For centuries, Christianity, Church and Christ have been almost synonymous. For many people even today, the idea that it could be possible to follow Jesus without being a member of the Christian religion and going to Church regularly is unthinkable. And yet, more and more people are doing exactly that.
At the heart of the Church’s life is worship. For many Christians attending worship services is the defining act of their faith. And, since we are often told that worship is a lifestyle, many believers make praying, singing or listening to worship songs, and listening to sermons a significant part of their daily lives. But I wonder whether this is what Jesus had in mind when he called his first followers and formed the small community that would eventually grow into the Church as we know it today. Personally, I doubt it very much.
In this podcast, I explore what happens when what we call Church doesn’t actually fulfil what the Scriptures say it should be, especially with regard to the act of worship. And I suggest that there may be gatherings and practices that are not usually recognised as Church or worship that may be much closer to what Jesus taught.
Our world is in turmoil. Well, honestly? I’m not sure it has ever not been in turmoil. But with everything that’s going on, it’s easy to feel out of control and anxious. And it’s natural to try and manage our anxiety by trying to control the people and the world around us. But of course, that never works, and we just end up getting even more anxious and angry because we feel even more out of control.
In my experience, a lot of the spirituality that is sold to us only makes the problem worse. We are told to pray that God—from outside of us—will swoop in and fix the world and the people around us if we just believe strongly enough. But any spirituality that tells us we can use God to change others and change the world is lying. That’s not how spirituality works. It never was.
Here at EvoFaith, we believe that an intentional and meaningful spiritual practice teaches us to master the only world over which we really have control—the one within us. And when we learn to master our inner world, we can engage more deeply with the tough realities we’re facing and act more wisely to contribute to changing what we do have the power to challenge and change in the world around us.
Now just a few words to give context to what I’m going to be saying. I will talk about Church with a capital ‘C’ a lot. That is because I will be generalising. So right up front, I want to say that I know that not all churches fit the descriptions I’ll be using today. I’m part of a church where I work part time as music director and I have found it to be a really helpful community. So if you’ve found a church that is life-giving for you, I celebrate that with you.
I will also be speaking largely about my own personal experience with the Church and I know, and am grateful, that not everyone shares my experience. So if your journey with the Church has been mostly positive, then I celebrate that with you too. All I want to say is that, from my experience and perspective, what I will be sharing today is true for a lot of people who have either broken up with the Church or whose relationship with the Church is complicated. And that’s why I feel that this is an important conversation for us to have.
Megachurches are known for their high-energy, slickly-produced worship music. Videos of the latest worship songs get hundreds of thousands, if not millions of views on YouTube, and now with so many people choosing to worship online, they seldom fail to draw massive responses to their live worship streams. But sometimes, as I watch how we the Church have evolved in our worship practices, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve really understood what worship is meant to do for us.
A few years ago, I was sent a link to a video of a glitzy, high-energy production of a Christmas Carol performed by one of the best-known megachurch bands in the world. The sound was reminiscent of big band jazz and the outfits of the singers and dancers were styled after a Burlesque show. The harmonies were huge, the brass was loud and triumphant, the lights were constantly changing, filled with colour and so very bright. At one point the lead vocalist and her backing dancers were literally dancing on the tables! And what, you may wonder, was the Christmas Carol that they chose to perform in such a vibrant and energetic way? Well, it was Silent Night.
I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears as I watched perhaps the greatest contradiction between lyrics and music that I’ve ever encountered. And while I could appreciate the artistic skill with which this entire production was executed, I still struggle to identify what I saw in that video as worship.
If I’m honest, my mind went back to a passage in the prophetic book of Amos in the Hebrew Scriptures. This is God speaking through the prophet, and this is what it says:
I hate, I reject your festivals;
I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.
If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—
I won’t be pleased;
I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.
Take away the noise of your songs;
I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
The worship of the Church has tended to follow a fairly predictable cycle through the millennia. It begins with worship being deep and shared. Artistically it may be beautiful, but in a folk-art kind of way in which everyone in the community can participate. Over time, artists and creatives seek to bring their best efforts to ensure that their worship befits a God of glory, majesty and beauty. And so they write increasingly complex songs, played with increasingly complex and professional arrangements, with more and more embellishments and flurries. But as the creativity of the worship service expands, so the space for the community to participate shrinks. The songs become too difficult for the community to sing and so they watch silently as the trained musicians sing them perfectly. The visuals and production become more and more theatrical and the community becomes more and more a group of spectators rather than participants. Then, eventually, some kind of revival breaks out and worship is returned to its original simplicity with people learning again to participate fully and wholeheartedly.
