Brandon from bad christian asked me to elaborate on this phrase from an earlier rant:
...if worship isn't a collection of practices that shape us into a certain kind of people, but is rather a series of decisions that allow me to feel comfortable with who I am and where and how I live, and if worship has to be entertaining to attract you, and if worship is ultimately about what you want and not what God requires, then megas are for you.
Specifically, he asked me to comment on worship that changes people. Although I'm certain I can't do nearly as well as Marva Dawn in A Royal "Waste" of Time, I'll flesh out some of my thoughts.
I think I should start by saying that in context the quote was really about a worship service, so my comments will be limited to that aspect of worship. And it seems a bit quixotic to try this; nowhere in America is someone less likely to change than in a contemporary or even traditional worship service. The term is a sham. Annie Dillard was the first to note that we show up to worship expecting nothing. For her it was our attire that gave it away: big, floppy hats and not crash helmets. But see, most everyone who has read Foster has come across that quote, and still nothing changes. We don't really believe her. A few charismatic and pentecostal churches expect God to show up, but they expect God to show up to fix things that are wrong with them, and those things seldom ever get into character issues, and the very idea that the God of the universe is going to come fix my problem sort of exacerbates the problem: individualism in this case.
Worship is a collection of practices that shape us into a certain kind of people. Begin by examining your worship service? Donuts available? I know what you're thinking. What's the big deal with some donuts before the service? Maybe nothing. Drinks in the sanctuary? Again, what's the big deal? Sermons tailored for sixth or seventh graders? Yes, but preaching should be accessible. Songs written simply and repetitively from the perspective of first person singular? Of course. Hymns? Sometimes, but usually what we call hymns are really spirituals or gospels that were written after Revivalism had snuck in with all the pernicious influences that entails. Sunday School classes for particular lifestyles, age groups, interests, even choose your own topic--in other words, based on a principle of homogeneity? Well, we want people to be interested and we want them to find friends. Indeed. What about small groups? Homogenous? Kid-friendly? Hell, kid-tolerant? The discussion is focused on the latest hot Christian book that addresses me and my problems or the latest sermon series that simply and clearly addresses me and my problems or my family and our problems.
Fifty-two chances to preach a year. We spend 46 of them on problems related to the individual: marriage, family, finances, sex, and personal relationships. We spend two on Christmas, one on Easter, two on America, and one on Mom. The great narratives that bind us together as a people are never touched. The stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jeremiah, Jonah, Deborah, Jael, Hannah, the Ethiopian eunuch, the Assyrians, Paul, Jesus...our story is never told. Instead, the stories are mined for pithy sayings. The narrative that takes a collection of sinners and ne'er-do-wells and selfish losers and turns us into a community that loves radically because we believe in all our hearts that Jesus has been raised from the dead and the kingdom is among us has been traded for an inheritance of sin management tips. At least Esau got something to eat. The principles of the kingdom, the glorious inheritance of the children of God, the way of peace and grace, the meal with the family and with the world that invites them into the great love of God, the baptism that ushers us into the kingdom of the Son of his love...all gone. All traded away so that Dave Ramsey can tell us how to save for retirement.
The great hymns of the faith, which can be set to new arrangements and instrumentation, by the way, songs that inspired people to live uprightly, to do justice, to love mercy, to give radically, to suffer all for the sake of goodness, and to love the world with a blazing intensity, songs that taught not only theology but a way to live have been exchanged for choruses written by a collection of apparent simpletons who know C, G, and D (major, of course) and can think of nothing more sublime than "I could sing of your love forever..." or "I'll become even more undignified..." or worse, as if it was some sort of early Christian nursery rhyme: "You came from heaven to earth to show the way, from the earth to the cross my debt to pay..." I don't care what kind of music you do; I don't care what kind of instrumentation you prefer; I don't care what songs you sing, just make them useful, make them songs that instruct, praise, and uplift.
The real question is, I think, does the collection of practices in which we engage of a Sunday morning make me a better Christian or a better consumer. See, donuts don't really matter, so long as the rest of the service isn't tailored to the individual, but if they are just one of the many opportunities the "worshipper" has to be a consumer, then they do matter. Are there opportunities in services to give, to serve, to minister, to embrace the other, to take the focus off of self? Is communion a private moment of reflection or a public moment of gratitude and recommitment to the politics of the kingdom? Is the sermon a telling of one of our stories with the intent of helping us locate ourselves within the story of God, or is it an exercise in inspirational speaking offering nuggets of wisdom for life application? Does the sermon help the world of the Bible swallow my own little world so that I am brought into the story in such a way that I am transformed, or is the sermon an attempt to use tiny pieces of Scripture to help me feel safe and secure as a moderately affluent white suburban consumer? When was the last time your pastor said, "Leave your seat, find someone you don't know, and pray for that person?" (If you're in a small church where you know everyone, good for you, and disregard.) Do the leadership and your lay friends challenge you to be involved with the community and to pursue social justice? There is no better cure for my problems than perspective. I could go on, but you get the point, I think. Questions?