Worship as foundation of counter-cultural witness

May 21, 2019 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

In an article for Metro, vicar and TV personality Kate Bottley argues that Kanye West’s new “Sunday Service” venture isn’t a proper church. There’s no sermon, Kanye himself is an egotistical pop star and celebrity not a proper priest, attendance at the ‘church’ is by invitation only, and the fantastically wealthy couple at the centre of it all don’t appear to be promoting a culture of helping the needy.

While Kate may have a point, I think she’s missed something very important in her list of what constitutes authentic church. I was intrigued to watch the short clip of West’s ‘service’ included in the Metro article – the music in the background undoubtedly features a gospel-style choir singing praise to Jesus, and then transitioning into that old chorus ‘this is the day that the Lord has made’. While its easy to be cynical about Kanye West’s latest venture which may have commercial motivation, at face value he appears to be one of a long list of iconic music stars to have embraced Christian spirituality, and to publicly sing praise to God at a stage in their life. Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Johnny Cash and James Ingram come to mind.

Church, as a corporate expression of the Christian life, is not just about doing good in the community or hearing about the bible, vital though these are – it’s about worship: orienting towards God in praise, thankfulness and prayer. Kate Bottley in wanting to emphasise the ‘horizontal’, human aspect of church, seems to have forgotten the vertical and transcendent, something which Mr West’s new venture appreciates – even if it might benefit from some good biblical exposition!

Some years ago I taught in a small bible college in South Africa, where most of the students came from independent churches in the impoverished townships. These churches differed enormously from each other in worship style, ranging from the sacramental and ceremonial with Victorian hymnbooks, robes and clouds of incense, to hyper-pentecostal where 90 minutes of singing and shouting was just the introduction to the first sermon. While the pastors of these churches benefitted hugely from the training they received in understanding and handling the bible, and skills in community development, they challenged the Western teaching staff with their awareness of the spiritual realm and their simple trust in God expressed in corporate praise.

Certainly in my experience of the Church of England, there is always a danger of losing sight of the significance of our worship. In the two-dimensional, stifling environment of secularism, the spiritual can be replaced with the psychological; the beauty of a Cathedral evensong or the excitement of a rock band can in itself provide therapy for the stressed soul without the need for a comforting and challenging encounter with the Saviour. Worship can be seen as a complete escape from the world rather than witness and engagement. It can cause confusion, when there is direct contradiction between the bible-based words of the liturgy and songs, and the revisionist teaching of the church’s public message. Or, in some cases, for us very English intellectual evangelical types, the hymns and songs are corporate rehearsing of doctrines, sermons set to music to complement the bible exposition, in ways that might excite the minds of some but do not always facilitate expression of love-relationship with the Creator. We could benefit from some proper Gospel praise, with shouting and crying, just as the worship of others could be enhanced by sound theology!

Psalm 71 is a great example of a personal expression of praise and prayer which is structured to teach us about principles of worship.

It begins with an expression of trust in God as “rock and refuge”, but a plea for deliverance at a time of severe personal difficulty. Later in the Psalm the writer refers to “many and bitter troubles”, but expresses faith that God will restore his life, bring him up “from the depths”, and bring back honour and comfort (v20-21). The need to publicly declare God’s “marvellous deeds” and “mighty acts” is repeated several times, as the writer contemplates not only what God has done for him personally, but his character and rule over the world.

This hope in God has been a feature of his life since youth. He asks that this would continue through to old age:

“Since my youth, O God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvellous deeds.

Even when I am old and grey, do not forsake me, O God,

till I declare your power to the next generation.” (17-18).

There is a sense in which awareness of God’s love and reliability have shaped the writer’s character over the years. The habit of praise is linked to mission: knowledge and faith in God is passed on to others. The psalm ends with an expression of desire to sing to the faithful God who redeems, accompanied by musical instruments. More Kanye than Kate, certainly!

So we can say that according to this Psalm, praising God has several functions: the pastoral, giving comfort to the suffering individual who connects with the Lord; the formational, shaping the character of the person who contemplates him; the evangelistic, giving voice and motivation to the public declaration of God’s offer of salvation.

But there is another important function of praise here: the prophetic. The Psalmist praises God not just in the context of personal difficulty, perhaps ill health, bereavement, family or financial issues. He is more seriously, facing very serious opposition from “evil and cruel men” who are out to pursue, accuse and destroy him. While we can speculate on the historical context of this conflict and danger in the life of David, it is not just something which applied to him with no relevance to the majority of Christians living in nations relatively free from conflict and violence. Rather, Scripture insists that the Christian life is a spiritual battle for all, as demonic forces oppose the church in its stand for the truth of the gospel. This is reflected in furious opposition from the world when Christians witness to the reality of God and his standards.

“I have become a portent to many, but you are my strong refuge; my mouth is filled with your praise” says David. When the church refuses to make accommodation with falsehood, and stands apart from the secular world on issues such as the sanctity of life, sexual morality or the uniqueness of Christ among the world’s religions, it becomes a ‘portent’, a symbol to the unbelieving world of the reality of God and his judgement. This prophetic ministry, like the pastoral, formational and evangelistic, should be underpinned by the regular worship of God’s people. Detached from it, the prophetic message just sounds grumpy and critical, and individuals can end up either trusting in human, perhaps political solutions, or losing hope. In this we succumb to the secularist mindset which we are called to challenge. Rather, through praise, while facing the very real human and spiritual opposition, our eyes are lifted to the reality of God, and we’re reminded of his activity, not leaving us to face opposition alone, carrying out his righteous purposes. In the same way the Psalmist speaks of God’s righteous acts, confident that “those who want to harm me have been put to shame and confusion”.

In his book ‘The Benedict Option’, which I have been re-reading, Rod Dreher speaks of the importance of regular liturgical worship as “a powerful weapon…against modernity, in building a bulwark against its disintegrating forces…when churches are properly ordered towards Christ through liturgy…the result is beauty in sharp contrast to the world”. Our worship is not self-therapy and an escape from a hostile environment or worse, surrender to its powers. Rather it’s a means of mission to it from the sound base of having the living God at the centre of our worldview.

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