Expect a whirlwind

February 11, 2011

In the film noir classic Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond is an aging silent-film star with her pride fully inflated but her glory days well behind her. Early in the movie, a man driving by Norma's crumbling mansion has a flat tire, and he knocks on her door seeking help. When Norma appears, the man's eyes widen with surprise.

"You're Norma Desmond!" he says, astonished. "You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big!"

Norma raises herself to her full height. "I am big," she says with indignation. "It's the pictures that got small."

Norma's retort may have something to say about current trends in congregational worship. Worship is highly contested real estate these days, what with the wild blossoming of praise songs and hand-waving chants, overamped electric bands and singer-songwriter liturgists strumming acoustic guitars, plasma screens, preachers in sweatshirts and sermons beamed to distant sanctuaries via holograms, not to mention worship spaces jammed with enough klieg lights and projectors to cause power grid brownouts. Some people love the relaxed, upbeat style that seems in ascendance, while others find it showy, commercialized and even irreverent; these are either wistful for the days of pipe organs and vestments or yearn for something new, emerging, yet unborn.

Instead of fretting about style, however, perhaps we should be more concerned about scale. Worship by definition should guide us to a larger place, should direct our gaze away from ourselves and toward the most vast, holy and mysterious of all horizons. But for all the over-the-top extravagance of many worship experiences, for all the invocations to an "awesome God," much worship today seems curiously trivial, inward and downsized. To paraphrase Norma, "The vision of worship is still magnificent; it's the services that got small."

We can see this downsizing in the sometimes trifling use of language. We Americans are involved in two bloody wars, have a rapacious petroleum habit and are near Depression levels of unemployment, but prayers of confession often bemoan banal, relatively low-cost, middle-class transgressions such as "busyness" or "letting our minds wander from You." Reportedly, Martin Luther's confessor became so frustrated when Luther was confessing "puppy sins" that he shouted at Luther, "Go kill your father or something. Then we'll have a sin to talk about!"

For another instance of the diminution of language, take the widely admired Iona hymn "The Summons." Set to a bouncy Scot­tish tune, it certainly has its charms, but deep in the lyrics it expects us to sing, "Will you love the 'you' you hide if I but call your name? Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?"

Forget for a moment the tendency of recent hymns to put God's voice in the mouths of the worshipers. Focus instead on the linguistic carelessness. Try saying "the 'you' you hide" three times quickly without giggling. "Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?" sounds nice until we think about it and realize how superficial this view of the human plight is, how small-scaled and overly optimistic.

In her wonderful book The Bones Reassemble, Catherine Madsen finds a similar trivializing of language in some recent Jewish liturgies. One new prayer book, for example, translates Psalm 122:1 as "I was glad when people said to me, 'Let us journey to the house of THE UNSEEN.'" Madsen reports that one worshiper responded with a Bobbsey Twinsey "Yes, let's do!" and another with an adolescent "Yeah, let's see how many we can fit in the car! You bring the six-pack!"

Some downsizing in worship undoubtedly results from our culture's rampant narcissism. It is easy to sniff out the latent hubris in praise lyrics like "I can only imagine what it will be like when I walk by your side," but some "official" hymnody is hardly exempt from cloying self-reference. A much cherished hymn has the faithful croon, "Here I am Lord. It is I, Lord." Given the hymn's Glee-like musical setting, this usually comes across less like an awestruck Isaiah trembling before God in the temple and more like an ecclesial, "Put me in, coach! I can play centerfield!"

In the final analysis, though, neither clumsy language nor narcissism is mainly to blame for the downsizing of worship. Rather, it is the loss of the expectation of God's presence, or more precisely, God's dangerous presence. George Steiner once commented that he could imagine the author of Hamlet going home to lunch and responding normally to "How did it go today?" But he could not conceive of the author of the speech "out of the whirlwind" in Job "dwelling within common existence and parlance."

Just so, when even tacitly we think of the dramatis personae of worship as "just us," when there is no expectation of the whirlwind, worship becomes small and confining. True worship happens in response to the holy and dangerous mystery of God's appearing. Annie Dillard was right to name liturgy as "certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed."

Or to put it in a more modest way, if we genuinely discerned that worship takes place in the presence of the burning bush, would we really spend the time licking the glaze off of a doughnut and sipping a latte?


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ENJOY READING THIS we have truley fogotten GOD and where has it gotten us or where has it taken us

interesting observations

This is no different from the month-long rush of New Year's resolution crowd at the gym - excitement will wear out.
Theologically untrained preachers, fly-by-night musicians, guitars, plasma screens, etc. will be gone. This reminds me of the devastating monsoon floods that lasted for couple of weeks year after year. Rain will stop; floods subside, water is gone, the debris is cleaned up and life becomes normal again for another fifty weeks.

