Modern Problems File: Losing God as the Center of Our Worship

“Mirror baby”. Licensed underCC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I have noted before on this blog that one of the trends in modern liturgy is the shift of focus from God to “the assembly.” Too much of liturgy today is anthropocentric.

Back in the 1990’s, in his book Why Catholics Can’t Sing, Thomas Day observed that modern liturgy often amounts to “the aware, gathered community, celebrating itself.” Many songs today go on at great length about how we are gathered, we are the flock, we are God’s song, etc. When God is mentioned it is more in relation to us, rather than the reverse. He is all about us, and this seems to please us greatly.

The emphasis has shifted too far in this self-centered direction. If in the past the people were something of an afterthought or were reduced to spectators (as some detractors of the older forms say), now it seems that we are the excessive focus. If something doesn’t “speak to the people” it must either be ditched or dumbed-down.

Even our architecture has given God the boot. Circular and fan shaped churches began to dominate after 1950. The tabernacle was relegated to the side; altars became largely devoid of candles or a cross, and it became almost an insult for the priest-celebrant not to “face the people.” Seeing and interacting with one another became the goal. God was invited, too, but His role seemed more to affirm what we were doing and to be pleased with us; or so we sang, on and on and on. Surely God was happy when we were happy!

I exaggerate, but only a little.

Several years ago, I was fascinated to read of similar concerns in an unlikely place. It was an article in Baptist News in which Baptist minister J. Daniel Day expressed consternation with the state of Protestant worship. In effect, he argued that it is barely worship at all. Day is a retired senior professor of Christian preaching and worship at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, N.C. and is the author of the book Seeking the Face of God: Evangelical Worship Reconceived. Here are some excerpts from his remarks in the article at Baptist News, shown in bold, black italics, followed by my comments in red text. The full article is available here: Reviving Worship.

“Worship can be facilitated and used around any kind of style,” says Day, a former pastor of First Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C. The music and sanctuary decorations can be tailored to fit the tastes of the congregation. “But the question becomes … ‘where’s the beef?’” By that, Day says he means the object of worship, which should be God. But over the centuries, the purpose of worship in many evangelical churches has been to attract and evangelize new members.

How perfectly and simply stated! The worship of God has become the secondary focus. People are certainly important, as is evangelization, but worship is more important; it is the first and chief work of the Church. The worship of God does not demote man; it elevates him. Scripture says that we have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory (Eph 1:12). In other words, we were made to praise God, and in this worship, we are fulfilled; we reach our highest dignity and discover our true self in Him. God is not our competitor; He does not steal the stage. Worshiping Him is not a distraction nor is it in opposition to the assembly.

Further, making the liturgy more about evangelization than worship (where it too easily devolves into entertainment designed to draw numbers) belies the experience of the early Church. In the early days, one did not gain admittance into the liturgy, into the celebration of the mysteries, until after baptism. Evangelization was accomplished through the witness of changed and holy lives in combination with preaching and witness. The goal was to gain admittance to the sacred liturgy so as to worship and encounter God and be transformed by that encounter. If worship “evangelized,” it was instead a deepening of faith already confessed. The deal had already been sealed and the liturgy served to deepen and further immerse a person into the life of God and His Body, the Church.

 Another major shift away from historic Christian worship came even earlier, he added. “The whole emphasis coming out of the Reformation was to convert worship into an educational experience,” Day said. “So you had these didactic, Calvinist lectures that became the models for today’s teaching sermons that go on for 45 minutes to an hour.” At that point, churches ceased being places of worship. “The sanctuary becomes a lecture hall.”

Indeed. And while I support Catholics learning to “tolerate” longer sermons, we ought not to lose our way. Homilies in Catholic parishes should teach more than they do, especially with the demise of Catholic Schools and family life in general.

However, the Mass is fundamentally an act of worship directed to the Father. Christ, the head of the Body and high priest, and we, the members of His Body, turn to the Father at the high point of the Mass (the Eucharistic prayer) and worship Him. Head and members worship the Father together.

