The very question “Does prayer work?” puts us in the wrong frame of mind from the outset. “Work”: as if it were magic, or a machine – something that functions automatically. Prayer is either a sheer illusion or a personal contact between embryonic, incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person. Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine. In it God shows Himself to us. That He answers prayers is a corollary – not necessarily the most important one – from that revelation. What He does is learned from what He is. (C. S. Lewis, “The Efficacy of Prayer,” in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays)
Category: Of Worship and Work
We cannot choose not to wonder at the characteristics of our era. If there are those who do not do so, let us by all means not awaken them. But when philosophical wonder, unbidden, uninvited, sets before us the culture of our time, we can no more suppress it than blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. There is plenty to show that those who do not make an effort to read their times in a disciplined way read them all the same, but with narrow and parochial prejudice. . . . The disciplines we need are those that good modernity-critics display: to see the marks of our time as the products of our past; to notice the danger civilisation poses to itself, not only the danger of barbarian reaction; to attend especially not to those features which strike our contemporaries as controversial, but to those which would have astonished an onlooker from the past but which seem to us too obvious to question. (Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology, p. 273)
I will speak to you as a friend, foolish Perses. Inferiority can be got in droves, easily: the road is smooth, and she lives very near. But in front of Superiority the immortal gods set sweat; it is a long and steep path to her, and rough at first. But when one reaches the top, then it is easy, for all the difficulty. (Hesiod, Works and Days, trans. M. L. West)
One of the largest obstacles to true Sabbath-keeping is leisure. It is what cultural historian Witold Rybczynski calls “waiting for the weekend,” where we see work as only an extended interlude between our real lives. Leisure is what Sabbath becomes when we no longer know how to sanctify time. Leisure is Sabbath bereft of the sacred. It is a vacation – literally, a vacating, an evacuation. As Rybczynski sees it, leisure has become despotic in our age, enslaving us and exhausting us, demanding from us more than it gives.
We all know how unsatisfying mere leisure can be. We’ve all known what it’s like to return to the classroom or the workplace after a time spent in revelry or retreat, in high jinks or hibernation: typically, we go back weary and depressed, like jailbirds caught. The time away from work wasn’t time sanctified so much as time stolen, time when we escaped for a short-lived escapade.
The difference between this and Sabbath couldn’t be sharper. Sanctifying some time adds richness to all time, just as an hour with the one you love brings light and levity to the hours that follow. To spend time with the object of your desire is to emerge, not sullen and peevish, but elated and refreshed. You come away filled, not depleted. (Mark Buchanan, The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath, pp. 35–36)
The more man lives in his artificial man-made reality amongst man’s structures and machinery, the more strongly he receives the impression that he is the creator of his own existence. . . . This does not mean that technics or productivity inevitably estrange man from God. Even the most creative mind, and even the man who has to live entirely among machinery and within a man-made surrounding, can remain God-conscious and can do whatever he does for the glory of God. Human creativity and the man-made reality is not the reason or cause, but it is the great temptation to Godlessness. The more creative man is, the more he is tempted to confound himself with the Creator. The danger is the titanism of the creative man who, inebriated by his feeling of creativity and in a kind of mystic ecstasy, thinks himself to be God. It is that old phenomenon of [hubris], of man’s forgetting his limits, which brings him to ruin. (Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilisation: Foundations, pp. 151–52)
Remarkably, this is from a lecture delivered in 1947!
Vocational holiness . . . means self-knowledge: to be holy is to know oneself and to accept oneself. In the language of Teresa of Avila (and Catherine of Siena), this is humility. Such holiness and humility will be at least partly evident in knowledge of one’s calling, having clarity about what one is called to do. We know who we are and choose to live not by pretense or by wishing we were someone else but in humility. We know ourselves and accept who God has made us to be and what it is that God, who alone is the potter, has called us to do. We turn from envy and wishing we were someone else with their gifts and opportunities. Hence, vocational holiness is not about doing everything or even trying to do all we can do; we leave it to Christ to be the “Messiah,” and we graciously recognize and accept our part in the kingdom work of Christ. It is about doing that and only that to which we are called. It is the grace of living in a way that is faithful to the reign of Christ and consistent with the truth of our own identity; this is humility, living without pretense. It is about living faithfully in space and time without anxiety and with no need to run about frenetically. (Gordon Smith, Transforming Conversion, p. 101)
People used to hope to gain an otherworldly heaven by doing good works. Now they’re sure they can gain a this-worldly heaven by buying more stuff.
