This article was adapted from the author’s presentation at the Arts + Wellness 2019 Verge Conference held at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia.
An article on the Religion News Service’s website caught my eye with the provocative title “Grief hides in the church bathroom.” I didn’t need to read the article to understand what it asserted: that in the sanctuary there is no room for grief, no place for tears, no space for sadness. Another message entirely is cultivated and propagated in many worship spaces—one of praise, of celebration, of thanksgiving. People who can’t get with the program are simply excluded and expected to expose their grief somewhere safer, or at least somewhere private, like the women’s restroom. As the author Kaitlin Curtice says in the article, “Church is often like that. We celebrate together in worship but grieve alone.”
Curtice’s story was about a friend of hers whose infant daughter had died. Yet she felt compelled to come to church, looking to gather with other believers and perhaps receive comfort and encouragement. Instead, she stumbled out of the celebrative gathering. Curtice noticed and followed her out, and together they “ended up on the church’s bathroom floor, weeping . . . as people came and went, unsure what to say to us.” Perhaps this bereft mother felt like a twenty-first century Christian version of a leper, one whose very presence reminds all that (and I say this ironically) “bad things happen to good people”—the antithesis to the messages proclaimed in many worship gatherings. Where can you go when it’s not well with your life?
Practices Are Formative
Corporate worship practices matter. Debra and Ron Rienstra emphasize that “worship language, like all of worship, is formative” (Worship Words, Baker Academic, 2009, p. 28). That is to say, worship practices and worship words teach and shape congregants. How does this happen? The Rienstras give a comprehensive list worth quoting here at length:
The words we hear, sing, and speak in worship help form:
- our images of God;
- our understanding of what the church is and does;
- our understanding of human brokenness and healing;
- our sense of purpose as individuals and as a church;
- our religious affections [feelings]: awe, humility, delight, contrition, hope;
- our vision of wholeness for ourselves and all creation;
- our practices of engaging with God, with each other, and with the world” (Worship Words, p. 28).
Consider one main method by which worship words shape congregants: music. Although Protestant churches in North America are quite diverse, they also share a mutual lexicon. Aside from scriptural words, there is a similar repertoire of songs used within evangelical churches. Christian music making is, in fact, quite a large and profitable industry, one driven like any other business by the need for healthy profit margins. Many churches are members of an organization called Christian Copyright License International (CCLI), which oversees the rights to songs. Churches have to report annually about their catalog of songs and how often they used any song in that year. CCLI then gathers this information to distribute royalties.
This information is also analyzed to produce the CCLI Top 100 song lists for each country or region with CCLI members. I perused the most recent list for the U.S., paying particular attention to topical groupings. CCLI uses ten categories: praise, worship, Jesus, faithfulness, adoration, freedom, grace, God’s love, hope, and declaration.
It’s not difficult to understand why someone who is grieving, doubting, or troubled might feel unrepresented or even shunned in a congregation’s musical worship. These categories are all positive. Where are the categories for confession, lament, protest, or suffering? Yet this is the song diet of many evangelical churches. In fact, their repertoire may not include much more than these one hundred top songs other than a few Christmas or Easter songs.
Isn’t it strange that Christians, the very people whose Big Story is very explicit about our world being broken, are the ones whose worship gatherings often seem to deny this reality? Christian Scripture is clear about a before (Genesis 1 and 2), the world as God intended, and after (Genesis 3 and beyond), a world broken and tainted by sin. Like a virus, sin entered the world, and everything was infected—not just human hearts (what some might refer to as our “sinful souls”) and human inclinations (greed, bullying, rape), but also bodies (cancer, dementia, death), systems and structures (education, nursing, government), and the whole of creation (mosquitos being a case in point!).
Things are not the way they’re supposed to be.
The Christian story itself is replete with examples of people failing again and again and again. In fact, it gets quite tiresome, as when reading the book of Judges and its repeated refrain: “People did whatever they felt like doing” (Judges 17:6; 21:25, The Message). Such illustrations are not constrained to the time before Jesus. There are plenty of examples in the New Testament of greed, pride, sexual misconduct, gossip, favoritism, and vicious infighting. The work of Jesus does not instantaneously transform all people who follow him into perfect human beings. Nor is the whole of the world suddenly set right again so that Christians are spared the effects of sin. This truth Christians acknowledge—at least in theory.
