“I Don’t Worship God by Singing”: So Why Bother Going to Church?

evangelical-worship
A reader alerted me to best-selling author Donald Miller‘s Feb. 3 post “I Don’t Worship God by Singing. I Connect With Him Elsewhere,” and I was immediately struck by both the rightness and the tone of his critique:

I’ve a confession. I don’t connect with God by singing to Him. Not at all.

I know I’m nearly alone in this but it’s true. I was finally able to admit this recently when I attended a church service that had, perhaps, the most talented worship team I’ve ever heard. I loved the music. But I loved it more for the music than the worship. As far as connecting with God goes, I wasn’t feeling much of anything.

I used to feel guilty about this but to be honest, I experience an intimacy with God I consider strong and healthy.

It’s just that I don’t experience that intimacy in a traditional worship service. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of sermons I actually remember. So to be brutally honest, I don’t learn much about God hearing a sermon and I don’t connect with him by singing songs to him. So, like most men, a traditional church service can be somewhat long and difficult to get through.

It’s been nearly two decades since I was one of those men standing somewhat awkwardly at a praise-and-worship style Evangelical Sunday service (hardly what I would now describe as “a traditional worship service,” of course)—a session of emotional Christian music followed by a 45-60 minute sermon, which has been cynically described as “a concert followed by a lecture.”

Unlike Miller, I was okay listening to the “lecture” (his term), perhaps because I have long been attuned fairly closely to the sound of the spoken word, but, like him, the music left me a bit cold. Also like him, it wasn’t that I didn’t like that kind of music at the time (I did), but it just didn’t seem fitting to me. At one point, after having meditated for a while on John Keats’s dictum “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” (which I first encountered around that time), I remember thinking to myself, “I believe what is being preached is true, but I don’t see how this [i.e., the whole church service] is beautiful.” And the deep identity of truth with beauty had struck me so intensely by that point that my liking of Evangelical contemporary worship music was not enough to convince me that it was truly beautiful.

Miller chalks up his discomfort with Evangelical music and sermons to the different kinds of learning that appeal to varieties of human personality:

There’s an entire demographic of people who have to learn by doing, not by hearing. So you can lecture to them all day and they’re simply not going to get it.

Research suggest there are three learning styles, auditory (hearing) visual (seeing) and kinesthetic (doing) and I’m a kinesthetic learner. Of course churches have all kinds of ways for you to engage God including many kinesthetic opportunities including mission trips and so forth, but if you want to attend a “service” every Sunday, you best be an auditory learner. There’s not much out there for kinesthetic or visual learners.

As an Orthodox Christian who converted from Evangelicalism, this previous paragraph made me jump. I remember thinking almost exactly this same kind of thing, though I didn’t think it in Miller’s terms. At the time, I just thought, “I want something to do.” The idea of “learning styles” didn’t really enter into it for me.

Before we get too deeply into what I would love to say to Miller if I could in response to this, I want to say something about “learning styles.” It seems to me that, even though Miller is essentially rejecting the modern Evangelical worship mode, he still accepts its basic premise, i.e., that worship is about learning. Now, I have no problem with learning in church, but this is an assumption that I think is worth at least questioning: Is learning what worship is supposed to accomplish?

Miller also suggests that worship is supposed to make him feel intimacy and connection with God, something he gets more by building his company. Church? Not so much. So he doesn’t go to church much any more. (And he expands on this in a follow-up post.)

So why bother going to church?

That’s a big question that I think is getting asked more and more by the unchurched, ex-churched, de-churched, the post-Evangelical, etc. If you don’t happen to get into the “style” of what’s going on at your church, why bother going? Certainly there are attempts to reinvent church, to make it more visual or kinesthetic, but what if you don’t connect there, either?

What I’m going to say next might come off as triumphalistic or “advertisey,” though I don’t mean it that way: Has Donald Miller ever heard of Orthodox Christianity?

