I'm exhausted. It's always interesting to think you know the meaning of a word until you inhabit it, until you see how much further into the thing you can go.
I accidentally walked into a church service in a hip coffee shop on Sunday. I say that like I wandered onto a mine field. That's how I mean it. I was instantly exhausted then, back when I thought I knew the meaning of the word.
I was instantly exhausted, instantly uncomfortable, instantly bothered. I have my reasons. I've been against this type of twee Christian self-love-fest gathering for a long time now. I wasn't always. But as my picture of God grew, so did my unrest with coffeehouse worship. Not because you can't worship wherever you want, but because so often it's a celebration of how different your edgy church is.
Places like this talk a lot about "magnifying the Lord." This urge to "magnify God," as if God isn't already Being itself, fits right in with urban reclaimed stained-wood tables holding lattes made from single-origin beans nestled inside of home-kilned mugs. It's predictable, and not in a good way. It's person-magnification. It's a shallow aesthetic meant to replace the work of worship. For me, what I walked in on was not worship. Not of God, anyway. People clapped at the end; that's how you know you're doing church wrong.
So I went to sit outside, where I felt God was more likely to be. I've had that sense of God for as long as I can remember. God as wild, and untamed, and damn-well magnified enough already. I sat outside, and I let all the pain and exhaustion of my current world rest on top of my rejection of some self-congratulating thing which seemed about as far from the Divine life as anything else I could think of. And I cried a little, and I thought of Mary Oliver's poem "Wild Geese." And I knew God was there, in the poem and in my remembering it. And I was okay.
A while back, I wrote a post talking about what makes great hymns great, or on a more basic level, what makes hymns hymns. Toward the end, I comment on how hymns are only a part of the sacred expression of a church, a larger phenomenon which includes the space where members meet. Here’s what I said exactly:
A church’s space has a tendency to reflect its theological priorities. The sights and sounds you experience in that space is critical for the theological education and spiritual health of the congregation within. Remembering that our expressions of and confrontations with the divine can be shared as meaningful worship art is a start. If we hang a painting or photograph in the church, or choose a certain hymn, let’s just stop and ask why. Let’s ask if the art is teaching us something, if it’s moving us toward a more full life both with our fellow worshippers and with those beyond the walls.
That’s pretty good, but it needs an adjustment: “a church’s space should reflect its theological priorities.” Recently, Faith & Form: The Interfaith Journal on Religion, Art, and Architecture announced its 2014 International Awards Program for Religious Art & Architecture. The winners for architecture are fascinating.[^1] Each one speaks to the life of the elements, draws you in and imprints on you a mood, an approach, a theology.
Take note that they are not all soaring, grand spaces. They’re not all creations of deep pockets and unlimited artistic vision. It’s important that you realize how a sacred space can be built or designed or decorated with intention no matter how large or small the space or congregation’s bank account.
But What About Gyms and Powerpoint Screens?
Gross. That’s gross. Now, let me clarify before you get mad because your church space is in fact a gym with a big projector screen up front. Remember when I told you that it was important to realize this wasn’t a conversation about money? It’s not. If you’re a startup church, and the only place you can meet is a gym, and that gym happens to have a video screen in it, I’m not saying you shouldn’t meet there. It’s just that no matter where you meet, whether its a storefront or a 2,000-seater with the paint still drying, your sacred space should be intentional. This is a conversation about intention.
Worshippers should be intentional about what elements occupy their sacred space. In a space where we invite the Divine into communion, every piece of décor—the large and visible, the small and not-so-visible—should be there only if you’re sure why it should be there. It’s also why you should think about what elements are missing from your space. Would icons communicate your theology to the congregation and those who visit your space better than no icons? Would the hazy light of the afternoon drifting in through stained glass speak more to your understanding of God than bright, open panes? Than a windowless space? Do shining whitewashed walls better speak to your church’s identity than vivid paint? A cross or a video screen front and center?
If you’re not asking these questions, you and your fellow members are missing out. Not only should we know why we meet, we should know why we meet where we meet. This isn’t trivial knowledge. Fleshing out our identity as communities of faith is wrapped up in knowing as much as we can about each aspect of our time together. Where you spend time with God seems like a big part of that shared experience, and we should treat it as such.
