I never thought I would talk of the need to have tradition play a large role in the church. But it seems to be something that is emerging in much of my reading and conversations with others lately. I think the most logical place to start with this discussion would be posing the question, “If we gather together in church to worship God, what does worship mean in this context or setting?” I do not think it would be heretical or out of my boundaries to state that since the Reformation, it seems that ‘worship’ services have been reduced to singing a few songs, a large portion of the time devoted to teaching from scripture, and sacraments thrown in at the end for good measure. Somehow, in all of this, it can be hard to worship God. It seems we are always learning new songs, or the latest biblical scholarship and of course, partaking in the stale cracker and sour grape juice and what we initially intended (worship) simply gets pushed to the backburner. There was a reason liturgy was enacted. Not so people could simply be good Christians by participating in it, but so that the people could actually focus their attention on God, and not on how lovely one of the singer’s voice is, or how charismatic and engaging the pastor is but actually on this being whom we call God. A passage from C.S. Lewis’ book, The Business of Heaven may shed some more light on this:
It looked as if [clergymen] believed people can be lured to go to church by incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications, and complications of the service. And it is probably true that a new, keen vicar will usually be able to form within his parish a minority who are in favour of his innovations. The majority, I believe, never are. . . Novelty can have only an entertainment value. And [people] don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best – if you like, it ‘works’ best – when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. . . The perfect church service would be the one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.
I apologize for the long quote but I think it would be an injustice to Mr. Lewis to shorten it anymore than I already did. The last sentence of that passage is tremendous, and quite challenging at the same time. The challenge for the church is to get out of the way enough to allow people to fully worship (I think we saw this same problem in the Gospels when the temple was turned into a marketplace. And we all know how Jesus responded to that). Many churches may profess that this is the goal. But few churches are actually able to enact it. Is this simply an idealistic view that cannot be reached here on earth? Is it a standard that we should shoot for? If so, does that very standard then become a hindrance to reach that point because of the desire to become more and more surrounded by God’s presence at every worship service?
I think it does mean that we must evaluate what exactly we mean when we use the phrase, ‘worship service’. Are we trying to worship God or are we trying to engage the audience in what amounts to just another form of entertainment?