I recorded a poem on Friday. The title is “Lonely as a Star.” Before you think I’m some narcissist, some person so consumed with my own grandness that I refer to myself as a star, just try to understand the image. Stars exist in space surrounded by a vast blackness. We see their light from millions and billions of light years away. They are far away, distant, and other.
Click on this link to listen to the poem.
The poem is a response to some of the emotions I’ve been feeling for the past few years during worship. Modern worship—full band, loud, etc—seems to emphasize each worshipper having a personal encounter with God during the service. The point seems to be to create an environment where people can “experience” God. Before worship, the pastor often says something about there being “freedom in this place” to worship God. This usually is an attempt to set people at ease. To make them feel comfortable standing, sitting, kneeling, jumping, dancing, running, etc. The idea is that an encounter with God won’t leave a person unchanged. People will react—often crazily—to an encounter with God. This poem is my response to the sort of culture of “worship” I feel is created in these environments. Please know from the outset of this post that I do not believe anyone is intentionally manipulating anyone else. I just feel like a culture has been created where worship is about “feeling it” and if you’re not “feeling it”, then you probably need to be prayed for. Also, please know that I am speaking from my experience and perception. While I have had a few conversations with other people who feel similarly, I am not going to assume that my experience is normative. I suspect, however, that the way I sometimes feel during modern worship services—alienated, excluded, lonely—is far more common than we think.
It is clear from scripture that Jesus often got up early and prayed. He would have this one on one interaction with God. It is this sort of interaction that he modeled in the Garden as his disciples took naps. I think each person is valuable as a son or daughter of the king, and unless you are hearing God tell you how much he loves you, then you won’t believe you are lovely and valuable to him. You won’t understand the depths of his love for you unless you interact with him on that score. Henri Nouwen and Richard Foster have taught all of us this in recent decades. I affirm the importance of a deeply personal and totally satisfying relationship with he who made you. I just don’t think corporate worship, under the cover-noise of a “praise band” is the appropriate time and place to cultivate that deep and personal relationship. The sacred gathering isn’t about the individual and God, otherwise we wouldn’t gather together. The sacred gathering is, as Henri Nouwen has also taught, where we remind each other that we are each children of God. We tell each other our own stories, but we also re-affirm THE story. When Jews gather for the Passover meal they tell their story. “WE were in slavery in Egypt. WE were in bondage. God raised up Moses to deliver US. WE walked through the parted sea. Etc.” Our story is that WE were trapped in sin, WE were dead without a savior, WE had no hope, but Jesus came and rescued US. He has proclaimed to US his lordship over all creation, and WE are to join him as ministers of reconciliation to a fallen world. We gather together to partake in a sacred meal together. Paul makes the context of Communion explicitly clear in his first letter to the Corinthians. If you do not discern the body of Christ—if you exclude Christians from the meal because they don’t fit your since of propriety—then you do not understand the Gospel. The bread and the wine are not about me, by myself on my knees, remembering Jesus hanging on the cross. The bread in the wine is about the person I pass it to across the table—you too are a child of God! We worship God together, singing in unison, as the bride of Christ. We, together, are the bride of Christ. We, individually, are not. Communal worship gatherings should be about community, not about me. We have embraced for too long and individualistic American narcissism that says salvation, worship, and God are about me. “God saved ME. God died for ME. I need to thank God for what he did for ME.” While it is true that God loves you dearly, his rescue operation for the world is about everyone, and his vehicle for that, the Kingdom/Church, is not individualistic. Israel always understood her covenant with God to be corporate. Christians should feel the same way.
