The decline of the church in Western culture is a much frequented topic in both religious and non-religious commentary. Whether parsed out in terms of diminishing influence or contrasted with the concurrent rise of the cohort affectionately labeled the Nones, there is an undeniable shift in the religious landscape which, although proceeding apace for the past few decades, has at least seemed more pronounced in the last few years.
The supposed pathology of such a state of affairs is as diverse as its commentators, and there is no shortage of bits employed to bemoan and bewail (and in some cases belaud) the eclipse of Christendom in the west.
In the personal sphere we all know those who perhaps at one time had a vibrant faith, but then tragedy struck and God was seemingly no where to be found. Or a faith which seemed aglow in younger days that simply could not withstand the blows of college life or the demands of an ever-secularized world. Sometimes the intractable march of time wears away at belief, until it flows away with the last waning tide. Or perhaps it is discovered that faith can make a nice if actually unnecessary accoutrement, worn and put away with the utmost convenience.
What causes such a collapse of faith, since it can occur in as many situations as there are people? Any single diagnosis cannot hope to encompass the variegated reasons that bring it about in the subjective experience.
But deeper than cultural factors or demographic exigencies, one cannot help but ask a simple question: Are we creating Christians who can’t believe?
What We Believe
One of the most important yet under appreciated truths is this: lex orandi, lex credendi. It’s literal translation is “the law of prayer is the law of belief.” This roughly works out to this: the way we worship is the way we believe. And in some cases the phrase is expanded to lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi– As we worship is as we believe, and thus as we live.
The way we worship thus becomes not only an indication of how we live and what we believe, but the foundation of each.
After all, worship is directed towards a particular object, but in the case of our worship of God the object of this worship is not one object among many, but the source of all being and the radiance of all glory. Worship of God is thus more than just affection towards an object or promises made in the heart; it can be nothing less than communion with the Trinity. Jesus said that
“…a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
Elsewhere we see this type of worship illustrated, specifically in the Transfiguration. The unity of the Father and the Son is so complete that its brilliance overwhelms the sight. Jesus, being fully human in the hypostatic union, is taken up fully into this communion, brought beyond the natural ability of the human nature through the unity of substance in the hypostasis of the Son. This is nothing less than a foretaste of the Beatific Vision, for humanity becomes divine to the same extent as the divine took on flesh. As Christ is both priest and victim, so he is both worshiper and worshiped.
But this communion is not simply some vapid sense of community, but is fleshed out literally in Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom and his living out of the Father’s will. When he states that he does only what he sees the Father doing and can do nothing of himself, he is not admitting some inherent weakness but is rather asserting an unequivocal unity. The communion evidenced in Transfiguration is, in the final analysis, in no way distinct from his life outside of this moment. We see in Christ the perfect illustration of an existence where worship and praxis are ultimately indistinguishable.
We of course do not have this capacity, nor will we ever, but as we are united to Christ so we will share in this communion of love and glory. The ‘experience’ of God as man is a prototype of what we are destined for, the promise of what is to be attained. The light of this fellowship left Jesus’ closest companions without words, the only appropriate response being to shield the eyes and bow the knee.
Sing Me A Song
In light of these considerations, the way in which we often parse what it is to worship God in Spirit and in truth is nothing short of scandalous, as too often we settle for lesser things, subsuming the communion in the Trinitarian mystery within emotional catharsis.
We have warred over musical styles unto the point of absurdity, but the cease-fire was perhaps more regrettable, as we have become satisfied with tribal affiliations. We have made worship into a style and no longer blush to call it so, transforming worship into a preference like the colors of your house or the playlist on your phone.
But further on, we have made our evangelism into style marketing, catering to the worshiper’s whims and wants, wooing the prospective consumer into the worship space to partake of the wares. The worship is ostensibly for God, but our marketing makes it out to be for the worshiper, until it is more about what we receive than what we give. After all, after it’s done we talk to each other about how ‘worship was good this week’ or how ‘so-and-so is a good worship leader’ or ‘I just don’t like the worship there.’
These sorts of confessions should fill us with shame, but instead they tend to form the barometer of our spiritual life. Emotional catharsis means worship was good, but no pathos this week and somehow God is not as great?
This would perhaps not be so deplorable if it only happened once and awhile so we could pass it off as either a fluke or a special experience. Getting married is a memorable experience filled with feelings you will never have again, and the years that follow will certainly not contain them, but that makes it no less meaningful for its rarity. Yet we craft our worship experiences with the explicit goal of eliciting these feelings every single time, and we judge them a failure if a cue is missed or a slide out of place.
The Holy Spirit’s movement is apparently so weak that the slightest distraction is enough to quench the fire.