What shall we say of Christian engagement with the world today? On one hand, we have those who think our engagement is pretty well exhausted by trusting Jesus for eternal life, telling others about this eternal life, and working on personal holiness. On the other hand, we have those who think we’re supposed to “redeem” every cultural life form we encounter, which means (in actual practice) embracing every such life form with a minimum of critical filters. What is weird is how much these two approaches share in common, despite their apparent differences. In both, whole tracts of human life are left basically untransformed by the lordship of Christ. The first confines transformation largely to the hallowed ground of personal piety (outside of character growth and adherence to obvious ethical precepts, the affairs of human life are either ceded to the devil or treated as neutral territory). The second scraps any pietistic pretensions and wallows comfortably in human fallenness. Where is a third way that embraces and enacts transforming grace (which is inevitably costly grace) in every sphere of human thought and enterprise, because it anticipates a day when our Lord will usher in the perfection of His kingdom, and sin will be no more?
Any church that has ever wrestled with the issue of what it takes to grow (there are, incidentally, churches that don’t wrestle with this: they think growth is 100% the Holy Spirit’s business, thus planning for growth is a waste of time, which could explain why they don’t grow, but that’s not what this blog post is about) has confronted the question whether its worship is “accessible” or “relevant” to the unchurched and/or the underchurched. Ought a Christian worship service to be “contextualized” so those who don’t know Jesus (and may know almost nothing about the Bible, Christianity, or this thing called “the church”) can feel like they “connect” to it?
To be clear, if the answer to this question is yes, it’s going to be very hard to justify any sort of traditional, much less liturgical, form of worship. Very, very few unchurched or underchurched people in the modern world, especially if they’re under the age of 35, are going to walk into a traditional or liturgical service and say, “Yeah, I get what’s going on here.” Most such people have never in their lives heard a psalm or hymn; they’ve never sat and listened to anyone other than a college professor talk at them for 30–40 minutes (and it totally put them to sleep); they haven’t the foggiest notion what atonement, grace, propitiation, justification, sanctification, theology, depravity, holiness, or even salvation mean; and they don’t see the point in a bit of bread and wine that are supposed to be about a crucified Jewish woodworker named Jesus. It doesn’t work for them. It doesn’t connect. And since I happen to be a church planter in a church that practices liturgical worship, this matters to me. Admittedly, I’m biased. But hear me out.
I don’t think worship is where an unchurched or underchurched person is initially supposed to “connect” to the church. It may indeed happen that way. It’s even likely to happen if you have a rock band play the worship music, all the songs sound like popular radio, your preacher talks for ten minutes about movies, and you serve iced cappuccinos in the lobby. Admittedly, this brings its own complications: not least, that you’ll have to keep changing your worship track to keep up with the radio; and at some point it might be important to explain to your new friend that meeting with the Almighty God isn’t supposed to feel quite like a U2 concert; but be that as it may. If you practice traditional or liturgical worship, by contrast, I’d say it’s unusual if a non-churched person walks in and immediately “connects.” I’m also saying that’s okay.
The reason it’s okay is that hard-core Christian worship should have the “feel” of a called-out covenant people meeting with their sovereign covenant God; reenacting the great story of His saving grace in the world; and being called, cleansed, equipped, and commissioned to carry out His mission in the world. If this feels immediately “relevant” to an outsider, I would wonder if it’s being done properly. But that doesn’t mean the outsider shouldn’t connect to the church at all; what I’m proposing is that the connection will usually start elsewhere.
Where? In the everyday life of God’s covenant people. Worship isn’t normally what convinces outsiders of the “relevance” of the church; worshipful lives are what convince them of this. One missional writer has said that people often belong to the church before they believe in Jesus. That makes complete sense: if outsiders don’t feel like they have a connection to God’s people, how on earth are they going to feel a connection to the worship these people offer to their God? I’m not (again) saying that it can’t happen (we need, for example, to work out the implications of 1 Corinthians 14:24–25), only that the normal order of things is to be impressed with God’s people before one is impressed with Him. “You are My witnesses,” and so forth.
You, dear saints, are the relevance of the church to the world. Not first your pastor’s sermons, not first the worship music and anthems of Zion, not first the Table of the Lord (though these things should be tasteful and attractive, and pastors in particular must preach as men convicted that the gospel is the most relevant thing on the planet, because it is). You are the epistle known and read by all men, even if they never darken the door of a place of worship. And if they don’t discover the relevance of the church in knowing you – in your loving service, in your gracious friendship – the lights aren’t likely to go on just because you haul them to a worship service.
“Things must be met for themselves. To take them only for their meaning is to convert them into gods – to make them too important, and therefore to make them unimportant altogether. Idolatry has two faults. It is not only a slur on the true God; it is also an insult to true things.” (Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb, p. 20)