Worship and Irrelevance

March 26, 2008 at 8:48 pm Leave a comment

Reading through the very good April 08 edition of the URC’s magazine Reform, my eye stopped on a word that recurred in a couple of items:

“One of the ways we can attract young people to church is by making our worship relevant and contemporary.”

“We worshipped, prayed, studied Bible passages and learnt a little more about God, but we did it in a way so much more relevant to 21st century culture.”

Hmm. Now what is it about these remarks that makes me hesitate?

Certainly I’m aware of the church’s tendency to fall into the trap of tradition, the comforts of the familiar hymn sandwich and from-the-front monologue. Certainly I think it’s important for us to critique these patterns: a healthy dose of iconoclasm is vital in every age, rather than the unthinking perpetuation of ecclesial forms that remain mysterious to the uninitiated.

So whilst the “traditional” model may still be my own comfort zone, I’m actually all for Café Church, Messy Church, Liquid Church, Sk8r Church, in fact any church but empty church.

But I still don’t think I’m quite ready to subscribe to the call to “make worship relevant”. Because it seems to me that this call, well-intentioned as it undoubtedly is, relies upon a presupposition that merits closer attention.

OK, of course there’s a need to connect to people where they’re at, to give people assurance that their concerns and interests matter. Of course we need to challenge any misconception that church concerns spiritual matters entirely disconnected from the “real world”.

But then, didn’t Jesus say something about leaving everything behind to follow him? Wasn’t his arrival in Jerusalem marked by an overturning of ingrained and culturally prevalent expectations of a warrior-king Messiah? And speaking of overturning, when he threw the traders’ tables over in the Temple complex wasn’t this a demand to liberate his Father’s house from its thrall to the prevailing culture?

Insofar as worship is offered by people living in today’s world with today’s tastes and technologies, our worship can and (one might say) should be contemporary. But is that the same as “making worship relevant”? Or isn’t it rather a function of worship to be profoundly irrelevant – to proclaim that, far from being a mere lifestyle choice, worship brings us face-to-face with realities that relativise all our lifestyle choices?

When the Westminster Divines proclaimed that our chief end was “to glorify God and enjoy Him for ever”, I have a hunch that they were referring to God’s pleasure, not ours (grammar-geek note: cf. the way we use words such as enchant, encircle etc.). If our concern is to package and deliver worship in such a way that it slots into the cultural milieu utterly seamlessly, is there not a danger that we have put the cart before the horse? When another article in Reform asserts that “Worship works partly because of our investment in [musicians and hardware]” (my emphasis), hasn’t our perspective become slightly skewed, quasi-Pelagian even?

With Tim Hughes (also in April’s Reform), I would affirm that our songs “mean very little to God if we’re not living lives of worship” – which I take to encompass a way of life that may at times sit ill-at-ease with prevailing cultural mores. In the world but not of it, as someone once said.

And that, for me, suggests that in the final analysis we can no more make worship relevant to our culture than we can make God irrelevant to our world.


Entry filed under: culture, faith, journalling.

Please, Professor Dawkins, can I be a cultural atheist? Some people can really write…

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