is a statement concerning God’s essential nature which is decidedly bigger than emotion and/or dynamism. Whatever “spirit” means in this context it must, in some sense, be transferable between worship and God. It would seem that the point has to do with God’s essential “otherness”–He is spirit, we are flesh. If God’s essential nature is completely “other” than our nature it stands to reason that His worship is “other” than our self-generated worship.

Second, the statement concerning worship is in the broader context of Jesus’ offer of an all-satisfying, new life which replaces the never-satisfied life of this world (4:10ff). In keeping with the flow of discussion it is living water that makes a true worshiper. Neither living water nor true worshipers are found in this world whether in Samaria, Jerusalem, or the Bible belt (4:20-21). True worshipers are other worldly in nature.

Just as John 3 offers the hope of new birth John 4 offers the hope of new worship. If natural birth must be superseded by new birth then natural worship must be superseded by new worship. This singular transaction concerning life & worship leaves us in utter dependence on a supernatural work of God by the power of his Spirit (Jn 3:8). In the end “balanced” worship, apart from the Spirit’s regenerating work, is no worship at all–no matter how passionate or orthodox the worshiper may be.