Archive for August, 2009

Vertical and Horizontal Tension?

August 26, 2009

Is there some kind of contradiction (or tension) between conservative worship and warm fellowship? To put it another way, if a church’s corporate worship is vertical in orientation, does the horizontal aspect necessarily suffer? If so, why is this the case?

I ask this because of personal experience, not because of any theological insight. My short sojourn on this earth and amongst churches seems to confirm what is almost certainly a generalisation: the churches that seek to be ‘God-centred’ gain the reputation of being cold in their human relationships, while the churches that emphasise a friendly atmosphere are almost invariably shallow and light-hearted in the way they speak and sing of God.

 When I have visited churches known for solidly expository preaching and worship that is somewhat conservative, the interaction between members has seemed to me to be minimal or cliquish: the kind of church where visitors are quite likely to walk in and out without much more than a visitor’s card from an usher. Some conservative circles have all the personal charm of a visit to the meat locker.

On the other hand, when I have visited churches where a warmth is felt in the attitude of the people towards one another and visitors are quickly noticed and welcomed, I have all too often been disappointed with shallow and sentimental songs, unnecessary social announcements, and the inevitable howdy-time in the middle of a hymn. Here one feels inclined to give a hearty back-slap to Bob, Mike, and Jesus.

The same phenomenon occurs when a church moves in either one of these directions. When leadership seeks to increase the warmth felt in a service, there is often a corresponding loss in seriousness. Conversely, a church which heads in the conservative direction soon hears of how “it is not as loving as it used to be.” To picture it spatially, when a church stretches upward in worship, it seems to narrow in fellowship; when a church stretches outward in fellowship it seems to shallow in worship. 

Granted, that is not true of all churches. I’m sure some will be quick to mention their church as the happy exception. But I’d venture to say that the exceptions seem to bear out the rule: reverent worship and intimate fellowship seem like strangers in Western evangelicalism.

Why, I ask, is this so?  Why can we not have both? Why can we not have corporate worship filled with awe and reverence, with fellowship that is deep and meaningful? Why does the strength of one seem to necessitate the weakening of the other?

I don’t claim to know. I have several possible answers, not all of which I believe are true. Some I have heard from others; others I have considered from my own analysis. Here goes:

 * People are not used to worship which is entirely vertical in orientation. When you structure a service like that, people begin behaving in a more individualistic way. People need a chance to connect with each other, or else they remain ‘in their shells’. We need to blend vertical and horizontal aspects of worship to have God-centred worship and warm fellowship.

* The kinds of affections that people have come to expect in modern evangelical worship services are a blend of cheeriness, fun, optimism and warmth. If those elements are present, people feel comfortable enough to reach out to others. It’s the ‘break-the-ice’ principle. If those elements are lacking, they feel the service is cold, and it affects their responses to others. Particularly affections like awe and reverence are intimidating to people, and they tend to withdraw. In other words, people have been conditioned to associate warm worship with fun feelings, and anything else feels cold, and has a chilling effect on fellowship.

* The more accessible the worship, the more expressive people will be, even in their interaction with others. Worship which is over people’s heads creates inauthenticity and makes people less willing to open up to each other. A kind of ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ fear prevails.

* Conservatives tend to be intellectuals, who can live in the rarefied air of elevated thought, while the man on the street is suffocating. Conservative churches are too ‘head-oriented’ and not ‘heart-oriented’ enough, which has a cooling effect on the affections of believers for one another.

* Conservatives are conservative in every way, including friendliness.

Those are some suggestions, some shallow, some a bit more substantial.

What do you think, and what do you suppose is part of the solution?

A Good Start

August 19, 2009

There are some words, like nice or awesome, which have been so overused as to vacuum them of meaning. Whenever the speaker uses one of these words, the word is almost nothing more than an empty placeholder, where the speaker or listener can fill in almost anything he likes.

Sadly, one of those words is the important word culture. Nearly everyone uses the word today, to mean anything from a defense of an ethnic habit to the bourgeois feel of a classical concert, from a reference to popular customs to a serious consideration of worldviews. Everyone slips their own meaning into the word, the true meaning of which has important consequences for every one of us.

