Disbelieving Church: Worship

[This post is part of a series of reflections on Disbelieving Church. If you have not already done so, please check out the Introduction for a little background and a few disclaimers.]

About seven years ago I was a student at the Baptist training College in Cardiff. I wasn’t in ministerial training at the time (the BU weren’t interested in training a foreigner on a student visa), but I was busy studying academic theology and learning new ways to look at the world. Part of the weekly College rituals was a Wednesday evening chapel service; after an afternoon of teaching on ministry-related topics, the students would share a meal and then worship together.

One particular Wednesday evening, I froze in the door of the worship space. It was clear from the set-up of the room that the guest speaker for the evening had prepared an interactive worship experience with stations. Suddenly I couldn’t breathe or force myself through the door. There was a strange buzzing in my ears. I remember starting back from the door, allowing the other laughing, chatting students to enter, thrusting the scripture reading I had been given in someone else’s hands and fairly running out of the building.

It was only after the event that I learned to call this episode a panic attack. It was more than four days before I could bring myself to step foot in the College building again. I spent the weekend with a friend in the country, trembling at the thought of leaving her warm, safe house and supportive friendship.

That was the beginning of my association of anxiety with worship services, but there has been more than one time since that I have walked away from instead of into a service or was careful to station myself near an exit because I felt the ghost of panic rising in me. One such time was in my placement church, fortunately I was able to manage the anxiety long enough to lead the service.

Not only have the emotionally charged expectations of Sunday morning (and indeed other) worship services slowly become a painful and often panic-inducing experience for me, I also find that to participate in the service frequently requires the suspense of most, if not all, of my intellectual and psychological faculties. A suspension that is necessary whether or not I am leading or preaching in the service.

When it was my responsibility to plan and lead services, I invariably struggled to identify hymns that filled the triple bill of songs-I-know, songs-the-congregation-know, and songs-whose words/theology-I-don’t-find-problematic. Although it is possible to teach a congregation new songs, one cannot change their memories or their hymnbook overnight. As a MiT (minister in training) I was forced to use the resources from which the congregation was used to drawing, while occasionally introducing new songs. Often I would pick an old favourite I remembered singing in childhood only to find that I was offended by the theology and the tune was different to the one I learned as a child. Other times I would focus on the words I was singing, seeking that emotional connection with God, and feel instead that the very act of singing was a lie, either I could not fully affirm the sentiment of the words or I downright disagreed with them, and these were hymns I had picked!

My experience of attending other people’s services is almost invariably worse. There is still, frequently, a problem with the theological content of the hymns and or praise songs, but added to that there is, most often, a person or group of persons in front of the congreagtion “leading the worship.” In some, more traditional senarios this (usually) man dictates when the congregation is to stand, sit or sing (in more inclusive churches the phrase “if you are able” is sometimes added which significantly changes the problematic power dynamic of “leading” worship). This is often accompanied by encouragement to be happy or joyful while praising God. I even remember once being instructed from the front to raise my hands in worship, as if forcing the congregation to adopt the semblance of devotional bliss would inevitably bring it about.

In other churches one might find a team of people at the front leading the worship, usually a “worship band” (with some combination of bass, guitar, drum, or keyboard) and a number of persons, each with his or her own microphone, to lead the singing, as the congregation probably won’t be able to determine where to enter without the traditional “organ pause.” Such a set-up feels much more like a performance than a corprate act of worship. Too often there is subtle (or not so subtle) emotional manipulation in the way the music is led. The number of repeats and the intersperesed prayers seem designed to force the listener into a place of emotional vulnerability. Watching the singers can feel like intruding on something that really ought to be private. (The medeival mystics often described the relationship between the soul and Christ in sexual terms, but I don’t wish to witness someone else going to such a place in public worship. If I am unable or unwilling to go there as well, it just ends up feeling a bit awkward and embarassing.) There doesn’t seem to be anything corporate about such a performance, for me, at least. Instead, I feel like I’m intruding on something that ought to be private, rather than invited into . . . well anything.

In the midst of it all, questionable theology, poor lyrics, emotional manipulation, emphasis on feeling, individualism in word and practice, I can’t help wondering if we are actually taking part in these rituals to glorify God or to make ourselves feel better. When the worship leader tries to whip up the enthusiasm of the congregation by talking about how good and great God is, whom is he trying to convince, what is he trying to forget, and how do the people listening feel if no amount of thinking about the goodness or greatness of God can cut through their fear, depression, anxiety or worry?

