I was new to the church, and was just getting to know the small staff I had inherited. The youth director attended another church on Sunday mornings, a charismatic congregation known for its contemporary worship which involved people raising their hands, speaking in tongues, and singing Christian pop music, and a high level of emotion. I came to faith through the Charismatic tradition in the mid-1970s so I was both familiar with and comfortable with that aspect of Christianity.
Youth Sunday was coming, and she was trying to get our small, very Presbyterian youth group ready to lead worship for the service, I worked with the young man who was preaching, and she worked with the rest of the kids on the music. I could tell she was getting frustrated because the kids were not singing the songs the way people sang them at the worship services in her congregation.
“Let’s teach this congregation how to REALLY worship,” she said, trying to pump the kids up.
If I was the firing kind of pastor, I would have fired her there on the spot. (I was happy a few months later when, by mutual agreement, we decided her time with us was over.) I was angrier at her then than I have ever been with any employee or co-worker ever.
“Let’s teach this congregation how to REALLY worship,” she said, as if we had spent the last fifty years wasting our time on Sunday mornings.
“Let’s teach this congregation how to REALLY worship,” she said, as if there were only one real way to worship God.
“Let’s teach this congregation how to REALLY worship,” she said, as if worship was only REAL worship when people had been whipped into an emotional frenzy.
I was sure that our congregation did on Sunday mornings was real worship. And I do not have a problem calling Charismatic services real worship. I have been privileged to worship with Orthodox Christians in Russia, and the liturgy they celebrate is certainly worship.
But that was then, back in the early 2000s. Now I am not so sure.
Years later I was sitting with a group of pastors and we were asked what kinds of idols tempted us. People trotted out the usual suspects—work, the trappings of an affluent society, power, other people, our own desires—all the things that tend to distract us from our faith.
But I was having a hard time answering. Of course there are things that distract me from fully engaging with God. There are things that I spend a lot more time on than I spend with God. There are things I enjoy more than I enjoy spending time with God.
But are these idols? Idols are worshipped. I don’t worship my job, my hobbies, or my family. I don’t worship the books I own or the music I listen to, nor do I worship the people who write those books or make that music. Those things are important to me, but I cannot say I worship them.
I looked up idolatry on the web, and stumbled on an article where a person was comparing their compulsion of buying unnecessary junk to idolatry, as if having a house full of unneeded trinkets was the same thing as worshiping in a temple full of idols—or worshiping God in a church.
If that is what they call idolatry, when what in the world is real worship to this person? If idolatry, worship of a false god is just a matter of not dealing with clutter, than what does real worship look like? Dealing with clutter? Is it all that trivial?
That got me to thinking…what do I worship? What do people worship today?
Do we worship anything, including God? In a world of where church services can be more like a musical than anything resembling worship, where churches deliberately tailor worship services for people who are not attracted to worship, where congregations are adopting trendy worship techniques in hope of bringing back young people to dying denominations, where we are almost willing to admit that the survival of the church is no longer going to be about what happens on Sunday, but how we get people involved OUTSIDE our walls, in a culture where apathy reigns, from politics to religion, it is time to ask whether or not we actually are able to worship anything, idols or God.
In 1997 Ben Folds wrote:
“Will you never rest
Fighting the battle of who could care less
That’s ok I guess…”
It seems much of our culture is a battle of who could care less. Take away our social media, smart phones, and internet habits, and what is left for us to care about, much less actually worship? During one protest against the draft I saw a sign that said, “There is nothing worth dying for.”
We have addictions, from porn to Netflix, but not idols. We don’t give ourselves to much of anything anymore. We have gone from Question Authority to Screw Authority. What little political passion we have these days is mostly a stance AGAINST the other side rather than a commitment to real ideals. The Right is active mostly because they despise or fear the Left and the Left is active because they despise or fear the Right.
There is little left that we cannot bend to our own wills. We have a designer culture. When I was a child, there were three news networks. You either got Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC, Walter Cronkite on CBS, or Peter Jennings on ABC. It did not matter what your political affiliations were, those were your choices.
Now liberals can go to MSNBC and Conservatives to Fox News, if you even watch TV news. You can find a political blog or website that matches your political persuasions to a T, and you will never have to even hear an opposing opinion.
There used to be three TV networks. If you wanted to see a show, you had to conform to the network’s schedule and be in front of a TV when they decided to show it. If you wanted to see a movie, you had to see what was playing in the two or three movie theaters in your town. Now you can have more than 500 channels and with the touch of a remote, you can order any movie your heart desires from Amazon or Netflix.
There is very little we have to conform to in our world today. We make the world conform to us.
And the same is true of church today. There are so many churches, and they are all so different that we can find a church that almost exactly matches our theology, politics and spiritual temperament, and never have to deal with anything we really disagree with as we worship God.
But worship is about confronting Something or Someone who is a lot bigger than we are. Karl Barth called it the Wholly Other. In worship we recognize that something (or Someone) exist to whom we must bend the knee.
If we worship a god who is a lot like we are, we can bet that we have created that god. We tend not have worship today as much as we have feel-good fests, where we are able to reinforce our own ideas, biases and opinions. In worship there are times when we should be confronted, and in this world we are hardly confronted by anything we don’t like.
In the end, I am afraid we have the lost the ability to worship. We are creating spiritual affinity groups, not worshiping communities. Like-spirited and like-minded people gather to hear a like-minded minister preach like-minded sermons, and to sing like-minded songs, in the context of a like-minded church service.
Many people would disagree with me, and ask me what I think people do in church on Sunday mornings, but I think the current state of the Church in United States bears me out on this. When we worship Something (or Someone) bigger than we are, we become bigger people. Frankly for the most part the churches in America are full of small-minded people. Granted there are some very large souls out there who manage to keep the whole thing afloat, but they are the exception these days, and not the rule.
But the Church as a whole is fractured, and fracturing more and more every day. There are people who openly advocate hate of other people in the name of Christ, and somehow they have gotten the impression that they can do this openly, and without shame. Rather than worshiping a God who is bigger than they are, they forming spiritual encounter groups to make themselves feel better about themselves.
Worship is the understanding that there IS something (or Someone) that is bigger than our own lives. Even when we include God in the mix, we don’t find much that fits that definition.