The Aestethics of Christian Worship

Two days ago, my boss pointed me out to a very significative statement made by Denton Lotz, General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance. The statement was made during the European Baptist Federation general council meeting in Prague, on September 22–25. You can see the whole news item, but the tidbit that raised the eyebrows of Rev. S., my boss, and myself, is this:

Lotz distanced himself from the superficial texts of oft modern, frequently charismatic worship songs known as “Seven-Eleven-Worship“ – the seven-word text of a song is repeated 11 times. A reaction to this movement is now apparent in the USA. Protestant intellectuals are increasingly protesting against such church services and are transferring to the Roman Catholic church.

In terms of relevance, this is like an atomic bomb. While many of them have been great traditionalists in the worship, most Baptists have been quick to drink the whole Kool-Aid of the so-called “contemporary worship”, happily throwing out pipe organs and old hymnals while bringing in electroninc amplification, high decibels, electric guitars, drumsets, and Power Point projection. During the whole process, the mindset of those brethren was thoroughly pragmatic: “Contemporary worship” attracts more people, and especially young ones; therefore it must be good and we should do it, other considerations be darned. You can see that mindset operating daily in many other aspects of Evangelical church life, and most especially in world missions.

Pragmatism has been the curse of the modern evangelical church. We put “results” –a very narrow-defined category expressed mainly in numerical terms– as our main priority, knowing all the time that this is wrong. Results should not be our priority. Evangelism and missions, however crucially important they might be, should not be our priority. Our overriding priority and concern should be the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31)

Nowhere this should be more evident than in our community worship, where the congregation has an encounter with the terrible, fearful, most holy and sovereign God (Psalms 42:4). It seems that for most of our leaders the enormous significance of this fact has been lost:

Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel;
because I will do this to you,
prepare to meet your God, O Israel!

For behold, he who forms the mountains and creates the wind,
and declares to man what is his thought,
who makes the morning darkness,
and treads on the heights of the earth—
the LORD, the God of hosts, is his name!
(Amos 4:12,13)

“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high?” (Micah 6:6a) When it comes to congregational worship, our answer to Micah’s question has been too often the crap that we call contemporary worship.

There are many principles that we can cite when we discuss true Biblical congregational worship; but there is one of them that has been missing from many treatments on the subject: the aesthetic principle.

Aesthetics is the philosophical discipline that studies Beauty, or the Good as apprehended immediately by the senses, especially in nature and art. This is different from the moral Good, which is the Good apprehended by the whole being as related to the volition or our volitional reaction. And now, this is a sad state of things to admit, but we Christians have not been terribly good at doing things beautifully. Think of our worship! Despite having at our disposal masterpieces by people such as Handel, Bach, Victoria, Morales, Tallis or Lauridsen we prefer the mudhole of happy-clappy jingles iterated ad-infinitum, ad-nauseam!

Congregational worship should be an extremely delicate area of church life, because we meet God there, and God is like a jealous lover, demanding the best from His loved ones (Exodus 34:14). He demands nothing less than the very best from us, as one can see in Exodus 25 onwards and Leviticus. Who would dare to employ second-press olive oil for the Tabernacle, or an one-eyed calf for a holocaust?

The same demand is echoed at several times in the New Testament, but I would like to especially point out to Romans 12:1,2, where we are specifically commanded to bring ourselves as a sacrifice to God in spiritual worship with renewed minds. Do you think that we are relieved to offer the best to God just because this is the New Testament time?

Thus, if we are to meet God, we should meet him with nothing less than the best. What we give Him, should eminently posess Beauty. Now, when we sing in His presence, are we singing the best songs, or are we repeating the happy-clappy-crappy jingles revulsive even to an used car dealership specialized in kitsch advertising?

And yet, we do it, and blindly persist in keeping doing it. Educated persons, used to deal with real complex situations and solve them with the finest of their abilities, congregate and sing tunes that are trite stuff even for a 6-year old. Do you think this is fair before God? Do you think it is fair before God to pretend to “worship” Him while you’re blowing your ears out in decibels, in the very face of He who commands us to be stewards of our bodies?

Good congregational worship shouldn’t be elitist, nor difficult to grasp. Everyone can contribute his or her best to God, and edify the congregation of the saved, while offering a powerful witness to the heathen: the best of our culture and our minds are humbly offered before God. Good congregational worship shouldn’t be “traditionalistic”, or traditional, either. It can use contemporary rythms, tunes, and liturgies; but it should posess Beauty.

The consequences of this sad state of things are obvious. Denton Lotz warns us about “Protestant intellectuals” defecting our churches, but you don’t have to be one to realize the bankruptcy of contemporary worship. Extreme ugliness is apparent to most people, and not only to intellectuals. But, the real question is, how God will answer to our wilful failures?

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