Worship on a Pale Horse

In a number of worship services that I’ve attended lately, I have been looking for a word to describe what I experience. Unfortunately, I think I have found that word–pale. (I’ll get to the “horse” thing later!) I don’t intend this as a criticism of any particular church or worship service, nor of any particular style of worship. This “pale” feeling has come over me in a variety of situations and in worship services of just about any style over the last few years.

I believe that a worship service can be full-blooded no matter what form the service takes. I have been in services that were intensely traditional, high church, contemporary, blended, charismatic, or largely philosophical in style and hardly recongizable as worship at all, and I have found examples of all of these that seemed full blooded–not pale at all. I have personally experienced times of worship that were not in a church building. These include time alone or with a few friends out in nature, times when I was engaged in helping people, or simply moments of meditation. All of these seemed to be full-blooded.

What do I mean by full-blooded?

I simply mean a spiritual experience that has integrity and that is directed toward taking the worshipper toward the intended goal. “Pale” worship seems to me to be worship engaged in because we just know we’re supposed to be in church at that particular moment. We attend a worship service because we always do. The church puts on a worship service because that is what churches do. The form of the worship service is determined by what people expect.

Individual worship experiences, such as time on the beach or in the mountains, or time spent seeking God in your own home are not done just because they are “the thing to do.” But even one’s devotional or meditation time can come to be simply a form or an empty ritual. Please don’t misunderstand me. Ritual can be a good and important thing in a person’s life. Ritual is not bad. The problem is when one goes through the ritual without looking at the meaning.

Sometimes people use individual experiences as an excuse to leave regular worship and go off on their own. If a person is finding time to be with God, getting social contact, and has some sort of accountability, I have no particular problem with alternatives to the traditional weekly church service. But this can be an excuse to leave a worship service that is not satisfying, and replace it with nothing at all.

And here is another point. I have been told that calling a worship service “satisfying” or complaining that one has not been “fed” is not valid. Worship, after all, is about God, about presenting worship to God. At one time I agreed with this, at least in part. But even then I had to suggest that one cannot serve God without being refreshed, filled, and yes, satisfied. Jesus himself suggested that worship had to go beyond the expressions pointed Godwards.

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord! Lord!” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. –Matthew 7:21

Worship here is not the expression of one’s praise for God, but rather one’s actions, and I believe I am on solid ground in saying that the primary thing that Jesus commanded was to treat one’s fellow human beings appropriately and lovingly. So when I go out and take actions to make the world a better place, to make life better for other people, I am, in fact, carrying out worship. Pointing my worship toward God results in, and is even equivalent to, pointing my actions toward people. If I correctly read Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus even further suggests that someone who never knew the “stuff” and never spoke the words would be acceptable in his kingdom, whereas those who knew the stuff, and spoke the right words, but did not do the deeds will not be acceptable.

I still think corporate worship, getting a group of people with common mind and heart together in a service of worship, is an important thing. And it’s not just about God. It’s not just about Jesus. Or rather, it is, but not in the way we have thought. Christians often talk about having a relationship and not a religion. If it’s a relationship, communication needs to go both ways. Both sides have needs, both need to hear, both need to speak. And so it’s all about Jesus, but I’m part of his body here on earth, and so it is, in fact about me. It’s not just that I need to get refreshed and fed so I can serve, as important as that is, but the worship is for everyone who is there.

We need to take seriously being Christ’s body. We need to take seriously being the temple of the Holy Spirit. The worship service is for us, and we need to start to ask that it accomplishes something for us and in us. As believers, as part of the purpose of the worship in the first place we shouldn’t need to force ourselves to attend. We shouldn’t need to force ourselves to get into an attitude of worship. We should be able to lose ourselves in the worship.

It’s all about Jesus, and that’s why it’s all about me too!

Is this accomplished by a particular format, or a particular set of elements? I don’t think so. I would suggest that we should have worship services that occur around tables where we eat pizza and chat openly. No, I don’t mean that as a supplement to the regular worship service, so we can eat pizza on Saturday night, but we all need to get to a more traditional form of worship on Sunday morning. What I mean is that worship service might occur at the pizza parlor on Tuesday night, and might not involve singing, Bible reading, or preaching. It might just involve sharing of people’s stories (we use the theological term “testimonies” but that just tends to scare people) about what happened during the week.

Worship might occur in a very traditional setting. I really like a good high church style service. I feel that I need one every so often. It might occur totally in music. Teaching and learning can occur entirely in the context of music. It might occur in a session of simple Bible reading. We really are afraid of reading the Bible and allowing people to hear it for themselves without the aid of professionals in the church.

I expect this little essay will annoy more people than just about anything I have written. Messing with worship tends to mess with people’s lives. Many pastors get annoyed at the thought that people may no longer focus on the Sunday morning service. But I don’t think the Sunday morning service is serving many people’s needs. We complain that people are no longer attending church, and we moan and groan about their spiritual and moral commitment. They just don’t value church any more! But what if they are simply leaving the church because they, either as a part of the body of Jesus, or trying to become part of the body, found that the worship was all about somebody else, somebody else who was not in heaven?

This is where I thought of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Please understand that I don’t think that Revelation 6 is referring to worship. I’m simply using the four horses as an illustration.

I see the first horse, the white one that goes out to conquer as our approach to worship after a new experience. We try new things, we find new life. Since we’re human, we also make mistakes and sometimes annoy people. One of the great problems with the “spiritual warfare” metaphor in Christianity, is that we mistake making war on the barriers and obstacles in our own spiritual life and experience for making war on others. Conquering results in angry reaction. I’m not blaming this on one group or another. What I’m asking is that we recognize that conflict results from moving onto new ground in any field of endeavor, and even more than average when it is in church activities that are so rooted in tradition.

The red horse follows which is the conflict. The danger here is that the conflict will replace the desire to worship. At this point we begin to defend “our” worship activities from “those other people.” At this point, the worship is about us, and not about us as part of the body, but about us in our selfish aloneness. It’s “my way or the highway” worship.

The red horse is followed by the black one. Famine strikes as we will never be satisfied when we make worship about our lonely self. At this point the conflict is what the church is about. Note that this conflict need not be obvious or on the surface. People can be simply avoiding the issue because they are tired of fighting. There is peace when armies are resting between battles, but it is not real peace.

The pale horse is death, in my use of the metaphor, spiritual death because people are not fed, and cannot see any reason to attend or be part of a spiritual community. The grave follows after.

It is this worship riding on a pale horse that I sense in some services. There is no effort to make worship relevant or to see that it is fulfilling the needs of all the members. The intention is that worship be “right” more than that it be useful and practical.

My contention is that Christian worship is now riding out on a pale horse. There are certainly exceptions. There are plenty of opportunities. But in most churches we are afraid to move to completely new modes and methods of worship. The grave is following behind. We guard the monuments to worship in our buildings, our furniture, our forms, and our schedules, keeping them looking good. But good people are leaving because they are not spiritually fulfilled by worship. They see nothing that comes out of worship and pours forth in their daily lives that makes them better, or helps them help others.

And so they move to others means. Again, don’t get me wrong. Churches do wonderful things. Church goers do wonderful things. But we have lost many people because the worship services no longer seem to mean anything. We need to get these two elements together.

Similar Posts