Within three days I experienced some good old fashioned Evangelical worship and a Russian Divine Liturgy. I plan to spend some time contemplating both, but since I’ve been trying to avoid five page blogs lately I’ll limit my thoughts here.
As a disclaimer: Throughout this post I will make several assumptions, i.e. “worship” for an Evangelical means singing praise songs of hymns, that the songs sung in Evangelical worship services are worthy of criticism, etc. For the most part I believe these assumptions to be true, just as I did when I was an Evangelical. But rather than whining about the existence of horrible worship songs I think its better to look at why Evangelicals choose to worship God as they do. There are a great deal of Evangelicals who willingly shred their own songs; it’s a conversation I’m rather tired of having. Additionally I think it is helpful to define an Evangelical as one who is not postmodern, especially linguistically. Sure there are unconscious postmodern assumptions in Evangelicalism, but most if not all of the Evangelicals I have met reject articulated postmodernism, so this post will ignore the postmodern objections. Lastly, I don’t know if there is any way of putting my thoughts down without the end result of one-upping the “other guy”. Though I argue that the way that we do things are different there’s no escaping the fact that the goal of robust Christian living is shared by Evangelicals and Orthodox alike, and there’s also no escaping the fact that I think the Orthodox way is more effective and therefore right. I don’t mean to be mean, and I certainly don’t mean to be proud, so forgive me if I sound that way.
It’s always nice to see people orienting themselves toward heaven. From the moment the guitar was picked up and the microphone encouraged people to stand I was reminded of how valuable a spiritual exercise it is to yearn towards Jesus. It certainly wasn’t throughout the crowd, but quite a few people were able to flip a switch and bam! there they were with closed eyes and outstretched hands. There’s a lot of internal movement going on within these people as they sing; this sort of worship is a spiritual exercise. This would be fine, except for the role of the exercise is fundamentally inappropriate. The problem is that the people are trying too hard to fit their entire spiritual life into a form that cannot hold it. It’s as if the genuine spirit of the Evangelical worshiper is trying to rest in the Lord but they can only try it for 15-30 minutes during corporate worship time. While their voices sound out fairly unhelpful words they desperately try to live as a spiritual being in the presence of God. They have nothing else to help themselves along in the spiritual path other than their desire: it is their prayer, their communion, their fellowship, their discipline. The form just cannot withstand the pressure of that expectation. What does it means to live a spiritual life? As valuable an exercise as this worship seemed, it seemed apparent it wasn’t the answer.
I was encouraged and convicted by those around me, but nonetheless I found in myself a spirit of criticism. I don’t mean for the people, but for the experience. I realized that if I had to tell people what I thought of the service they would be hurt and probably angry. But why would they be so defensive over their worship service when so many freely insult mine? I have heard many Evangelicals declare the wrongs of those who entrust their “salvation” to the Divine Liturgy and Church attendance. But what if I were to say to those standing near me “What is this song saying? It sounds like it’s mostly talking about things it’s going to do (‘going to sing of your love,” going to praise your mercy’) and using strange and confused metaphors. Not to mention the misconception that this song is advancing about who God is!” People would become infuriated very quickly because somehow by criticizing the words they were saying I was criticizing the people themselves, people full of good will and authentic yearning.
Is it right to see my critique of the songs as applying also to the person? One of my fundamental assumptions is that the words that come out of your mouth matter a great deal in worship: they are yours, you are responsible for them, and they have a spiritual affect you. Therefore, in as much as the person is joining with the song the criticism extends to the participant. In this sense the Evangelical worshipers might be justified in taking offense of my criticism.
However, if the words don’t matter as much as the heart and intent do, then they should not be offended when I criticize their words. They will claim that they are worshiping spiritual and meaningfully because of their heart and their intent. To criticize the words of their praise is to criticize the oyster shell for not being edible, it’s expecting value from the wrong thing.