For one thing, Orthodoxy engages every element of what Miller is talking about here: It is auditory, musical, rhetorical, kinesthetic and visual, all to a degree that would probably be bewildering to the average Evangelical. As soon as one steps into an Orthodox church, he is bombarded with images, with sounds, with smells, with words, with things to touch and even to taste. There are icons, incense, architecture, the sermon, chant, holy oil, holy water, the Eucharist and a good bit more, and it all comes at you often without much apparent order, especially to the newcomer.

The current crop of Millennials making their way up the generational ladder (along with their fellow digital natives in the younger part of Generation X) are significantly formed in their assimilation of information and experience by the multi-vectored flow of the Internet. Consider Facebook or any other social media website—there is a certain order to it all, but it is highly non-linear. This mode of appropriating knowledge—not just “learned” knowledge but also knowledge that is experienced—serendipitously is aligned with the modes of experience and knowledge acquisition that Orthodoxy has long preserved and practiced.

At the most fundamental level, though, worship isn’t about learning or feeling anything at all—not according to the Bible or Church history, anyway. Rather, worship is about mystical union with God in the sacrificial unifying power of the liturgy, especially in the Holy Eucharist. There is both beauty and truth, the place where beauty and truth are authentically the same one thing. And that access to physical/spiritual communion with God is simply not available outside of the liturgical life.

Miller has hit on something that is at the very core Evangelical worship, and that is that it only really appeals to a certain piece of humanity, and not just in terms of “demographics” (as he identifies it) but in terms of the human person himself. Contemporary Evangelical worship is not only addressed to certain kinds of people, but it is also addressed only to certain parts of people.

Yet no matter one’s learning style or one’s demographic, Orthodoxy will connect, and Orthodoxy will also connect with the whole person. Whether anyone feels intimacy with God or not, whether he is learning something about God or not, through the mystery of the God-given sacraments of the Church, he will be attaining knowledge of God, which is what Jesus Himself said is eternal life.

45 comments:

  1. It’s true that when you strip away the main ways God comes to us in the liturgy, the scriptures, and the eucharist all you’re left with is an emotional grasping for God. When you can’t muster up the emotion, you’ve got nuttin’.

  2. Also, isn’t it true that worship is prescribed by God (in very specific ways) and thus, for us it is an obedience and an offering to the One we love–the very One who created us? Why go to Church? Because God says we must! I, too, could relate to much of what I just read, and have been the one “standing awkwardly” while others appeared to have made some amazing connection I could never grasp. And you are right: Orthodoxy is the whole of Truth and Beauty.

  3. As a converted Charismatic, former worship leader at a Vineyard, I get this 100%. Over the years I found myself engaging less and less with worship songs and sermons, as I felt I had heard them all 100 times. I think it was that I was simply getting older and what worked for me as a teen and young adult no longer worked in my late 20’s. At some point you need more than an emotional connection to God, you need a spiritual connection. Hence my conversion to Orthodoxy. For many Evangelicals, I am afraid there is little beyond the emotional connection, which is why Miller won’t go to church anymore. If you don’t get that, than why bother.

    1. Kevin,
      I played bass guitar on a worship team at my previous (SBC) church for several years.
      My experience was almost identical to what you described. I found myself enjoying the music in the same way I enjoy playing mainstream music.. the joy of music and the camaraderie of the musicians. Worship or God really had no role. I even found myself, slipping out the back door for breakfast while the sermon was taking place because, as you said, I’d heard it all before.

      Then, on a bulletin board for worship musicians the topic of “seeker oriented services” was being discussed. I recall posting the question, “if someone from one of the Apostle Paul’s churches were to visit this Sunday, would they recognize your church as being Christian.. at all?” This sent me back to church history (a former passion) and rediscovery and eventually (along with other factors) to the Orthodox church.

      1. i’ve visited a *byzantine* catholic liturgy 😀

        want me to recite the cherubic hymn?

        “now set aside, set aside all earthly cares. set aside all earthly cares.”

        honestly, for some reason roman catholicism doesn’t do it for me unless it’s actually in rome but i love to see the icon of mary staring back at me in the byzantine liturgy and i also love the statues in the roman liturgy. never been in a roman rite church though in my entire life.

