Beauty loses to this lack of foundation and thought in order to chase results. I notice often that churches will borrow a song from a movement that has an opposing theology. Let’s say it’s like a Reformed Presbyterian singing songs from a Wesleyan tradition because it moves their people or it has popularity with larger or growing churches. How important is our theological, historical and local identity to our worship expression? Or, are we looking for exterior cues that tell us people are worshipping? Where are the songs birthed that we sing at our church? Are they chosen because they have populous appeal or is there a values filter in place?
Whatever happened to making praise glorious?
I love the Psalmist’s charge to “make his praise glorious” where beauty is called into action. If we pride ourselves on a puritan austerity, we miss even our own American history in worship. Puritans dressed plainly because they were outlandish and Rococo-like in their everyday dress. Coming to church humbly was in order. Beauty is not then necessarily about extravagance. It may come with restraint if our culture is over-kill which it may actually be. These same Puritans wrote some of the most beautiful prayers of confession. I’m grateful to a friend who years ago introduced me to a book of their prayers.
Regardless, the idea of Sunday’s-best dress can and should go both ways. Sacred worship requires us to value the otherness of worship set apart for God. If we are in plain work clothes all week, why not dress up? Why not use color lights and haze machines? Why not take people to a modern cathedral-like encounter with God. If the “why” is part of making praise glorious to glorify God, then we should value and measure that as well.
Even though our culture is often extravagant, we should be intentional. And, we should also be watchful to not be so austere to not spend on beauty with intentionality. The woman who anointed the feet of Jesus with her perfume—a full year’s wage—did so with intentionality and humility. Her expenditure was more like the puritan prayers that were carefully crafted than haphazard use of haze machines, lights or gimmicky backdrops.
Do we inadvertently put the stage above the table?
But, it’s all about the context. The idea of a stage is to present something to an audience. Worship is more like a table and a meal than a show. It is about all being participants—even if there are differing roles. If you spend a lot on a meal and make it beautiful, you have a celebration. Our Jesus invites us to be with him at a table, not as attendees of a production. Having the medium of a stage then is a problem if only if we think it’s about the stage.
Even the best secular performers can make you feel at home. I have yet to see the Boss—Bruce Springsteen—live in concert. However, friends who have gone over the years and articles of critics all seem to say the same thing. As even his videos seem to present, the audience is brought into a near-religious fervor. The antiphonal riffs with the band and the crowd were like being in a gospel service in his shows.
The stage can be a valid worship medium—if the table is still what is valued, measured and raised. The idea of being with Jesus transcends the literal table, even though there something historically important about a visible altar in church. If the value is on Christ as the center and we at his table, the transcendent beauty of being in Christ’s presence results. Utility drives us to the numbers and even the ecstatic reaction we might get with a crowd. It is possible to program “experiences”—look at Disney or watch Cold Play do a show. Putting on a meal lasts beyond the moment as it actually feeds us.
Just to recap, here are ways to deal with the invasion of the bottom line in our worship.
Decide why you do music in church. Then choose what you do. Is marketing your goal? Is discipleship your goal? The why matters before the how.
Define “guard rails” based on your values. What values would you be willing to “lose” to keep?
Defend beauty in worship. Is it about being impressive or expressive? Making praise glorious means it’s not just a fad.
Dine together in worship. Instead of presenting an experience from a stage, how about sharing a meal with Christ present?