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“Relevance” in worship.

12 April 2011


Everywhere one looks one can find churches claiming to have what they choose to call “relevant” worship. More often than not this means a contemporary service with “Jesus is my boyfriend” style praise songs, a guitar, drums and perhaps a multi-media sermon.
When I was growing up in an evangelical church, we had worship services which consisted almost entirely of hymn-singing, a long sermon, and an altar call. When I went to college, I began to question whether the worship in that church was really all it could be. Most of the service time consisted of the sermon. And sermons are certainly important, but they are more about instruction in the faith. You can listen to sermons for hours on end, and in the end you may be instructed, inspired or maybe just entertained, but you won’t have actually engaged in worship. The centrality that sermons have in evangelical style worship is a long way off from the I-Thou focus which came to me, and not just to me, to seem characteristic of authentic worship.

While in college I drifted away from the sort of church I’d been raised in and instead became involved in a sort non-denominational student church. But it wasn’t really that different. “Worship services” looked more or less the same, except that the hymns had been replaced by praise songs on handouts, or on an overhead projector. The long sermon remained basically unchanged. There were weekly small group studies, or “cells”, in people’s houses instead of Sunday School, the rational for which being that the small group meeting meant that Sunday could be devoted only to worship, or “cell-ebration“. when Communion was celebrated, which wasn’t all that often, it consisted of praise songs, distribution of crackers and grape juice, and a long sermon. I remember once at such a church that a deacon was asked to pray what can only be referred to as the Communion prayer. It was extemporaneous of course. The deacon prayed “the prayer of the just.” If you grew up in this sort of church then you know what I mean by that. He started off by saying, “Father, we JUST want to thank you for bringing us here today,” Then he “just” wanted to thank God for a whole long list of things, including the lovely spring weather, until he suddenly said “amen” without ever once even suggesting any thing about the Lord’s Supper that we were about to receive.

It seems that “market research,” has somehow demonstrated that the twenty and thirty something demographic is suspicious of traditional denominational affiliations and of anything that appears churchy. So churches should very hard not to not look like a church. If a church is successful at this, then perhaps an unsuspecting twenty to thirty something might wander in and be fooled into becoming a church member. Carrying this silly idea to its incoherent conclusion, “relevant” churches began to seek out what might be interesting to the culture at large then bring it into the church, give it a theological spin, slap a Jesus fish on it, and then present it to the world, all in the cause of “relevance”.

This was all very silly of course. Any church interested in “relevant worship” should be asking the question, “Relevant to whom?” The answer to that question, of course, is, “Relevant to the intended audience”. Since worship is something offered to God, He, and not the one giving worship, is the “audience.” How could anyone ever consider the offering of oneself to God to ever be irrelevant? that is however precisely what authentic worship is. It is the complete offering of oneself to God. True worship is self-forgetting. True worship is costly and sacrificial. This abandonment of the self to God should be the perpetual mindset of the Christian, but the Christian Church has always believed that that is nurtured and reinforced by the worship that takes place when believers regularly meet together. I’d like to suggest that when believers meet together for worship, the more regularized, the more formal, the less novel or interesting, the better. Novelty and interest of necessity remove the focus from God and put it instead on clergy, on the “ministry team“ or the “gifted“ pastor..

C.S. Lewis once addressed this very issue:

“The advantage of a fixed form of service is that we know what is coming. Ex tempore public prayer has this difficulty: we don’t know whether we can mentally join in it until we’ve heard it — it might be phony or heretical. We are therefore called upon to carry on a critical and a devotional activity at the same moment: two things hardly compatible. In a fixed form we ought to have ‘gone through the motions’ before in our private prayers; the rigid form really sets our devotions free. I also find the more rigid it is, the easier it is to keep one’s thoughts from straying. Also it prevents getting too completely eaten up by whatever happens to be the preoccupation of the moment …. The permanent shape of Christianity shows through.”
Lewis’ use of the phrase, “the permanent shape of Christianity” suggests that the Faith does not belong to us; we belong to it, we submit ourselves to it, because we believe that it comes from God. We are not free to change it or to alter it; it is we who must be changed in order to conform to it. The Faith has a shape that can be recognized by all Christians who have ever lived. And because every true Christian who has ever lived lives still, and worships still, in Heaven, our worship must be simply a joining in their worship, a lifting up of ourselves to the worshipping company of Heaven, all abandoning ourselves and our own wishes for our blessed Lord. There can be no idiosyncratic worship, because the corporate self-abandonment of believers has a permanent shape, something intrinsically recognizable, not to the surrounding culture, but to the Body of Christ.

Our worship is meant for those who are a part of the family of God. It is not meant to stroke the egos of the unchurched. It is not intended for the pleasure of unbelievers. It is unthinkable though, that the worship of the Church could ever fairly be called “irrelevant” to any culture in which it takes place. Christian worship has always been a mystery to those around us, because the idea of self-oblation, self-abandonment to God is utterly foreign to those who do not believe as we do. We should not be spending our time trying to make our worship “relevant’ to those who do not share belief in the Object of our worship. Jesus Christ was irrelevant to the scribes and Pharisees. His incarnation was scandal and foolishness to the Greeks and the Hebrews to which this Gospel first came. In the Roman Empire Christian worship was offensive and sometimes deemed to be criminal. Yet it spread.

The center of our worship is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit is to be worshipped and glorified for ever. True worship is not about being contemporary, but is timeless; it is not about being “relevant“, but is mysterious and sacrificial.


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