"dangerous presence . . ."

I am reminded of your observations in "God Hates Walls" heard at the Festival of Homelitics in St. Paul. Is not the trivialization to which you direct our attention part of that same process of our working to keep that dangerous presence at a manageable distance from our lives?
I think so, and it is in ascendance in these days.

Will Things Shift?

I believe they will--and probably are, even as you write. The lack of depth, of true awe noted, will take some kind of shock until it is awakened in us. The shallowness of what we bring to worship, even to prayer as you noted, is not condusive to either deep self-awareness or engagement with God.

I think books like N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope, which challenges our shallow understandings of resurrection and Christ's Second Coming, could point a way. Poor and less than solid theology in leadership breeds poor theology in the led. I find myself praying daily for a more lively encounter with the core message and spirit of Scripture--grace filled even when it terrorizes us.

As Dillard also says somewhere, we ought be greeting people on Sunday mornings not with bulletins or praise bands but crash helmets in either case.

I am curious, Dr. Long, about

I am curious, Dr. Long, about how *you* worship. Rather than criticizing what others are doing, it might be more helpful to describe what you think worship ought to be. I respect and admire your work, but frankly found this piece a little shocking. Those of us in the trenches, who are trying to muddle our way to God and bring others along with us, would appreciate some direction.

Expect a Whirlwind

Calling the music of pipe organs "the wistful days of pipe organs and vestments" seems to me to be short sighted. Organ music at its best is both current and exciting, whether it uses the newest music or chooses from the deep repertory of organ music from the Renaissance forward -- lots of wonderful organ music from the past is amazingly current in its sound. We are not talking about Aunt Myrtle playing the Hammond -- or Clara on the Andy Griffith Show. The pipe organ continues to be a colorful and powerful instrument to sing God's praises.

Like the theme; the tone seems a bit over done

I suspect it may well be possible to worship - and experience the presence of the Almighty in the midst of 3000 klieg-lighted, arm-waving, self-absorbed church goers. I suspect that because I have experienced that.

The issue seems to be that we have turned worship time into "attract the twenty-somethings" time. That might well be OK, and it certainly looks cool. But we do a seemingly poor job of maturing those twenty-somethings into God followers who will value the search and presence of a transcendent God.

Whether the lyrics seem banal to someone is largely irrelevant however if others are led to experience that God through them. Church isn't about me and what I like; it is about letting the person next to me in the pew enter the Presence. If that can happen with banal lyrics and plasma screens, fine by me.

But this raises another question in my mind about our penchant to make our assemblies THE central aspect of faith communities. If we were leading our folks to LIVE the life, and allow the "worship" to arise from those lives, it would likely result in just sort of encounter for which you pine.

So, to answer another question asked here, let's not focus on worship; let's focus on maturing and shaping God-followers outside of our assemblies.

The Klieg-lighted,

The Klieg-lighted, arm-waving, self absorbed church goers, in my experience, haven't been the twenty-somethings (I myself am a twenty-something), but instead 40- and 50-somethings.

Comes the curmudgeon...?

I have been a fan of Tom and his offerings for many years. But lately his articles and commentaries for the Century have taken more of a "grumpy old man" quality, bemoaning that things today "aren't what they used to be."

I fully agree with his statement that "worship by definition should guide us to a larger place..." I also agree that much of contemporary worship is more self-centered than God-centered. However, his use of snippets from two hymns (The Summons" and "Here I Am, Lord") as examples of what is wrong in contemporary worship fall flat from my perspective. In each case he pulls a phrase from the hymn fully out of its context, holds it up to his critical gaze, and pronounces the entire hymn as unworthy. If a biblical scholar dismissed an entire psalm or parable in the same way, we would all cry "foul." In addition, he misquotes "Here I Am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?" - changing the question into a declarative statement, "It is I, Lord." This is conveniently apropos to his thesis; but not so much if he were to quote it correctly.

I add my voice to the previous comment: "Hey Tom, tell us how YOU worship and leave it at that." We in the local church truly do pray and sweat each week to discern the best way to lead our congregations into that "larger place" through worship and praise. And my congregation, for one, is regularly moved to tears when we sing "Here I Am, Lord" at the conclusion of our youth-led worship services. It's all about context.

Fresh Air!

