Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Instructions for Worship Leaders

No, really. I am gonna help you folks out quite a bit today.

First new rule: Stop talking about "God." Tell me which god you're referring to, and maybe do a little teaching on why and how we worship that god as opposed to some of the other gods, such as the cosmic Santa Claus most nominal Christians believe in. If you're not capable of that, please resign. Right now.

Here's a neat little story from Tom Wright that illustrates the point nicely:
It is important to begin by clarifying the question. When people ask “Was Jesus God?” they usually think they know what the word “God” means, and are asking whether we can fit Jesus into that. I regard this as deeply misleading. I can perhaps make my point clear by a personal illustration.

For seven years I was College Chaplain and Worcester College, Oxford. Each year I used to see the first year undergraduates individually for a few minutes, to welcome them to the college and make a first acquaintance. Most were happy to meet me; but many commented, often with slight embarrassment, “You won’t be seeing much of me; you see, I don’t believe in god.”

I developed stock response: “Oh, that’s interesting; which god is it you don’t believe in?” This used to surprise them; they mostly regarded the word “God” as a univocal, always meaning the same thing. So they would stumble out a few phrases about the god they said they did not believe in: a being who lived up the in the sky, looking down disapprovingly at the world, occasionally “intervening” to do miracles, sending bad people to hell while allowing good people to share his heaven. Again, I had a stock response for this very common statement of “spy-in-the-sky” theology: “Well, I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that god. I don’t believe in that god either.”

At this point the undergraduate would look startled. Then, perhaps, a faint look of recognition; it was sometimes rumored that half the college chaplains at Oxford were atheists. “No,” I would say; “I believe in the god I see revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.” What most people mean by “god” in late-modern western culture simply is not the mainstream Christian meaning.
- From "Jesus and the Identity of God," and re-told in various places.

Some of you might lead worship in churches that don't actually, literally dance in the presence of God, or actually, literally kneel. I particularly find the latter omission to be deeply problematic, but even so, - and this is the second new rule - please stop singing songs about how you are dancing or kneeling in the Lord's presence. If you're not really doing it, it's a bloody lie, and such base prevarication is beneath baptized people.
"No, son, it's our fault. We forgot to teach you shame."
- Hank Hill
The last time I was in an evangelical megachurch, I remember thinking at the lyric "We just wanna kneel in your presence, Lord," (or some such) thinking, "Oh, no. If I don't find a way to actually kneel in the eight inches of space between my chair and the one in front of me, the fruitcake on stage will have made a liar out of me!"

It's not pleasant.

Remember the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist: terrorists negotiate.

The helpful illustration is from Dave Walker at CartoonChurch.


Anonymous said...

the liturgist and terrorist....pretty much the best thing I have read on a blog in at least a month.

Great Post. I enjoyed the Tom Wright piece.

Bobby J. Kennedy said...

"Remember the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist: terrorists negotiate."

I see a bumper sticker business in your future.

Anonymous said...

"please stop singing songs about how you are dancing or kneeling in the Lord's presence"

Yes! But on the flip side, I think that a mumbled/whined Great Thanksgiving is just as bad.

jeremy joybomb said...

good stuff. should we actually call people out for this stuff? i mean, if you are visiting a megachurch or something and they start singing about kneeling and dancing but don't do either, should we actually go up to the praise leader and point our their contradictions? anyhow, i've never actually thought about this issue before, so thanks.

Brian said...

I predict that any atheist you try that "I don't believe in that god either" line on is just going to be annoyed, not enlightened.

Don't patronize them. They don't want to have an argument about the various attributes of a being they don't believe in in the first place.

Garrett said...

I agree with Brian. Don't place another barrier between an atheist and God by proving his preconceived notion that Christians are bunch of clever prats.

Kyle said...

I'm sure the bishop doesn't think of himself as "trying lines" on anyone. I suspect it's also significant that in Britain, "atheism" has more to do with rejecting a particular fairy tale that their great-grandparents may have believed. This is different from American "atheism," which often has more to do with being pummeled by Baptists and the subsequent rejection of a particular religious experience.

I did read Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation; it was frustrating to me that it had little to say to the story that I tell and practice.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed and agree with the larger point, particularly well illustrated by Bishop Wright. It reminds me of a class I took in seminary on the Nicene Creed in which we often discussed how "God" is often made into a very abstract thing by humans, and that one (of many things) that the Creed helps us with it to remind us that God isn't some sort of theoretical concept projected onto the sky, but he is a Person. We also had ongoing dialogue about how this is expressed in our worship.

I am a bit unclear about how this relates to discussion about liturgy. I would like to hear more. I realize that sometimes in our worship we run the risk of making God an abstraction inappropriately. But isn't liturgy also about--at least, in a general sense--our attempts to praise the Lord and express our faith and our many feelings about our relationship with him. But, of course, in our humanity and brokenness we cannot always do this as adequately as we would like to or intend. My own feeling is that often we express things in our praying and singing with which our thoughts and actions do not always (or even frequently) match well.

Perhaps it is a lie, in a sense. Maybe it is even a "base prevarication beneath baptized people." But then again, I often think much of what I do liturgically or otherwise is a base prevarication of what I, as a baptized person ought to do. My feeling is that much of what we do in worship falls short of expressing well and fully what we want or should express. We are limited by our human words and human thoughts. But, to me, isn't that one reason we keep coming together in worship again and again, because we are looking forward to the 8th day when we really will worship God in Truth and in Spirit for ever?

Am I off the mark? I do have my own paritcular thoughts and opinions about how worship should be done. However, I try to be discerning about imposing my own personal preferences on the liturgy. Sometimes I am not successful; I'd rather do things my way. And I also try to recognize that regarding my own attitudes toward liturgy as being superior to other liturgical expressions can be dangerous and probably not very worshipful.