For he who loves God without faith reflects upon himself. He who loves God in faith reflects upon God. Søren Kierkegaard, “Fear and Trembling”
Over the last decade, I have continued to be disillusioned with the Christian church. This past Thanksgiving, I broke up with my church for reasons that have been very difficult to qualify. But in the last few weeks, several people, some who have heard me talk about my frustrations for years, have consistently asked me the same question literally verbatim.
I want to worship God. All I ask is that for an hour I get the opportunity to gather with a fellowship of believers who, even if for nothing more than that hour, look to God. But I can count on one hand the number of services that have been even close to worship in recent memory.
I know that’s insulting to hear. And I’m gambling that’s why so many people have been asking me that same question when I start ranting about how I just want to go to a church where I can worship God.
What does that look like?
I suspect that these folks are really asking whether I’m suggesting I want a more charismatic experience. Let me be clear, I have no problem with folks who want worship that involves flag waving, or speaking in tongues, or stripping down naked, pouring grain alcohol on their heads and lighting themselves on fire. But none of that is for me. I don’t need a charismatic setting to enter into worship, and in fact for me it would detract just as much as the Christianese I’m generally expected to endure on a given Sunday.
Up until now, the best I’ve been able to say is what it isn’t. Today is Mother’s Day. Let’s say you and your dad take your mom out for a nice dinner. You go to a fancy restaurant, sit down, order a little bread and wine, and then your dad begins to outline all the ways you’re a horrible son. He makes it clear that your mom has done lots of things for you, not the least of which was the pain of giving birth to you. But you get the sneaking suspicion he’s only mentioning it so you understand just how guilty you should feel. He then lists off 3 to 5 things that you could definitely do to be a better son. Now, curiously, they’re all things that benefit him, like mowing the yard or washing the car. Mom probably likes a clean car and a mowed lawn too, and dad works hard to make it clear you understand that.
Then you finish off the meal with a short prepared outline of things you’re really glad your mom did for you and some stuff you really hope she’ll do for you. Thanks for doing my laundry. Thanks for giving me Robitussin last week when I wasn’t feeling well. Could you pick up my dry cleaning Tuesday? And my friend Jim is coming into town, so if you could cook us dinner and let us watch the game on Sunday that would be nice.
You hug dad, nod to mom, and drive home. You vaguely remember dad had some good points, and you kinda remember one or two things he suggested. But let’s face it, he doesn’t really expect you to change, and you’re not really going to change. You may think about it once or twice next week, but the next time you see your folks, he’ll just have another set of things you don’t do well enough for your mom and 3 to 5 things you could do to be a better son.
Now, in my mind, that’s a pretty crappy Mother’s Day. Good thing that only comes around once a year. If it were every Sunday, that would be miserable. Or church.
But that’s not the question. The question isn’t what does church look like today. The question is what is the kind of worship I want?
No, it’s not.
I know that’s the question you want answered.
But it’s the wrong question.
What is the kind of worship God wants?
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” John 4: 21-24
My sister-in-law most recently posed the question. I’m not going to lie, it blows my mind every time someone asks. What does worship look like? It means showing reverence and adoration for God. I honestly feel like the fact that I have to explain it is the problem in the first place. We wouldn’t know worship if we saw it. But I know that’s not what people are asking. They’re asking what worship looks like if it doesn’t look like what church on Sunday morning looks like.
She suggested that what I’m looking for is more what Sunday School is for; that’s where we learn about God. I’m not suggesting church should be about learning about God, I’m suggesting it needs to be about worship. And I’m technically not even suggesting that. I’m completely content with believing the bulk of Christianity finds something rewarding and fulfilling in church. I do not.
It’s worse than that. I have to shut my ears and turn off my brain in church. I hear too many things that I’m convinced would make Jesus flip tables. I leave church ashamed for not flipping tables. I feel like Peter denying Christ in the one place where I shouldn’t ever have to feel that way. I want to walk out during the sermon, but I sit. It makes me furious, and it makes me ashamed to apparently be the only one who feels that way.
My sister-in-law suggested the same thing. Clearly I am the problem. Clearly I am the one who needs to change what he thinks and believes. Surely I am the one who is missing the whole truth of what happens in a Christian church on a Sunday morning.