I totally concur with the author. Worship has become for many an "experience", rather than true worship. As someone who has lived all across America, and have seen this trend develop in the past 20 or so years, I can understand what he is writing about. True too, it is not the 20 something's, but the 40-50 something's. I believe part of this issue seems to be an observation I have held for years, namely that the Boomer's continue to want to evade responsibility and grow up. Many of us continue to wear youthful looking garb, dye our hair to keep the gray away, etc. In our personal lives we live as though we are teenagers. I challenge all of us to answer call to real leadership that God issues to us. While modern worship practices may in fact in some places be true worship, I believe they more often inspire only the natural endorphins that God placed within all of us, and give us only a "feeling" of worship. If you eat junk food, you will not build strong muscles, and today more than since the days of the early persecuted church, we need to build real spiritual strength to lead others to a knowledge of Christ in these last days. Pablum won't do it, and my experience is that many who attend such churches remain at the spiritual baby stage.
I hope this post does in fact upset some of you, so that you may prayerfully consider the author's message, rather than assume that this is a generational issue.
Spoken in Love.

Expect a Whirlwind

Thankyou for this article. It summarises a serious issue with great precision. I wonder if the real difficulty is that the show has taken the place of the purpose of worship. For me James has it right when he talks about true religion. It is responding and acting truthfully in response to the challenge of the gospel. Visiting the prisoners etc etc. I can imagine how my real father would have responded if I had walked into his evening surgery and announced "I love you and adore you and want to chant a hundred verses of Majesty and tell you you are really awesome".
All my father wanted from me was that I actually attempted to live the sort of life he had set before me.An hour of fatuous flattery would not have done it.
I am baffled why a creator would want otherwise. And dont get me started on the sick parade magic of what passes for prayer.

shallow texts and strong central practices

I think Tom Long has named the lack in much of present-day worship, whether it is right, left or center on the liturgical spectrum. I agree with his perspective when I think of what I have experienced in various denominations, including my own.

And then I think of what I have participated in planning and leading and then have to say, "Ouch!" If the shoe fits I need to wear it. Kyrie eleison.

Unless we take the sacraments and the lectionary seriously (or some other strong and solid engagement with Scripture), will we ever be able to get beyond licking the glaze off the donut?

I recently re-read James F. White "A Protestant Worship Manifesto" published in the Christian Century in 1982. http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1278 White's 12 points bear consideration anew nearly three decades later. The context has changed but the roots are still deep.

Letter from Rose Trigg

Thomas Long is not alone in observing that contemporary worship has be­come just that--too contemporary, too small, lacking in majesty and mystery (“Ex­pect a whirlwind,” Feb. 22). But he stops preaching and starts meddling when he attacks the much-loved “Here I Am, Lord.” He even has the words wrong. He sees a “cloying self-reference” in the words, “It is I, Lord.” But the correct lyric is, “Is it I, Lord?”--a question asked by a seeker in a sincere attempt to discern the will of God.

When worshipers sing in contemporary language, they may be praying in heartfelt praise or in deep personal petition. They are definitely not eating doughnuts and sipping latte, as Long seems to believe.

Rose Trigg
Colorado Springs, Colo.

Letter from Jeanne Garrison

Apropos of Long’s concerns over limp worship language: I was considerably dismayed to hear that my church was replacing the traditional words of distribution during communion with the words, “I am because we are.” This change, done with great reverence and sincerity, was instituted because some people had found the “body and blood” language “deeply alienating.”

Ought we not, when we find a text deeply alienating, engage with that text even more ferociously instead of mellowing it out?

Jeanne Garrison
Cambridge, Mass.

I am because we are

Thank you for your comment, Jeanne.

I am researching a book on the loss of a true sense of an embodied Christ, incarnate in fact and flesh in the worship of the church today and I was wondering if you could possibly let me know which church was changing the words of institution in this way so that I might get in touch with them and ask them to describe the thinking that went itno the decision.

You can call me directly, I'm in the book in Santa Rosa, CA, or email me at santarosarev@gmail.com

Blessings, Rev. R. Tim Carnahan

It is. Is it?

As another correctly noted, Long incorrectly cited the refrain of "Here I am": the hymn asks "Is it I?" rather than claiming "It is I." That said, though the song is deeply beloved (tied with "How Great Thou Art" for favorite hymn in a recent survey of our congregation), I find it bothersome. The call of Isaiah is terrifying and dizzying, deserving a setting by Liszt or Messiaen. Instead, both the lyrics and the music are rendered tame, tremulous, sentimental. However affective and effective the sentimentality, it does appear to be a deep distortion of the prophetic witness.