Part of what it means to grow as Christians who love the Lord with all our minds is to be constantly reflecting on our beliefs about God, our selves, and the world in light of what we are learning from our study of Scripture, tradition, and reason. In this final part of a three-part series, I will demonstrate some ways that my theological formation has probed the assumptions of cultural Christianity, challenging some of my earlier thoughts about the Christian faith.
Example #3: Worship: What Is Church All About?
“I didn’t get anything out of church today.” This attitude characterized my initial approach to worship: it’s ultimately about what I get out of the service. Granted, the evangelical mega-church model has done much to reinforce this belief through its emphasis on seeker-friendly entertainment, with a worship band and celebrity pastor on stage, performing amidst colored lights and smoke machines before a captive, passive audience. The weekly liturgy of these churches is thus centered on musical worship and the sermon.
I have come to believe, though, that there are at least two problems with this model. First, the church has historically viewed the liturgy of its earthly worship as joining together with the heavenly liturgy already in progress. When we come to church, we are not meant to be spectators but rather active participants in the cosmic worship of the eternal God. This strikes me as a profoundly more appealing reason for devoting an hour-plus every week of my life to this thing we call church than simply seeking entertainment or even community.
Second, Christianity has historically balanced Word and Sacrament (cf. 1 Cor 11:23-26; Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 65-67; Did. Ap. 2.59); the absence of the Eucharist (Communion or the Lord’s Supper) from the worship service represents a major break from historic Christian teaching and practice. As a sacrament, the Eucharist (like baptism) is “an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace,” gifted by Christ to His people as true spiritual food and drink.
If, then, the Eucharist is a central part of Christian worship, then the gathered worshippers are those who have been baptized into the body of Christ; to put it another way, the Eucharist is a “family meal” and baptism is the means of entry into the family of God (in early Christianity, those who were not baptized could attend the first part of the service but were dismissed prior to Communion). In sum, the church is not about me and my feelings. Rather, church is an opportunity to gather together with the Body of Christ for the purpose of corporate worship, even as we are nourished by Christ through Word and Sacrament.
What strikes me is that a more a conception of worship centered around Song and Word can be “replicated” or even “replaced” by Spotify worship playlists or sermon podcasts. But a view of the church’s worship oriented around Word and Table not only more closely aligns with Scripture and the tradition of the church, but compels us to participate in the corporate life of the church’s worship in order to be fed in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.
Christianity, from the beginning, has taken on some of the ideas and customs of the cultures in which it has taken root, whether for good or for ill. In the context of the modern United States, Christianity has often been corrupted by a spirit of self-centered, consumer-minded individualism, which is the precise opposite of the others-focused, self-giving community to which Christ calls us. Christianity is most definitely not about how I invite Jesus into my heart by affirming a few beliefs about God and thereby get a ticket out of hell so my soul can spend eternity floating around a disembodied heaven. It’s not about my happiness or success. Rather, Christianity is about entering into God’s story, one in which the self-revelation of the Triune God in the story of the creation and redemption of the world invites me into turning from worship of self to worship of God, to laying down my life for his kingdom purposes. Ultimately, our fundamental orientation is to self or to God and others; there is no middle path.