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In Search of Worship

One of the highlights of any trip back to Regent College is the opportunity to snoop around their excellent bookstore. It’s always difficult to avoid spending much more money than I have, but I often emerge with a handful of good books to keep me going for a while. This year, one of titles I came away with was Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World. This book received high praise (“one of the most important books I have ever read!”) from one of our workshop presenters, so I thought I’d take a chance. I’ve only leafed through the book briefly, but was intrigued to read the following passage (especially in light of previous conversations around here on the topic of church relevance):

It is truly ironic, in my opinion, that so many Christians are seeking some accommodation with secularism precisely at the moment when it is revealing itself to be an untenable spiritual position. More and more signs point toward one fact of paramount importance: the famous “modern man” is already looking for a path beyond secularism, is again thirsty and hungry for “something else.” Much too often this thirst and hunger are satisfied not only be food of doubtful quality, but by artificial substitutes of all kinds.

The spiritual confusion is at its peak. But is it not because the Church, because Christians themselves, have given up so easily that unique gift which they alone—and no one else!—could have given to the spiritually thirsty and hungry world of ours? Is it not because Christians, more than any others today, defend secularism and adjust it to their very faith? Is it not because, having access to the true mysterion of Christ, we prefer to offer to the world vague and second-rate “social” and “political” advice? The world is desperate in its need for Sacrament and Epiphany, while Christians embrace empty and foolish worldly utopias.

It was especially interesting to read the preceding words from an Eastern Orthodox perspective alongside a passage from this interview with, of all people, evangelical über-pastor/writer Charles Swindoll:

We’re tempted to think of the church as a business with a cross stuck on top (if it has a cross at all). “We really shouldn’t look like a church.” I’ve heard that so much I want to vomit. “Why?” I ask. “Do you want your bank to look like a bank? Do you want your doctor’s office to look like a doctor’s office, or would you prefer your doctor to dress like a clown? Would you be comfortable if your attorney dressed like a surfer and showed movies in his office? Then why do you want your church’s worship center to look like a talk show set?”

Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “When the church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message, though it may hate it at first.”

Some time ago a group of church leaders decided that they didn’t want to be hated. They focused just on attracting more and more people.

But if we’re here to offer something the world can’t provide, why would I want to copy the world? There is plenty of television. There are plenty of talk shows. There are plenty of comedians. But there is not plenty of worship of the true and living God.

Across the Christian spectrum, it seems, there has been and continues to be an important and necessary rethink going on, regarding the nature and role of the church in a (post) modern secular world.

Elsewhere in his book, Schmemann defines secularism as “above all a negation of worship.” It is a heresy primarily about human beings and their proper role and orientation, rather than about believing the wrong things about God. I think he’s on to something important. And if our churches couldn’t be counted on to help reorient us as worshiping creatures—if our churches were busy trying to be entertainment centres or shopping malls or comedy clubs or socio-political organizations or community service providers, or scratching whatever other real or perceived itches we might have…

Well, then I guess we’d be in a bit of trouble, wouldn’t we?

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    One of my reading interests is books about cities. A book I read recently, a secular book, “Building Suburbia,” included a chapter on “Edge Nodes.” Edge nodes are something like self-contained mini-communities on the edge of urban or suburban areas. The book mentioned, among other examples of this pattern of development, churches located next to freeways that have “added sports facilities, fitness centers and food courts to their sanctuaries.” These are among innovations in city design since the 1920’s and reflect, to some extent, communitarian ideals. These churches could be seen as enclaves, and, like other enclaves, as resistance to alienation.

    Edge nodes don’t appeal to me. I live in the center of a city, or the remains of what was once the center. I still like cathedrals, and the music composed for performance in them. Yet, I am not sure we are in trouble. Things certainly are changing.

    May 10, 2011
    • Edge nodes don’t appeal to me either, even if I can see why they might spring up, given certain social realities.

      May 11, 2011
      • Tyler Brown #

        It has less to do with social realties and more to do with economic realities. Cheaper rent and land, lower taxes, etc.

        May 11, 2011
      • Ken #

        Tyler, the works I have read suggest that that is not the reason, and that it is not really possible to pin down a particular reason. And some are very expensive places.

        Sometimes I wonder if I actually live in edge node. I live in the historical center of a major city, and yet one cannot really say it is the center any longer. The city has no center now. There is no center, and therefore, no edges, or else, everything is on the edge of everything else.

        It may be that edge nodes are attempts to recreate centers.

        And BTW, I agree with Ryan’s central point – let churches be churches – each is a center, an axis mundi, and that is something much greater than a node.

        May 11, 2011
  2. Rita #

    Ryan – the unfortunate reality is that many who seek depth don’t discover even a hint of it in typical institutionalized religous/faith settings.

    May 10, 2011
    • Yes, sadly it’s true… All the more reason for the church to stop trying to be something it isn’t and reconsider its reason for being.

      May 11, 2011
  3. I struggle with this issue of what a church building should look like. I appreciate the beauty of stained glass, organ pipes, and stone arches, and I think that beauty can facilitate worship. But I have also come to value the plainness of Quaker worship and places of worship. And I know I’d rather preach in jeans than in a Geneva robe, but in the ornate churchy space the robe seems a necessity. So I will continue to struggle. But I agree with the basic point that what the church should offer, must offer, is an opportunity for worship, rather than simply therapeutic insights or political policies.

    My admiration to you for combining Schmemann and Swindoll in one post. But now I hear echoes of Scotty on Star Trek: “Cap’n, you can’t mix matter and anti-matter, or it’ll explode!”

    Peace to you.

    May 13, 2011
    • Yes, I have similar struggles… I admire beautiful spaces, but my Mennonite roots have ingrained an appreciation for simplicity in me as well. I guess in the post, I was thinking less about aesthetics than about what we actually do in the buildings we meet in, but the nature of the space certainly communicates as well.

      (As I pressed “publish,” I had a similar moment where I thought, “I can’t believe I’m actually quoting these two guys in the same post!” Still seems weird, although no explosions to report :).)

      May 13, 2011

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