Today I wish to direct your attention to an image that recently appeared on Tim Challies’ blog:
I am no big fan of Tim Challies, largely because he is one of the most prominent representatives in the Christian blogosphere of a certain brand of Reformed, Calvinist Christianity which has taken evangelicalism by storm over the previous decade, and which I dislike. This Neo-Calvinist way of looking at things puts a very heavy emphasis upon doctrinal purity and upon exposing and weeding out all those whose views are at variance with their views on the issues most important to them.
The sentiment expressed in the above quote has a certain significance in Neo-Calvinist circles. In the more Pentecostal/charismatic parts of evangelicalism they might replace “thinking about God” with “experiencing God’s presence” or “feeling the Spirit”, with an emphasis on speaking in tongues or other manifestations. In other places the emphasis might be upon lifting your hands and getting rip-roaring crunk for Jesus. But no matter where you go in evangelicalism, pretty much everyone shares the same sentiment on some level, in some form or fashion.
The idea here is that worship is driven, not by what God does for us as we enter His presence, but by what we do for Him. This is called pietism. Pietism had its roots back in 16th century Lutheranism, as certain pietist leaders pushed back against what they saw as the stale religion of the state-sponsored churches of Denmark, Norway, and other places, with the idea that religion is worthless unless it is actually making a real, noticeable difference in your life. If that sounds familiar, it is because this idea has underlied an awful lot of evangelicalism since its beginnings, and continues to do so today.
Think about how much of what you see and hear and experience in evangelicalism is influenced by this idea. One of the most basic ways in which we think about ourselves as evangelicals, and differentiate ourselves from other Christian traditions, is the idea that our faith is real. It actually matters in real life. It is not just a bunch of words we recite during the church service, or a bunch of words written down in a doctrinal statement on file at the church’s or denomination’s front office, but instead it is a real, active, and living thing which is making a visible, measurable difference in our lives.
Ultimately, what matters in true religion is not what God has done for us, but what we do for God to show that our faith is real and meaningful. In other words, it is our own personal piety that moves the needle here. Thus the name pietism.
When we come around to worship, the big idea is that worship is all about our activity for God, not God’s presence with us. As noted, the emphasis is different in different places–some places emphasize thinking the right thoughts, others emphasize feeling the right emotions and expressing it in the right ways–but the underlying idea is still the same.
Which begs a question: How much do we have to be thinking about God (or experiencing God’s presence or feeling the Spirit or whatever the emphasis may be) in order to be in a state of true worship? Is there a magic percentage? If so, what is it? How can I be sure I’ve thought hard enough (or felt enough or whatever) to satisfy the requirement?
This is where we are in evangelicalism: Worship is all about what we do, making sure we are thinking the right thoughts or feeling the right feelings and expressing those feelings in the right way.
When I was growing up in the Catholic faith, I remember a lot of talk about the proper disposition of your soul. Meaning that you should not have any sin in your life; if you did you had to confess it and make it right. In order for you to attend Mass and have it mean anything for you, your soul had to be properly disposed. In order to receive Communion, your soul had to be properly disposed. If not, it was recommended that you not receive. There was a lot to do to ensure that your soul was properly disposed, mainly having to do with making sure you were thinking the right thoughts, doing the right things, and feeling the right things. There were lots of ways in which the proper disposition of your soul could go off the rails.
One of the main things which attracted me to evangelicalism was not having to worry about all this.
But now, here we are.
We talk a really good game as evangelicals when it comes to grace. But do we really believe it? Do we really believe in a God who is willing to accept imperfect sacrifices from believers whose minds and hearts are millions of miles away from where they should be during worship? Do we really believe in a God who hears all our unspoken prayers, troubles, doubts, and even angry rants, and is strong enough to take it all? Do we really believe in a God who accepts us all in Jesus Christ, regardless of whether we are able or willing to shout or lift our hands in worship, or whether our worship style fits within the pattern prescribed by our church communities via specific teaching and/or peer pressure? Do we really believe in a God who says “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29)?