Room for Reverence and Awe

UPDATE: This post was featured on the Knowing the Truth radio show with pastor Kevin Boling, for the Dec. 17 episode, “What is our Worship Service Saying?” It was also reposted at Reformation Italy. Thanks for sharing, I'm glad the community found it useful.

A non-Christian reporter visited several worship services in Vermont recently. Alongside pagan, Muslim, and Unitarian services, the man attended an evangelical church. I'm a former charismatic who considers evangelicals my brothers, so I was curious to know what he would make of it.1

The reporter described the service in terms of a “rock band” with “rock star Jesus” playing on the big screen. The style reminded him of “karaoke and conga lines.” It caused me to consider how Sunday services in NAPARC member churches are perceived by visitors. If I may state the obvious, “the medium is part of the message.” This is especially true with respect to our worship. Everything about our gatherings says something about our values and beliefs, and sometimes we say more than we intend. When I reflect on my decade in evangelical churches, certain questions come to mind:

  • Do outsiders sense “reverence and awe” in our gatherings before God (Heb 11)? Not dreariness or dread, but palpable humility.
  • Does our service conform to Scripture or is worship marred beyond Biblical recognition by human inventions? 
  • Does our liturgy connect to our Christian heritage or are we historical islands? 
  • Is the atmosphere and presentation driven by popular and commercial conventions?
  • Is it packaged to appeal to worldly cravings more than to nourish faith?  

An undercover reporter visited our church some years ago, a secular Jew writing on local worship. He was stunned at the reverence with which our pastor handled the law, acknowledging God's holiness with obvious sincerity. It reminded him of Judaism. Yet he remarked further that the worship was clearly arranged around the Word and culminated in declarations of the gospel. Grace was freely offered to all who would believe. By his own account, he went away impressed at the depth and joy of the service. The Christian religion is, after all, a personal intersection with Almighty God, something to be amazed at... even if he didn't buy it.

In evangelicalism, and the charismatic wing especially, there is a fixation on practical steps and individual devotion. Novelty and pragmatism sometimes overwhelm larger, grander truths of our faith. A lack of sound teaching on the Spirit leads to generic “spirituality,” woefully disconnected from God's ordinary means of Word and sacraments. People do not hear the preached Word as the present, living word of God. They miss out on the mysterious wonder of becoming “one bread” with millions of believers worldwide, through our union with Christ in faith, as it is signified and sealed in the Lord's Supper. Worst of all, they are deprived of the sense that in the ministerial declaration of pardon, God himself declares that believers are and shall be forgiven—that they are being preserved by his power to live another week and grow in godliness.

Is there room in contemporary worship to be astonished? Not by sounds and style; nor to be wowed by convenience and consumeristic “relevance”—but truly astonished for having been called as a body before the living God? Can we be dumbstruck by the kingdom-shattering declaration that sinners are reconciled to an infinite, supra-cosmic Creator and Redeemer? Can we tremble to be loved by a “consuming fire?”

Yes, I think there is room. But it’s easy to be dazzled by the lights, cameras, and action of modern worship. We can lose touch with our rich theology and feel disconnected from two millennia of gates-of-hell-defying Christian history. Worst of all, the gospel of blood-bought salvation is sometimes taken as an afterthought, rather than the centerpiece of our gathering. 

I have no doubt that some of our worship offends God. We are idol factories, every one of us, who tend to fashion everything including our spiritual exercises into our own image. My greater point, however, is to be sensitive to how our worship is perceived by unbelievers in our midst. We do well to remind ourselves that the most inviting, compelling aspect of our faith is not how hip, intense, or artistic it is. The Triune God really does meet us and speaks to us graciously in the Word. That's truly amazing. In the end, I'm more interested in stripping distractions from Christ's cross in my own church than in turning over tables in someone else's. But if you want some help, I'll grab a corner.

  1. Vermont has been called the “godless State.” Fewer people attend worship there than almost anywhere in the U.S. I was already familiar with 19th century revivalism and its effect on the North East, turning it into a “burned over” district. As such, I was saddened but not surprised by the prevalence of atheists and alternative religions.