Church is weird, you know?

When I step back and consider the typical elements of the common American church service, I find myself wondering if the rest of the world thinks this is just crazy.

I’ll elaborate.

This morning we found ourselves in a different place of worship – we were there to hear a particular speaker in their Sunday school series and stayed for the morning worship. It was a well-established denominational church that followed a liturgical format for worship (but not as formal as, say, a very traditional Episcopalian service).

Surrounded by the familiar-yet-unfamiliar feeling of the worship service, I caught my mind drifting into seeing the service “from the outside.”  So much of what we do as “church” must strike non-religious people as weird:

  • Traditional church music sounds nothing like the music that most people are used to hearing. Who ever hears organ music these days, outside a ballpark or a funeral? Meanwhile, contemporary Christian music often comes across as a bad copy of current radio tunes. And while some people find comfort in one or the other, both streams of church music offer  plenty of mediocre songs that get pulled into Sunday worship because…. well, I don’t really know why. Maybe one person’s “mediocre” is someone else’s favorite song.  We can’t escape the tyranny of “taste.”
  • Song texts often serve up ideas that, if you just walked up and said them out loud to someone rather than singing them, would be strange.  Maybe even off-putting.This morning’s hymns were mostly unfamiliar to me since it was Palm Sunday and people pull out the oddball stuff for holidays.  One song was really kind of dark and depressing in an 1800s vibe; another was sentimental and gooey a la 1950s movie soundtrack (cue “dramatic music stab”!).  The choral anthem affirmed that we would agree to “love love,” whatever that means.

    In the land of CCM, as Cartman realizes so brilliantly on the South Park episode dedicated to lampooning Christian pop music (here’s a clip, but be warned: the content is offensive, by the writers’ design, to make its point), texts are often chained to a fatal subjectivity. “Jesus is my boyfriend” music weirds me out, regardless of the good intentions of the writer.

  • Worship practices have ossified into “stuff we do” because … it’s what we do?  For example, this morning, we stood to sing and stood for the reading of the call to worship, but not for the longer scripture readings.  We would stand sometimes for 60 seconds, and then be seated again.  It’s like worship postures are listed on a wheel that someone spun at random when they first wrote a service outline, and now those postures are set.  “We stand for songs because that’s how you really sing!”  Otherwise we sit. A lot.

    The Bible talks about praying on knees or prostrate on the ground; people dance and clap and leap around; Jewish synagogues have a parade around the room following the Torah for at least one major holiday.  I’m wondering if maybe we could change things up?  Maybe we have too many “required elements” in the order of service?

  • This morning’s congregation does a children’s sermon.  I didn’t grow up with that, so I never know what to do with it….  other than praise God that I’m not a minister who would have to do children’s sermons.  Unless the church was doing “teenager sermons.”  I could do that…   It would still be weird.
  • Even the nature of sermons must strike outsiders as odd. I can’t speak for churches nationwide because I can only attend one at a time and basically I’ve gone to 4 churches my entire life., 5 if you include the giant stream of chapel & church sermons at BJU.   I’ve heard a lot of “self-help” talks, guilt sessions, motivational speeches, the occasional infomercial for a ministry or (worse) building program, heart-wrenching stories, generic anecdotes, and vague platitudes.  Very rare to hear a trained minister with an active, humble walk with Christ really dig deep into the Word and preach Christ crucified, the hope of glory.

I imagine this sounds really critical. I’m not trying to be critical.   I am wondering why “church” seems so uninviting to many people.  I’m not talking about the theological questions that result in people condemning each other or legitimate differences of doctrine;  this is a contemplation of our practice.

James K. A. Smith, in Desiring the Kingdom (and in the followup book in that series, Imagining the Kingdom), first establishes the proposition that human beings are, at or core, lovers (rather than thinkers), and therefore liturgy exists to train our hearts to love the vision of “the good life” that matches God’s Kingdom, rather than the “good life” that the world would have us buy into – wealth, prosperity, success on those terms.   His reflections on church liturgy are powerful.  Not being from a liturgical background, I am not entirely sold on liturgy in the formal sense — I don’t particularly enjoy a rigidly constructed church service.  But all churches employ a “liturgy” in the very nature of how they set up a service.  Perhaps our “vision of the good life” in our liturgy is just a fossil of Victorianism or nostalgia?

Here’s what I would love to see, I think:

  • Enough “this is a special moment” aspects in the service to make it different than just “hanging out,” but a rejection of formality and custom just for their own sake.
  • Recognition that symbolism and visuals are important, but openness to exploring symbols meaningful for a particular congregation in its location. That is, it’s great to borrow symbolism from the rich heritage of the Church’s history – the Celtic trinity knot, or the practice of carrying in the giant Bible before reading the Gospels (in Episcopal and Lutheran churches) – but I think sometimes we venerate old stuff just because it’s old, or we fall in love with hipster Christian iconography.  Symbols need to work in a particular context, and sometimes they need to grow out of that congregation’s journey together.
  • A more organic flow to the service, with physical closeness and togetherness as a hallmark. The early church (in Acts) met in houses, and wrapped things up with a meal.  When did that turn into giant auditoriums, fluorescent lights, and a wafer & sip as the Lord’s Supper?
  • Intentional use of a variety of the senses — we should read, see, smell, appreciate, and hear during worship;  and get involved in it with our bodies, voices, minds.

I dunno.

I feel like I’m just covering ground other people have already burned over.

All I’m saying is, The way we do church in most places on Sunday morning is just…. weird. And I think that’s a barrier to people who aren’t churched.

If you were going to invite people over for dinner, you don’t change everything about your routine; but you’d probably go out of your way to make sure people feel comfortable in your home.   I don’t think church is for visitors; it’s for the community who regularly worships there. But we should be more mindful of what would make our friends and community actually feel welcome to visit the service, and I think stripping out the random stuff that’s built up over time in the name of “tradition” is a good place to start.

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