(Photo: Flickr: By Paul Sableman, creative commons license)
The increasing speed of TV is a great contributor to the loss of imagination since the mind has no time to recover from the constant bombardment. How does this affect our ability to meditate on God in the necessary silences of worship? Are we able to deal with the ambiguities of God that force our minds to go beyond what is readily apparent?
The loss of imagination is also related to some of the twaddle (Kierkegaard’s word) that characterizes some churches’ worship these days. As William Fore explains, “Trivialization is inevitable in the world of the technological era, with its emphasis upon utilitarian means rather than truthful ends” (32). If we simply want a God that “sells” to the masses, we will invariably reduce the truth of our multi-splendored God. If we want our faith to be developed as fast as problems are solved on sitcoms, we will not have the patience to imagine God’s working in us to grow us when there are no immediate, visible results.
-Marva Dawn, A Royal Waste of Time
Call to Think in Worship
In a recent post, I made a very minor splash in the blogosphere with this paragraph:
In a sense, worship should be exceedingly boring in that it doesn’t offer that over-stimulation that the masses crave. But to those who really give themselves in participation, it is more entertaining than the anything media (mainstream or Christian) can offer, because it offers something so radically alternative to fallen mundanity.
Most responses went something like this:
“You’re freaking crazy, Jonathan! You really think worship is supposed to be boring?!?!?”
We live in a bored society. Dying minds and dull senses grope in the darkness of their daily lives searching for anything to give them a momentary spark of feeling. I don’t think we can overstate the culpability of media, even the kind that calls itself “Christian.” In relying on passive entertainment to fill the space and prevent boredom, we’ve created a monster, a monster which increasingly haunts the church and its worship. From background music to commercial songs to light displays to visual presentations, the things we use to fill the empty space in our daily lives have become indispensable in the church’s sacred time.
Just as we’ve come to recognize silence on TV or the radio as someone losing their job, we have become uncomfortable with any open space for meditation and inspiration. We need the media stimulation. Churches are designing ad hoc worship “experiences” to stave off the boredom brought on by cultural media saturation. I fear that our minds have been conditioned to not be able to do the work that historic corporate worship demands. I fear we’ve traded the life of the mind for the momentary excitement of sensory stimulation. We’re trying to mold Jesus in a 21st-century image so that he fills the cavernous space that was once home to our sense of wonder and imagination.
A Mindless Meditation
So, do I really believe worship should be exceedingly boring? Not really, but let me explain.
- I believe worship should be boring to those who refuse to use their imagination.
- I believe worship should be boring to those who are enslaved to the spark of limbic stimulation.
- I believe worship should be boring (or maybe a little scary) to those who aren’t committed to a weekly Sunday morning detox from commercial entertainment.
The slavish, masturbatory pursuit of the feeling itself inevitably leads to the worship of something other than Christ. It rejects the Christian story in favor of our own. It rejects true human connection in God’s church and replaces it with introspective preoccupation. It ends with the narcissistic worship of self. It can deliver a spark, yes, and it may get butts in the seats, but in the end, it leaves us wanting. The excitement over the bright shiny objects that attract masses today will eventually wane, and the church will have to offer something brighter and shinier to hold out hope for the future. It’s a slippery slope, and we’ve nearly lost our footing completely.
If this is what we require out of a worship gathering, then yes, I do think worship should be exceedingly boring. Boring like a good book to a teen addicted to video games. Boring like an art museum to a graffiti “artist.” Boring like Bach to the numbed ears of a passive music consumer. Boring like baseball to a football fan (sorry – couldn’t resist).
In the words of the great American hymn-writer, Billy Joel:
“You’ll pay for your satisfaction somewhere along the line.”
But when the fun falls through and the rent comes due, we’re left without the ability to be still, to listen, to meditate, to experience community, to savor the sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch of the worship gathering. So, to hold our interest, we recreate it in our own image. And we are all the poorer for it.
So what do we do? Here are some suggestions.
- Stop spoon-feeding. Stop overstimulating in the hopes of hooking in outsiders. It’s not the church’s responsibility to provide the latest and greatest in jesusy entertainment.
- Remember that the gathering itself is not an evangelistic tool. Gathered worship prepares the congregation to be a church for the sake of the world. We gather together as the covenant people of God, proclaim the Christian story through Word, give thanks for the gracious gifts of God, and go forth to serve as agents of Christ’s redemptive and reconciling love.
- Be especially mindful of the negative effects of media on young children. Resist the heresy of loud, obnoxious “children’s worship.” Let them worship as part of the body and include them in meaningful ways. Teach them how to be still and quiet, to savor the unfamiliar, to develop their executive functioning and to interpret their limbic urges. Teach them to overcome boredom (in and out of worship) with their own imaginations.
- Rediscover the splendor of the Almighty. Bring aesthetic beauty back into the sanctuary. Recover the use of human imagination through liturgy, symbol, art, and music. Use electronic media sparingly, if at all. Eschew commercial musical forms that are meant to engage only on the most primal level.
- Require mindful participation. Expect the people to “do” worship, instead of letting it happen to them. Advocate for responsible use of media outside the walls of the church.
- Remind the people that worship is not about feeling good about Jesus. Refuse to preach the expectation of quick results or momentary experiences. Instead, help congregations learn the discipline of worship, both individually and corporately. We’re not just striking matches, but lighting candles.
- Drop the “customer is always right” approach to worship and ministry. Get over the ridiculous notion that we each have our own personal “worship style” written on our souls. Worship together with a wide variety of artful and artistic music, instead of splitting our congregation into toxic factions of “traditional” and “contemporary.”
- Desacramentalize music. Rediscover active proclamation. Preach robust sermons with carefully chosen and well-delivered words. No more of the easy self-help crap where God and the Bible and the Christian life are simple, debt-free, and can be wrapped up neatly in three bullet points and a take-home. Bring back the Table as the focal point of worship. Look for God’s real presence there, not in cheap musical entertainment.
The purpose is not to feel something.
The purpose is to recognize the splendor of our gracious God, the radical reality of God’s gracious acts in Jesus Christ, and to ultimately find our place in this crazy, beautiful story.
And as people with faith in a creative and redemptive God, we need to set the bar higher for ourselves.
(Photo: Flickr: by Florin Chelaru, creative commons license 2.0)