Then there is the book of Psalms, a collection of 150 songs and poems used both individually and in corporate worship. Scholars divide the psalms into three main types. Yes, one is praise, and another is thanksgiving. But the third main category is lament. In fact, among the first eighty-nine psalms, “lament is the dominant type of composition” (Gerald H. Wilson, The NIV Application Commentary: Psalms, Volume 1, Zondervan Academic, 2002, p. 140). These psalms are very open about brokenness and disruption, even daring to question God or scream at God in protest: Why? Where are you? How long? Listen to me! One commentary uses words like “dismay,” “distress,” “fear,” “evil,” “divine distance and delay,” and “suffering” (Psalms, p. 142). The biblical witness is not lacking in honest accounts of negative human experiences in relationship with God and others; neither does it suggest that such expressions were absent from corporate worship.
Cultural Pressures: Individualism and Consumerism
There are, of course, cultural pressures that draw Christians away from speaking or singing these truths. Individualism is certainly one such force (Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism, IVP Books, 2009, p. 29). Individualism counters a Christian congregational understanding of the communal and collective. It also reduces the Christian story to something that benefits me. The focus of worship narrows to me and my salvation from sin, as many contemporary lyrics demonstrate. As the late Robert Webber says in critique of this tendency, “God saves this or that individual, but he does not save and restore the whole world” (Ancient-Future Worship, Baker Books, 2008, p. 42). In other words, from an individualistic stance God does not have a restoration of all things in view; instead the only focus is that my soul is snatched from the evil grip of personal sin. So “it is well with my soul” or “it is well with my soul”—and that’s all that matters.
In addition, capitalist societies rest on consumerism, which Soong-Chan Rah characterizes as the “pursuit of individual gain at the expense of what is best for society as a whole” (The Next Evangelicalism, p. 48). Churches have not been immune from this cultural pressure as they have sought to compete in the market. Constance Cherry describes the development of “concert worship” in modern churches: “Worship is defined as successful and relevant if it is perceived to relate to popular (Western, middle class, Anglo) culture. The purpose for concert worship is inspiration, and the means or methodology for relating to popular culture is music-driven” (“Constance Cherry on Competing Metaphors for Worship,” worship.calvin.edu). If the purpose of worship music is positive inspiration, then there is no room for honest reflection on and struggle with the continued brokenness of life. Grief is banished to solitary weeping in the church bathroom.
So what are we to do? How can current congregational worship practices become a more robust reflection of the whole of the biblical witness about the human condition and life in a damaged world? Let me conclude with three ways that Christian communities can make space for expressing brokenness in worship gatherings.
1. Reclaim a Time of (Corporate) Confession
The traditional fourfold order of Christian worship begins with a time simply called “Gathering.” This is for more than asking “How y’all doing today?” or (as Cherry heard in a recent service she attended) “Are you ready to party?” (“Competing Metaphors for Worship”) The gathering is a time for congregants to hear God’s invitation to draw near and make clear their approach to God. As Cherry explains, “In the gathering we acknowledge that God has called us, confess any sin that could disable our worship, [and] express our gratitude for the presence of our risen Lord” (The Worship Architect, Baker Academic, 2010, p. 55). Drawing near to God in corporate worship traditionally includes a time for humans to acknowledge their own brokenness and shortcomings in comparison to the greatness of the God who is worshiped, leading to repentance and confession.
The Old Testament passage of Isaiah 6 is an example of this dialogic pattern of worship. The prophet Isaiah is transported to a throne room where he sees God, high and lifted up, surrounded by angelic beings who cry, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory” (v. 3). This is accompanied by thunder and smoke (not a dry ice machine). The effect is to make Isaiah cry out, acknowledging that he “is a man of unclean lips” (v. 5). One of the angels then comes with a live coal from the altar and touches it to Isaiah’s lips, declaring, “Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for” (v. 7). Isaiah then stands, ready to hear and obey God’s call.
There is a similar story in Revelation 1 of the apostle John encountering a glorious being, apparently the resurrected and exalted Christ. At this sight, John does not run to embrace his old friend, but immediately falls down at his feet “as though dead” (v. 17), presumably overwhelmed by his own broken humanity in the presence of this glory. The figure, however, reaches out to comfort him in touch and says, “Do not be afraid.” And John, like Isaiah, then stands ready to hear and carry out the work of God.