Of course, that we even describe our worship services as experiences should cause us to blush in embarrassment, but we churn ahead without a qualm. Somewhere along the way worship as a service or act for God got lost or forgotten. That we are to submit the entirety of ourselves- emotions and experiences included- to God and to loving him is kind of silly, it would seem. Otherwise, it is difficult to fathom how we could devote most of our resources to perfecting the experience, ensuring that those who attend get as much out of it as possible. To prove we are serious, we boast about crafting deep and substantive and meaningful worship experiences, about creating places where people feel comfortable and welcomed, about how during this time of worship people can come and experience God.
Thus, while every aspect of our existence is inherently an experience, instead of orienting our worship towards God and allowing experience to flow naturally out that, we tend to invert the order, assuming worship will sprout out of a particular experience. Jesus may have done only what he saw the Father doing, but that also led to some rather uncomfortable experiences, and discomfort is something we are masters at banishing from our worship experiences. The disciples may have been terrified in coming face to face with the unity of the Father and the Son and been at a loss for words, but awesome is better employed as a euphemism for our musical stylings.
But what happens when the experiences we create are gone? If the music style is not just right or the speaker all that dynamic or the church all that relevant, what do we have left? If we build our worship upon what we are to get out of it, what happens when we stop receiving and we don’t know what it means to give?
Say What You Want
We come to listen to talks and sermons about how our lives can be better, about how the Bible has these steps to a happy marriage or financial peace or anything else we can get it to say. And no doubt it does. But lost in all of that is that somehow, somewhere along the way the Bible stops being about God and starts being about us. After all, if it has all these great things to say to us and all these ways to have amazing lives, then it starts to feel like God really does want us to be happy after all.
We hear endlessly about how God loves us, which he does. We talk on and on about how God has an amazing plan for our lives, which he does. We talk about how we should have hope because God is good, which we should because he is.
But while love is not a feeling but an act of the will, most of what we say in our worship imagines it is a feeling. While that amazing plan for our lives probably involves a lot of suffering, most of what we say in our worship pretends it means success as we define it. And while God’s goodness is more often highlighted in bringing good out of bad, most of what we say in our worship affirms that it means God will give us whatever we want.
To be sure, a lot of times we even talk about pain and brokenness, which is great. We make a point that Job got mad at God and let him have it because he was miffed about his pain, presumably so we can have free reign to vent our disappointments and hurts despite knowing deep down that God already knows and probably deserves some measure of respect. (That whole giving us existence thing- annoying, I know.) We even skip ahead to the end to make sure everyone knows that everything worked out for Job- he got all his stuff back. We usually pile caveat upon caveat to distance ourselves from the health-and-prosperity people, but it usually falls on deaf ears since every single other thing we do in worship says the opposite. We forget that Job wasn’t really asking ‘why’ like we do, but was rather pissed because he wasn’t getting the justice he felt he was entitled to. He forgot that he was God’s, and that God doesn’t have to do what Job thinks he should. This should be obvious since God’s response shuts him up and he realizes (and admits) he was wrong, but since we have already made the Bible about us it is usually far easier to subsume its messages to our modern prejudices and tantrums.
We talk about our hope in God, but our songs and our sermons and everything else in our worship serve to put conditions on it. We will trust in God if the cancer goes away and praise him because he is good, but when the inevitable mortality comes sooner than we expected (read: demanded), then suddenly God is silent and absent even though he pretty clearly told us we are all going to die someday and we don’t know when. It’s funny we’d even need God to tell us that, when it’s fairly self-evident.
We claim to belong completely to God and to give our lives totally to him, and in the songs we sing we say it to the point of nausea. But when it comes down to it we really don’t seem to mean it. For if we really belong to God, then he really can do whatever he wants with us without having to justify the reasons, but we usually try to ignore that by imagining that God’s will means we will eventually get exactly what we wanted all along.
Nothing in our worship would seem to argue otherwise.
When It’s Over
So what happens when the experience is bad and life gets difficult? What happens to our belief when its mettle is tested in the crucible of pain, the blast furnace of cultural opposition or even the easy-bake oven of slightly-more-mediocre-than-last-week worship music?
If worship has just been a style that we choose as it suits our preferences, if emotional catharsis has been the indicator of our spiritual health, if hope is conditioned on happiness and health, and if faith is directed towards the ways in which it moves our lives towards the preconceived idea of what we wish them to be, then what if the worship suddenly goes out of style or stops being a good experience or the diagnosis is positive or the same dead-end job is all that can be expected in the near future?
If our worship has been mostly about what we receive, what sorts of things will we believe? If it must conform to what we like and do to be good, how will it affect our lives? The truth is that it will affect our lives in one way or another, but like a collapsing star will only turn in towards itself, until one finds that the ultimate object of one’s faith and one’s life and one’s worship is nothing but oneself.
And once the tentative and tenuous link to the Christian faith is pulled too taut, it takes little effort to snap completely, perhaps without notice or remorse.
We may have only ourselves to blame, since we are experts at creating Christians who can’t believe.