Thursday, February 12, 2009

Reverence and Worship

Someone recently asked me “Is reverence a biblical principle?” This came in the context of questions about contextualizing our ministries. I suspect the questioner had in mind the “Emerging Church” but perhaps evangelicalism in general. It is an important question for it is an illuminating way to think about principles vs methods, contextualization, the message vs the medium etc. This is the substance of my response to the question. I invite anyone’s comments: The people who raise the question about principles vs. methods are also fond of saying "the message stays the same--the medium changes." Reverence is a principle (not a method). It may also be a medium--or part of the medium--through which the gospel is communicated. I believe it is, to some degree, an essential part. When we communicate the gospel in irreverent ways, we say harmful things about the gospel, even when we don’t mean to. There are those who say we must communicate the message in contextualized ways to the modern world. They carry this to the extent of preaching in old blue jeans and T-shirts, in a casual atmosphere. Some have even gone to the extent of "beer ministry" taking the gospel to bars and such places as that. I think much of this is wrong headed thinking. When we cheapen the medium we inevitably cheapen the gospel. This is why I believed it was a poor idea a few years ago, for churches to show the Superbowl on their projection screens, and then preach the gospel during half-time. It makes the gospel incidental to something that looks "much bigger." I don't think eternal life and righteousness in Jesus Christ ought to be incidental to "the main event." Am I saying that informal settings are always wrong for gospel presentations--not at all! There are times and places where we can preach the gospel informally—but never “incidentally.” What is difficult for us is that we must separate the cultural from the essential even in the matter of reverence. It is all to easy to think of “reverence” in terms of specific reverent kinds of things (I will deal with that below). I think that a good broad and universal definition of reverence helps us here: Reverence means to treat a person or thing as --important --serious --worthy of careful attention --worthy of a certain formality--almost to the point of "artificiality" --special and different from the normal run of persons and things --being more important than me. --to be appreciated on the level of the mind--not in a sensual or visceral sort of way. Now, we have some guidelines. You or I might be inclined to think of reverence in terms of specific kinds of reverent things that are traditional in Western Culture: --classical music--Mozart, Bach, Handel --ornate worship surroundings--vaulted ceilings, gold gilt altars, carved woodwork --formal dress--neck-ties, suits, white shirts And we would be “right.” All these are “reverent” in a church service. Our emerging church friends will point out however, that all of these are "cultural trappings," and technically they are right too. Then they will proceed to have their church service in a dance-hall atmosphere, with "bump and grind" music, and the preacher in ragged jeans and a rumpled and worn out T-shirt. We will say, "That is irreverent" and WE are right. They will say, "These are the cultural trappings of our time" and they are right too. So what is the answer? First we need to look at the definition of reverence given above. The Reverent things—classical music, carved wood, all fit that definition, certainly. However, they are not the ONLY ones that fit those parameters. Obviously, there are ways of being formal, careful, serious, etc. in other cultures that differ from our preferences. For example, in Japan, the music might be very different, but equally "classical" in the sense of appealing to the mind over the body. The mistake our emerging church friends make is to assume that we must imitate the “everyday” aspects of the culture in order to “reach” it. That would be true if we were dealing with an “everyday” matter--but Jesus Christ is not an "everyday” matter! He is far more important than the mundane matters of normal life, and should be treated as such. (And yes, I know that Jesus is with us every day, and with us in the mundane aspects of life. I am not denying that. I only mean that he is more important than pizza, clothing, bills of lading, Starbucks, and the price of gas.) If we were selling pizza, of course we would want to be informal, "popular" etc. because by its nature, pizza is that kind of thing. We do not treat pizza with reverence. But, Jesus is not pizza, and deserves a very different treatment! When we treat Him like we do pizza, people will regard him with the same level of importance as they do pizza! This is exactly the situation we have in most of our evangelical churches! Here are two mistakes made by advocates of the emerging church, and many other evangelicals as well: First mistake--Worship is about "reaching people." This error goes back to the Second Great Awakening and the frontier revivals. After that era, the Sunday Worship Service became a sort of mini-revival meeting. The focus was on the visitors, and on "reaching them" with the gospel. In truth, worship should be about Jesus Christ. The focus should be on Him, not on the visitors, and certainly not on "us." (The whole “worship wars” thing in recent years, between “praise choruses” and “traditional hymns” has been very much about “what I like.” Even when we couch it in terms of “what reaches people” somehow, “what reaches people” and “my favorite kind of music” seem to be the same thing. Therefore I do not even trust myself on this matter—for I do the same thng.) Second mistake--We should contextualize worship to the "feel" and "style" of everyday life. This is wrong thinking. Worship should properly be something very different from normal activities. (Now, understand, I agree that "God is God of the secular as well as the sacred." But we must not then assume that the sacred and the secular are the same things--they are not! God is God of both--but the only reason to say that is because they ARE so different from each other.) Worship is, or ought to be different from a concert, a festival, a party. We are relating to a divine Person who is far far far different from “most folks.” Our worship should reflect who He is. Let us ask the question, not "How can we contextualize worship to the feel and style of everyday life" but rather, "how do we worship God in a way that most people today would associate with the definition of "reverence" given above?" How do we say to THESE people, "This is important"; "This is different from what you experience every day;" "This is serious business and you should pay attention;" "This is about something more important than you." I suspect the answers to those questions would include: --preachers in neckties, or other rather formal attire--people in America associate neckties with lawyers, doctors, and other serious people. If we preach a serious gospel, shouldn’t we present it in a serious manner? --music that moves the mind rather than the buttocks (I am not saying Bach and Handel, necessarily, but at least music that is serious in intent rather than merely “entertaining.” -- a style of décor, a setting that says "this is not casual—this is an important matter"--perhaps institutional colors, pictures in gold frames on the walls, (I am not sure what it would take, but somehow the decor of the room needs to say to Americans today that "this matters.")


