Are your congregation’s efforts at worship renewal pagan?

Last weekend, Randy Harris, from Abilene Christian University, spent a day with our new missional leadership cohort at Rochester College, helping them to write a shared rule of life. Randy’s the guy to do this work, and we get so much more than rule of life help. He says things every 30 seconds or so which challenges us to more and deeper.

For instance, he was talking about being attentive to God and how important the contemplative life is to that end. Along the way he noticed a text from Habakkuk 2 in which idols are compared with the living God. The thing about an idol is that it doesn’t speak or do anything. You have to supply all the energy. In contrast, Habbakkuk says, “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Hab 2:20). We keep still because God is active. Randy then said something to the effect that most efforts at worship renewal appear to him to be more pagan than Christian. We’re working up a performance because we’re not sure God is doing anything. Too harsh?

I don’t remember the last time I sang the song, “The Lord is in his Holy Temple,” in worship. But here’s the thing I remember about that song. It has a four beat measure of silence toward the end in which no one sings. I never encountered a song leader who treated that measure as anything more than a brief pause. We were never silent for four beats. We couldn’t endure it. It was too awkward. Which is totally ironic, given the intent of Habakkuk 2 and the parallel intent of the songwriter.

The fact that we never seem to sing this song anymore and, could never be silent when we did, seems to me to be a parable of sorts that might indicate Randy is on to something.

Most congregations I attend have no space for reflection, no moments when we are invited to be still or silent. When there is silence, it is typically because someone has missed their cue to lead a prayer or read a Scripture, etc. And everyone fidgets in these moments, embarrassed at the lack of performance. We cannot abide silence. I cringe to think that our assemblies might be closer to Amos 5, “Take away from me the noise of your songs,” than Habakkuk 2, “Let all the earth keep silence before him.”

In fact, this might be an important way the church learns to serve the world. My wife, Donna, and I were talking about this and she noted how even when we are asked to observe a moment of silence in the wake of a tragedy at a public event like a ballgame, those moments used to be much longer than the brief pauses we now observe. A few posts ago, I noticed that silence is now a luxury commodity to be sold, for instance in the premium flyer lounges at airports, or with apps that allow you to avoid pop-up ads for a small fee. We are trained not to be attentive, not to be still, not to be silent.

This is an instance of the larger cultural environment, constantly bombarding us with information, influencing the way we worship. It should be the other way around. The way we worship should prepare us to live a life not given to us by the principalities and powers of the age. And that life should be attentive, because our God is no dumb idol.

So, what if our Sunday worship took Habakkuk’s distinction as the starting place for worship planning? What if silence was a prime indicator of belief in a living God? What if worship was intended to form us for greater attentiveness in the world? Would we sing less? (In my experience, we could sing less and still be singing a lot). Would we have fewer powerpoint slides? Would we have more moments for reflection? Would our sermons be less performance oriented? Would worship be a space for slowing down? I think these are things worth thinking about.

About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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9 Responses to Are your congregation’s efforts at worship renewal pagan?

  1. dma05b says:

    Mark, every CoC I’ve worshipped with actually did have a significant moment of silence dedicated to meditation…. during communion. I’ve heard others lament the lack of silence in our worship but it seems to me that these comments always overlook the practice of silence during communion. Any thoughts?

    • Mark Love says:

      Yes, in fact I almost made a comment in the blog post. Two things. First, most churches I have been in lately sing during communion, so the practice of silence is not as common as it once was, which I think underscores my point. But, ironically, I also think this is the one place in the service that should not be given wholly to personal introspection.

  2. Jack B. Westbrook says:

    In response to someone who sent me this via email link, I wrote the following:
    In my opinion, this is poor exegesis. I think it has merit in the context of correcting those who might be trying to worship God with something that makes them feel good about themselves when they are willfully ignoring God’s will. In my opinion, which lacks thorough research on the matter, the point in both Amos 5:23 and in Habakkuk 2:20 is, “Shut up and listen to God for a change.”
    Pausing to be silent in worship is similar to “raising holy hands.” Both are metaphors. If one does those, then do them for all metaphors; including “on blended knee I come.” Is there anything wrong with any of these gestures? I would say, no, and defend anyone’s right to do them in worship. At the same time, I would still wonder if they understood the meaning; while realizing that they may honestly be worshipping God in a more righteous state than I if it were not for Jesus’ blood that covers our sins equally.

    Because Jesus lives,

    Jack B. Westbrook
    Bedford, TX

  3. Sean Niestrath says:

    Thanks, Mark. Agree with your assessment. I have been doing lessons this year around the theme of rest. Silence is a skill and a discipline much lacking today. Peace.

  4. George Tsirgiotis says:

    Thank you, Mark. I have been thinking and saying the same thing for quite a while. I believe that many churches have gone the direction of “exuberant praise” at the cost of reverence. I believe there is room for both. In Memphis we sometimes joke about how things have changed. When the newer styles of worship become more common, we used to call it “basketball church” (referring to the alternative worship, which took place in the life center rather than the sanctuary, a multipurpose gymnasium where the youth would play). I have also found myself at times thinking that I was going to a “Jesus rally” rather than a worship service.

  5. Tommy McCormack says:

    Sounds like the pendulum might be starting to swing.At least it sounds like some want it to.

  6. ronjohnsjr says:

    Mark, I read these two posts backwards so I had the benefit of your explanation that follows as I read this post. However, I believe you are spot on and I don’t understand the criticism of your exegesis. Silence as a spiritual practice of worship holds historical precedent, textual priority and experiential affirmation. The church desperately needs silence to make space for God. I remember Richard Rogers at the Tulsa Workshop saying one time, “We don’t invite the Holy Spirit to show up at our churches, because we’re worried he won’t behave himself.” I believe our hesitancy to practice silence stems from a discomfort with God’s active presence.

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