Now I’m not saying that those of us who are trained in the arts shouldn’t bring our skills to worship. I’m not saying that worship should be boring and bland. On the contrary, I believe that the arts belong in worship—they were born out of worship and they find their best expression when they uplift and empower our spirits. But the values of artistic performance should never prevent the community from offering a shared expression of devotion. Because, in the end, no one can do spiritual practice for another person. We all need to practice our spirituality ourselves, both in community and on our own. Because only as participants can we learn the habits that give us mastery over our inner world, that transform us into our best and most sacred selves, and that empower us to honour and uplift the sacredness in others and in our world.
But unfortunately most worship in our world today is not designed to be a habit that leads to transformation. And that’s not how worship is seen by most of those who gather—because that’s not what we’ve been taught. The Church has told us that worship is an end in itself, offered up to a God ‘up there’ who came down and saved us from our sins so that we could live in some eternal bliss in some otherworldly place. Worship has become an activity that removes us from our normal, daily lives, and Church has become a community of escape from the troubles of our society while we wait for our ultimate escape from this world for eternity.
As Richard Rohr so insightfully writes:
But Christians have preferred to hear something Jesus never said: “Worship me.” Worship of Jesus is rather harmless and risk-free; following Jesus changes everything.
You will often hear people say that “worship is a lifestyle.” This perspective defines worship as praying and singing songs of praise and adoration—and sometimes supplication—and then this perspective sets worship up as the highest activity we can do as Christians, as the primary activity that should occupy our attention, use our energy, and shape our lives. But Jesus never mentions worship and the Bible certainly never defines worship in this way. Rather, worship is seen as a spiritual practice that is meant to train us to live the lifestyle of God’s reign—about which Jesus said an awful lot!
And people are starting to recognise this and long to experience it. That’s why increasing numbers of people across the world are shifting to spiritual practice in a more authentic and intentional way. So many, particularly younger people, seek to grow into their best selves, develop better relationships, and find ways to make a more positive impact on their world. And they turn to spiritual practices to do this. But more and more of them are finding that the Church isn’t helping them on this journey. Most move away from hype and glitz, and toward contemplation, meditation, silence, and social-justice-oriented action to contribute to a better world.
Rather than speaking prayers and singing praises to a deity that is removed from us and that demands our adoration, people are discovering that God is around us, among us and within us. And that God does not demand our adoration so much as invite us to participate in building a world of love and justice.
I’m reminded of a story I read a few years ago about someone who visited Mother Teresa in India. As they chatted, he asked her how she would define Christian worship. In response, she opened her Bible and read the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats from Matthew 25:31-46. Then she repeated Jesus’ words from the parable: “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me,” and she concluded, “This is worship.”
But what does this mean for us in our daily lives, in our quest to find mastery of our inner world in an outer world that is filled with turmoil? It means that it’s time to give up on religion, spirituality, and Church as an escape. It’s time to stop fooling ourselves that singing songs and saying prayers and listening to sermons are the most important things for us to do as followers of Christ. It is time to embrace spiritual practice not as an escape, but as a path to transformation, as a way to consciously evolve—to be deliberate in seeking to bring about change in ourselves, our attitudes, actions, and relationships.
If we want to feel less like we are being blown about by the ever-changing storms in our world, we need to give up on trying to use prayer and worship to control the people and the world around us. It’s time to take seriously the truth that the only world we can ever learn to master is the one within us. And it is time to embrace a personal and collective habit of spiritual practice, including prayer and singing if we so choose, and allow it to lead us to a deeper sense of the sacredness within us, in other people and around us in our world.
What we call Church today is often not actually Church, and a lot of what we call worship isn’t really worship—not the way Jesus taught about it. What our worship has become is often more entertainment than transformation, more about camping out in good feelings than growing into our best selves. More about praying for God to change the world around us than changing ourselves, with the Spirit’s guidance and power, and learning to master the world within us.
But often what we don’t see as Church or worship actually is – people alone or together in informal groups, sometimes even within a Church community – faithfully observing a simple and consistent spiritual practice that brings transformation and which may or may not include singing or prayer, and then going out to share love and justice in whatever small way they can.
I believe it’s time for the Church—and its worship—to evolve! To quote Richard Rohr one more time:
Christianity is a lifestyle—a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, and loving. However, we made it into an established “religion” (and all that goes with that) and avoided the lifestyle change itself. One could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain in most of Christian history, and still believe that Jesus is one’s “personal Lord and Savior” . . . The world has no time for such silliness anymore. The suffering on Earth is too great.
In the next episode, we will explore Church as community. We will look at what community means and why we need community for our mental, physical and spiritual health. And we will explore how many of us are finding community outside of traditional church structures. I’d love you to join me for that conversation.
But for now, that’s all I have. Thank you for your time and attention. Stay connected to the sacred. And I’ll catch you next time.
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