One of our regular commentators, who may or may not wish to identify himself, wrote this to me just now:
Earlier this year, we moved to a new area and began attending a nearby church. But I must admit: every Sunday I wake up dreading going to church. Today I pulled myself together and we marched off to worship, vowing to make the most of it.
Within just a few minutes into the service, we felt like we’d stumbled into a group lobotomy session. It was your typical, “seeker-sensitive, contemporary” service. We stuck it out as long as we could, but bolted before the last “praise song.” Once outside, my wife and I began to complain about how desperately insipid and shallow this church is, comparing it unfavorably with a church we attend while on vacation. That other church really does it right, we agreed. Yep, that other pastor preaches deep and intellectually challenging sermons, referencing a wide variety of biblical scholars and Christian (and sometimes secular) authors and artists. He wrestles honestly with Scripture, and appreciates the complexity of church history. Plus, he can begin a prayer without saying “Lord, we just wanna….” And his church’s order of worship always includes a prayer of confession, a time for silent reflection, an assurance of pardon, a creed: in fact, the whole nine yards of liturgical richness that our denomination historically has been known for. Why, we wailed, can’t the church in our new home town be more like that other church we attend on vacation?
Then it hit me: that other church (the one we like) is a liberal congregation, while this home town church is very much a conservative, evangelical congregation. That’s when I flashed back to your “I Miss the Old Left at Prayer” post. It really is true: those of us Protestants who are theologically orthodox but intellectually deep sometimes fit in best (to the extent we fit in anywhere) in an old-style liberal congregation. (So long as the liberal pastor hasn’t gone post-Christian or New Age, that is) At one time, there were many such pastors (I call them “righteous liberals”), but by now most of them have retired or passed away. There are a few left, and we are lucky enough to have such a pastor at the church we attend while on vacation.
I guess this is why we have stayed in a mainline denomination even though we are theologically orthodox and appalled by many of the pronouncements of our General Assembly. We rely on the Mars Hill audio interviews for some of our spiritual nourishment. But we also need a church family that will help us move forward in our faith journey, with whom we can discuss the faith issues in Dostoevsky’s novels, Blake’s poems and Wendell Berry’s essays, and who are capable of debating the Christian response to war, poverty, family disintegration, porn, abortion and environmental degradation. Even though there are evangelical and orthodox congregations within our denomination, most tend to be shallow like the one in our new home town.
Because our new home town is small, our church options are very limited. So until we come up with a better choice for worship, I dread Sunday morning. What’s a believer to do?
Thoughts, readers? I’ve sometimes wondered what I would do if I lived in a place in which the only community worship services were praise-band-emergent-non-denominational-ish. I’d probably stay home on Sunday morning. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing at all against Christians who pray in that style. For me, though, it shuts me down. It’s not just a matter of distaste. It’s that God seems much farther away and less accessible through that style of worship. When I was Catholic, a charismatic Catholic friend who is intellectually serious and theologically orthodox invited me to charismatic Catholic services. Even though I believe in principle in a lot of the spiritual things that charismatics do, the whole worship style — praise choruses, etc. — left me feeling stone cold, and even (this is key) wanting to leave. I’m not sure why, except that highly emotional religious environments make me extremely anxious — this, even though I respond powerfully to aesthetic beauty, and have a generally mystical bent to my spirituality.
I am sure there are plenty of people who feel the same way about liturgical churches.
Anyway, think about what the reader has said above, and how it resonates, or doesn’t, with your own experience of worship. I’d especially like to hear from pastors on this.