Monday, 7 November 2016

On Worshipping at a Charismatic Church Service

Despite some appearances to the contrary, I am not against (whatever that would mean) charismatic worship. I worshipped mainly at charismatic churches (or churches with identifiable charismatic leanings) until fairly recently. My main objection is simply that I now find charismatic church services to be strongholds of liturgical incoherence—though my opinion here is shaped mainly by my experience of contemporary Christian worship, which I often find to be too sincere, too inane, too repetitive, and too repetitive.

This past weekend, I worshipped with my family and some friends at a charismatic church in a city south of London. The service was not held in a typically English church building—it was, in fact, held in a theatre. Cynically, I could aver that such a venue is more than appropriate for a church tradition that ostensibly prizes performance above all else, and that the mirror ball dangling above the stage was more than mere coincidence due to the service’s location; but the fact is I quite liked the tiered theatre seating, and at no point did I feel that the worship band (consisting of a vocalist, a vocalist/guitarist, a bassist, a keyboardist, and a drummer) sought only to perform. Moreover, while the songs we sang were typical soft-rock worship choruses, the period of singing did not last too long, and there was definitely a discernible sense of progression in the songs’ ordering. So, strangely for me these days, I had no complaints.

Near the beginning of his sermon, the (guest) preacher began by asking us to open our Bibles or connect to the network—the times, they are a-changin’! And the preacher was engaging, self-deprecating, and often genuinely funny. The message, based on John 14:1-14, was nothing especially new—it was simply an encouragement for us to live as children of the Father so that God can do great things through us, illustrated with a handful or so of stories demonstrating the sorts of things God has done in the past and, by implication, could do in the future. As I say, the message was nothing especially new, but it was no less inspiring because of that.

However, my cynicism did emerge at times during the sermon. The preacher occasionally stressed the fact that doing great things for God was nothing less than an adventure. There was also an equally strong emphasis on God as our loving Father, which resulted in a quasi-altar call where people were invited down the stairs (theatre seating, remember) to the stage to be prayed for. And finally, the service closed with the ubiquitous Good Good Father (a song which is open to criticism and has been openly criticised) and a rather subdued dismissal (‘Okay, we’ve finished now . . .’). Now I suppose none of these things is a problem in and of itself, but my CynicometerTM was flashing lights at these points:

The preacher occasionally stressed the fact that doing great things for God was nothing less than an adventure . . . but does this mean that any form of the Christian life that is mundane, humdrum, everyday, etc., is less than an adventure? And why repeatedly use the word ‘adventure’—are we to seek novelty in our lives as Christians? Is the emphasis on adventure designed to cater for the large number of (presumably) twenty-somethings in the congregation? At times, I felt I was watching the sermonic equivalent of one of those holiday adverts where it seems that everyone wants to go rock climbing or clubbing or snorkelling when away from home.

There was also an equally strong emphasis on God as our loving Father . . . as our Daddy. This is, I believe, a helpful and perhaps necessary interpretation of the fatherhood of God for new Christians or those who have been abused in some way by their fathers or male authority figures. It shows that God is loving and can be approached without fear. But it also suggests that God can be approached without reference to Jesus, eternal and incarnate Son of the Father, who is pleased to call us his brothers and sisters (Heb. 2:11-13) despite being our Lord. The fact is that while some people probably need to hear the message that God is our loving Daddy, the rest of us, the majority of us, need to hear that God is our Father because God has adopted us as God’s children in Christ. It’s a question of theological maturity: toddlers and small children use ‘Daddy’, but older children and adults (tend to) use ‘Father’, ‘Dad’, or some other similar term to reflect a less childish, more developed relationship. And so I wonder how far this aspect of the sermon essentially treated us all as toddlers needing constant assurance and cuddle-time with our Daddy rather than actually recognising that the majority of people, through the power of the Spirit, have the strength to live as adults in Christ and not as young children.

And finally, you may have noticed that I have not mentioned intercessions. That’s because there weren’t any. There was a prayer time following Good Good Father, but it was limited to those in the congregation who had been affected by the sermon. This isn’t to say that the church itself is unconcerned with the outside world; judging by its literature, I have to make it clear that it is; but in this service, prayer was restricted to those going down to receive ‘prayer ministry’. Surely for a church service this is inadequate!

