But let me be fair. What we’re often asking for in such praise songs is to know God intimately, personally, and immediately. In this regard, we are very much in tune with the psalmist, who pants after God. We are wise to note, however, that if we get what we ask for, it’s going to be more complex and paradoxical than we can imagine. That’s why it’s another good sign that more and more churches are trying to integrate classic hymns into their offerings, as these do speak to God’s fullness and complexity.
How we actually shape our services points to another horizontal temptation. For example, we have more or less structured worship around two cultural icons: the rock concert and late-night comedy (more of the latter when I write about preaching). On the one hand, many evangelicals churches have a typical band—guitars, bass, electric piano, and drums, along with singers—performing up front. “No, they are leading worship, not performing,” we object. But let’s face it, there is a performative element in everything on the stage. Yes, they intend to lead us in worship, but we’ve all been to services where the music is so loud that we cannot hear the person next to us singing. As much as worship leaders strive to keep their egos in check, they are the first to admit that the very ambiance of contemporary worship makes it nearly impossible for people to not think of them as rock stars—of worship, yes, but rock stars nonetheless.
Even churches committed to the more classical, liturgical worship find the temptation to imitate a rock concert irresistible. One Anglican church I’m familiar with, when remodeling a building to worship in, planted the drum set not off to the side with the other musicians but right of the large cross that adorns the center of the stage. In a tradition that grasps the importance of symbols and how they can help us worship, adore God, and draw us into his presence, the imagery is shocking. As worship is moving along, where do we think people’s eyes are going to focus: On a cross that stands still or on the drummer who is keeping the beat and moving rhythmically with the music? One keeps asking oneself, “What is a drummer doing at the foot of the cross?” The clashing symbolism is distracting to say the least.
To be clear, this is one of the most effective churches in the community for reaching out to the lost and hurting in the name of Christ. Yet it is an example of how confused we are about the relationship between the horizontal and the vertical—and the confusing messages we end up sending to ourselves and to those who visit our churches.
Let me be fair in another way: It isn’t as if traditional, liturgical churches have any advantage here. Having been a long-standing member of Episcopal and Anglican churches, I can assure you that it’s not unusual for a post-worship conversation to concern itself with whether some liturgical action or word was done properly, followed by a word to the priest that such-and-such acolyte needs more training.
Or take one extreme example—how to light the Easter fire. This is a small fire kindled at the entrance of the church as a prelude to the Easter vigil, from which the paschal candle is lit (a large white candle symbolizing, among other things, Christ’s resurrection). I remember one otherwise loving and compassionate deacon who was distressed when an interim priest lit the Easter fire with a Bic lighter—as if doing so was a sacrilege. So yes, a focus on the horizontal can tempt the liturgical as well.
Despite the renewed focus on adoration, I suspect that we’re still more interested in the horizontal than the vertical many days. How many times have we heard someone say the traditional picture of heaven sounds pretty boring, like one, long worship service? That says something about what we think of our worship services and what we think of worship. As Puritan theologian Isaac Ambrose put it, “Consider that looking unto Jesus is the work of heaven. … If then we like not this work, how will we live in heaven?” Instead, when we want to make the kingdom of heaven sound more attractive, we talk about it like this: “Whatever you enjoy doing in this life—athletics, woodworking, art, gardening, baking, etc.—will be extraordinary in the life to come.” Or we look forward to a glad reunion with loved ones.
Those sorts of things are indeed part of the glorious age to come. What signals a problem is our hearts. Who of us doesn’t admit that it’s the activities and the reunion with loved ones that gets us more excited than spending eternity glorifying the True, the Good, and the Beautiful One (Rev. 22:3)?
And then there are the repeated refrains we’ve heard and all said at one time or another: “I’m not being fed.” Or “I didn’t get anything out of the service.” Or “I didn’t feel God was present.” Or a hundred other phrases that tip us off that we came to church not to glorify God but to have a certain religious experience.
Rethinking how we do worship begins, then, with keeping the focus on God as he is in all his complexity (not how we want him to be) from beginning to end. It means entering worship looking first and foremost to offer something to God, no matter how we feel or how the service makes us feel. How to do this without getting distracted—well, experienced worship leaders will have the best ideas about that; they negotiate the worship/entertainment, glorifying God/singers tensions every week. They know the challenges. I would think the first step is to recognize that, given how we’ve structured contemporary worship, there is no getting around the fact that this is an ongoing tension.
I would think another key is to recognize that everything that happens in a service is in fact worship of God, if we see worship as a great drama or dialogue in which we speak to God and God speaks to us.
Many evangelicals have gotten into the terrible theological habit of calling only the first part of our services “worship,” that first part in which we sing praises to God in three or four songs. We say things like, “Before we listen to the sermon, let’s spend some time in worship.” As if the singing is about God and the sermon is not about God. This is a confusion of the first order. As we’ll see in the essays on the Bible and on preaching, this part of the service is also supposed to be about God first and foremost. That’s why traditionally, the entire service—singing, prayer, Bible, preaching, offering, and benediction—is considered worship. It’s all about God.