After the Encounter: the Emergent(ing) church’s idea of worship, and a confession

I have heard some good arguments for the Emergent(ing) church. I have seen some good come from those who embrace their flexibility and earnestness. I have talked to the kids who have been saved by the stop-gap of “form surrendering” “expressions of church.” I have read people who can speak about it clearly and winsomely – and I am forced to utter only one response.

They’re wrong.

I don’t say this because they lack “apostolic succession” or because they don’t have the consistent heritage that others do. I don’t have to say this because I think that they are spreading untruths about God, or because they threaten the socio-political agendas I espouse. I find myself forced to say this because of a fundamental disagreement about what the Church is – or more helpfully, what we are to do following an encounter with God?

Whenever one is talking about the Emergent(ing) church one is talking about a movement that loves fuzzy definitions and diverse opinions. It is hard to pin them down on doctrine or practice of any kind, they prefer to define themselves by their headings: Conversational, Missional, Incarnational – all of which have the postmodern linguistic trick of simultaneously meaning many different things. You will see the most contemporary “expressions of church” you could ever imagine and you will see chameleons of the Anglican and Orthodox practices. You won’t even be able to get them to agree of their movement, and some you won’t be able to admit as to having an intentional or organized movement at all. (That’s why I like to refer to them as neither the Emergent nor Emerging Church – so I just combine the two most popular headings.) Despite the disparity between the different kinds of Emergent(ing) churches in existence there is one common doctrine that you can address, and it is this doctrine that is erroneous. It is the belief the response to the encounter with God is an arising or emerging expression of Him and His glory.

The argument is sensible to most of us: we react to the sight of God through expressions of His greatness and splendor. This makes sense of the Emergent(ing) church’s values of creativity and authenticity, for these would be the benchmarks of a meet and right reaction to the glory of God. In valuing “form surrendering” responses to God they claim to be freeing the people of God of insincere worship forms. Our task as Christians is to respond to the sight of Him who has appeared to us, and to follow our natural reaction as strongly as possible.

If this doesn’t seem like a damning or stupendous error I understand; and I understand if people aren’t incensed by it. This half-truth is the tacit belief that many share; both high-church and low-church parishioners alike. I can’t tell you the number of times that people have told me that they like the “liturgical” churches because of how they express a reverence towards God. I’m not going to disagree with them about the reverence, but I have to disagree about the expression. If there is an expression of our love for God it is better seen through our obedience than through our expression. A child who expressed himself by painting or singing when a parent gives him instruction would not be behaving well. In order for expression to be a sign of love, we first must answer the call of obedience.

And we have been given a task; we have the weight of obedience upon us. This easy yoke is to submit to God’s authority, the very House of God, and to worship Him in the manner He describes. This worship doesn’t come from us and the wealth of our emotional and rational response to God; it comes from His revelation to us. A revelation that the Evangelical and Post-Modern Christians have somehow ignored.

Before I had thought about what God had told us to do in worshiping Him I was dissatisfied with what I knew of human worship. Like many others it struck me as disingenuine to respond to God without the actual encounter. It doesn’t take many chapels or worship services to realize that the agenda for the day doesn’t include Teh Apprehension the Creator and Sustainer of our Faith and the Universe. This isn’t so much an argument against the impossibility of the “expressional” model of Christian worship as it is a declaration of the inconsistency of the practice of the model. I have had an deep spiritual encounter and time of praise at a praise rock ‘n roll show – but (as it’s interesting to note now) it started out with repentance, and not with the standard fare of jump-start praise songs.

Secondly I think that formless expressions equal bad art. This critique isn’t applicable to every Emergent(ing) church or Evangelical outpost, but it reaches the core principle tacitly held. The first time you hear a really groovy song you don’t spazz out and consider it good dancing. You practice your dancing over and over again – and that’s how it becomes good art. One might reply by citing the naked dancing of King David (II Sam. 6) in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant. Oh that we could be like skillful musician King who danced with all his might for the Lord and not for man. And oh that we could have his humble response when he says “I will be even more undignified than this and will be humble in my own eyes, but to with the maid of whom you have spoken I will be distinguished.” The man after God’s own heart, who embarrassed Michal by exposing the undergarments of his vestments, was concerned with his humility before God (who had already slain one irreverent man in the chapter) and realized (more than I am able to) of the propriety of rejoicing after the fearful coming of the presence of the Lord into the city.

