Worshippers need to embrace more joy and spontaneity
The gospel is a beautiful message. It has beauty in its simplicity, in its universality, and ultimately in its overwhelming message of love from the Creator of all things.
But how often do reformed, evangelical Christians respond to the beauty of the gospel? Often in stiff, unmoving song. Or in dry, plodding exegesis. Rarely in a way which mirrors the beauty of the message we profess to love.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. Solid, clear Bible teaching is far better than emotional messages without Biblical content. Worship through music can be expressed in many ways, be it with traditional or contemporary hymns, with clapping or not clapping. It matters very little (although I know that some believe it does).
I fear, however, we may be too rigid in the way we do these things. Instead of allowing ourselves to be more spontaneous in our response to the gospel, we sometimes cling to unspoken rules of “how things ought to be done”.
For instance, with church music we are rightly concerned that it should be gospel-focussed and not degenerate into mere entertainment. We fear too much outward expression in musical worship because we are wary of emotional manipulation. Unfortunately, this can lead to any outward expression of feeling in church, such as swaying, dancing, crying, etc., being frowned upon.
Similarly, we may feel uneasy about too much expression in preaching because we are wary of any accidental addition to Scripture resulting from the preacher taking too much creative licence. This too can lead to an emotionless response to the gospel, or, more worryingly, pronouncements of heresy when someone dares to use imagination in illustrating Biblical concepts and ideas when preaching.
I am not trying to cast aspersions here, because I know I can be just as guilty of over-correcting and judging harshly in these areas as anyone else. But I have become increasingly conscious that being over-cautious in our style of worship can sometimes actually be inhibiting and unhelpful.
I don’t claim to be an expert in theological aesthetics. What I have written so far in the article is based on my personal observations of church and ministry. So it’s a good thing this is an opinion piece!
Let me outline here, though, a couple of my thoughts on the scope of personal expression in response to the beauty of the gospel:
1) It is okay to have an emotional response to the gospel.
Often in my experience of worship – not only in the Presbyterian church I joined after moving to Hobart, but also in an Anglican church to which I belonged when growing up – I have detected a strong, although unspoken, sentiment that deems overt displays of emotion in Sunday worship as awkward, strange, and even inappropriate.
Of course, not all churches and denominations are like that. However, I want to put forward the idea that, in the more conservative traditions of church, we can miss out on some parts of the expression of our thankfulness for salvation, and of our wonder at God’s nature and being, not to mention other great things taught to us from his Word.
It doesn’t mean we have to start weeping in church, or start dancing and clapping when we sing; but it does mean that we should be freer to express our response to the gospel. We can also be more generous to those in our congregations who do respond to the gospel in an emotional way. In fact, we might even come to see this response to the beauty of the gospel, as a thing of beauty in itself.
2) It is okay to use imaginative illustrations in preaching.
During the last few years of my learning how to preach (to women and children – don’t worry!), this aspect of preaching has been encouraged. Jesus used parables to convey vivid pictures of the truths he was teaching to people all the time,
Take the famous parable of the sower, in which he depicts four kinds of soil on which the sower’s seeds land. Jesus uses these images to show how the good news of the kingdom can take root and flourish in the fertile soil of some people’s hearts, but can fall on dry ground for others who aren’t receptive to it.
Vivid illustrations are essential to bring a gospel passage to life and to illuminate it further for listeners. But, obviously, they must never become so imaginative that they depart from the meaning of the text. Illustrations must be sound theologically and not something additional to what the Bible is saying. We should always be discerning and testing to ensure we are being taught by God’s Word.
Conservative Christians need not be afraid of greater creativity in preaching, but should welcome it. It can help engage our affections in response to the gospel, so that what we perceive with our minds becomes real in our hearts and thereby transforms our behaviours.
I wonder if perhaps in today’s post-modern world, where feelings and subjective experience often trump rational thinking, rediscovering beauty in theology and worship may become more prominent in our experience of Christian community.
From what I see of “Gen Z” students coming through university, they operate highly on personal experience, so they need not only the intellectual approach to Bible teaching, but also the affective experience of the gospel being real and making a difference in one’s life.
This cultural shift that emphasises experience could be a reminder that we need greater scope for freedom of expression in response to the beauty of the gospel.
Laura Haines attends Crossroads Presbyterian Church, Hobart, works in campus ministry with The University Fellowship of Christians at the University of Tasmania and is the author of the blog ‘Following Phoebe’.