The Beauty of Worship: Aesthetics & Truth

Article ID: JAV431 | By: Matthew M. Kennedy


This article first appeared in the Viewpoint column of Christian Research Journal, volume 43, number 1 (2020). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.


Preaching and celebrating Communion every Sunday in an Anglican church, I rarely have the opportunity to worship without the responsibility of making things move forward in the service. When vacation draws near, I look forward to setting that burden aside, though it is a beloved one, and worshiping with other congregations. At least one vacation Sunday, over my family’s strenuous objections, we attend a non-liturgical church that has embraced the seeker-sensitive or attractional model of worship. These churches bill themselves as culturally relevant and “not your grandmother’s church,” and they pride themselves on producing a worship service that both appeals to the unchurched and Christian alike.

There is a service worship format that dominates the seeker-sensitive genre. The service begins with “gathering music,” as I’ve heard it called. When the music starts, those hanging around in the welcome center or meandering through the coffee shop know it is time to make their way into the “worship space.” The gathering music is, as a rule, upbeat, to build a sense of anticipation and excitement for what lies ahead.

The worship space is designed to draw attention to the stage. There are no windows or natural light. The walls are usually painted in subdued colors with no adornments to catch the eye. The stage lighting mirrors that of a secular concert; the stage lit, the seating area, dark. Light is unnecessary because lyrics are flashed on a large scree usually behind and above the band. A fog machine may produce “haze” at appointed intervals. The interior design, lighting, special effects, and lack of natural light are crucial elements for creating the preferred mood.

After the gathering music, there may be a brief prayer, always “from the heart,” and a word of welcome followed by approximately half an hour of music, varying in mood from soulful to joyful to what could be described as romantic or even erotic.1 Indeed, the purpose of modern Christian praise music is to move the heart. The worshiper must be made to feel something. The words may or may not be theologically sound, but they are largely unimportant. One must feel in love with Jesus and feel the Holy Spirit moving in the room. The worshiper should feel a sense of exhilaration, as if she has touched and been touched by God.

The pastor then takes the stage. The ideal message is practical,2 addressing relevant questions like “How to Deal with Anxiety” or “How to Be an Effective Leader.” Bibles are often unnecessary since texts are flashed onto the screen and the message is rarely expositional. Thirty minutes or less, sermons often feel more like TED talks.3 Instead of an altar-call, the preacher frequently wraps up by challenging the congregation, while the band plays softly in the background, to commit to a new way of living or thinking. Then follows a closing prayer, one last song, and the room lights up as people file out of the worship space.

This form of Christian worship is a historical novelty. There has never been anything quite like it. It draws not only the unchurched but also many Christians raised in traditional worship settings for whom written prayers and old hymns feel inauthentic. I once heard a woman invited to the stage to share her testimony say, “I never felt anything at my old church. The Spirit didn’t move me like He does here. We said the same prayers and did the same things over and over again.”

John Keats famously wrote to Benjamin Bailey, “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination….O for a life of sensations rather than thoughts.”4 One abiding consequence of nineteenth-century Romanticism has been that Western people have been conditioned to look within to discover truth. For Christians, likewise, influenced by centuries of revivalism, emotions are considered the means by which God is known.5

This explains the seeker-sensitive aesthetic. The architecture, lighting, music, and message must evoke feelings. The concern is not beauty in an objective sense. Roger Scruton writes, “We call something beautiful when we gain pleasure from contemplating it as an individual object, for its own sake, and in its presented form.”6 But in the seeker-sensitive church, the lighting is garish, the lyrics and score simplistic and shallow. They serve the utilitarian purpose of generating the affections by which God is known.

CHRIST’S PROMISES AND THE HEART

Does the substance, sufficiency, and effect of worship hinge upon the emotions of the participants? Texts like Isaiah 29:13, are often used to support the affirmative: “this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.”7 The Israelites performed liturgical rituals correctly, it is argued, but without feeling, without “heart.” However, ancient Israelites did not associate the heart exclusively with the emotions, as twenty-first-century Americans do. “The three special functions, knowing, feeling, and willing, ascribed by modern psychologists to the mind, were attributed to the heart by the biblical writers.”8 The heart was considered the seat of the self. God’s lament in Isaiah 29:13 is not merely that the people lack passion. What they say with their mouths they do not believe with their minds, mean with their wills, nor desire with their emotions. The whole person is turned away from God.

God’s presence in Christian worship does not hinge on subjective experience. Jesus promises that wherever two or more gather in His name, He is there (Matt. 18:20). The apostle Paul charges Timothy to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching,” because, as he had just pointed out, “the sacred writings…are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 4:2–3 and 3:15–17). Jesus, holding up the bread at the Last Supper says, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19), and taking the wine says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). Paul asks rhetorically, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16).

When the church gathers and the Scriptures are expounded and the Eucharist is celebrated, Christ presides over the feast. He breaks open hard hearts, bringing repentance and faith. He feeds and comforts, consoles and binds up. He offers His body and blood to needy people. Yes, for the individual to receive any benefit from word and sacrament, they must be received subjectively by faith. But Christ’s presence and power are assured by His promises.