It seems to me that we have made worship all about God in order to escape from ourselves and the realities of our lives. We worship the glorified, light-filled image of the all-powerful, all-conquering deity so that we will feel less helpless. We affirm this deity’s holiness and our own worthlessness. In so doing we perpetuate a culture of victimhood, the perfect emotional excuse for staying entrenched in a cycle of guilt and repentence, thus stunting our growth towards true emotional and spiritual maturity and abdicating our responsibility for acting (like adults) to influence and change our culture in matters of justice, liberation, love, and other things that Jesus talked about.

So, somehow, worship, which should be all about the God who came to us in weakness and vulnearbility and his sacrificial love for all people, which we are called to emulate, instead becomes all about us – our sins, our weaknesses, our salvation, our need. Such “worship” is effectively a totally egotistical experience.

Perhaps it is cynical to add, but does God really need to hear constant repetations of “God is good” or “you’re amazing” or “Almighty, most holy” or whatever praise phrase you could choose? There are of course those scriptures which speak of singing praise, “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs,” tamberines, cymbals and the like, but these passages are usually geared toward speaking to one another and telling God’s story, not just shouting at God about how great God is.

On the other hand there are also those scritpures that express disgust with “noisy” worship and mindless ritual sacrifces and demand instead rivers of justice and streams of righteousness, a broken spirit and a contrite heart – action and change. The book of James reminds us that what we believe is betrayed by what we do with our lives. I struggle to see how spending an hour or two every week singing familiar songs and/or getting into a particular emotional “place” and calling it connection with God contributes to justice, righteousness, mercy, humility, honest brokenness or sustainable growth and change.

When I sought to enter the ministry, I thought it would. I thought the problem was with me, especially when I found those times that were supposed to be most healing and inspiring become times of anxiety and panic instead of life-giving connection with God. So many people that I admired and respected poured themselves into church and its rituals of worship, I instinctively felt there must be a power or truth there that I was missing. I’m not so sure any more.

[As an aside, I’m well aware that most of this does not directly address traditions with more formal or liturgical worship. This is primarily because my experience of worship is overwhelmingly drawn from free church traditions. However, I have attended some Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran and Orthodox services in my time, and, in many cases, they appear to have similar problems. Liturgy, although it can be inspiring, also caries with it the inherent danger that it is easy to repeat words and forms by rote without participating in or being changed by them in any way, but that’s another rant for another day.]



Disbelieving Church: Introduction

Some time ago, a minister working in a central London church offered this reflection as a personal “creed” of sorts. It is written in what I would consider a classic theological style – building negations that seem to lead to nihilism followed by a series of positive assertions that balance out the denied with what is affirmed. The first time I read this personal creed, I was drawn into the language and ideas, the almost shocking list of “do not believe”, but in the end the assertions seemed, somehow, to be so much more powerful and life-giving than the list of doctrines and Christian buzz-phrases denied. I wasn’t so sure at the time that I agreed with all that the author said, but I could affirm him as a brother of the faith and was glad to be able to say “I know him”.

Over the last several months, my own thoughts on belief and faith have undergone profound change. Having pursued recognised ministry in the Baptist Union for several years, I am now seriously considering just walking away when I am little more than a year from finally achieving that goal. As I have attempted to get to the bottom of this change in myself, I have made a shocking discovery. I don’t believe. There is so much I don’t believe. Being a minister-in-training helped me to see how much I don’t believe and, if I am honest, destroyed much of the faith I had left.

I have struggled with this chiefly because there are so many people, many of them minsters in churches, whom I like and respect. Some I count friends. Others I admire. Their faithfulness, commitment and sacrifice is something I wanted to emulate. I longed to join their club, but I find I can’t. So if you’re one of those people, still invested in church, I have much respect and affection for you.

But I don’t believe in church anymore.

Before I continue, let me clarify a few things. Firstly, I am well aware that the word “church” in many people’s minds should refer to a community of believers/Jesus followers, not an institution or a building. Unfortunately church as it exists today, at least in my experience, is firmly grounded in institutions and buildings, and the communities of believers that occupy these structures are shaped by these buildings and the larger institutions of which they are a part. With the culture of church we have inherited, the connection and resultant influence is inevitable. So, while I might still come to believe in communities of Jesus followers, I do not believe in “church,” as I have seen and experienced it over three decades and two countries.

