An interesting report recently came out from the Barna group that raises questions on the nature and purpose of Christian worship. Missional guru Skye Jethani commented on it in his January 11 post over at Out of Ur.com: http://www.outofur.com/archives/2012/01/study_says_godc.html
[N]ew research released this week from Barna reveals that most churchgoers rarely experience God in worship services. While most people surveyed can recall a “real and personal connection” with God while at church (66%), they also reported that these connections are “rare.” Among those who attend church every week, less than half (44%) say they experience God’s presence. And one-third of those who have attended church report never feeling God’s presence in a worship gathering.
If worship is reduced to how you or I “feel” about God, or how we “feel” connected to God, there should be no surprise by the meager reports. Feelings are like the wind. They can come and go, swirl and gust. They change directions based on the day we’re having, how much sleep we got, how the kids are behaving, how the job is going, and how the marriage is doing.
Feelings are subjective. But God is objective. His Word speaks to feelings and through feelings and it imparts faith. And the thing about faith is that it is not “felt,” but it is “believed.” Yes, of course, emotions flow from our faith. And yes, of course, the Scriptures declare that God is love. But faith is “believed.”
Emotions are prone to fail us and fool us. Yet faith is believed, even when our emotions might tell us otherwise. Jesus begins his ministry with a call to “repent and believe the Good News” (Mark 1:14-15). Sure, “good news” can have a way of enlivening us and making us “feel” better. But this Good News is not felt, it is, above all, believed!
The fact is, contrary to what some may claim, we will not “experience” God through our emotions. Can you imagine how easy it would be to mislead someone depending on how you or I might be feeling? This is why, as Lutherans, “we should and must constantly maintain that God will not deal with us except through his external Word and sacrament” (Luther, Smalcald Articles VIII, Confession, §10).
Lutheran worship (liturgy) intentionally reflects this. In fact, it rejoices in the reality that regardless if one is a distracted mother tending to her children, a day dreaming teenager, a burdened husband, or a hard of hearing 89 year-old, God still connects to them regardless of how they are feeling! He connects to them through His Word going into their ear holes. He connects to them through His Word that opens their lips in prayer and praise. He connects to them with the body and blood of Christ on their lips and in their mouths. Forgiveness is given. Love is declared. Salvation is granted. God is present!
However, if the measure of our experience of God is based on how we feel about Him, and if the effectiveness of worship is also measured on how we feel about God during worship (or how much we feel transformed by Him in worship) we may find ourselves in a very scary place—alone with our emotions and alone with our sins. You and I both know how fickle our emotions can be. You and I both know that the wages of sin is death.
Nonetheless, somehow “feelings” have become the determining factor for the effectiveness of the worship of and the experience of God. As a result, countless varying worship styles have been developed and emerged in an attempt to better situate the “feelings” of people so that they can have a “God connection”—whatever that means. Yet, for all of that effort, what’s been discovered? Sky Jethani sums it up and even offers an intriguing remedy:
Despite all of the rhetoric since the 90s about “emerging generations” and new models of church, there is little evidence it has been implemented broadly or effective…Might it be time to consider what Paul said about ministry in 1 Corinthians 3? Some plant the seeds, others water it, but ultimately it is God who causes the growth. I don’t believe we should ignore outcomes or allow lazy, ineffectual discipleship to take root in our churches. But we must also admit that life transformation is more mysterious, more God-driven, than making widgets in a factory.
Thus, I think it’s worth repeating: “We should and must constantly maintain that God will not deal with us except through his external Word and sacrament.” When He gives His Word and His sacraments, we can’t not “experience” Him. Sure, He’s mysterious that way. But He is mysteriously and sacramentally (sacramentum in the Latin) powerful! It’s what Lutherans have confessed and practiced for centuries. Perhaps it’s a good idea for us to continue doing so.
As always, this blog endeavors to thoughtfully and collegially talk about the mission of the Holy Christian Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts and reactions.