This blog records my transition from the Churches of Christ to Eastern Orthodoxy.

Monday, October 19, 2009

What Matters More In A Worship Service?

Emphasizing the quality of musicianry is really only one area in which our emphasis of the material and aesthetic can be expressed. Churches often do the same with the kind of clothes one is either explicitly taught or socially pressured to wear to worship services. Churches use this rationale to have expensive decor and architecture in their meeting places.

i've gone on and on about this, it's true. But let me make clear, i don't think any one of these things is bad in and of itself. i don't think any one suit-and-tie or any one cathedral-ceiling or any single "praise team" is directly and immediately wronging God or people. That's not it.

Consider the idea of social power. By social power i mean the ability society (its people and its structures) has to effect control over people. This can happen when one or a group of people tries to exercise power over another person(s). When one white person refuses to serve food to a black person, when a group of men decides to whistle and cat-call at a female-passerby, when a college decides to fire/refuses to hire a professor due to his political and/or religious views--these are acts of social power excercised by a particular person or persons.

But social power can also be exercised structurally. That is, there can be a complex of reasons and factors which serve to control certain people's actions, and those reasons and factors are complex enough that we can't rightfully say that the power was exercised by any particular person or person's. For instance, there might be a particular group of citizens that tend not to vote in elections. Why? Well, maybe, those people tend not to own cars, polling stations are never placed within walking distance, public transportation in the areas in which they live is generally poor, they don't have access to much information regarding the election issues, the education in those areas is very poor, they are generally treated by others as though they shouldn't vote or aren't educated enough to vote so they start to believe it about themselves and no one else tells them any different.

That's a complex situation--so complex that it's really hard to say exactly who is the person or people who have exercised social power over them. It seems like we could look at lots of individual instances of things related to this situation, and it wouldn't look like any of them were wrong in and of themselves. Nevertheless, together they create an environment in which those people are negatively effected.

i think the same can be true of the church. The church is a society. It has people and structures. And those people and structures can effect the way people behave and think. And it could be that certain effects on people's behavior turn out to be no one's fault in particular. That is, we can't say exactly who or what it was that caused people to be effected the way they were. It could be a web of factors. It could be that through a lot of individual events, an environment was created that set people up to be effected in a certain way. In such a case, people's behavior/thought in church was effected by structural social power.

Now, like i said, people being negatively effected by structural exercises of power may not be anyone's fault in particular; however, does it not sound plausible that we have a responsibility to avoid creating/contributing to an environment in which people can be negatively effected by structural power? In other words, don't we have a duty to try to avoid creating an environment in which people are led astray? i'm taking that as intuitively obvious. If you disagree, feel free to say why. But it appears to me the church has an obligation to be a certain kind of environment.

Now my contention about this "bringing-our-best-before-the-Lord" stuff is this:

1. Emphasizing the material/aesthetic elements in a worship service can create an environment where the material/aesthetic have-nots are less welcome, less valuable, and less supported (or that they can feel this way).

If you taught explicitly from the pulpit that people needed suits-and-ties to be reverent, then people who don't own suits/never wear suits/can't afford suits are directly degraded/devalued/excluded. If you taught explicitly from the pulpit that people who are good singers are better worshippers/edifiers, then people who are poor musicians are directly degraded/devalued/excluded.

But even if no one is explicitly saying these things, nevertheless, we can say a lot of things or make a lot of choices which collectively create an environment that can send the same message. Emphasizing material/aesthetic elements of a worship service can induce just that sort of environment.

2. Emphasizing the material/aesthetic elements in a worship service can create an environment that treats those elements as far more important than they are.

How skillfully Christians sing or how finely Christians dress really isn't important to our Lord. God accepts the worship of the guy standing next to me who can't carry a tune to save his life every bit as much as He accepts mine (given that both of us have the right motives/attitudes/intentions while singing). Thus, i should also accept and embrace that same brother's edification as much as i do someone who is an excellent singer. In other words, the aesthetic components of each person's singing is not what is important in worship or in edification.

Yet emphasis creates the impression of importance. If your friend quite frequently talks to you and others about the stock market, you eventually get the idea that it's important to him. If your child sees you spending a lot of time cleaning, they get the impression that cleanliness is important to you.

If we place emphasis on the material/aesthetic elements of our worship service, it creates the impression that those things are important. And, i take it as obvious, materials-as-important is not a value which any of us Christians should want to instill in ourselves or others. Rather Jesus spent a great deal of time trying to combat that very value in His contemporaries.

People can begin to evaluate the quality of worship and edification based on material/aesthetic measures. "The singing was good this morning" often means it was more aesthetically pleasing, not necessarily that anyone's heart was more deeply prostrated before God than at other times. Consider the extreme case where Jeremiah berated the Jews of his day because they had come to rest on the material elements of Judaism as though such things made them okay with God (Jer 7:4-10).

i'm really just suggesting this as an intuitive rule of thumb: the church ought to emphasize the things that Jesus and His apostles emphasized, and de-emphasize the things they de-emphasized.


Stewart said...

Brilliant post. I've heard the stuff about "bringing your best before the Lord" all my life, but I never quite had the words to express my exact feeling about it until reading this post. "First fruits" was an Old Testament concept. God doesn't want our "best", He wants it ALL.

reborn1995 said...


Thanks for reading and sharing! Hope you'll visit and share some more.

i think "first fruits" is arguably still a New Testament concept. i think the difference lies in what kind of things constitute "first fruits" in the OT vs. the NT. "First fruits" in the OT had to do with the physical condition, appearance, birth order of animal sacrifices, the materials and architecture of the temple, etc.

In the NT, "first fruits" arguably covers immaterial qualities--love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, kindness, and self-control. We most certainly better "bring our best before the Lord" in *those* terms. But there's no indication in the NT that God expects the "first fruits" conepts to be represented materially or aesthetically. The exception might be monetary support of benevolence or missions. However, the NT certainly doesn't mention Sunday morning clothing or church buildings. In fact, emphasis on such things (i'm arguing) can actually distract us (Christians) from giving God the actual "first fruits" He does want from us.


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