Though the example of David is an interesting narrative it is certainly the exception and not the rule. The rule seems to be that God tells you what to do: build a temple, build an alter, sacrifice some animals, circumcise some men, etc. The New Testament doesn’t make things any less obedience based; yet somehow people are inclined to think that the injunction to love God and your neighbor as yourself is somehow easier than circumcision. Reading the Gospels it doesn’t seem as if Jesus is looking for an artistic expressions of us searching for truth in order to experience Him or do fulfill our life as Christians. It looks like He wants us to give all we have to the poor, to forgive our neighbors, to turn the other cheek, to receive Him as humbly as a child. We may build him an altar, and on the altar we may offer sacrifice. Or we may build a shelter and help the poor – this fits the bill of what is required of us. But what doesn’t quite fit is a painting, or an interpretive dance, or an installation piece, or a golf game expressing our search for truth. This may be done unto God, just like digging a ditch or cleaning your house may – but it does not take the place of rightly following way to the Kingdom of Heaven.

The charge of idolatry is often lobbied against the Orthodox Church, but she is holding fast to what has been passed down – and she would rather kiss the photograph of our Lord than build something new to follow. As a bride the she waits in the shadow of Sinai for the instructions of what to do now; this is not yet the Promised Land! Between the deliverence and the land of milk and honey the Church waits in faith, tying every hope to the Deliverer.

But here in the shadow of the Holy Mountain, in the midst of the longing and restless throng, I see despair and impatience. Men circle around, gathering gold and precious gifts from the families; piecing them together in earnestly collaboration. Eagerly and democratically they design and shape; purpose and passion filling over their hearts, spiriting their hands – and as they work a wail suddenly arises. From who they are and what they have, from their desire and imagination, something has indeed emerged! And lifted on their hopes the golden form of fattened calf stands above them, its radiance only serving to darken the brow the one who descends, his face still burning from his encounter with God.

Expressions of our authentic selves lay all around us, most of them little more than our personal calves. Bold and beautiful, they sit in the dust of the tablets broken over our obstinate hearts. This dust and these tablets we will not see, will not acknowledge if we can help it. But they are there nonetheless, and here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years largely wasted – years stubbornly refusing to obey.

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3 thoughts on “After the Encounter: the Emergent(ing) church’s idea of worship, and a confession

  1. jesse,

    I definitely sense your passion here and understand where you are coming from. I think there is a difference between ‘worship’ in terms of the divine liturgy and the ‘worship’ that most protestants/EC refer to. I think that often we are talking about two different things. As well, does defining ‘worship’ as a certain way or form, i.e. the OC, preclude that other forms are not valid in terms of experiencing God? I’m not sure this is what you’re saying but I would disagree if it is. We CAN experience God through various vehicles. This is not to say this experience is to equate communal life of the Church. I think to say it is not valid and it not a way to connect with God is a falicy. That’s my two cents though. Sorry if I’m coming across strong, I feel passionately as well about this.

  2. One more note…..I agree that an obedient life is the grandest expression of love for God and without this experience can simply be just that.

  3. I agree that there is a difference in how the Orthodox Church talks about worship and how EVs and EC’s talk about it – though I’m not sure where the difference is and where it comes from. Maybe you can help?

    As for experiencing God, I tend to think it can happen anywhere and at anytime. The question I’ve been trying to follow is: right after the moment when God is right in our face, what are we to do? This is where we spend most of our life – poorly praying to a God we only seem to encounter every decade. How are we to do that?

    I think the most provocative thing I am implying is that following the “expressional” model of worship only is errant, dangerous, and unbiblical.

    I am actually a big fan of being authentic, and I love those “dizzy” moments of worship, like King David. I also think art is a great way to “be” a Christian… and I REALLY agree with McLaren and Co. when they critique the modernistic EV church and their worship industry. Like I said at the beginning, I’ve seen them do some real good. Glory be to God.

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