Chapter 4 of Jamie Smith’s You are What you Love focuses is ‘The Narrative Arc of Formative Christian Worship’
The argument should be familiar by now: Christian worship is about re-calibrating hearts. We don’t do that with information but with reforming desire through embodied liturgy shaped by the biblical story line that inscribes that story into our hearts.
He wants the Scriptures to ‘seep into us’ through the intentional, communal rituals of worship (84)
There is unique imagination-forming power in the communal, repeated, and poetic cadences of historic Christian worship
The goal is for God’s word to be the orienting centre of our imagination and desires – working on a subconscious level, engaging the body as well as the mind.
A biblical vision for humanity is discovering what it is to be truly human – to engage in the process of becoming like Christ, the perfect image of God. This happens from the inside-out, via the Spirit whose work and objective it is to restore the image. This renewal involves a change of character – a character of wisdom and love and maturity.
But this renewed character has a bigger context – to take up our role as a character within God’s bigger narrative. This is our telos, our purpose – to become like Jesus. This is what it means to be fully human.
It is this gospel plot that we have constantly to recalibrate our lives around. Christian worship should be about capturing our imagination because we are aesthetic creatures
Our hearts are like stringed instruments that are plucked by story, poetry, metaphor, images. We tap our existential feet to the rhythm of imaginative drums. (91)
We need worship to captivate us. Inspire us. Setting a vision of what could be – what will be. Regular Christian worship locates us in this grand story. The aim is for this story to become so engrained that it becomes the way we think, and feel, and act in the world.
This storied worship has 4 chapters:
GATHERING: a call to worship. We are being called into God’s holy presence, not the other way around. We are being called to confession of sins week after week. To recognise constantly how our desires become disordered and twisted.
Without weekly confession what is Christian worship? What messages are being communicated if our need of forgiveness and need of reforming our desires and lives is not central to our meetings?
LISTENING: we gather to hear God, not ourselves. To hear the gospel, to hear his Word. To hear how to live.
COMMUNING: we meet with God and with each other in worship. We come to eat the Lord’s Supper together – to commune with Him and with his body the church. This is profoundly counter cultural – here is no hierarchy, no division, no social or political or economic boundaries.
SENDING: In worship we meet with the Triune God, are re-formed in Christ, counseled by his Word, and nourished by bread of life. We are then sent out into the world to look after God’s creation and to make disciples of all nations. To invite others to find their true purpose and identity in becoming fully human in Christ Jesus.
It is this training in narrative that is at the heart of worship says Smith.
He addresses some questions here – look for this narrative in your church’s worship. Try to be part of the solution to improve things. If absolutely necessary and as a last resort it might be you go worship elsewhere. Why? Because “the future of orthodox, faithful, roust Christianity hinges on the renewal of worship.” (101)
What Smith is writing here is anti-seeker-service Christianity. It’s an appeal for ‘full-on’ embodied, sacramental, sacred, reverent, ‘culturally-other’ Christian worship. Willow Creek this is most definitely not.
But it’s also an appeal against the sort of background I come from – a branch of Protestant Reformed Christianity that, following the logic of the Reformer’s suspicion of Catholic fusion of grace and nature, developed into a ‘disenchantment’ with the world; a caution about the full implications of the Word become flesh; God mediated in human form; that “creation itself is charged with the Spirit’s presence” (101).
This led within Presbyterianism to (in my opinion) a sort of rationalist theology embodied in starkly simple worship; a dominating focus on the mind – ‘right doctrine’ and the Word preached; all within a rigid formality and relationally cold context. (This is broad brush historical deveopment, not a descripion of every local Presbyterian church! Where things are improving, I think it is by overcoming these hurdles)
Smith quotes Charles Taylor in calling this ‘excarnation’ – the opposite to incarnation.
And here’s a controversial and interesting prediction from Smith below – what do you think? Is he right? Do we need to ‘go back to the future’ when it comes to our churches and the structure of our worship? Or is he being naive and idealistic about what Christian worship can achieve in terms of being paradoxially ‘attractive’ by being counter-cultural?
And does this impact physically as well? For example in our local context we are thinking about a new church building, which would be our first, so we have a ‘blank slate’ . I imagine for Smith the choice of design is of major importance since a building speaks of a ‘liturgy’ in and of itself. What sort of choice would you go for? A ‘culturally relevant’ church building or an ‘ancient’ and ‘culturally-other’ traditionally historic one? How much does local context shape that choice? (Smith is writing in an American one).
I expect it will be forms of reenchanted Christianity that actually have a future. Protestant excarnation has basically ceded its business to others: if you are looking for a message, an inspirational idea, some top-up fuel for your intellectual receptacle – well, there are entire cultural industries happy to provide that. Why would you need the church? You can watch Ellen or Oprah or a TED talk.
But what might stop people short – what might truly haunt them – will be encounters with religious communities who have punched skylights in our brass heavens. It will be “ancient” Christian communities – drawing on the wells of historic, “incarnate” Christian worship with its smells and bells and all its Gothic peculiarity, embodying a spirituality that carries whiffs of transcendence – that will be strange and therefore all the more enticing … Because when the thin gruel of do-it-yourself spirituality turns out to be isolating, lonely, and unable to endure crises, the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd might find itself surprisingly open to something entirely different. (102)