Hamiltonh2 said...

Dr. Smith,

This was a very interesting blog. I did enjoy it.

I have a couple of comments to make.
1. As the "music guy," I do feel that Classical music intrinsically isn't 'reverant.' This seems "nit-picky," but it does lead into the second point. Classical music, in its context of history, was absolute music. It was meant to entertain and to please. Yes, indeed it was very intellectual, but that was secondary to the absolute music of it.

2. The reason I bring that point up, I do disagree that we can label these ornate things in our culture as reverant. Reverance, in my mind, has a more transcendent meaning. When we revere something, whenever anything around that "something" changes, no matter the circumstance, its ability to be revered remains. Our worship of God is required--we have a responsibility to do so because of who He is intrinsically, barring nothing.

I do like your point, and I didn't know this before, that our worship follows the format as the 2nd Great Awakening. I can see that in the way our church worships. It is something to work on...

Fred Smith said...

Your statement about classical music is too sweeping. Classical music, at least until the 20th century, was not written to be 'classical.' It became that, over time, as people discovered that some music had the ability to transcend its own time and place and touch human hearts on a deeper level.

Much classical music was written for entertainment, although often even then the entertainment had a more "serious" purpose, and sought to reach a deeper part of the soul than popular tunes, of even its own day.

Other music now considered "classical" was written with the express purpose of worshipping Jesus Christ--Bach's St. Matthew's Passion, Handel's Messiah, perhaps John Rutter's Gloria, etc.

Often, music has a purpose beyond entertainment. The composer/writer wants to communicate something that words alone will not communicate, or which the music will help to communicate. Bach, for example, used his music to say important things about the nature of God, and the truths presented in the Bible (here I mean the music itself, not just the words). Handel sometimes used music to "paint a picture" of what the words were saying--for example, in the Messiah, the line "the crooked straight" is set to music that moves on the word "crooked" but sits on one note only on the word "straight." Handel also used music to set the tone or atmosphere of the words. "He shall be like a refiner's fire, and he shall purify the sons of Levi" is set to a dark and serious melody, while "Hallelujah! For the Lord God Omnipotent Reigneth" is set to joyous bouncy music.

Anyway, we cannot dismiss classical music as "intrinsically irreverant." I may have overstated the case when I called it reverant. I had in mind mainly the classical music written for worship, but should have made that clear. Also, I had in mind the idea that classical music--at least before Beethoven--appeals mainly to the mind/Spirit, not to the sensual lusts. Jesus said, "God is a Spirit and they that worship him must worship him in Spirit and in Truth." I think that worship is more a matter of the mind than of the body. The body comes in responding to what the mind experiences. Music that appeals to the mind is more likely to bring me into a worshipful attitude than music that appeals to the body.

I invite your thoughts/responses. Blessings to you my brother.

Bud said...

A few questions come to mind. They all center around one question. Where is the line? Where does one draw the line between reverence for God and pandering to the culture? New Song, as you know, used a casual worship setting specifically for the purpose of outreach. I watched Jeff struggle with the line between performing for the crowd and proper worship. There is also a line between what should be revered and what should be simply respected. This is something I struggle with. While I have respect for tradition, I have difficulty with having a sense of reverence with church trappings (robes, carrying the cross to the front at the begining of church, and even professional clergy). I have always respected my pastors, but, I have never felt a sense of reverence. My tendency is to see their humanity despite their position.

I believe there is a balance to be found. The "emerging church" is out of balance to the irreverent side. While some "traditional churches" are so reverent they are stiff and unwelcoming.

Also, Christ mostly preached in informal settings. A lot of His work was done around a dinner table (the first century equivalent of course). Reverence is a state of mind, not a show of any kind whether formal or informal. Mostly, we show reverence to God by living within His will. All the processions, formal presentations, convincing exegesis, and multimedia extravanganzas do not mean a thing if we act like a bunch of selfish jerks.

