Vertical and Horizontal Tension?

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?

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12 Responses to “Vertical and Horizontal Tension?”

  1. TBR Says:

    Maybe we shouldn’t expect the best kind of fellowship, if we are really at war.

  2. David Says:

    I’m willing to agree, to a point. It isn’t really a gentleman’s game anymore, and friend and foe are increasingly blurred. But if fellowship is rooted in a one-mindedness, then surely those that agree on conservative principles should resonate with one another.

  3. ML Says:

    Isn’t one of the characterizing elements of Christians and particularly the body of believers supposed to be “Behold how they love one another,”? I think it warrants fighting for right alongside of true worship.

  4. David Says:

    Well, no doubt about that. I’m not certain that the ‘cold’ churches would themselves deny that. I’m just interested in why conservative worship so often breeds something other than intimate fellowship.
    More so, how do we go about fighting for this?

  5. DG Says:

    Are the one-another commands in Scripture horizontal or vertical? Is the fulfilment of the one-another commands not worship? Can the two be separated – If we neglect the needs of our fellow believers and sing conservative hymns, are we truly worshipping?
    (1 Corinthians 13:1) If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Perhaps one of the problems is that “conservative” leaders try so hard to emphasise and grow the sheep in the direction of ordinate worship and the like, that they forget to stress that ordinate affections are also seen in acts of love for one another. If you don’t have both, do you have either?

  6. David Says:

    You’re right, there is no contradiction between biblical imperatives, or God would be untrue. My point is not that such a tension or contradiction exists in reality, but that it seems to exist practically. Your explanation is, I think, part of the answer. It is similar to leaders who fall in love with ideas, and fail to love the people those ideas are meant for.

  7. DG Says:

    Absolutely right. There must also be an understanding amongst all the believers that serving and loving one another is an integral part of worship. If the contradiction exists practically in my life then I do not understand what worship is.

    (1 John 4:20) If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.

    Perhaps practicalities do also play a role. An auditorium filled with 100s if not 1000’s of people is going to develop a very different caring culture to a congregation of 50. Just a thought… it may be time to spend time and effort on the development of future leaders to plant & establish smaller, more “local” churches.

  8. DG Says:

    Another suggestion that comes from what the Lord is teaching me…
    Warmth, love and fellowship needs to be to be modelled in the leader’s relationships. The leader and his wife need to be a VISIBLE example of a single minded UNIT showing love for God, EACH OTHER and their neighbours – too many leaders leave their wives in the dust and grime of “real life” -the “apparent” ministry unity being undermined by an obvious disparity in thinking. The leader must show his ability to lead through his ability to establish order in his home, all the while SHOWING his compassion, mercy, patience and grace through his relationship with his children – showing that this “Bible stuff” really works. Not to mention much of the same regarding the leader and his friends and the leader and his congregation.
    Where are the sheep going to learn to worship & care if they don’t see REAL examples (filled with integrity) of worship filled with awe and reverence, with fellowship that is deep and meaningful lived out before them?

  9. David Says:

    Agreed. A lot of love is caught more than taught.
    But I do think we need to recognise the power of existing expectations. I think a lot of people have had their ideas of love shaped by soap operas, smarmy motivational talks and other unhelpful sources. Raised on such a diet, I wonder if such folks would not find Jesus cold, were they to be time-warped into His era.
    Sometimes love is present, but not in the form we recognise. After all, is God’s love for the world not evident, and yet they do not see it?

  10. LL Says:

    This may be, however there are plenty examples where Jesus’ love was evident. Even the Jews could not deny it.

    John 11:33-36
    When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

  11. LL Says:

    … in addition we are talking about Christians here. Christians who need tangible examples of Christlikeness, examples which say, “Follow me as I follow Christ”.

  12. David Says:

    Well, I don’t mean to quibble, but Jesus’ love was evident to people who lived in that culture, people not brainwashed into a sentimental form of love. My question is whether a lot of modern Christians would not encounter several biblical characters and chastise them for being ‘cold’ or ‘without the joy of the Lord’.
    I’m not for a moment doubting that Christ’s love was real and evident – how else do you get children to want to be in your arms?
    But what do you do with people who wouldn’t know real love if it hit them in the face? What do you do with people who feel that seriousness=coldness?

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