Everyday casual clothing, everyday casual speech, popular music and a generally informal attitude seem to characterise many church services in 2002. And it seems to matter little what is the denominational affiliation of the local church. To be relevant and acceptable and accessible are deemed appropriate virtues.
In Roman Catholic Churches one sees the lay ministers of the Blessed Sacrament holding the Chalice, dressed in tea-shirts and shorts; and in Protestant churches one sees men and women wearing jeans as they take up the offering/collection or go forward to read a lesson or give a testimony. And in both situations, the organ has usually given way to the music group.
Before the service there is usually incessant chatter and laughter and this is often resumed in the walkabout, chatabout and hugabout that is called the passing of the peace.
And with this easy-come and easy-go attitude and action, there usually goes a similar attitude towards that which is offered to God by way of words, music and deeds. The kind of speech that casual dress supports (if not creates) is thought to be appropriate to use in speaking of and addressing God. Is not the Deity our great Friend and Therapist and does not this Deity want us to feel comfortable in our worship services? And the kind of music that is generally popular within the general culture is thought the best kind to offer to this Deity in church.
Let us be honest. Many Americans of varying backgrounds and economic circumstances actually like this situation where "church" is different from ordinary life only in certain, limited respects. They feel happy within the experiential and casual atmosphere and are willing to pay their tithe to keep it going. They want "church" to be a place where they are affirmed and accepted and where they are made to feel that God is on their side and watching out for them. And they are willing to shop around to find what is for them the best form of "church." The clergy and staff of such churches work hard to ascertain where people are and what is their felt need so that they can trim the Gospel to sail in these waters and be accepted. They are as much therapists and managers as pastors/teachers. [In Britain, where attendance at church is so much less than in the USA, much of the popular evangelical & charismatic growth - which by US standards is very small -- is very similar to the experiential situation in the USA and is much influenced by it. Ancient churches once with fine oak pews now have cheap movable seating.and so on.]
The LORD our God is full of lovingkindness to his people and Christ the High Priest is magnanimous in mercy towards us; and thus our second class offerings of worship and service become acceptable to the Father Almighty because they are purified and completed in the intercession of the One Mediator and High Priest, the same Jesus Christ.
BUT should we allow the DIVINE MERCY and GRACE, given to undeserving sinners, to cause us to offer less than the very best that we are and have to the Blessed, Holy and Undivided Trinity of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Should not we dress for worship on the basis that we are to meet with the King of kings, the Lord of lords, and be in the company of the archangels and cherubim and seraphim? Should we not use a form of words and music that is the most excellent we can find and use and does not bring with it the spirit of the world around us? Should not our general attitude in divine service be one of great reverence and awe as we stand, bow and kneel before the LORD our God? Is anything less than the best good enough for worship of the sovereign Majesty?
Of course, what is the best varies from culture to culture and time to time and from economic group to economic group. And God does most certainly look on the heart - but not without noting the outward form.The point is that God the LORD, Creator, Redeemer and Judge, is worthy of absolute glory and praise and adoration and service. Why are we content to give to this Deity less than our best?
"Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God and him only shalt thou serve."
"Worship the Father in spirit and in truth."
The most difficult and yet the most glorious thing that we are called to do in this world - in anticipation of the next - is to worship the LORD our God, the Blessed, Holy and Undivided Trinity. As the congregation of Christ's flock, we are called "to enjoy and glorify God, the Holy Trinity, for ever and ever, even unto the ages of ages and world without end."
I see four major temptations arising within western culture which both undermine the true purpose of Christian WORSHIP and reduce IT or change IT into something else. Professional and amateur liturgists, clergy and worship committees face these temptations and, regrettably, seem not always to resist them.
1. Satan comes along and, with excellent examples and/or stories, presents the thesis: that "a worship service" is (at least in part) to keep people interested and in an acceptable and dignified way to entertain them. So the people sit as the audience and the performers are at the front FACING the audience. God is assumed to be the friendly, non-judgmental Onlooker who blesses the occasion for the people are sincere in their desire for religious activity, performance and entertainment. Satan's aim as the tempter is to make the people feel welcome, happy and emotionally satisfied/fulfilled. What he wants to cause them to avoid is to fear God the Father, to bow before His Majesty and to seek His Face through and in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
2. Satan comes along and using telling phrases and ideas created by the modern therapeutic culture suggests that how people feel and their sense ofself-worth are of major importance in true and vital religion. So he presents the thesis: that "a worship service" and all other church activities must have as a major aim the purpose of making people feel good about themselves. Folks need to know that God actually loves everyone unconditionally and wants each one to feel affirmed as His child, and this despite whatever they have done and whatever be their position or state in life. What Satan wants to avoid is the idea that it is much more important to be obedient to the Lord of glory and to seek His holiness through bowing before His Majesty than to be nice and to feel good about one's individual faith.
3. Satan comes along and with moving illustrations suggests that people are alienated from one another and even from themselves in modern society and thus they need a real human community to which to belong. So he presents the thesis: that is it necessary to make the church of God in this place into a "community of faith" where the "worship service" is truly a community celebration. Alienated and lonely souls need to find soul-mates and soul-companions so that they feel they belong and that they existence is meaningful. So each person's "faith and feelings about God, Jesus and religion" is affirmed and the church is seen primarily to exist as the place and sphere of affirmation one of another and each one by all. Satan wants to make sure that the idea of belonging to the local group and affirming each other rather than belonging to the communion of saints of earth and heaven is the ethos here. He is most happy when a lot of emphasis and time is spent on the "passing of the peace" with its walkabout to embrace as many people as possible.
4. Satan comes along and demonstrates that many people are ignorant of the basics of religion and of the meaning of the liturgy. So he presents the thesis: that "a worship service" is basically a teaching opportunity for instruction (they may not stay for Sunday School but they are here as a captive audience). Instead of the liturgy flowing naturally according to its own inherent ethos and logic, it is interrupted often in order for the "worship leader" or the clergyperson to use the opportunity to add
comments to whatever is being sung or said or prayed in order to further the education of the people. The service is treated as an evangelistic or missionary opportunity. Satan is most happy when a congregation is engaged in learning about religion rather than involved in knowing God as GOD, the LORD, and experiencing communion with the Father through the Son and with the Holy Spirit.
I close with a description of what awed Russian diplomats saw and felt when they first experienced the Divine Liturgy at Byzantium.
"The Byzantine Liturgy was not a way of teaching doctrine and not intended to be. It was not a display of the Christian faith in a way acceptable or attractive to onlookers. What impressed them as onlookers about the Liturgy was precisely ITS UTTER LACK OF AN ULTERIOR PURPOSE, the fact that it was celebrated for GOD and not for spectators, that it sole intent was to be before God and for God, pleasing and acceptable to God.."
In the Anglican Way the celebration (in spirit and in truth and in the beauty of holiness) of the historic Liturgy for the Lord's Day -- Matins, the Litany, the Order for Holy Communion and finally Evensong -- also has no ulterior purpose for it is celebrated for God and not for man. No doubt man is blessed by rightly celebrating, but this does not change the basic purpose of the [Divine] Liturgy, celebrated for the glory of the One, Holy, Blessed and Undivided Trinity.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon
Minister of Christ Church, Biddulph Moor,
England & Vice-President and Emissary-at-Large
of The Prayer Book Society of America