        1. So the question now becomes: Which is the TRUE—i.e. unchanged since we got it from Christ—Faith? (^_^) By the way, everybody’s writing about this; I invited Mr. Miller to visit an Orthodox Church, at least so he can see it’s the kinesthetic experience he hasn’t been able to find yet.

          1. if there is a “true faith”, I would say the Catholic Church. Reasons – many different liturgical systems (just like in the early church) and not just merely Western Rite followers of the Byzantine Rite Church, liturgical systems are a combination of old and new, liturgical systems allow development (just like in the early church), and command – brown and meier have a book showing rome to be the dominating place in early christianity.

      2. If you want to attend a high church Western Rite liturgy done well, your best bet is to seek out the local Anglo-Catholic Episcopal parish. Most large American cities have one or two. They do what is essentially a pre-Vatican II high liturgy, but in English.

    1. As a Catholic, I assure you that I for one certainly haven’t ‘got all that and more’ from the Mass. I’ve taken to going to Orthodox Churches a couple of times a month, and though I can’t receive communion, the Divine Liturgy has an intensity which does translate the worshipper beyond the earthly world.

      1. “I for one certainly haven’t ‘got all that and more’ from the Mass”
        well there’s your problem. you’ve probably only attended the Roman liturgies. based on what you called the service.

        my history professor was telling me to visit pittsburgh where all the greco-slavonic catholic churches are at (there’s also some in philadelphia but they’re ukrainian-greek catholic). some beautiful stuff there.
        http://eparchyofpassaic.com/screen.jpg

        i follow fr. kimel’s blog and i’m always surprised at how exactly the same the greek catholic liturgies are to that of the orthodox.

        1. Newenglandsun, I wonder why you go to any church, since above you say that “God doesn’t do it for you”, that He is ” a jerk” and “needs to lighten up”. What exactly brings you to church then?

          1. maybe i still believe that there is something out there. i haven’t been attending liturgy at all recently…frustrated with both the catholics and the eastern orthodox right now for not having been born into the right religion and baptized as an infant. instead, i have a demon and the catholics and eastern orthodox won’t do anything about it until i’m able to make a faith commitment which i cannot do. neither could the infant though.

          2. This is straying into the realm of personal pastoral issues (so we won’t be publishing more comments on it), but just to make a note on the general question here: Why would you go to a doctor you don’t believe in? I don’t know what your particular experience here has been, but it makes some sense to me that a church can’t really do anything for someone who refuses to take the help offered.

          3. Just as a follow-up: I saw the post you made on your own weblog referencing this one, where you expand a bit on your comment here, indicating that you’d like sacraments from the Church without baptism. As I said already, I don’t know what your particular experience has been (so I cannot speak for any other clergy, etc.), but there are many ways for the non-Orthodox to benefit from what Orthodoxy has without actually becoming Orthodox. Mind you, of course we want everyone to become fully part of the Church, but as a priest I have certainly done prayers, home blessings and even anointing with holy oil (though not the sacrament of holy unction) for people who are not Orthodox. And there are of course many other ways that the Orthodox Church ministers to the non-Orthodox.

            I can understand not wanting to make a whole-life commitment, but my experience has been that it’s only within that context that demons really can be got rid of successfully. But it is not true that Orthodoxy qua Orthodoxy “won’t do anything about it” until such time as someone decides to become Orthodox. It may be that individual Orthodox Christians behave that way — even clergy — but I would part ways with them on that score.

            You also say that someone has to be born into the Orthodox faith really to be able to benefit from it. Forgive me, but I really must differ here, especially as someone who was not born into Orthodoxy. I know many other folks who have also been healed by their experience in Orthodoxy without having been baptized as infants.

            As to whether I lied in my comment to you, well, all I can say is that I was answering you honestly but perhaps misunderstood what you were saying.

            And if you really are suicidal, I hope you will get some professional help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.

          4. Fr. Andrew, I also read Newenglandsun’s post, and he is also claiming you can’t get into the Anglican, Orthodox, or Catholic Churches at all if you aren’t baptized into them as an infant! This is patently false and easily discoverable as such for anyone honest enough to inquire with the appropriate sources. I commented at his site to explain to him what the true normative practices are in the Orthodox tradition, and he did not allow my comment, and instead came back over here to accuse you of lying to him.

