I have been at General Synod for three days so far, and so far, we have had two “worship services.” I put them in quotations intentionally for several reasons. Firstly, there have been praise bands, praise bands and MORE PRAISE BANDS. Oh and did I mention praise songs – the type that those worship radio stations with a Jesus fish covertly (or not so covertly) blended into their logo blast for their listeners for 24 straight hours 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
I knew that coming to the Midwest, and especially Iowa would mean a massive culture shift as a woman seeking ordination in a oft-times conservative but most of the times middle of the road denomination, and yet, I had no idea that coming 1200 miles to the heartland would mean also a compromising of my liturgical and worship identity as well (and also that of the denomination). So far, my heart breaks for what I have seen of worship. At Princeton Seminary, my close friends and I poked at those who swayed and raised their hands in the air during hymns and praise songs like they were raising antennae to the heavens for extra Jesus connectivity (think the days of Rabbit Ears on top of TVs for better reception).
Phrases like “Come Holy Spirit,” were thrown around last night as though they were theologically appropriate and sound, and yet, shouldn’t we be touting the proper theological tenets of the Reformed Tradition in this Pentecost Season that the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete of our risen Christ is always with us, and we don’t need to summon it to be closer to us in worship? It struck me as theologically desperate and horribly immature, to be blunt, a culmination of a day’s worth of frustrations (the use of the word Evangelical (not to be confused with the lower-case “e” evangelical, which is the spreading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the Earth, as is the Great Commission at the end of the Gospel of Matthew 28.) in reference to MFCA, a program I have been a part of for the last three years. I do not associate with being Evangelical, nor will I ever, nor do I associate the RCA with being an Evangelical denomination, yet I see its mission as being evangelical. See the frustration and confusion?)
Back to the worship frustration; with swaying and hands raised common and far too distracting, praise songs have trumped the presence of hymns at GS 2014, as has bad and theologically unsound preaching. Generic sermons on love, living in community, and “we must get along for the sake of Christ” simply won’t do it. It is the duty of the pastor, a messenger and beacon of Christ’s light and word, God’s calling to pastoral ministry, bestowed upon them officially by the Holy Spirit, to be more than just average in the ministry of the sharing of the Word in preaching, which is very much a part of our liturgical identity as the RCA. In the pulpit, a collection of the body of Christ is challenged, encouraged to see what the world that God has created around them could be like, and perhaps even be better if it isn’t good, and are told to love and embrace all people in a radically new way. Simply preaching on a text that says “God is love and you need to love people” isn’t doing due diligence to the baptism and Eucharist we have all taken part in.
My heart aches when praise bands become the sole source of worship, when wiggling, arms raised, and TV screens, and horrible backgrounds with lyrics from Chris Tomlin and Hillsong are the sole way in which Christians are expected to engage with God during a time of prayer and reflection. Where is the liturgical integrity, the respect for the history of the denomination that we call home, and the desire to maintain, update and preserve the past, present and continue it into the future – for the sake of who we have been, who we are now, and who we desire to be in the future? Perhaps we have no desire to be a denomination built upon strong hymns, which were a cornerstone of our heritage, but rather a denomination built upon praise bands, worship songs and hands raised…in question? In confusion? In submission to God? What is our desire in this movement? Are we desiring to become more Evangelical and less Presbyterian? Or are we desiring to become less rooted and grounded in history and tradition and more “do what you want, regardless of theological or liturgical legitimacy, and that’ll be just fine!”?
I desire for this denomination to be open to all who seek God – wholeheartedly, with their heart, mind, soul and body – but authentically. And perhaps that is in and of itself, a can of worms, a living and breathing contradiction. But is creating a distracting worship environment taking away from the thanking, praising and worshiping of God? Worship, in its core essence is the space created to gather to commune with God, not a space to jig and jog (to borrow language from my father, a brave and courageous man of faith himself) around in public.
I leave you all with that critically important question, as the cultural, historical, intellectual and theological survival of the church (and frankly, denomination) depends upon it.