In his book, A Primer on Christian Worship, William Dyrness presents a historical view of the practices and theology of worship first in the Catholic Church in medieval times, and in the diversified church as it began to split in the sixteenth century following the nailing of Luther’s ninety-five theses to the church door. Then he leaps right into the heart of our worship today as we define it by our practices and presents a bird’s eye view of the postmodern worship paradigm as the post-Christendom church hammers it out. So much in this early 21st century has slipped away and “cookie-cutter worship” services have become the order of the day for many congregations and denominations, such that it looks like church and sounds like church but does not reflect the worship of a holy people for a holy God who decided, against human sensibilities, to give everything he had and everything he is to save a ragged and rebellious world from the destructive power of its own sin. Dyrness touches on a couple of points to which I would like to give a response.
First, on page 40, Dyrness tells us that John Calvin, in the sixteenth century as well, stipulated that outside of regular church hours, the building ought to be locked and no one permitted to enter and engage in prayer or reflection. Further, anyone caught doing so would be admonished, and if it were for superstitious reasons, that person would be “chastised,” which involves corporal punishment. Dyrness responds by saying: “Here we wonder what might have been lost...did the elimination of devotional objects and actions reduce the places for the emotional connection with the experience of worship?” I say it did.
We are human beings. We are created in the image of God. This says a lot to me about images of God in general. Millions upon millions of icons and architectural marvels and stained glass and tapestries and mosaics and paintings and sculptures and symbols have been created by mankind in order to allow us to see an image of the divine, the holy God. There is a serious divergence between the fact that the image created is not in fact God (nor even a true representation of him) and the notion that it is the object itself which is in fact worshiped. I believe the Reformers had it right when they affirmed that “the true image and presence of God is not to be identified with the physical images, but is to be sought in our neighbours.” Yet, I do not find it to be improper for a person to look upon objects or images designed to visually represent God, in conjunction with the study of the truth of God’s person revealed in Scripture, in order to assist them in more fully focusing mind and heart upon him.
Insofar as created things are not in fact true representations of the sovereign Lord, worshipers need to be careful that they do not become so enamoured of the object before which they pray or reflect that it becomes for them a deity of sorts, the true focus of their devotion, which of course is idolatry. Yet all of nature, being evidence of God’s creative presence and overarching sovereignty, is made by the spoken Word of God, and so can it not be said that gazing upon that which he has created in order to see that evidence and rejoice is not an idolatrous practice but one that seeks to know their God better? While I agree with Calvin’s words that we not look at the evil in our neighbours, “but . . . look upon the image of God in them . . . , with its beauty and dignity [which] allures us to love and embrace them,” I do not accept that human appreciation of divine beauty rests solely within this paradigm. God has made the entire world, and holier men than I have made, with God’s created elements, images and icons in tribute to him. They have written music and songs, poems and litanies, catechisms and liturgies, so that human thought might be oriented to rest upon him. They have given their representation of their understanding of God, both as a gift to him, and as a reminder of him to us.
Later, in chapter 5, Dyrness writes of the inability of many people to experience God as a real and tangible presence in their lives. He goes on to say that the opposite is true, that God is the being of tangible reality and we here on earth are temporary, insubstantial creatures. Thus worship can be a way to reason out the difficulties we have in fleshing out the reality of the Triune presence of God and how he comes relationally into our lives. He writes on page 97: “God’s presence is uniquely made available to believers through the practices of worship.” I am moved to agree with him here, especially in the area of the contextual issues Dyrness highlights to get the point across: pluralism, materialism, and pace.
To begin with, the author highlights the growing paradigm of pluralism in our society, and its growing effects upon Christian worship in regards to the “fear of radical faith and the terrorism that sometimes accompanies it, but also a renewed respect for people of other faiths.” I see not only a fear of radical faith in terms of other religions, such as fundamentalist Islam and Hinduism, but also a fear among Christians of being too radical in their expression of faith, a fear that somehow preaching or evangelizing or proclaiming Jesus too loudly might not only offend others but also make their own lives uncomfortable, because of course in our society it often seems best to remain obscure in the sea of faces rather than stand and be heard. I can see here that the practice of true worship in regards to faithfulness to God would run counter to this societal tendency. Yes, the Gospel is offensive, but only to evil. As the saying goes, often, “the truth hurts.”
Secondly, Dyrness highlights the “encroaching materialism” prevalent in our North American culture, and worldwide. I shall say that the materialism has encroached, and now overwhelms us. We have become a culture of consumers; consumers of commodities that range from material objects to people. Dyrness relates this to issues of loyalty to suppliers, in that where we are not satisfied with one, we find another, whether these suppliers are manufacturers of things or whether they are employers or spouses or the church. We are focused on our needs, and our desires. I believe this brings us to the concept of how worship makes us feel, rather than how it brings us into relational connection with God. We are sensual creatures. Naturally we want to do what feels good. God is good. Naturally, knowing his goodness feels good. On the other hand, our perceptions can be skewed. After all, there is much secular music and such that can make us feel good, too. Thus we seek after that feeling, and if one church’s worship service or musical style doesn’t “do it for us,” we find another, or seek to change it, which can lead to “worship wars.” How then, can we say we are seeking God?
Finally, Dyrness focuses the spotlight on the ever-quickening pace of our lives. A human being always engaged in hammering out an existence defined by experiences and sensual pleasures and the wrongful assumption that we must constantly be stimulated and constantly moving will ultimately fall into a state of depression, fatigue and disillusionment. I think it to be very indicative that our enemy Satan is at the heart of this. If he can keep us doing stuff, never having time to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10), then our worship will falter and become unimportant to us. Eventually, the lack of worship will actually draw our hearts away from God, and he will become unimportant to us.
This is why our worship is so vital. The practice of worship, not just an expression of our love for God, and not just a means to fill ourselves with God’s goodness, is the practice of connecting relationally with God the Father, through the life and sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit who lives in us and guides us spiritually to the continued practice of worship. The cycle continues to repeat. This seems to be what Dyrness is pointing to, the Trinitarian nature of Christian worship. It will take all three persons of the Godhead to re-orient us back to him.