            This young man is either tragically confused or a malicious liar, or both. May the Lord lead him out of his despair and confusion.

        2. Just a couple brief comments:

          1. For the vast majority of Catholics, Eastern Catholic liturgy isn’t even on the map. Eastern Catholics themselves make up only about 1.4% of the total Catholic population (about 17 million out of 1.2 billion), and of course most folks in the West have never even heard of them. Suggesting it as a a kind of option isn’t really much of an option for most folks, and it also rather ignores the overwhelming majority of Catholics (98.6%) who are Latin Rite.

          2. The reason that Eastern Catholic services are usually so similar to the Orthodox is that, historically, those communities were Orthodox but left Orthodoxy for Rome, mainly in the 17th century. There are many Latinizations that have been incorporated by some of these churches over time, however (ironically making some of their practices more Latin than the modern Latins, who changed so much of their tradition after Vatican II). There also seems a much greater willingness among Eastern Catholics to experiment than there is with the Orthodox. Here, for instance, is probably the oddest rendition of the Cherubic Hymn I’ve ever heard:

          [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RvikTppEwjU&w=420&h=315]

          1. yes, the eastern catholics aren’t as xenophobic as the majority of global roman catholics and eastern orthodox. another reason i prefer the eastern catholics.

          2. Reticence to alter liturgical tradition is evidence of xenophobia? I can’t agree, but the history of EC Latinizations is actually usually not the result of an internal desire to be more open to other liturgical traditions but rather of imposition by Latin hierarchy of their own customs on ECs. It was that imposition by Archbishop John Ireland, for instance, that spurred St. Alexis Toth to leave Rome behind and lead many hundreds of thousands of former ECs into Orthodoxy in the US. Ironically, I’m not sure that Ireland actually regretted the loss.

        3. Newenglandsun, there are other reasons why I’ve taken an interest in the Orthodox, both historical and theological. Under the circumstances, Eastern Catholicism would be an avoidance of these issues.

  4. Father Andrew,

    I agree with all that you say here but what of those with long term illnesses who either can’t make it to the liturgy or have great difficulty in doing so? How are they to experience the beauty that the church has to offer? This happens to be my particular predicament and hindrance which is why I’m so curious.

    1. That’s something that has to be worked out in the local community. That said, we have a 2000 year tradition of bringing the Eucharist to those who are unable to come to church. It’s not the same as being present there yourself, of course, but it’s certainly far better than being cut off from the life of the Church.

      1. My wife and I have a similar problem, in that we live well out in the country. Our home parish is 40 miles away, and the other close parish is 40 miles in the other direction. In the winter, snow will keep us from Liturgy if the county does not plow our road; a frequent occurrence. we have to drive across a creek to get from our house to the road, and a good rain will overflow our bridge, making it impossible to cross in the spring and summer.
        What do we do? We do the best we can. We have a well equipped icon corner and do daily prayers there. If we are snowed — or flooded — in, we pray the Synaxarion for the day, then read the epistle and gospel. We will read a sermon from Father John Chrysostom, or something from a spiritual book. We will also listen to a sermon from Father Andrew, Father Patrick Henry or one of the other Podcasters on Ancient Faith. Short of receiving Communion, we can have a fairly complete Sunday morning, and we can always make it up with vespers the following Wednesday.

  5. i actually have the opposite problem. i grew up evangelical, and i felt very engaged and very connected in those worship services. i left my old church and came to Orthodoxy for theological reasons. Been to liturgy two years and it’s still very difficult for me to “connect” or understand what “connecting” is supposed to mean. i have no intention of leaving whatsoever. It’s just a struggle. Does it eventually just start to click?

    1. That’s not really a question that can be answered by strangers on the Internet, I’m afraid, because such experiences vary so much from person to person and parish to parish. I’ll at least say that there’s an objective value to what happens in the liturgy that is there whether it “clicks” or not. I’ll be honest — even as a priest who loves liturgical life, there are days when I “feel it” more than others. It’s still real, though.

