Friday, May 26, 2006

The Tragedy of Virtual Worship

Virtual worship has become the norm in the evangelical church. The fact that reality has been forfeited for illusory good feelings should be obvious to anyone. Where is the reality in seeking to conduct church services with the slick patter of a Master of Ceremonies, punctuated by empty songs that mimic a worldly, easy style of rock music? And when all this is achieved by the pragmatics of applied marketing and business growth strategy rather than biblical principle where again is the reality?

Should we be surprised when religion is characterised in the media by a lack of reality and when in popular culture in general, Christian words have become empty words? The idea of the sacred seems to have vanished. The church thinks that it can broaden its appeal by mimicing the virtuality of the world. Why should folk want a mediocre version from the church of what they can already have from the world? In the same way that popular culture (particularly the sinister world of club culture) offers and manufactures brief ecstatic emotional experiences, the church has invented virtual worship (some, horrifically, have gone the whole way and developed 'rave' services). It is all of course, commercially driven with the latest worship fad also neatly manifesting itself as the leading marketing edge.

As Peter Masters shows this is the current point to which the sixties development of a popular culture version of worship has taken us. This revolution produced "a form of worship fashioned and conceived in the womb of the hippie meditational mysticism, in which hippies in their hundreds and thousands would sit on California hillsides with eyes closed, swaying themselves into an ecstatic state of experience. Former hippies carried into their new Christian allegiance the method of seeking the emotional release or sensations to which they were accustomed, and no one showed them a better way." Peter Masters, "Worship in the Melting Pot: Is New Worship Compatible with Traditional Worship?" in Sword and Trowel (no. 3, 1998), p. 13.

The apostle Paul speaks of the spiritual reality that should obtain in the worship of the Church, the unbeliever should come into the church service and be so convicted by God's Word that "falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth" (1Cor 14:25). Virtual worship creates 'virtual religion', and virtual religion creates virtual Christians. And sadly evangelicals have long been too effective at producing virtual Christians through the virtual conversions of high-pressure evangelistic technique.

Thus we hear of "post-modern" evangelical worship developing in the United States as the next stage beyond the blandness of so-called contemporary worship music and "seeker-sensitive/user-friendly" services. This can be a heady cocktail of any of the following: orthodox icons, rock music, candles, Gregorian chant, snippets stolen from Roman Catholic liturgies not forgetting some charismatic elements (see article by Daniel Harrell, Leadership Journal, Spring 1999, Vol.XX, No. 2, p.37). Youth For Christ in the UK have likewise developed in past years something called Labyrinth a multi-media "spiritual" journey experience that involves meditation, candles and music Anything is permitted as long as it feels "authentic." But what feels authentic is no standard of what is authentic, no longer is the standard spoken words that conform to Scripture. There may be a show of humility (and that word "show" is vitally significant) in these things but they are "will-worship".

But where carnal pretence reigns we find nothing better than the "novel spirituality" that was generated through manufacturing a golden calf which could be worshipped as the gods who had brought the children of Israel out of Egypt. As John Calvin notes, man's mind, "so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols," so that "it dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity; as it sluggishly plods, indeed is overwhelmed with the crassest ignorance, it conceives an unreality and an empty appearance as God." (Institutes 1.11.8). Virtual worship brings God down to the conceptions of man and squeezes God into human capacities: human preferences and thoughts. The LORD has made it clear that He will not be worshipped according to the mind and will of man. "Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men" (Isaiah 29:13).

It is a conflict between carnal pretence and divine precept. The same conflict was apparent at the time of the Reformation (read "War Against the Idols", Carlos M. Eire). In fact, the Roman Catholic Church with its refusal to be instructed and directed by the Word of God alone has always mastered its own virtual worship of a man-made syncretistic type that focuses on the visual. Evangelicalism with its fashion-driven will-worship has taken the same route. We must remember, however, that the great tragedy of virtual worship is not just its fictitious nature but that it transgresses the second commandment and strikes at the glory of God.