Cynically, then, I could say that the shadow side of the sermon conveyed the message that our ‘ordinary’ lives need to be spiced up, that God our Daddy will always be there to pick up the pieces if and when we mess up, and that intercession plays second fiddle to our personal and individual relationships with God. But on the other hand, I could say that the sermon conveyed the message that God can use ‘ordinary’ people to do extraordinary things (cf. John 14:12), that we need not fear going out into the world precisely because God is our loving Father who will move us through (not necessarily around) failure, and that when we are faithful to God, our lives are sort of an embodied intercession because we serve others in the name of Christ. I suppose as with any church service, charismatic or non-charismatic, this one was a typical mixture of good elements and bad elements. (But about Good Good Father, I have nothing constructive to say.)


  1. So much to comment on, I hardly know where to begin!

    Firstly, congratulations on a very balanced and measured piece - although I too have mixed feelings about many aspects of contemporary charismatic worship (henceforth CCW), it's good to see you engaging with it positively as well as critically!

    I'm intrigued by your view that CCW is 'too sincere, too inane, too repetitive'. I'm sure you're not advocating insincerity - so is it that it's too gushing, or lacking self-deprecating humour? Perhaps it's not really sincere enough - CCW songs make great promises of commitment and professions of faith on behalf of an often fairly apathetic congregation (if I'm in it).

    I do accept the charge of inanity (and infantilism) to some degree, in particular songs - but I'm not sure it's true of the genre as a whole (or at least not much more so than other worship genres). And perhaps the average churchgoer requires a simplicity of language and theology that someone with a degree in the subject would inevitably find somewhat inane...

    The repetitiveness has never bothered me so much - I'm happy to sing Taize chants where you repeat the same 4 lines to the point of trance-like meditation. I suppose it depends a little on what you're repeating though - 'it's who I am, it's who I am' may get a little wearing after the 10th time.

    Though I don't agree with most of the criticisms levelled against that particular song - to me it's a perfectly valid and helpful expression of worship, always provided that it isn't the only element in our diet. I don't see any problem with reflecting on God being a good father, nor do I see it as narcissistic to reflect on ourselves as loved by him - Henri Nouwen wrote a whole book on the subject, which admittedly is a little deeper and better-written. But though it's not my favourite song I have no objections to it, so long as we sing other stuff too.

    I don't fully take the point about 'Daddy' either... for sure, we all need to grow up in our relationship with God. But even adults can enjoy a childlike intimacy with God at times - I'd see that as emotionally and spiritually healthy, again so long as it isn't the only way we relate to God.

    Take your point about 'adventure' but again it doesn't bother me too much - it's just preachers trying to get apathetic churchgoers excited about the Christian faith, and it works for some people. It used to work for me, a bit.

    1. Ah, Harvey . . . I expected a comeback from you. ;)

      As I hope I intoned throughout the post, none of what I say is meant as a damning criticism - more that alarm bells sounded at certain points. Note that I wrote 'I often find', not 'I always find'. As for your points:

      1. As far as sincerity is concerned, you've probably hit the nail on the head. It's all the grand gestures that are made, I suppose. I have suggested on this very blog that perhaps these sorts of songs can be sung eschatologically, but that would only apply to songs I like. ;p

      2. Regarding inanity, I don't accept that people require a simplicity of language to worship if simplicity thus means using infantile language. And, to be honest, sometimes it's not so much the words used as the way the words are strung together - Good Good Father being a case in point. I accept that some people find certain songs helpful and that within a particular context, these can prove liturgically sound. But very often, it seems to me that songs are used simply because they are the flavour of the moment and don't really contribute to the service as a whole. If the 'sung worship' part of a service consists entirely of the latest Hillsong compositions, for example, then something's not right . . . surely.

      3. Repetition in and of itself isn't an issue, otherwise how could a card-carrying member of the Church of England such as myself use Common Worship? The question is one of formation: If I sing the same infantilised songs each week, am I being encouraged to be an infant? Similarly, if I sing the same stodgy five-stanza hymns each week, am I being encouraged to be rooted in tradition rather than in Jesus? There's always a balance to be had, that's for sure.

      4. I can't say anything more about Good Good Father, good or bad, really. The Ponder Anew post I linked to expresses my concerns far better than I could other than to say that it really does remind me of TMBG's I am a Paleontologist, which is a (rockin') kids' song!

      5. About 'adventure': yes, it certainly does inspire and gets people excited about Jesus. That's why I still love God's Smuggler, The Cross and the Switchblade, and Run, Baby, Run. It's amazing to hear about what God has done, can do, and will do! But the danger is there: if one's testimony isn't 'exciting', or if one isn't living the Christian life as though it's an adventure, then once more the implication could be that novelty and excitement is what the Christian faith's all about.

