Perhaps the word which summarizes the general attitude and ethos of the modern congregation at worship—be it in the modern Roman folk mass or the popular evangelical service—is familiarity; that is, familiarity with each other and with Deity.
People dress as if they were going to a ball-game or a cook-out or for a stroll, and they regard the worship-space as ordinary rather than holy ground. They greet each other as if they were meeting a returning friend at the airport. Deity is addressed in song and in spoken word in much the same style as human beings address each other when they are being civil and respectful, except that Deity is asked for more than is usually asked of a fellow human being. In fact, Deity seems to be assumed as present in spirit and somewhere nearby in terms of availability. That is, Deity is near enough to be able to see what is going on, to hear what is said and sung, to know the motives of participants, and possibly to take action “in the spirit” if so disposed.
And the purpose of the whole exercise of being together, engaging in symbolic and ritual acts, speaking and singing seems to be to make everyone feel good about Deity, each other and himself/herself. It is a kind of escape from the bustle and pressures of life in order to have one’s batteries charged and one’s vision renewed and one’s self-worth affirmed.
Perhaps the above account is exaggerated. If so, then it may at least claim to capture what is generally true of much modern “worship” and that is (to speak theologically) it assumes the immanence of Deity but not (or only minimally) the transcendence of Deity. Further, it assumes the friendliness of God but hardly, if at all, is aware of the powerfully pure holiness and wonderfully glorious splendor of God. Or, in relation to Jesus of Nazareth, it presents Jesus as the Resurrected Savior, “who walks with me and talks with me along the narrow way,” but not as the Exalted Savior, who rules the cosmos as Lord of lords, and is its Judge.
Practically speaking, there is present in this kind of worship-service little or no reverence, awe, dread and fear of the LORD God, who in his holy and glorious Being is totally apart from all created reality. There is also minimal sense of human sinfulness and of the absolute need of the saving, redeeming, cleansing blood and work of Jesus. After all, it is only when we see God for who he is and ourselves for what we are that we truly appreciate Jesus for who he is. True enough, the truths that Jesus is Savior and Lord are accepted, but they seem to make no impact on the ethos, style, attitude, dress and deportment of those present. It would appear that the truths concerning Who is God, Who is Jesus, What is man, and how is man saved from sin, are not engraved on the heart to make it fully self-aware; they are merely present in the mind.
Not a few books and essays have used the expression, “dumbing down,” to describe the way that biblical and theological truths along with forms of devotion and moral duty have been minimized, reduced, explained away or made into forms of self-affirmation in modern forms of “worship.” But while many see this, few seem to think that it is a problem to be solved, a failure to be made into a success, and a deficit to be made into a credit!
But, before any of this can change those involved in it have to see that it is wrong, very wrong. Why? Because it is the “fear of the Lord” that is the beginning of both true wisdom and true knowledge of divine things. Perhaps prolonged and careful reading of the Old Testament will help show this, for there “the fear of the Lord” is absolutely fundamental to true service of YHWH, the Lord God of the covenant of grace; and the New Testament, though it says less about the fear of the Lord than does the Old, it actually assumes this inner condition of the soul as a given!
The advantage of using a classic Liturgy, and for Anglicans this means an edition of the real Book of Common Prayer (e.g., USA 1928), is that it provides the possibility of worshipping the transcendent LORD in the beauty of holiness and in the Name of Jesus; and experiencing both fear and joy, a profound sense of creatureliness and sinfulness together with a powerful sense of being a child of God, to whose spirit the Holy Spirit speaks. Yet, even here, if the heart is not prepared then the ancient words can be—as too often they have been—merely a vehicle for a religious kind of social conservatism.
So it all begins within ourselves—as repentant, humble sinners who, being justified by faith through grace, bow before the LORD God of glory in the Name of his incarnate Son, Jesus, the Savior. We do not feel good about ourselves; rather we feel good about God the Father, the Holy One; Jesus, the Savior and Lord; and the Holy Spirit, who brings us to the Father through the Son. And this holy relation of reverence, dread, awe and fear provides the setting for freedom in the Spirit, the peace that passes understanding and the joy unspeakable.
October 23, 2007 The Rev’d Dr Peter Toon