Secondly, I am aware that there may well be churches functioning in our society today for whom most of the things I am going to say may be inapplicable. These churches may function healthfully and participate in life-giving, love-showing relationships within and without their building walls. They may not be prey to the negative forces that have destroyed my own belief in church. I wish them well in their journey to live the love of Jesus in their world, but for me and my house, we will serve the Lord in other ways, places and communities.

Thirdly, I am aware that this comes from a place of idealism, a quality in myself that I have long repressed, with depressive consequences. The flaws that I see in church may be inevitable, and the future for which I long in which the legacy of Jesus flourishes without institutional church may be a naive dream, but I have finally accepted that to remain “in” church and its structures is so much of a compromise of my beliefs and principles that it basically equates to living a lie. I can no longer sustain this life and must be an idealist, whatever the result of my dreams and longings.

Over the coming weeks I will post a series of reflections on those things that have contributed to my loss of faith in church. Perhaps this is rather self-indulgent, but although my posts will be cathartic in the writing, I am hoping they will also offer a timely challenge or comfort to others who are, in the end, just struggling to be true to the message of Jesus, as am I.

Spiritual Terrorism

Some months ago, as I was preparing to go on maternity leave, the church in which I had been training as a student minister was preparing to make a very important decision. This decision came after years of conversation, but the opinions in the church were still deeply divided.

One Sunday morning an elderly member of the congregation cornered me after the service to assure me that he had been given a message from God, and he would set the meeting straight. Accustomed to his language, and certain no words of mine could alter his purpose one iota, I adopted my usual response – smile and nod – as he described his plans with all his usual passion and depth of conviction. Within myself I could only be grateful that it would not be my job to counter his “message” or to deal with the fallout of his words.

Not that there would be much fallout. I expected that the result of whatever he felt compelled to say would be silence, the unspoken reactions to his words ranging from bewilderment to frustration. As he had done similar things at other meetings, but never succeeded in providing a coherent argument or a discernible plan, his “messages” tended to amount to a rant about his convictions followed by a judgement on the church for failing to be led by the Spirit, or something similar.

It is not my desire or intention to mock this man or dismiss his deeply-held convictions, but his way of sharing his beliefs about the church and its future had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

In venting my frustration with this particular congregant to my spiritual director, he suggested that such behaviour might be termed “spiritual terrorism.” That is, this man would show up to a church meeting, announce he had a message from God/knew exactly what was wrong with the church, and expect everyone to go along with what he said, as he was clearly right. He offered no qualifications, no space for dialogue; he allowed no possibility that he might be wrong. The logical conclusion must be that everyone else is expected to do what he says, because he speaks for God.

Such a person uses no bombs or guns, beheads no one, sheds no blood, but the basic pattern of terrorism is there – my belief is the only true belief. I intend for you to act in accordance with my belief. If you do not, you are not in communion with God/a true believer. Such an approach shuts down any dialogue that might have been possible, elevates the speaker above the rest of the people in the meeting (as the true mouthpiece of God), and makes it very difficult for anyone else to express a contrary idea.

In our times terrorism has become a bit of a buzz word. It is associated with Islamic fundamentalism, but can also be found in extreme forms of other ideologies – such as Irish republicanism or, yes, Christian fundamentalism. It is founded on the unshakable conviction that one’s belief or cause is irreproachable and infallible. From that conviction it becomes all too easy to judge others, to blames them, to scapegoat them, victimise them, ostrasice them. All these become possible when I believe that ‘we’ are right or ‘we’ know absolute truth and therefore ‘they’ are wrong or infidels or heretics or evil or the enemy. 

We don’t like to think there is terrorism in our churches or other Christian circles, but I suspect the reality would be rather different than our hopes. I can easily imagine the majority of my Chrisitian and particularly my ministerial friends reading about the church member above with a sense of recognition coupled, perhaps, with frustration or amusement. I wonder how many church meetings have been shut down by just such an attitude, how many wise or even prophetic voices have been silenced, and, worst of all, how many valuable people, so worthy of love and affirmation have been driven away from churches or even faith itself by similar terrorism. 

Perhaps it’s time we stopped looking ‘out there’ for the enemy – persecution or Muslims or secularism or gays – and started realising that the threat is often within our communities, within our walls and within ourselves. If we are not willing to change and believe we might be wrong, we can easily become the ones who inflict terror, without ever touching a weapon.