      I think that underlines one of the differences from Evangelical worship — it’s really regarded as something less than authentic if people aren’t “feeling it.” Why? It gets designed every time by people whose job it is to do that. There’s not an objective tradition of worship to follow, but rather whatever makes most sense to those who are creating it from scratch.

      1. Father,

        Thank you!–this is actually encouraging, and even liberating in a way. In other words, connection/communion with God can take place even in the absence of ‘connect-ee’ sorts of feelings. –Like engaging in caring behaviors for your spouse even when you don’t feel particularly romantic or sentimental. It still strengthens and improves the relationship, and it is still an act of relating.

        I take it you mean something like this? This is edifying. Thank you.

        1. If I may add a word seconding what Fr Andrew said: when I was in the first stages of moving toward the Orthodox Church (I was an evangelical in the Christian & Missionary Alliance denomination), one of the things that really, really drew me to the liturgical worship of the Orthodox Church was that is was not dependent on my feelings, on how I felt about the service or on whether I was in an emotionally positive place.

          I was a C&MA worship leader, and I struggled with the “feel goodery” on which our services were so dependent. It is wonderful when everyone comes to church emotionally stable and happy. But the liturgy doesn’t depend on this, and even anticipates that we may need coaxing toward the joy of the Cross. And all the while, it doesn’t exploit us with the emotional tactics that modern evangelicalism finds to be essential and unavoidable if “we are going to have a good service”.

          We enter into the Divine worship that is ongoing and never-ending, taking along with us our joys and our sorrows as an offering to God. We do this obediently, and in an act of faith, we are spoon-fed the saving Body and Blood of Christ Himself. To me, this was the perfect antidote for the emotionalism of modern evangelicalism *and* the perfect antidote for my concern that I always needed to “feel connected” to God, to the worship, etc.

          Fr James

    2. I’ll add my two cents, as an Evangelical-to-Orthodox convert (although not one who found Evangelical “worship” especially meaningful, despite being part of the “worship team”). In my experience, conversion is a long process of arriving at a different (Eastern) mindset. In Evangelical worship, you are the recipient of an experience — even if you are singing “to” God and waving your hands about, the music is for you. It’s a means or a conveyance of emotional response.

      The word “liturgy” refers to offers of service — in essence, work. I’ve found it especially helpful to remember this on days when I just don’t “feel it.” It’s not about me getting some kind of emotional high, it’s about me sacrificing my time, my energy, my voice to God, my willingness to present myself and lift up my heart.

      But it’s not as dry and dull as I’m making it sound. On the contrary, I become absorbed into the liturgy. I become an offering to the Lord, however meager and scuffed. I do respond emotionally to the liturgy, but it comes from somewhere outside of me when it happens. So, in a roundabout way, Guy, I think it does eventually start to click.

      1. Very well stated EDW (and Frs James and Damick). I especially agree with the following statement:

        In my experience, conversion is a long process of arriving at a different (Eastern) mindset.

        It is very difficult to understand, and fully partake in, the Divine Liturgy with a “Western” mindset, although that does not mean one will take away nothing by attending (regardless of our mindset). As one currently converting to Orthodoxy, I find the greatest struggle is changing my mindset and allowing that change to direct me in worship (as well as my daily life). Blessings and prayers!

        1. I’m not sure that “mindset” adequately conveys what changes, and I definitely would not identify it as becoming “Eastern” and not “Western” any more (those terms are just too jumbled up with stuff to be useful here). One simply needs to be converted to Christ, Whose mind we’re trying to have for ourselves (1 Cor. 2:16).

    3. I’ve come to realise through experience, and it may have taken longer than two years, that when I go to Liturgy, or any other service, I may not feel anything, I may just be going through the motions without any thought at all, but if I go, then the rest of my week is better. And the more services I go to, the better my week is. I don’t mean everything goes my way, but that I am more peaceful.

      Liturgy is to worship God together. It’s the work of the people, and sometimes it is really hard work. It’s not about me getting stuff, it’s about my bringing whatever it is I can. Even if my physical presence, joining chants and crossing myself is all I can bring. But of course God is bigger than me, and he gives me so much more than I give him.

