The Tyranny of “Meaningful” Worship

The Tyranny of “Meaningful” Worship May 12, 2019

We’ve got a problem, everybody.

Maybe you haven’t noticed it yet. I didn’t for a long time, either.

There’s a term that people like to throw around at church in regard to worship. Especially as a church music director, I get this one a lot.

“That was so meaningful.

“I got a lot out of that sermon. It was meaningful.

“That anthem was so touching; it was meaningful to me.”

“That church’s services are so meaningful.”

For the longest time, I thought it was a big compliment. In my weaker moments, I’m sure I even let it go to my head. “Wow, I must be pretty good at this job!”

But I think differently about this now. When most people say an element of liturgy is meaningful, I don’t think they’re really talking about the actual meaning: the biblical foundation of the liturgy, the dignity of the melodies, the theological symbolism in the rituals, or the powerful presence in the sacraments.

What I think they often mean, and what the church has trained them to think, is that liturgical meaning is directly correlated by how emotionally moving they find it. And more often then not, we’re talking about how the music makes them feel.

I wrote a while back about “masturbatory” worship. As usual, a lot of people got upset with my using that comparison, but it’s unavoidable. The church, with its smorgasbord of worship “styles” to choose, the sappiness and sentimentality it has borrowed and called “worship,” has taught people that the meaning in worship is personal; wherever their emotions happen to find it, that’s true worship. It’s become the weekly act of getting off spiritually.

This is a lie. It’s damn near heretical.

At this point, I know what my detractors are thinking, and I want to cut them off at the pass. Emotions aren’t bad, of course. They aren’t bad in general, and they aren’t bad in worship, either. But following unchecked, unbridled emotion is a horrible idea in any case. It will always lead to serious mistakes, and possibly devastating consequences.

No, emotions aren’t bad, but they always need to be ruled by clear, contextual thinking. When it comes to worship, this requires disciplined participation in beautiful, rigorous, biblical liturgy. That’s where we’re taught how to give, how to be the body, how to serve.

Obviously, the commercial Christian worship movement has destroyed this concept, with its jesusy rock concerts. But the false dichotomy pop worship has put into place – the preferentially-based worship formats – has made it a problem on the so-called “traditional worship” side, too. Far too often, when people opt for “traditional,” they don’t opt to submit themselves to historical liturgy, but a “get-all-your-blue-haired-friends-together-and-sing-the-good-old-songs” all-request hour.

It sucks. It’s a complete farce. But, really, we don’t need to wonder why it’s happened, church. We gave it to them. We told them they could have worship their way. So, assuming they ever felt differently, we’ve given them the notion about worship being a discipline, the central act, the Eucharistic feast.

Christ offers us everything in worship, for he offers us himself.

But as usual, we think we can do better.

We’d rather sing some vapid sap that sounds like carnival music circa 1900, or take in an awesome rock concert every week.

All because it feels meaningful.

Sinking deep is right.

What fools we are.

How do we get out of this mess?

Or is it too late?


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