Monday, April 14, 2008

Searching for God on Sunday Morning: Reflections on 35 Church Visits

By John Jefferson Davis, PhD
Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics

Scene One: We pulled into the parking lot of the shopping center where the Flatirons Community Church was located, in a suburb of Denver, Colorado, and went inside for the 5:30 p.m. Saturday evening contemporary worship service. An announcement on the television monitor in the atrium said, “If you find the volume of the music too loud, ear plugs are available at the desk in the foyer.” We sat down inside, watched the countdown video clip on the projection screen count down the seconds till the service started, and the praise band moved onto the stage precisely at the 5:30 start time – and opened the service with contemporary praise music played at deafening, ear-splitting volume. My wife Robin went back outside, got us two sets of earplugs, and later we heard a very fine expositional message from the speaker on biblical principles of marriage.

Scene Two: I quietly and discreetly crept up behind where the young mother was standing, balancing a young toddler on her hip. She had not noticed that she had dropped some of the communion bread on the floor beside her; I rescued the bread and placed it back on the table. Others were filing by one of the four tables positioned in the corners of the auditorium for the very casual, “self-service, drive-by” style of distributing the elements at the beginning of the Sunday communion service at Bridgeway Church in Denver. Near the rear of the auditorium a teenager with a bored look on his face was bending over a table near the wall, licking the remaining juice from the communion cup with his tongue. Later that morning we heard a very fine exposition of John 15 by a graduate of Denver Seminary, stressing the importance of abiding in Christ as the foundation for ministry.

These two scenes can hardly summarize, of course, the amazing range of “worship” experiences that we observed last fall in the greater Denver area, when Robin and I made a point of visiting as many different churches as possible, to observe worship styles and practices, as one of my sabbatical research projects. The 35 services we visited ranged over a very wide spectrum of American church life: from very contemporary to very traditional; from very quiet to very loud: a silent Quaker meeting; various contemporary and charismatic styles; megachurches and very small churches; Lutheran (ELCA and Missouri Synod); 5 different Episcopal or Anglican services; Anglican-Catholic; Roman Catholic; Greek and Russian Orthodox; Coptic Orthodox; Antiochian Orthodox; Presbyterian; Congregational; Nazarene; nondenominational; Willow Creek Community Church; “emerging” churches such as “Scum of the Earth,” “The Next Level,” and “Pathways,” all in Denver.

Needless to say, these visits were a real “learning experience,” and I am still in the process of digesting what I saw. I will note, however, a number of trends that I find disturbing, especially noted in the contemporary services (though not always limited to them):

Disappearance of pastoral prayer: Most of the contemporary services were built around what is known as the “frontier” or “revival” pattern of worship typical of many evangelical churches: music at the beginning, followed by a Bible message. At Willow Creek that Wednesday night there was a prayer that lasted about 35 seconds before the speaker came on stage for the message. So what’s the problem here? New Testament commands such as I Tim. 2:1,2 assume that prayer is an important part of Christian worship, and throughout church history – up until the advent of more contemporary worship styles since the 1970s – prayer has been a significant part of what Christians do when they meet to “worship.” The disappearance of prayer might suggest a loss of the sense of dependence on God that is fundamental to true spirituality, and a transition to an unspoken understanding of a “worship” service as a human performance that can be planned, staged, and executed on human power alone.

Disappearance of Scripture Reading: It was striking that in many of the contemporary services there was little reading of scripture. The preacher would typically announce a text, read it, and then preach. So what’s the potential problem here? In few instances was there an Old Testament reading or a psalm – whereas a biblical command such as I Tim. 4:13 reminds us to “devote yourself to the public reading of scripture”. More reading of scripture sets the context of the message in the larger canonical context of the biblical story of redemption, and can educate in settings where biblical literacy can be shockingly low. The focused, intentional reading of scripture as a key element of worship reminds the congregation that it is God’s word – not the human commentary – that should be the fundamental focus and authority.

Disappearance of Real Calls to Worship and Real Benedictions: In many of the contemporary services there was a very informal “walk on” greeting from the leader, and an immediate transition to the praise music – with no impression that it might the living God who wanted to call his people into his presence. Rather than a biblical benediction – in which God, speaking through the minister, places his name on his people, in a virtual summary of the gospel (“love of God, grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the communion of the Holy Spirit ..”), at times there was a closing prayer, summary of the sermon, or closing announcements – more human words.

Disappearance of the Sense of the Holy: At one megachurch we attended, as I sat back (and relaxed) in the comfortable theater-style seat, I looked around and saw more coffee cups than Bibles in the hands of those around me. Did the large images of the praise band musicians on the “Jumbotron” monitors hanging from the ceiling focus my attention on God – or the human performers? A sense of reverence and the presence of the “holy” was more evident at some of the Catholic and Orthodox services; have we as evangelical Protestants so reacted to “real presence” sacramental views (e.g., “transubstantiation”) that our services can be marked by the real absence of the sense of the living, holy God? It’s a question worth thinking about.

One of my conclusions drawn from these church visits was that where evangelical seminaries (such as Denver and Gordon-Conwell) place great emphasis – areas such as expository preaching and sound doctrine – the graduates tend do very well indeed. In areas such as worship and music, where there is less instruction, there is a danger that the culture or thinned-out evangelical tradition of “revival” worship can take over, to the detriment of a richer understanding and practice of biblical worship.

I realized that I as an evangelical theologian need to do a great deal more of biblical reflection and theologizing on the nature and practice of worship itself – and not merely blame a “consumerist” or “entertainment oriented” culture or “modernity” for the ailments of the modern church. As part of my sabbatical research, and being “awakened from my doxological slumbers” by those 35 church visits, I wrote a paper titled “Real Presence, the Ontology of Worship, and the Renewal of the Evangelical Doxological Imagination,” in which I argue that the presence of the living God – from opening invocation to closing benediction – needs to be recognized and recovered as the central reality of biblical worship today. I have come to believe that a deep encounter with the living God in worship is the crucial foundation for the church’s success in other areas of ministry such as discipleship, evangelism, and mission; that indeed, the worship of God should be the church’s highest priority. God’s people need to be deeply impacted by God in worship before they can deeply impact the culture in mission. This article will be available in White Papers next month. During the next several years I hope to expand the article into a book, tentatively titled Searching for God on Sunday Morning.

In closing, let me recommend a book on the topic by James B. Torrance entitled Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace. It’s one of the finest recent treatments of the theology of worship, showing how Christian worship is fundamentally Trinitarian in nature – to the Father, through the Son, in the communion of the Holy Spirit. Torrance helps us avoid an understanding and practice of worship that is, in effect, “Pelagian” (done on human power alone), “Unitarian” (focused on Jesus alone, forgetting God the Father and God the Holy Spirit), and “Deistic” (treating God as distant, not as a God who is really present with and among his people). I highly recommend it.

No comments:

Post a Comment