[^1]: See more images of the winners by visiting Religion News Service here.
Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee. Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty, God in three persons, blessed Trinity.
Hymn as Art
It's amazing that that's a hymn. It's wonderful, isn't it? Even as someone who struggles daily with what I believe, with what I want to be true and what I want to know, it's easy to see the beauty there. It's a poem, it's got a beautiful melody that I would sing to you if you were here, it's a theology lesson; in short, it's a hymn. That's what hymns are supposed to do. All that stuff I just said. It's a huge task, and lots of "hymns" fall short. So many fall short, they started calling them "praise and worship" songs to skirt the criteria.
At this very moment, I'm listening to Sufjan Stevens' version of "Holy, Holy, Holy." When I listen to this (which is often), I think "why isn't this what Christianity sounds like?" It sounds like morning, like a new dawn, like a breeze, like life. It sounds like he gets the hymn, actually. We in the Christian tradition are blessed with some amazing pieces of worship art, and yet what grabs the spotlight arcs evermore toward the commercial and the bland. This is the unescapable consequence of the Protest Reformation. Don't get me wrong, Luther had some good points. But if you want to see how tasteless and artless and uninspiring Christianity can be, walk into one of a million Protestant churches in America. Maybe the picture of Jesus will be interesting. Like, maybe he won't be white.
I realize that, so far, I've been picking out a smaller piece of worship, the music, to make a larger point. Though let me point out that contemporary worship isn't the only perpetrator; old churches that sing old hymns can be just as bad. So the issue here isn't that "the old hymns are the good hymns." It's about good art versus bad art. It's about which art moves us into an experience with the divine, and the other kind which is about feeling good. And just because a church practices high liturgy doesn't mean they've got their finger on the pulse, either. When the liturgy and the atmosphere and the worship art, in all its forms, move us to an encounter with Being, that's when things are moving as they should. That's when the art is doing its job. Not only is it beautiful unto itself, but it's moving outward and shaping us. It's giving us a glimpse of grace and divinity. It's teaching us something. Can a contemporary song do this? Of course it can. But I haven't heard one yet up to the task. Maybe that's me just being picky. But if we place value on the space in which we worship and all that we hear and see in that space, I think it's to our benefit to make sure that the entire worship experience is examined. American Protestantism (and it's the American kind I speak of because that's where my experience lies) pushed off so heavily from symbol and art in its desire to find a kind of basic purity that it went entirely off the grid.
When we take things like hymns seriously as art and as theological tools, we're affording them a value in our attempt to become, in our attempt to more fully connect with divinity. When Sufjan sings "Holy, Holy, Holy," he's teaching. The hymn is doing its job, and as the interpreter and presenter of the art, he's doing his as well. That's why it works. He could just as easily do this with a song that doesn't try to be "religious" at all. Any song that meets the criteria above is a hymn in my book. Unfortunately, almost all contemporary Christian art (which I don't really recognize as its own category) fails to meet even one of those standards. I don't think it's because people are less able to create something beautiful that teaches me a theological truth—I think it's because Christianity (which is different from a life lived in and through Christ) is about presentation and perception and baseless emotion. In short, it's about selling me something.
Lemme Buy Some Jesus
Now, I'm not trying to put all churches in a basket here. I'm aware that many still practice meaningful, inspiring liturgy in a meaningful, inspiring space. It happens. I've seen it. But it's far more likely that I'll see some place called The Rock or Lighthouse or LoveSpace or J-Man's Clubhouse 4 Totes Awesome Timez. And what would I find in there? Probably "contemporary worship." Now, before I go on an old-man rant, let me say that I recognize the need for nuance. Not all churches do anything, not all contemporary worship is the worst, etc. Still, I can't remember the last time I heard a hymn that taught me anything that wasn't written by a dead person. Praise and worship songs (and the worship environments they feed and are fed by) are anthems meant to evoke an emotion, not tell you anything. It's not about you contributing to the worship in that moment, it's about the worship affecting you. This approach reeks of commercialism and marketing, which has become the mark of American Christianity. Churches are stores, and you shop around for one, and you buy the one that fits.