      Also, I like to remember that there’s a spiritual world that I can’t see. Even if I don’t feel it, worshipping God is still taking place, and not just in the little church I’m standing in. Angels and saints join in.

      The question “how was church?” was all about, did it move you, how did you feel, were the songs good, was the message good, did you learn anything, did it apply to you? Now, the question is irrelevant. The liturgy is. I find that quite freeing.

      Correct me if I have anything wrong there. I hope that helps.

  6. If some people are entertained by Orthodoxy, it has been my experience that any initial enamorment tends to wear off over a year or two. Once it becomes more familiar and you get the basic structure of things, that’s when the work really starts. If this guy connects to God through his work, and if going to church is a chore, then that sounds like a challenge to me. He might have to work at his own transformation and exert some intense effort to find a way to go deeper.

  7. Thank you Fr. for this post. I’m reminded of something you said/wrote in your Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy talks/book, and I’ll paraphrase: If there are no sacred places, no sacred days, no ordained clergy, and if the Eucharist is just symbolic, then really, why bother going to Church at all? Why not just stay home, read your Bible and pray? The Orthodox Priest in my town says that when you take Evangelicalism to its own logical end, the result is not going to church. Since I agree with that, I can find no fault with Donald Miller. He’s simply reached the logical conclusion of his own theology.

  8. Somewhat relevant to the discussion, musical expression, and its purpose, from the earliest centuries of the Church was to provide an augmentation to the words of scripture and a framework to express theological truths in a way that brought about a prayerful atmosphere. The primary goal was not entertainment. That said if musical expression is a way for you to participate in Church then learn to chant/join the choir and experience that tradition.

    As a convert and someone who believed Orthodoxy to be the true Church – it didn’t matter that the liturgy was in Slavonic, Greek, etc. but that I was a part of it and I got to experience the intimacy of communion with God, Christ, the Risen Lord, through the liturgy. This is most important: where the Church is, there is the Eucharist. Let us make that the center of our lives and have that liturgical expression that we experience on Sundays extend to all areas of our lives. After all, what is the point if we do go to Church and then not show love to our neighbor? Unfortunately, the reaction in a pluralistic society is that the use of certain liturgical practices is a necessary connection to cultural preservation, vs. the possibility that through the wisdom and tradition of the Church that there’s a reason. Maybe we should ask someone about these traditions and why they are important, and their purpose in the greater context of our liturgical lives.

  9. Father, I tweeted this article to Donald Miller. Who knows if he’ll read it or not, but now at least he’ll know. 🙂 I’ve read a number of his books and thought to myself more than once that he needs Orthodoxy – that it would answer what his heart was asking. Of course, everyone needs Orthodoxy.

  10. As a convert mom with a 1 and a 2 year old, I discovered this a couple of months ago. I realized that in coming to the Liturgy, I don’t have to emotionally connect or have it all together or be able to listen and learn to participate in the service. It’s impossible for me right now and that is ok because I’m not in the service to “learn.” In my previous church (Assemblies of God), if you couldn’t engage and pay attention, there really was no point in coming. We are present in church, doing our best to present our sacrifice to God and receiving the Eucharist and that is enough for this time and season for us. It was such relief when I realized that.

    1. You speak to my heart, Rachel and your words encouraged me. I’ve been told those same things before but have never to really grasp or understand what exactly it means. Somehow, your comment has made this concept a bit more clear for me.

  11. Like you, Fr. Andrew, and many other commenters here, I grew up Evangelical and was looking for something deeper. As others have mentioned, I really struggled with the liturgy for the first few months. I grew up being entertained in church, and suddenly, I was in a room full of people who were not there to engage (entertain) me.

    The thing that helped me move from boredom to love for the liturgy was developing prayer (particularly the Jesus Prayer with a prayer rope) each day throughout the week. It began to teach me to still the inner restlessness a bit and engage in the service. I think Orthodoxy is a holistic religion. We don’t go to church on Sunday to practice Orthodoxy, we become one with the Church and it affects every aspect of our lives throughout the entire week. Sunday then becomes the weekly culmination of life in the Church.

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