Madness and Mystery

I have been reflecting much on the church services that many of us experience these days. And that is always a dangerous thing.

Stylistically, our aspirations for worship in the church today seem to be less about transcendence and more about spectacle.  On one hand, there is a growing tendency in the modern church to aspire to fog machines, computer-controlled lighting, splashes of fast-moving multimedia on large high-definition screens, and a guitar-driven rock band amplified with jet-engine decibel level sound systems.  At the other extreme, large robed choirs and splashy cantatas are the highlight of a traditional style that can get lost in its own anachronism.  And the climax of both of these services is not a celebration of the Lord’s Supper, which is by definition a celebration of the mystery, but the sermon.  Fueled by centuries of modernism, the sermon has unwittingly become the undaunted forum for explaining away the mysteries of our faith.

Now, I’m not an opponent of any of these things per se. But in the midst of the spectacle, we are in danger of a missing an experience with one of the greatest aspects of worship: mystery.  Because worship is an encounter with the Holy, the Infinite, the Revered, the Unknowable. Without the language of beauty and the arts to help us, without sacred space that allows us to meet God on His terms and not ours, without the humility that comes from realizing that God is beyond our understanding, we lack the vocabulary to speak deeply into the mystery.  And I think our souls desperately thirst for experiences of mystery.  We thirst for intimacy with an unfathomable God.  Ultimately, what we seek is spiritual transcendence, not artistic titillations.

As a worship leader, I interrupted my worship service recently.  At the beginning of the service, I challenged my congregation to internally search their feelings in answering this question: Do you really believe that the God of creation, the God who exists in Tri-Unity—the God who spins the atoms and sustains the universe by his active will—is actually here in this place?  Do we believe that This Very Big God is here among us?  And if the answer was, “yes,” why aren’t we all on our faces, trembling in holy fear, hands raised and heads bowed, slain where we stand?  But Annie Dillard said it better:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”

Worship is an attempt to dwell with the Mystery.  And such brushes with the Mystery will change us.

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5 thoughts on “Madness and Mystery

  1. This is very nourishing wisdom and insight. Thank you for grappling with these questions. Even attending services at our quiet, wonderful, little church here in West Seattle, I often sit there and ask the same sorts of questions, “Where is God in all of this? Have I come to church this morning for a sermon or an encounter?”

    PS: I think Dillard’s right, and for that matter, we may have something to learn from Muslims; Why aren’t we on our faces before GOD? Who and what do we actually think HE is?

    Again, many thanks.

  2. It makes such a huge difference who is thinking and planning the worship experience. Two Easters ago I attended a Sunday service of a giant church in a warehouse with the service designed by someone who hadn’t thought deeply about the experience. It was an assault. It did not lead me toward the glory of God as you talk about in a later post. I think the person was well meaning . . . but immature.

    I sent the Pastor a comment with an attachment of pictures from NASA of space. Technology can set up the extraordinary. His worship design team could have used the big screen and complete silence and we would been humbled.

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