Icons, Idols, and Worship During and Post-COVID-19

Worship practices during the COVID-19 pandemic have opened up opportunities for worship leaders to reflect the principles and the most important elements of corporate worship.

So much has happened in the area of worship in the past few months; it's rather dizzying and overwhelming. If you are a worship leader who is feeling decision fatigue and generally tired and unmotivated you are not alone. But yet the conversation and decisions continue on: “how long till we worship in person?” “what is the best way to transition back?” and “what are the best technological solutions to use in the meantime?” Those are great conversations to have and there is great advice floating around the internet that addresses those questions. But I wonder before we move ahead much further if we need to hit the pause button, take a breath, and reflect.

As I have done my own reflecting the past week I kept thinking about icons and idols. Let me explain.

Icons

The kind of icons that I am thinking aren’t the emoji style ones but rather the painted images of Christ and the saints. These types of icons are often described as “windows to heaven,” a symbol to represent a spiritual reality. They are tools to help people worship and not the object of worship.

Idols

Throughout the history of the Christian church there have been times when worshipers mistook the tool of worship for the object of worship. When this happens the worship of God’s people becomes attached to an object. People can’t imagine being able to worship without that object in front of them. The icon became a form of idolatry.

The church then was faced with a decision on how to respond. Some chose to destroy all icons and all other forms of religious art in the sanctuary (iconoclasm), while others chose to defend them and rather worked to educate their congregations on how to appropriately use them in worship (iconoclasts). (Church historians and theologians, I realize this is a simplification.)

Worship During and Post-COVID-19

What do icons and idols have to do with our Protestant worship when our worship is seemingly devoid of each? Well, that’s just it isn’t it. Are we really devoid of them or do they just take on different forms?

In the beginning weeks of the COVID pandemic churches needed to make immediate decisions regarding their worship. These were gut, in the moment decisions, with no time for lengthy discussions or meetings. Worship leaders and pastors were learning on the go and adjusted as they learned new skills or responded to the requests (demands?) of leadership and congregants. They (you) need to be commended for the amount of time, energy, and thought you put into the leading of God’s people during this time.

Before you move on too quickly though, think a moment about the decisions your church made, not to second guess them but to learn from them. I believe in those first weeks each church has revealed in some way how they define worship. We stripped away and simplified everything we thought less important to reveal what we thought was central.

What were the most important worship elements to maintain during this time? Why? For some of our congregations it was live music led by a few musicians, for others it was the pastor’s sermon, for still others it was finding a way to continue to incorporate multiple voices. What do those decisions reveal about how you define worship not on paper but in practice?

Any one of those decisions could be the absolute correct one for your church. I am not advocating for or against any approach. But I ask you to consider a few more questions. Does your church see that most basic elements, the choices you made as a tool or means for worship (icon) or as the object of their worship (idol)?

If music was the most important element to maintain, could your congregation have worshiped without it? If it was a sermon preached by a particular pastor in a particular location, could worship have happened if someone else preached? Why is it that our congregations felt that worship needed to be led by others to begin with, why didn’t they think they could worship as an individual or household?

Again, I’m not advocating one approach or the other, neither am I suggesting that we don’t provide opportunities for corporate worship but I think the experiences of the past month or so provides us with an opportunity to do a quick anti-idolatry check.

Go back to your church’s working definition and understanding of worship. How has the worship of the last month reflected those basic principles? As you go forward where might there be room for some creative adjustments to better reflect that full understanding? If you think of worship as a communal event how well have you reflected that in the choices you have made? Who in your community has been included? Is there anyone who is left out? If worship is meant to connect with the rest of our week and call us into mission, how well are we doing that? Where might there be a need for some congregational education around worship as a preventative or antidote to idolatry?

The questions could go on. What questions you ask is not as important as the fact that you are asking them and are intentional both about what you do and what you choose not to do. At this moment the choices we make are forming our worshipers not just for today but the future as well. The patterns we set up make a difference. So along with all the good technical questions that are being asked consider spending time reflecting as well about worship’s deeper meaning and purpose.

May the choices we make create not just windows into heaven but break down all barriers so that we may indeed hear God’s voice, experience God’s presence with us, give voice to our own laments and praises, and respond by joining the work of the Holy Spirit in the world around us.

Joyce Borger, an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church, is editor of Reformed Worship and director of Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church.