Can I be so audacious as to address this to the practitioners of the worship service who in less than two weeks will come to our city to train local worship leaders on the "high and holy art of worship?" Knowing that everyone involved in this event is sincere and good-hearted, and so risking offense, overstatement and misrepresentation, I still want to present a side of worship too easily overlooked.
"If worship is the high and holy art of spiritual architecture, Arlen Salte is one of our greatest living architects." Dr. Leonard Sweet, Author
Now I’m sure, asked the question again, about worship, Dr. Sweet would expand and qualify. (Although I’m not sure if he would see Fadil Fejzic as a true worshiper. See yesterday’s post.) My point with this quote is simply to point out that in practice, contemporary Christian worship is understood to be about producing an atmosphere of high anticipation, a sweep of holy enthusiasm, a spirit of godly unity. Also, while it is theologically acknowledged that the One worshiped is already and always present, what is practiced is producing a mood that helps God show up. Contemporary worship, it appears, needs orchestration, needs an architect.
In a broader sense, we are scarcely aware of how, and how often, we are caught up in the architecture of worship. From the carefully crafted emotional pitches for products that ensure us a correct lifestyle, to the religiously charged political party rally, we engage in worship. It’s a high and unholy industry. And we are all susceptible to being duped by the production of ersatz worship. All susceptible to being duped by the blanketing effect of mimetic fascination. And under this blanket we are scarcely aware of how worship can become a form of exclusion and a prelude to violence.
I remember the irresistible pull of belonging to the right group of Christians. I remember how much I thought I needed this. And at this distance I can now remember moving with a certain self-righteous priggishness that knows itself to be on the inside–countenanced of course by a veneer of humility. It happens.
That’s why distinguishing genuine worship from worship makes all the difference in the world. There is nothing inherently wrong with contemporary styles of Christian worship. Nothing wrong with emotional and spirited celebration of God. But when there exists or when there is encouraged, a sense of moral distinction within the worshiping group a "spirited" worship service can produce a lie. In this case it produces an abstraction, a reduction of particularities, a spirit of sameness as opposed to real unity, an enclave instead of an unfolding congregation. And an enclave is always defined by what its not, what it is against and above.
When Christian worship subtly links itself to patriotism, or leans into pietism and moralism, worshipers can soon identify themselves not simply as believers, but as "true believers." And the category "true believers" is only sustainable as being over and against what isn’t "true." That is, over Muslims, Jews, gays and lesbians, atheists, communists, Catholics, Protestants, and so on. And as Christian history shows, this is tinder for violence. Of course worship, in this sense of group-defining architecture, works for any assemblage and in any direction.
But in real Christian worship no high or holy architecture is needed. There is nothing to produce. Everything has been concluded. Worshiping Christians are nothing more than witnesses to something done and transpired. Witnesses to the forgiving victim. The victim who has absorbed our exclusion and victimizing violence and returned to us forgiveness. And in this forgiveness our ever again needing to receive ourselves by being part of an us against them is undone.
Genuine Worship is a detoxification process. It’s about releasing our fascination with who’s in and who’s out, and letting go of our obsessive competitiveness that reduces us to shadows of each other. It’s about escaping the grip of this acquisitive mimetic fascination with one another in order to truly encounter and be open to one another.
Listen to what James Alison says (in who’s debt I am):
True Worship leads to a slow, patient discovery of being able to like people in their bizarre particularities, and see the beauty in those things, not abstract from them. Just as true friendship requires time and stretching and self-examination, and trust building, and vulnerability and time wasted doing nothing in particular (Undergoing God).
The test of true worship then is finding yourself beginning to like others specifically within their peccadillos and annoyances and not as "loving the brotherhood" as abstracted out of their personalities through a grand unifying purpose, Christian or otherwise.
What this means is that real Christian worship is relaxing, and in some sense entirely unremarkable. It is ascetical. It is the long discipline of removing whatever distracts from inhabiting the hidden, unassuming presence of Jesus who is simply here. It is about becoming unexcited, unaroused, un-fascinated, so as to grow attentive to what and who is around us. And in this restful attentiveness flourishes true hospitality and peace. And this is always contemporary.
Here’s a little litmus test: If you’ve been attending worship for years and still find yourself consistently duking it out at church business meetings, still find yourself wishing not altogether pleasant things upon old irascible Mrs. Smith, then stop going to worship, and begin Worshiping.