But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. (Hebrews 12:22-23, NIV)
Experiencing the Church
Many distill the essence of corporate worship as “encounter with God.” That’s a great summary. When we gather, God chooses to reveal Himself in special ways and through special means, many of which He reserves ordinarily only for that context. But have we ever thought about the fact that, in worship, we not only encounter God but encounter the Church? God and the Church are not the same (although, one could rightly argue, based on the reality of our union with Christ, that there is more overlap than we are sometimes comfortable to admit). Encountering God is an unparalleled event. Period. Still, is there some sense in which our encounter with the Church should blow our minds and inspire awe in us, too? In worship, is there a sense in which we’ve not only experienced God but experienced the Church?
I keep capitalizing “Church.” That freaks some Protestants out, but it’s purposeful. Just what is the Church? Here are four shocking ideas. The Church is...
- The Body of Christ – the revelation of Jesus Himself to the world (!!!)
- The Bride of Christ – the wife of the Creator of the universe (!!!)
- All across space and time who profess faith in Christ (!!!)
- The firstfruits of the new heavens and new earth (!!!)
The first two bullets should make mountains out of goosebumps, especially if we would stop thinking of them as purely symbolic, metaphorical ideas and move a bit more toward the literal. But let’s camp on the third and fourth points.
All across space. A good pastor / worship leader will remind their congregation in worship that they’re worshiping, at that very hour, with saints across the globe. Denver in the morning sings with Kampala in the evening. Early risers in Seoul pray with Copenhagen vespers. Westminster Cathedral worships with the Chinese underground. God sees it all and receives it all. It’s all, at once, His Church lifting up His worship. When we enter into gathered, corporate worship, we are gathering with this body, which takes the eyes of faith to see.
All across time. We Westerners tend to think about this concept a lot less, while religions and cultures steeped in ancestor worship like Shintoism often tap into this a bit more. But where those religions fail, Christian worship testifies that when we gather to sing, pray, hear, and feast, we join in a heavenly worship already taking place. We don’t start the flow; we jump into the rushing stream. Revelation depicts the heavenly worship as not only being populated by heavenly beings but by “the saints” who have gone before—the great cloud of witnesses. When we worship, we join with them, in a sense, mid-service. Even more than the Church across space, the Church across time takes the eyes of faith to see. Imagine what new depths of worship we'd discover if we had better eyes to see just who was present with us as we worship. Not only is the Triune Community present, but His whole Ekklesia is there, too. O God, give us eyes to see!
The firstfruits of the New Heavens / New Earth. When Jesus rose from the dead in His glorified body, He became the firstfruits of the resurrection to come--a sign of what was inevitable for the future. In a secondary way, the Church, too, especially when she gathers, exhibits a "firstfruit-ness," especially visible with the eyes of faith. Think of it like a rave. (I know, dangerous metaphor.) As the folks enter the space, they look ordinary. Their skin looks human; their clothes look fashionable but still worldly. When the music starts and the black lights come on, a new visual revelation unfolds. The glow sticks and black-light-sensitive tattoos start to gleam, and suddenly this group of ordinary people looks more like a scene out of Avatar than anything you'd find on earth. When the church gathers, God's presence and the people's body-of-Christ-ness makes the Ekklesia glow, and a faint reverberation of the heavenly kingdom is manifested on earth. Firstfruits. Once again, this is something seen only in and through the eyes of faith.
What this Means for the Content of Our Worship
I’d like to submit just one point of application. If the whole Church is truly with us as we worship, then our worship should reflect, in some sense, our engagement with that reality. In other words, even as we seek to be culturally relevant, this should be alongside, not at the expense of, the lasting traditions which have shaped the essence of Christian worship over time. Some Protestants, again, get squeamish here because we surmise that to take tradition seriously we must abandon the Scriptures as our only rule of faith. But what if that rule of faith is calling us (as outlined above) to be faithful to the Church that has gone before?
I’ve been in an intense discussion with a dear friend and formidable thinker about the nature of contextualization of worship for the sake of mission. Where’s that line between being faithful to the best of the tradition of Christian worship and being intelligible to a given hearer/worshiper? I honestly don’t know if I could draw that line. It almost seems better to weigh that out through much prayer, by the Spirit, and from within a given context. Nevertheless, could it be rightly said that our best construal of missional worship, our best “doxological evangelism,” is to provide the context for the most robust experience of God and the most dramatic experience of the Church? What if, by the traditions we embrace, people of a twenty-first century culture could feel the weight of what it’s like to pray with first-century Paul, to profess faith with fourth-century Nicaea, to Commune with sixth-century Constantinople, to chant with medieval Mediterraneans, to confess with sixteenth-century Genevans? What if, even as our musical vernacular might change from Bach to rock, we’re encountering God in the same Sanctus, whose text, once accompanied by counterpoint, is now led from chord charts?
Tradition and Liturgy Broker a Missional Encounter
What in our worship hearkens to and expresses the glorious “Great Tradition” (as Jim Belcher calls it in Deep Church)? What are we embracing that allows us to not only encounter God but rightly encounter the Church? If our worship is all “now” or even mostly “now,” are we selling people short of a truly profound experience of the Church? If our worship is so hyper-simplified into a block-of-songs-then-offering-then-sermon liturgy, have we pressed fast-forward on what should be a time-stopping event? You see, tradition and liturgy aren’t just cool, trendy, hip, upper crust, urban “worship accessories” for Catholics, Anglicans, the Orthodox, and the Protestant intelligentsia. They serve to cause in worship a deep connection to and encounter with the Church. Perhaps that’s what’s so enticing about tradition and liturgy for many—the intangible, weighty mystery that we’re connecting with a deep, ancient Community. Yes, it’s a bit “mystical.” But so is the Holy Spirit—the one who draws us together into this Community and fills us to be the Church.
This adds some relief to those concerned that some or most liturgy and tradition would be over the heads of some “simple-minded” folk or a stumbling block to people who don’t know Jesus. It’s not always about “getting it,” but it is definitely about experiencing it. It might for a time be over the heads of some, but it probably wouldn’t be over their hearts, so to speak. In some respects, as James K. A. Smith teases out in Desiring the Kingdom, liturgical tradition has the ability to bypass the head and still form the heart. But, as I’ve seen in my context, heads often follow. When liturgy and tradition are embraced and led sincerely and passionately, not only is God made visible in power and glory (because He has chosen to reveal Himself through certain means of Word and Table), but the Church is manifested in glory, too. The Church, rightly viewed through Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is an attractive, “missional” sight.