I won’t lie, it’s difficult to not believe that. It’s difficult to not want to believe that. I know I’m crazy. I know I’m the only one who thinks this way. Hell, I’ve been convinced I’m a burden on every human being I’ve ever met for as long as I could be convinced of things. Watch me in a crowded room; I’m constantly trying to get out of everyone’s way. And my brain doesn’t ever shut off. You think I’m overanalyzing, but I’m not. I’m only analyzing everything. I know that being near me is arduous on a good day. Claiming I’m the one who needs to change, I’m the one who’s weird, I’m the one who’s broken, I’m the problem - this is the easiest way to manipulate me.
But I’m afraid I cannot believe that what happens in church has anything to do with corporate worship of anything other than ourselves. Yes, I did go there. Yes, I think it’s idolatry. Yes, I think that the only reason we don’t bronze ourselves is because it hurts. Yes, I’m being a little facetious. We don’t need to bronze ourselves because we have facebook.
Today’s sermon was apparently about Patience. I didn’t ask any questions, everyone was clearly tired of the conversation, so let me ask you instead. Think about the last time you heard a sermon about patience. It was probably part of a sermon series on the fruits of the Spirit. I bet the pastor made a few jokes about patience, maybe even referenced the classic about how you should never pray for patience because the Lord will give you trials to learn it more easily.
Then he probably listed a bunch of general ways that you might have encountered a lack of patience in your own life. Maybe you were short with your kids or yelled at your wife. Maybe you cut off a car or two on your way into church today. Maybe you cut off your left index finger while chopping carrots. He’s trying to make it “applicable;” as a buddy of mine always says, “You gotta get ‘em lost before you can get ‘em saved.”
Then he’ll toss out some standard verses. Any of the epistles will do nicely in a pinch, they all mention something at least tangentially applicable to patience. And if he’s really worth his salary he’ll toss in some juicy bits from Matthew 24 and 25 about waiting for the master of the house or the bridegroom. Then he’ll end with 3 to 5 ways you can be a more patient person, without risking the Lord’s ire haha. There’s always a little laugh there, gotta be clear that it’s referencing the joke from the start of the sermon and not suggesting that the congregation is getting a get out of jail free card.
Then everyone will go home, remember little more than that the sermon was about patience, only bringing it up if the kids are particularly impatient for desert or if you accidentally tell the missus to hurry up getting ready for bed. Oops, not being patient, someone didn’t listen to the sermon today.
Let me again be clear, some of the most influential people in my life have been pastors. I’m not in any way trying to suggest that they have an easy job. It’s pretty tough to talk about God these days; that doesn’t put people in the pew or money in the plate. I’m not trying to mock sermon writing either. I’ve done it myself a time or two, and it’s tough work. I’m not suggesting I would be better at it. I’m only suggesting that it’s not worship. It’s education. There’s a place for education, but that place isn’t during worship.
So now, rewind back to right before the sermon. What if the songs weren’t about how we should be patient, but that God has been patient with his people? What if the sermon were about God’s patience and mercy and forgiveness? What if the pastor never even bothered to make it “applicable?” These are the fruits of the Spirit; what better model for the fruits of the Spirit than the Spirit? Why, if we’re supposed to be like Christ, do we spend so much time talking about ourselves? Can’t we talk for 20 minutes about how Christ has been patient, about how God was patient with his people? Show me God, that I might follow him. Keep the 3 to 5 trite witicisms for the sunday school class on how to be a better person/woman/man/husband/wife/father/mother/serial killer.
And yeah, I do think you shouldn’t pray for patience. The Spirit has made his home within you. He will bear fruit because it his nature to do so. Why would you pray for what you already have? If you don’t believe he’s already given you these things when he’s said he has, why would you believe that asking for them again would make a lick of difference?
I want to go somewhere where I can worship the God of the Universe, the Almighty Creator, and His Son who by his death and resurrection has given me a new name that I might call the Eternal Lord of Heaven and Earth by a new name - Daddy. And He has sent His Spirit to dwell within me that I won’t ever need to pray for patience I don’t have, for strength I don’t have, for peace I don’t have. Because I do have it, and to abundance. Not that I would horde these gifts for myself, but pour them out freely and with all the love He has given me on all the people He has given me that by His grace and mercy we might all grow ever more perfect and holy - His Precious Bride for all eternity.
I want to worship at that church. That’s what worship looks like. Worship looks like loving God and loving each other. I’m not going to settle for anything else. God’s not going to settle for anything else.