This reveals something very disturbing; it shows that people aren’t very concerned about truth. They care about authenticity, passion, and longing – but the truth of the words that they say to their God seem to be of little importance. Even if a song is infantile in its doctrine they think it is okay, because they see it as more important to affirm the desire in people to sing to God, and to express themselves as they see fit. I have heard people say that you can often worship God better in a poorly written song than in a doctrinally sound hymn, because what matters is your heart. Both the Evangelical and I agree that God does not require fresh and inventive ways of worshiping Him, nor does He require doctrinal complexity. But I claim that He who is Truth must not be worshiped in falsehood, and for a grown adult to remain singing the songs of spiritual infancy is a tragedy for the Church and a victory for the devil.
Right about now come the hypothetical objections about people who don’t know better, or have anything better to sing. Surely we’ve all been stuck in the pew as the worship leader led us in a poor rendition of a song that we would otherwise not sing. For those of us who have an inheritance of spiritual poverty, we are saved with the rest of the saints by the economy of God’s mercy. But to whom much has been given, much is required – and though we ceaselessly rely on God’s economy we absolutely must persevere further into the law of God’s love. The charge I ultimately find myself levying against the Evangelical community is that it perpetuates a climate of spiritual poverty, and this severely damages and impedes the well meaning Christian.
I argued elsewhere that there is a time for expressive worship, but it is not the entirety, or even the majority of what worship is. I argue here that there is a place for the spiritual exercise that takes place in the Evangelical worship service, but exercises a small, isolated section of the whole person. The person begins to like the progress they get in the exercise and continues it without the realization of pressing athletic endeavor, or even worse, they become disheartened as they realize that this one exercise will not help them find victory in the arena. This latter option is what happened to me, and when I realized that a experientially rich worship time wasn’t helping me to overcome any of my sins I blamed it’s poor quality and propriety. As a disheartened and despairing man I saw these times as pointless and fruitless, mostly because of the lack of fruit in my life. Once a worship leader, I became disinterested in worship except on the occasions where I was outright disgusted by it. Ironically it is now that I am Orthodox that I can reaffirm the value and benefit of these worship experiences as part of the gamut of the Christian life.
A spiritual life has to be life in the body of Christ; where you wake up to prayer and fasting, are guided by liturgy and confession, and are energized by the True Bread and Living Water. As part of a spiritual family, I am finding out that there are spiritual PJ’s of a sort – moments that have neither ecstasy nor polish. This is different from the times of worship, praise, and teaching that I have experienced and witnessed in the Evangelical community. Where I am now, the idea of living a Christian life is much more robust, exciting, and daunting. The family fasts because redemption infects every facet of our life, even food. We say the same prayers because we are of one mind. This is cooperate life, and with the Blood in our veins we can make a joyful noise with dizzying moderation and proprietary fervor. There are so many ways for us to be in Christ, the former way seems anemic – and yet it is more lively now that it no longer bears the entirety of the burden corporate life in Christ.
I have discussed elsewhere about the beauty of the liturgy and the importance of its shaping influence on our lives. This is what I needed, and this is what we all need: a spiritual hospital. The reason I write this post, the reason I feel compelled to process these doctrines and experiences is because I need to remind myself of three of truths that constantly threaten to slip away from me. I am sick, I can be healed, and I am in an adequate hospital for my healing. These truths I search out again and again because the moment my discontent is satiated complacency sidles up next to me. I don’t mean to pick on well meaning Evangelicals; I mean to remind myself that my rehabilitation has just begun, and therefore more joyfully approach the day’s tasks.
Let us sing to the Lord a new song, let us sing praises to His name, but not for deepest communion with Him or to provide the horsepower for our spiritual life. Worship, in the sense of overflowing into song or extemporaneous prayer, must be set in the framework of an otherwise robust spiritual life that ceaselessly orbits God. Authenticity is frankness about the state of oneself. In that it is truth, it in anthropocentrically true, not divinely true. A culture that values narcissistic truth over the divine should hear the words of Jesus to the woman at the well: “You worship what you do not know.” But for many it is even worse, for they are “worshiping” what they do not care to know. Contemporary worship has short-circuited: when meaning takes preeminence over truth, man take preeminence over God. May we confidently and earnestly seek God’s mercy as we worship Him in spirit and truth.