The aesthetics of worship are always a source of both inspiration and conflict. From sound, light, color, and clothing to bread, wine, oil, and water the elements that constitute the look and feel of worship are massively important and even defining of what a church is all about.
Think about it. If a Pastor stands on a large platform behind a plexiglass pulpit wearing a Hawaiian print shirt and skinny jeans, and is surrounded by guitar stands, his image broadcast on large screens in a room without windows and illuminated by theater lights, you know that’s a particular kind of church. In fact, think how jarring it would be for that church if the Pastor suddenly showed up preaching in a black Geneva gown and wearing a minister’s collar. That would ‘send a message’, to put it mildly. The same thing would be true in reverse.
Is there a ‘pulpit’ and where is it placed?
Is that a ‘Table’ or an ‘Altar’?
Baptistry or Font?
‘Chancel’ or ‘Stage’?
Candles or Lasers?
The answers to those questions don’t define whether a congregation is a Christian church, but they often do define what kind of Christian church it is. The aesthetics of gathered worship are one way theology is made visible and accessible. Architecture and aesthetics are prophetic instructors, the sign language of the church. Don’t make any mistake about it, the stones do cry out and their arrnagement represents the geometry of theology.
Because worship environments are messages, churches need to consider those environments very carefully. When a church designs a worship space they are saying something about who God is, who they are, and what the interaction between God and his people is supposed to look, sound, and feel like.
Is a worship service an event that is largely rooted in a few ‘performers’ with a largely passive audience? Is it more like a rock concert with high decibel level music or a contemplative gathering majoring on quiet reflection? The answer to those kinds of questions determines the kind of aesthetic the church creates, and how that subsequently interacts with the people engaged with that aesthetic in worship: we shape spaces and then spaces shape us.
Let’s say someone comes back from a big Passion event in a domed stadium really fired up about what they experienced of God’s presence there. It was great! There were thousands of people, fantastic instrumental and vocal music that was accompanied by a laser light show with smoke rising around the platform and engulfing the audience. There were dynamic speakers, and the generation dominating the proceedings matched the one our excited friend is in.
How does a church or Pastor process that experience, especially if a member thinks that’s how worship should look on Sunday morning? Should Sunday gatherings look like a Stadium event to be legit and relevant? Is the Stadium event to be rejected as mere hype and performance? Is relevance even a category to consider?
Now before someone just disparages laser shows and smoke, we should remember that light and smoke have been a big part of worship for a long time, because worship is a total experience rather than just an intellectual exercise. There are plenty of churches that wouldn’t swing a laser show and a run a smoke machine, but they’d be fine with swinging an incense censer and lighting candles. Personally I really like candles and incense, so I don’t have a beef with smoke and light per se; in fact, I think there’s a strong case for incense and candles in worship, based on the images of heavenly worship we see in the Bible.
The strengths of charismatic style worship are manifold: it has a deeply physical character, engaging the body with raised hands and voices, and it also has raised expectations of God meeting with his people Charismatic-Pentecostal people gather in expectation that God will meet with his people in grace and power that is evident and immediate. It is worship that majors on the imminence of God, his nearness to us. In this style of worship, the Lord is Immanuel, God with us.
The strengths of a more contemplative and liturgically ordered worship service are also manifold: such services are replete with a sense of rootedness in history and unity with the Church across the centuries and oceans; there is careful attention given to the voice of God speaking by the Holy Scriptures being read; there is a summons to think carefully and wonder deeply at the glory and beauty of God. This worship majors on the transcendence of God, his majestic reign over us. In this style of worship, the Lord is the King, God over us.
Both can be holy. Both can also be abominable. The position of the heart and the body are critical before the One before whom we come to offer acceptable worship with reverence and awe.
We need both emphases in our lives for truly balanced worship. We need the physical as well as the contemplative, the emotional as well as the cerebral. We need shouts of acclamation as well as the sound of silence. We need celebration and lamentation, hope and remembrance. We need to dance and we need to kneel.
At the end of the day Christ Community Church is going to host a variety of events that acknowledge God is at work in all of these forms.
Our Sunday gathered worship is multi-generational, centered in Scripture and Sacrament, and designed to be hospitable and inclusive to all, while building up all believers, regardless of age. The service isn’t going to be designed exclusively for eighteen year olds or eighty year olds, but for both and for everyone in between. We aren’t turning the lights off and doing a laser show on Sunday morning. We have little kids running around, elderly members navigating that space, people with various special needs whose health would suffer in such an environment, and a theological conviction that Sunday worship is a shared communal experience rather than a merely personal one.
We are all for special events – even special worship events – and these may well have all of the EFX we just noted above. Don’t forget weddings, funerals/memorial services, and called gatherings for prayer and lamentation. Each of these unique settings calls for music and langiage and dress that’s appropriate to the occasion.
Could we add add some incense to a service, or candles.? Hey, we already do that in Advent and on Christmas Eve! Lighting your candle and singing Silent Night makes perfect sense on that occasion, and is entirely beautiful. It’s all about occasion and context.
So let’s not despise any forms, but create the spaces and environments that match the gatherings we hold to further the vision for worship, fellowship, and service in our world that we share. Let’s also articulate and shape the expectations we all have of what a perfect worship environment might look and feel like, and remember to serve one another in these matters.
Worship is not a product to be packaged and sold; churches are not competitors with one another in a market for members but co-belligerents in a battle with darkness for the immortal souls of people. Rather than reinforcing a consumer mentality about worship, and switching churches to accommodate personal preference, be part of a church where the worship is Biblical in expression, lovingly authentic, embracing of all generations and the entire family, historical in roots, current in sound, and diverse in expression.
Heaven is filled with light, smoke, incense, word, feasting, and sound. Let’s do all we can to see that our worship on earth is ‘as it is in heaven’.
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