Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thermometer or Thermostat?

The discussion the other day was about the church. A metaphorical question was raised: Is the Church a thermometer or thermostat?

One could explore that thought in a variety of ways, but let’s ask that question about how we worship currently. Is what we do on a Sunday morning a mere reflection of the cultural temperature of the world around us? Or, could it possibly be that the celebrations of little bands of God’s people on the Lord’s Day might affect the worldly culture with needed changes?

The temptation, of course, is to set our liturgical thermostat so that it corresponds to the desires and values of potential pew-sitters. If we want the younger generation, then we might do well, we think, to re-set the liturgy to look and sound like what they like.

That approach is doomed to failure, because sooner than later the culture shifts. The latest and greatest quickly becomes old hat, and the worship planners scramble to keep up with the curve.

The direction for our worship, then, comes from outside, from unreliable sources if you’re looking for lasting values and eternal truths.

This is not to say that twenty-first century worship should avoid everything new. Surely new liturgy is being created week-in-and-week-out in congregations around the world. Hymns are composed, prayers crafted, sermons delivered, believers and their children bathed, and people share a meal of bread and wine, all fresh and relevant to a particular time and place. At the same time, the content and message of today’s worship comes from another source.

Christian liturgy carries content designed to affect the people of God, and through them to change the world’s culture. In a very real sense, the substance of Christian worship is subversive, seeking to undermine prevailing unholy values. Yet sometimes the way we prepare and present worship serves to edit the message so it is less radical and more acceptable to the people in the pews.

For example, I always wonder why it is that a pastor or session or perhaps someone else in authority decides to omit a Prayer of Confession. Is it perhaps because there is an underlying conviction that no one there really has much if anything to confess, either to admit in front of everyone else in the room or, much less, to disclose to the Almighty?

Even if a prayer of confession is in the order of service, it can also be edited in such fashion as to be a spoonful of sugar rather than a bitter pill to swallow. Consider this familiar prayer that begins, “Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart and mind and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. . . .” That may be more honesty than some can tolerate. I remember one parishioner who regularly confronted me after church asserting, “I’m not as bad as it said in that prayer of confession.” He wanted a thermometer to read him as he thought he was, rather than a thermostat to point to how he ought to be, as indicated in the balance of that prayer: “In your mercy forgive what we have been, help us amend what we are, and direct what we shall be, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name.”

In the same fashion, the Confession of Faith can be left out altogether because the quaint concepts in the Nicene or Apostles’ Creeds are deemed irrelevant to our modern needs. I think it may have been the same parishioner I mentioned above who complained about the historic creeds as being “words put in his mouth.” Of course, a home-made creedal affirmation can be assembled that is more satisfactory to the general populace, but it will likely be theologically thin.

And sermons are at particular risk here. I always thought I was fairly straightforward in proclaiming the Gospel as both good news of God’s grace and a call for repentance and renewal. On retiring I found, however, that I felt much freer to preach the Gospel in full when the people listening were not paying my salary. We like to think there is not such pressure, but there really is.

At any rate, the purpose of worship is not to make us cozy and comfortable in the fact that God loves us. We come together to be renewed and resurrected to a life with the risen Christ. Sometimes this sounds more like bad news than good. That’s when we should start to see liturgy not as a thermometer that tells us where we are, but as a thermostat to regulate the temperature of our passion for Christian service and witness.

Do you ever take the opportunity to review a worship service with others? Have you ever noticed adjustments or softening of the Gospel’s demands and requirements?

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