This is why it is misleading for the priest to face the people during the Eucharistic prayer. Too often the impression is that the prayer is being read to the people. Not only is the priest facing them, but often priests, by their tone of voice and eye contact, give the impression that they are in fact talking to the people. Heaven forfend that the priest lower his voice such that someone in the back couldn’t hear the words or that he pray the canon in Latin. We must remember that the prayer is directed to God the Father, who is neither hard of hearing nor ignorant of Latin. While the vernacular has its advantages and helps the faithful to unite heartfully to the action, it is not a disaster if the priest is less-than-fully-audible or prays in a language other than that which the faithful understand well.

The Liturgy of the Word is rightly directed toward the people, yet it is also marked with worship; it is not just readings and instruction. The psalm (gradual) and the alleluia (tract) are worshipful responses of the assembly to what has been proclaimed, and after the homily, the creed and/or prayers also invite the worship of prayer.

So, yes, the liturgy is more than a bible study or a lecture.

Or [beyond a lecture hall, churches] become entertainment centers, Day says, where worship is about “being impressed by the magnificence of the place, the costumes and the jumbo screens.”

When the main goal becomes keeping people happy so they will come back, things really start to go off the rails. People are fickle; our culture is obsessed with the latest trends (particularly in the U.S.). We seem to need more and more exotic things in order to be impressed. A lot of the megachurches note that although people come once or a few times, they don’t often keep coming for long. There is only so much you can do when you’re surrounded by an entertainment culture.

Eventually, those who have been attracted by trendy notions get bored, figuratively saying, “Peel me a grape.” When fresh ideas aren’t forthcoming, the bored move on to the next phenomenon or the latest star preacher. Many of them end up dropping out of religion entirely, although some return to the Catholic parishes they left for greener pastures.

Entertainment-based churches eventually either run out of ideas or lose out to trendier churches with bigger budgets. Most of the megachurches of the 1990s here in Washington, D.C. are now closed; newer, bigger “centers” and “campuses” have opened to cater to the latest notions. These are quite difficult to maintain financially and will likely close as well.

Again, the central point of liturgy is not to impress or entertain human beings; it is to worship God. Even the supposed praise songs of many such churches look and sound more like entertainment. Some of the lyrics are actually not bad in terms of content, but many are riddled with catchphrases.

In the Catholic Church, too, a lot of contemporary liturgical trends seem to have “the people” in mind more so than God. He’s invited, too, but pleasing the people is more the point. Otherwise, why is trendy liturgy (especially music) such an issue? Does God change and need new forms? Does He get bored with the older hymns and chants? No! All of this trendiness is more about us.

To be fair, this problem is not new. The big orchestral masses of the Baroque period were quite the item back then. Eventually, they were criticized for trying to be more like opera, trying to impress donors rather than to be suitable for the worship of God. Even early polyphony got so artsy that the Church had to warn composers that the text being sung was more important than the musical artistry designed to impress the people.

Every now and again, the Church needs to throw a penalty flag on the field and say, “Back to God!” This is surely one of those times in both Catholic and Protestant settings, which are so powerfully influenced by our anthropocentric, consumer-focused culture.

A growing number of scholars from a variety of traditions are exploring the value ancient approaches to worship can have in modern times, he adds. One is to provide a sense of authenticity and rootedness in the history and practice of the ancient church.

Sadly, I doubt that our Baptist brethren will look to Catholic antiquity. But hey, it’s a start! It never hurts to value ancient approaches. Those who look to these sources may well discover how Catholic the early Church was. Let us pray. God bless the good Reverend J. Daniel Day in his search and for his admonitions to us all!

Not all contemporary Christian music is bad. In fact, I like a some of it quite well (e.g., “Still,” “You Never Let Go,” “Shout to the Lord”). But a good portion of it is poor. Here’s an amusing video that pokes fun at it:

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