This has crazy implications for our modern worship scene. If corporate worship is about each person doing her own thing, and not about a worshipful response to Christ from his bride, then we encourage each person to have a subjective spiritual experience. What happens, at least for me in these settings, is I either work myself into a frenzy where I believe I am “experiencing God”, and in fact I believe I have genuinely done so in corporate worship, or else I don’t “feel it.” When I don’t “feel it” I often still act like I do—raising hands, shouting, dancing, making strange noises etc—because I look at everyone else and I conclude that everyone else is “feeling it” and the fact that I am not must mean that something is wrong. Perhaps I should be more focused, or pray harder, or sing louder, or something. This is abundantly stupid. Aside from the feeling of exclusion this causes in me, it reduces worship of God to an emotional experience rather than one of the totality of my being. This has grave consequences for the way we understand the Christian life. Jesus was not a man who became God. He wasn’t a man who finally attained this permanent spiritual encounter. He was God who became man. He invaded earth. He had real, gritty relationships with people. The power of the incarnation has all but left our worship. As my friend Drew has recently tweeted, “Our worship music is very spiritual and hardly incarnational. Let’s acknowledge that life happens in the words of our songs.” As it turns out, having this emotional experience isn’t really the point. The point is a life lived to the glory of God, a life lived in community. An image my brother has used to describe this mentality is where Jesus is a pincushion and we are all individual pins imbedded in him. We each get our own time with Jesus, and we can watch each other be imbedded in Jesus, but we don’t interact with each other. The image in scripture is of a body. A body acts in unison, as part of a single effort. It is not decentralized, but completely controlled by the head. What the arms do invariably affect the legs. When we gather together as the Body of Christ, which ought to be primarily around the Lord’s table, we don’t and shouldn’t each have our own personal reflections. That isn’t the time or place. If we are communally responding to the Lord, then there isn’t the possibility of feeling excluded. Worship isn’t about putting a bunch of individuals in the same room so that they can each experience Jesus. It isn’t even “experiencing” Jesus as a community that is important. What is important is affirming a communal identity on the basis of God’s promises to the whole family, it is telling one another that we are children of God, and it is allowing the Gospel to break down all barriers of race, creed, social status, ethnicity, socio-economic location, gender, and age. That doesn’t happen if you just stand next to someone and sing songs to Jesus. Modern worship is often a way to avoid interacting with your neighbor. We often get around this by emphasizing Life Groups as the community aspect. And, in many ways, they are. But people often are in Life Group with people they like and who are like them. My Life Group is mostly middle-class white college students. What barriers is the Gospel breaking down there?
As Nouwen has also taught us, we then go out to invite others to join God and the community. We do ministry out of community. We are not each individual agents of God completely secluded from what the rest of us are doing. Instead, we operate under a united mandate to accomplish a mission. (As an aside, this is why it is important for churches to coordinate with each other. We are all part of the body, and if the arms and legs are trying to do the same thing in the same place, they will only get in the way of each other.) If we agree that the church should function as one in its ministries, then it should function as one in its worship. The Church is just as physical as it is spiritual. Greek philosophy has gotten in our heads and convinced us that the spirit is more important than the body. Physical things, like baptism or taking the Lord’s supper, are only useful or good as “outward signs of an inner reality”, which was a useful formulation for the reformers to keep the sacraments while breaking the authority Rome had over them. You won’t find this demarcation between the spiritual and the physical in the bible. Paul calls the Lord’s Supper true food and true drink. Peter talks about baptism for the remission of sins. We want so hard for physical things to be signs for what’s really important, spiritual things, but they are both inextricably tied together. Jesus is somehow mysteriously present in his supper, and true forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit are somehow mysteriously present in baptism. Unlike the Mediaeval scholastics, I am not going to try to define all of that out, but I know that the physical is very important. So while it is important for me to have a spiritual connection with God, it is equally important for me to have a physical connection with him: living a holy life. Corporate worship, then, shouldn’t just be about me being united with other Christians by all of us “worshipping together in spirit”, it should be about interacting with other members physically.
So, the poem explains the exclusion I feel often during modern worship. I am like a star. I am lonely. Existing far away. Inaccessible. Other. I don’t think worship should be like that, and I don’t think my feeling of exclusion is my fault or something I need to “get prayers for.” It is symptomatic of a larger problem. How many of us feel so much more in tune with God and the community when we share the Lord’s Supper together as a Life Group or family, rather than on the side during worship sometime? How many of us feel closer to each other and God when we have encouragement times? How many of us feel the nearness and power of the Holy Spirit when someone is vulnerable and shares her testimony, or when we lay hands on a brother or sister and pray? All I am seeking is a shared communal worship service. Perhaps its liturgical. Perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps it involves an hour long sermon of one person teaching the passive masses. Perhaps it doesn’t. I am done feeling this exclusion as something that is my fault, and I am done intentionally excluding other people. The Gospel breaks down all barriers. It unites all people in love. When we make worship the narrative of OUR salvation story rather than mine, when we enter the throne room of our husband as the BRIDE, and not many brides, then we will overflow with abundant power and peace from the storehouses of our God. I claim you all as my family, my body, my fellow bride. Let us be one as the Father and Son are one. That was, after all, Jesus’ prayer.