Hymns are an extension of the need to create in the face of the Creator, to create while being created. It's a fascinating way to connect with who we are and who we wish to be. The fact that such a process has become so largely about hitting the top of the Christian charts is depressing, naturally. I'm probably not telling you anything you don't know. Entering into a new Worship Center complete with gym and smoothie bar would be enough to show you that bringing people into churches is a business. The art is reflected in this cynical, extremely un-Christ-like model. Most new worship songs are as flat as the large screens they're projected on. Asking me to sing "Jesus, I love you" fifty times doesn't mean anything. It's about trying to get me to feel something. To have big feelings. Because if I have big feelings, I'll come back for more feelings, and eventually I'm donating to a place called The Highest Loft for a new warehouse to feel in. And I guarantee that what I experience in that space won't be about confronting the Divine. It won't be about reshaping my mind, heart, and the works of my hands. It'll be about getting me to buy in to a message with all the depth of a Thomas Kinkade painting. Which, incidentally, is the featured art at The Highest Loft.
So what? Where does that leave us? We know modern Christianity is increasingly hyper-capitalist. We know what this focus on self, on the push to get to "the basics" of scripture (which is usually framed as getting things squared away with yourself, again), extends into our sensory worship experience. A church's space has a tendency to reflect its theological priorities. The sights and sounds you experience in that space is critical for the theological education and spiritual health of the congregation within. Remembering that our expressions of and confrontations with the divine can be shared as meaningful worship art is a start. If we hang a painting or photograph in the church, or choose a certain hymn, let's just stop and ask why. Let's ask if the art is teaching us something, if it's moving us toward a more full life both with our fellow worshippers and with those beyond the walls. Let's ask if our hymns are good hymns, and if they're leading us deeper into the arms of goodness.
Living in a crowded city like Nashville (though any large city seems crowded to me, a kid who grew up in a small Alabama town with no stop lights), I find myself seeking out quiet places. It’s an interesting thing to want a deeply natural quiet as a human being. We’re an incredibly social species, and yet it’s tough to acclimate to the noise we create. It is for me, anyway. Sometimes I think it’s a matter of conditioning, that growing up where the noise surrounding you is wholly other, something that both hints at where you could belong but reminds you of how separate you actually are, makes it tougher. Growing up, I would lie in the grass behind the house and look up at the Alabama pines. I would close my eyes and listen. I felt like part of it all, like I belonged. Now, I’m terribly aware that I’m not aligned to the rhythm of the cicada’s hum, the whippoorwill’s chant, or the rustle of the breeze through the leaves. When I hear them now, just as I did when I was a kid, I love the feeling of wholeness they bring. I feel connected to something so large and so lovely that I can’t figure out what to say or think. Probably because I’m not supposed to say or think anything. Quietude exists for a reason.
Maya Angelou died last week, and her last tweet got me thinking. “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God,” it reads. She’s onto something important there, as she usually was. One of the first sermons I remember having an influence on me as a young person was on seeking God through silence. I think it struck me hard because it’s something I already knew to be true. There is something divinely wonderful in escaping ourselves. Though maybe “escaping” isn’t the right word. Maybe it’s a matter of retreating deeper into ourselves, running through familiar fields full of what we know and can clearly see into sun-dappled forests where shadows and the unknown wait and watch. This could be what I’m looking for when I pause on my hikes in a local park, crane my ear, and listen to see if I’ve gone far enough on the trail to leave behind the sounds of the road, of other people, of my own busy life.
A few weekends ago, I decided to start my Sunday with a hike. I woke up early, prepped the dog, and made it to the park early enough to avoid any crowds. I took the long trail, narrow and surrounded by brush and branches. When I reached the midway point, the path opened up to a wider road that curves through the heart of the park. All around me were towering trees bathed in soft morning light. A cool breeze carried the calls of finches and the chittering of squirrels. It’s an area I come across every time I take that route, but it was transformed in that moment, in my own embrace of its beauty and its mystery and its sounds. My mind was clear and my ears were open. After I continued on, the only thought I had was, “Somehow, I got tricked into a cathedral on a Sunday.” Maybe that’s what I’m seeking always: to find the quiet places that take me out of myself and further into myself, the beautiful natural spaces where I hope God lives and speaks.