Josh Pauling recently observed that contemporary worship treats the external forms of worship as indifferent.9 So long as the music and lighting produce the requisite affections, they achieve their utilitarian purpose. But insofar as belief is reflected in worship, such praise implicitly proclaims an impotent god whose power depends on the fickle moods of fallen creatures, a Gnostic demiurge for whom the material world is immaterial. This is not the God who took on flesh in Jesus Christ to redeem the full human person — body, soul, mind, and will. The living God is a God of truth and beauty.

Solomon wrote, “[God] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Eccl. 3:11). God is the author of beauty and yet earthly beauty fades. The human soul yearns for eternal beauty. Ancient forms of worship, often eschewed as dead ceremonies by moderns, employ the beauty of earthly things to draw the soul to contemplate eternal verities. Scripture provides the model. The earthly temple was beautiful, and His heavenly temple is unspeakably and unfathomably so. In both instances, visible beauty bespeaks the majesty of the invisible God who gave His creatures physical senses. Beauty is employed not merely to produce subjective feelings but to articulate objective realities. As J. David Nolan writes:

It’s a knowledge of the hard and tried truths, of the objective reality of the grand mysteries of Revelation, that grounds much of the contemporary appreciation of these higher liturgical forms [i.e., traditional liturgy]; feelings may or may not follow. In my experience, they sometimes do and they sometimes don’t; but as soon as I’ve made spiritual experience my aim, worship is empty. The beautiful music, ornate vestments, sweet-smelling incense, and if you’re particularly blessed, high-soaring architecture and otherworldly stained-glass windows, serve to draw us through our faculties towards a more unified and internally consistent devotion to God.10

Hymns, written prayers, vestments, candles, incense, stained-glass windows, architecture, pulpit, and table — these visibly display the invisible truth that when the church gathers, heaven and earth meet. The senses — smell, taste, touch, sight, hearing — are all drawn heavenward and become instruments by which the worshiper gives glory to God. Hymns convey God’s presence through the ear to the soul. Written prayers echo God’s word, which never returns void (Isa. 55:11). Vestments speak of offices that transcend the individual man. Candles tell of the Light of the World. Fragrant incense draws the soul to meditate on Christ’s intercession. Stained-glass windows teach redemption history. The architecture bespeaks a God at once immanent and transcendent. The pulpit declares that the word carries God’s authority. The table announces that Christ feeds His people — energizing and empowering them to turn the world right side up — and that He Himself is the feast.

By turning the aesthetic elements of worship to the utilitarian end of producing a subjective experience of God, the seeker-sensitive model forfeits both beauty and truth. The presence of Christ in power when the church gathers is a reality that, while not always felt, is forever secured by His promise. The tangible beauty of the ancient liturgies of the church is the fruit of that truth and a means by which it is made known.

Matthew M. Kennedy (M.Div, VTS) is the rector of The Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, New York.

NOTES

  1. Secular observers recognize the eroticism of contemporary Christian music. In an episode entitled, “Christian Rock Hard,” South Park cartoon character, Cartman, decides to start a Christian band and compose Christian songs. To write his lyrics, he takes love songs and simply substitutes words like “baby” for “Jesus.” Season 7, episode 9, written and directed by Trey Parker, aired October 29, 2003, on Comedy Central, https://southpark.cc.com/full-episodes/s07e09-christian-rock-hard.
  2. As Douglas Groothuis notes, “One megachurch pastor advises that seeker-sensitive pastors preach for no more than 20 minutes on topics taken from the self-help section of the bookstore.” Mark Mittelberg and Douglas Groothuis, “Pro and Con: The Seeker-Sensitive Church Movement,” Christian Research Institute, April 9, 2009, www.equip.org/article/pro-and-con-the-seeker-sensitive-church-movement/.
  3. Devin D. Marks teaches pastors how to preach TED talk sermons for a fee, https://mytedtalk.com/preach-like-ted/.
  4. John Keats, “To Benjamin Bailey,” November 22, 1817, http://www.john-keats.com/briefe/221117.htm.
  5. See Matt Merker, “How Contemporary Worship Music Is Shaping Us — For Better or Worse,” The Gospel Coalition, February 6, 2019, www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/singing-congregation-contemporary-worship/.
  6. Roger Scruton, Beauty (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 26.
  7. All Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version.
  8. 8 Kaufmann Kohler, Tobias Schanfarber, Adolf Guttmacher, “Heart,” Jewish Encyclopedia, www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7436-heart.
  9. Josh Pauling, “The Hidden Transubstantiation of Contemporary Worship,” Mere Orthodoxy, March 4, 2020, https://mereorthodoxy.com/hidden-transubstantiationcontemporary-worship.
  10. David Nolan, “Liturgy and the Experience of Meaning,” First Things, January 16, 2014, www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2014/01/liturgy-and-the-experience-ofmeaning

 

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