There are several books which could help us scrub off the barnacles of irrelevant meaning, and polish the word back to its original, true and useful meaning. The best and simplest start would by a seven-page article by J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Culture. Machen was a 20th-century Presbyterian scholar, and one of the reasons that Modernism did not totally decimate the church. His thoughtful analysis of the relationship between Christianity and culture went largely unheeded: just look at the mess around you. However, his analysis remains, and is worth reading, if you are interested in the scope of the problem, and concerned to think rightly about culture.

You can read it online here, or download it here.

Pilgrim and the Movies

August 5, 2009

As Christian and Faithful journeyed on, they saw an elevated wooden stage built in the centre of a large field. Around it were gathered the town folk of nearby Endless Distraction. They were seated on chairs they had brought out, and chattered happily before the show began.

Christian and Faithful were curious of this scene and paused to consider it.

“Come and watch, weary travellers!” said a rather overweight man walking up to them, whom they later found out was named Flippant. “When you have been taking life so seriously, you need a bit of relief.”

“Relief and rest are indeed promised by our Master, but watching others pretend at life is surely not one of the ways He desires us to do so,” said Christian.

“Ah, but none can engage himself incessantly in the pilgrim life, without growing morbid. Afford yourselves the chance to rest your eyes and ears and receive a story without effort.”

“Yea, stories we treasure, for therein our hearts are fired to persevere. Yea, parables and portraits of truth are much to be desired. But these lawful things do first require our girded minds to consider. They must first pass the gate of the mind, before being allowed into the banqueting hall of the affections. What you offer us rushes headlong into that banqueting hall uninvited. Before we can take our thoughts captive for our Master’s pleasure, they have already been wedded with affections and eloped with our hearts.”

Flippant looked them up and down. “Ye have been heeding too many voices of the past. Methinks ye have sat at the feet of such fanatics as Augustine, Tertullian or Cyprian. These primitives had many blind-spots, young sir. Beware of zeal without knowledge.”

“Zeal without knowledge is indeed a curse, and we would desire to escape it. But the three giants you mention are but three links of a chain of voices that has never ceased condemning the thing you invite us to partake of,” Christian replied.

Flippant did not give up. “See here, Master Pilgrim. It was good and fitting for pilgrims like yourself to condemn such things when the plays were bawdy, vile, rowdy or when such plays mocked us pilgrims. But see, this play has none of those elements. It is actually a story of how to be a good pilgrim.”

A wave of doubt seemed to flicker across Christian’s face, but it passed and he remained resolute.

“Nevertheless, your shows teach us insincerity and hypocrisy. For what profit is it if a man and a woman pretend at prayer, play at piety and act holy without being so? What gain is there if those souls do but feign gracious affections for the pleasure of the spectators? Does this not teach both your actors and your audience to regard it all but lightly?”

“Nay, good sir, but the opposite. For rising from this show, the audience is provoked to be better pilgrims. Their hearts are warmed.”

They are zealously affected, but not in a good thing. The warmth you speak of may be a fire in the bosom. For if inordinate passions are stirred up together with what seemeth to be godly desires, who can say what those desires are of a truth? Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter? And if the affections are raised by things feigned, of what nature are those affections?”

A silence followed Christian’s words, and Flippant’s expression hardened. “I see you are a contrary man, with a melancholy disposition. If ye would walk a path of bitter cheerlessness, be it upon your own head. I know the Master well, and He greatly blesses and uses our stage plays.”

Christian marvelled at the throng that was gathered around the stage.

“We will not watch your drama, sir, but we will watch those who watch it, to test the truth of your words.”

“As you wish, sirs. Good day to you.”

Christian and Faithful moved to where the stage was out of their vision, and the faces of those who gazed were plain and discernible.

The play began. The expressions of the crowd seemed to be connected to marionette strings held by the Stage-master, Manipulus. He could tug up and down, and change them as he wished. At his chosen moment they would laugh. At his chosen moment, they would cry. At his chosen moment, they would tremble. Faithful wondered at how powerful the stage was.

The play came to an end. The crowd cheered, wiped their tears, and shook the hand of Manipulus.

“Now,” said Christian to Faithful, “let us behold what affections have been stirred up, and whereunto they do lead.”

As the town folk departed, they talked longingly about being faithful pilgrims. They spoke of their deep admiration for fearless and guileless travellers to the Celestial City. They agreed how helpful it was to view such things for their inspiration.

And then they all returned to the town of Endless Distraction.