This is a very timely topic, Fred. Balance in this area is essential to avoid becoming a bunch of white-washed tombs full of dead men's bones.

Very thought provoking, Fred!!

Fred Smith said...


I am not sure ther is "line" between worship and outreach. When we worship--we should worship and everything should be focused on that. When we engage in outreach we should do that.

In the Bible, outreach activities--such as Peter's sermon in Acts 2, the Apostles' preaching/teaching in the Temple, and Paul from town to town are never described as worship.

Often in these situations--and as you pointed out, in Jesus' teaching too--the setting was informal.

That is the point--they were not worship services.

Can worship be informal and still be reverent--I believe it can. the question is not how the building is decorated, or what people are wearing--although these can certainly either evoke, or hinder, a sense of reverence. The question is the heart attitude of the worshippers--which will be shown in their behavior and attitudes, toward the worship activity, toward one another, and toward God.

This is not to say, however, that just any old way will do--that I can dress any way I like, the building in which worship takes place doesn't matter at all, etc. These things do matter, because they both reveal--and evoke--the mood of worship. If the building is dirty, if the worshippers treat the worship as nothing more than a "free concert, and coffee afterwards, and behave accordingly, if the sense of it is that "this is what we do--aint it neat!" not that "we are meeting with Jesus Christ Himself--and it's important!" then there will be no genuine worship in that place.
The Orthodox Church has a concept that may help us here--sacred space. I used to attend worship at a little Orthodox mission in Memphis. Before the service, Father Thomas would set up icons around the room, with candles before them. He would say certain prayers as well. All of this was designed to consecrate the space in which we would worship. (This was rented space--the congregation did not have a building.)

After the service, all of the icons would be taken down and stored away, along with the candles. The space was sacred for the time of the worship, and not before or after. (Then we would all go out for dinner somewhere--often for Memphis Barbecue).

Everything done in that Orthodox service, the consecration of the space, the candles (we also each held a beeswax candle that we used to read from the prayerbook), the bearing and demeanor of Fr. Thomas, the chants and prayers, all of it, evoked the idea that this was not "normal time." This was something very different. We were mystically in the presence of Jesus Christ in a very special way, a special audience with Him!

I don't believe that all of the icons/candles etc. is necessary to evoke this sense of something special/different, but it is certainly one way of doing it.

In the end, I think the two work together heart attidue, and the ambience of the setting, music, etc.
--the right heart attitude on the part of the worshippers will cause them to dress, behave, speak and think in ways that honor Jesus Christ, and the wrong heart attitude will cause them to merely have a good time ("get blessed, we call it), if even that! The wrong attitude cannot be overcome even with all the icons, banners, chants, praise bands, strobe lights, candles, etc. in the world.

On the other hand, if I go into worship with the wrong heart, often the setting, the "feel" of the place, the music, the attitudes of other worshippers, will lift me up, and change my heart attitude. And, even if my heart is right toward God, a setting in which I am merely treated to a concert and a speech--even if it is a sacred "classical" concert and a learned speech, then I will not find myself doing much worshipping.

Hamiltonh2 said...

"the right heart attitude on the part of the worshippers will cause them to dress, behave, speak and think in ways that honor Jesus Christ, and the wrong heart attitude will cause them to merely have a good time ("get blessed, we call it), if even that! The wrong attitude cannot be overcome even with all the icons, banners, chants, praise bands, strobe lights, candles, etc. in the world. "

Your blog is most definately summed up with that paragraph. This idea makes me think of the instruction in the bible of making the sacrificies while we have something against our brother in our heart. First we have to reconcile, then our heart is right to worship.

A big "amen" is in order for the idea that worship must center on the condition of our heart. I do have some reservations with icons and things, but the instruction for Christians and specifically growing Christians should be the idea that our worship is separate and distinct from any other thing--and we should treat it as such. I do not, however, think that we can appoint specifics that we should do. That, to me, falls under the leadership and liberty of the Holy Spirit for each person, and I would not want to infringe upon those discretionary rights.

I do wonder though, if this could provoke a discussion on a Christian defense on the concept of "good taste...."

Fred Smith said...

I too have reservations with Icons--at least in the way they are used--however, I believe that setting aside space in a special way, and acting differently than we do in "normal everyday life" ought to be a part of worship.

Good taste is an important area of discussion, but the Bible never mentions it directly. It needs to be considered by all Christians. My immediate thought is that Plato helps us here, though he never mentions the matter directly either.

Plato helps us because he emphasizes the mind over the will and the flesh. Good taste, it seems to me, embodies the idea that we should not behave in ways that emphasize "the things below" or "the works of the flesh" but rather "things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God."

Perhaps I will work up a post on this topic in the next week or two.