Confessing our sins to one another, as the letter of James encourages us to do, is a significant ingredient in Christian worship. Although personal sins are certainly in view, this can also be an important place for worshipers to acknowledge their corporate culpability in evils perpetrated by society as a whole. Congregations might need to confess and repent of participation in colonial oppression, in neglecting sins of racism, in perpetuating gender stereotypes or violence against creation. Thus corporate confession becomes a time where congregants express the brokenness of the whole world rather than simply their own individual sin and salvation. Such a practice is formative for congregations.
2. Maintain a Time of Intercessory Prayer
Constance Cherry has done significant study of the content of worship gatherings in the United States across denominations and regions. Her scholarship involved attending or gathering live feeds of worship services and then marking how much time was given to any particular element (singing, prayer, sermon, announcements, etc.). Several of her findings are quite telling. She identifies some significant gaps between belief and practice, asserting that churches “may say that Bible reading and intercessory prayer are very important, yet they devote little or no time to either in worship” (“Competing Metaphors for Worship”). In other words, churches are spending less and less time in prayer for the needs of others and in some cases are neglecting this element altogether—this while the world desperately needs our prayers as all creation is groaning under the weight of sin.
The Worship Sourcebook explains that in congregational prayer, “We pray not just for our own congregation and for the people we know; we also intercede for those in authority, for those suffering oppression, for those who are poor, hungry, sick, and so on” (p. 173). Such a prayer is often done in concentric circles, perhaps starting with current world issues and conflicts, then moving on to one’s own country or region, and finally narrowing to congregational pains and concerns as well as joys. Like a prayer of confession, an intercessory prayer teaches believers to recognize and name the continuing effects of sin’s comprehensive power and lift up prayer for the various aspects of the broken world. It also models that the church cares about more than its own.
3. Marking Time
A final way to consider acknowledging brokenness in Christian worship is in how congregations mark time. There are several different calendars that can influence how worship is planned. One is the annual calendar and the rhythms of church and school life (the start of a new year of programs, New Year’s Eve, summer vacation, etc.). Another is the Christian year (liturgical calendar) with its various seasons and days of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, Ascension, Pentecost, and Ordinary Time. A third influential calendar is the encroaching Hallmark calendar of Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Memorial Day.
I do not come from a highly liturgical tradition; we did not use a lectionary of prescribed readings or follow all the days marked on the Christian calendar. But as a pastor I slowly started to incorporate more of the liturgical calendar into my congregation’s worship life. One of the reasons is that the various seasons follow a cycle of fasting and feasting, modeling times of grieving and longing as well as times of celebration. Advent, for example, immerses congregants in a time of waiting and anticipating. Yes, there is something false about it because believers know that Christ has already come, but the weeks also allow us to dwell with texts that “heighten our anticipation for the ultimate fulfillment of all Old Testament promises, when the wolf will lie down with the lamb, death will be swallowed up, and every tear will be wiped away. In this way, Advent highlights for us the larger story of God’s redemptive plan” (The Worship Sourcebook, p. 427, emphasis added). And in that larger story there is still a tension between the “already” and the “not yet.” Babies die. Parents cry. We should weep and pray and participate in healing until God’s kingdom fully comes. Advent opens up space to do that together meaningfully.
During Lent, similarly, we know that celebration is coming in an Easter party, but the season asks us to submit to a period of waiting, perhaps even fasting, so that our feasting can be greater still. Lent is considered a season of preparation and repentance. “Just as we carefully prepare for big events in our personal lives,” explains The Worship Sourcebook, “Lent invites us to make our hearts ready for remembering Jesus’ passion and celebrating Jesus’ resurrection” (p. 557). Recognizing sin and brokenness, both individual and corporate, is an explicit part of participating in a season of Lent.
When people come to church grieving, angry, or doubting and find a worship gathering that glosses over their problems or feelings, the fault lies not with them or their experience of brokenness. Instead, it rests on some inadequate and malformed notions of the goal, purpose, shape, and witness of Christian congregational worship. While the Christian scriptures are clear about the effects of the continued power of sin, many congregational practices are instead focused on making people feel good, presuming that this is what will draw people to church. Congregational worship needs to reclaim some biblical and historic practices in order to adequately reflect reality and form believers who can be truthful even when “Satan should buffet and trials should come.”