      6. Otherwise, I agree with you - it's when these negative things are the only things we do in church that is becomes problematic. But I have to say that if the medium is the message, then a lot of charismatic worship, at least for me, appears to prioritise novelty, (certain kinds of) experience, and excitement, things which are not necessarily a problem, but which are not necessarily always helpful to Christian growth. But I appreciate that many will think the same about bells 'n' smells as well.

    2. All fair points!

      Interestingly, given that my degree is in English language and literature, I really don't object to singing songs like 'Good, good Father' or most of the others that are frequently singled out as inane or infantile. For some reason, they mostly don't strike me as so, and where they do it just doesn't bother me as much as it does many other people.

      Perhaps this is partly because on some level the words of songs have never mattered to me quite as much as the music (heresy, I know). However, these songs are musically simple too (I would argue far simpler musically than lyrically), but that doesn't really bother me either - when I want more complex music I'll listen to Sibelius, but in a worship context I find the simplicity more helpful than otherwise.

      And perhaps the same applies to the words - in another context I'd be very glad to engage with something on the level of Kierkegaard or Barth, but in a congregational worship context I'm not sure I'd find that massively helpful. I may just be a little thick ;)

      I have to say that I didn't warm to the Ponder Anew author at all and therefore wasn't willing to listen to his points, which to me felt more like slightly pedantic point-scoring on a pet topic than anything genuinely constructive or even particularly valid. But you clearly found that it chimed with your genuine concerns, so fair enough! :)

    3. The bloke at Ponder Anew has some very important things to say, I think, which is why I read the blog. But I suspect he's preaching to the converted in my case. He makes some very interesting connections, including in his latest post where he blogs about the link between Donald Trump's election and a poor theology of worship in White Evangelical America:

      I've noticed that quite a few of your responses to my comments, here and elsewhere, appear to bring up or allude to education. When it comes to worship, do you think churches need to cater for the lowest common denominator?

    4. Interesting how very different our reactions are to the Ponder Anew chap - I disagreed at least partially with almost everything he said, and perhaps above all disliked the manner in which he said it. That may be my emotions reacting of course - perhaps I felt threatened, criticised or accused by him.

      I do certainly think that CCW (and any other form of worship) needs critiquing, but I would critique it in quite a different manner - and probably for different reasons.

      I do take his point to some extent in the Donald Trump piece - there is surely some link between narcissistic worship and narcissistic voting for a narcissistic president. But it also feels a little bit like he's just trying to join up the dots to back up his hobby horse (or obsession) - look, even the Trump election is the fault of the kind of worship songs/services I don't like!

      Re education, I wouldn't express it as 'catering for the lowest common denominator' - that is already putting an unduly negative slant on it, it seems to me. And I'm not sure I can answer adequately in a brief comment, partly because I haven't fully worked out what I think about it, and perhaps my views are based more on how I feel than on a strong rationale.

      If pressed though, I would say that I don't see any great requirement for followers of Jesus to be particularly educated, and for many the intellectual aspect of faith is not as important as it may be to you or me. I believe that there *is* a requirement for increasing spiritual and emotional maturity, but that does not necessarily relate to intellect or education, and I think that simple language can express profound realities.

      I suppose we could come down to a discussion of the difference between 'childlike' and 'childish'...

    5. But it also feels a little bit like he's just trying to join up the dots to back up his hobby horse (or obsession) - look, even the Trump election is the fault of the kind of worship songs/services I don't like!

      I think this is a bit unfair. It may well be that precisely because of his hobby horse, he might be able to see dots and the connections between them that others don't or won't. And he never says his comments are about his dislike of songs simpliciter.

      On education: I guess what I was driving at was my observation that a few times here and on TEL you seem to have implied that education is unimportant in church life. If so, I must disagree. Not everyone needs to have a theology degree, but that doesn't mean there's no place for thought . . .

      Interesting, the James Smith book we were talking about recently emphasises that a lot of contemporary worship (which he criticises) actually presupposes that humans are 'thinking things', whereas humans are actually more lovers. It's interesting, I think, because he suggests that a lot of contemporary worship assumes that humans are designed to process nuggets of information that are best digested when sugar-coated - i.e. truths about God in contemporary worship. If this is so, then it raises for me the issue of the lyrics and precisely what nuggets of 'truth' are being digested. If songs such as Good Good Father are the songs that shape us now, then is it any wonder if future songs are going to be more childish than childlike?

    6. Or it may be that he's merely connecting random dots into patterns based on how his mind is set, rather as we do with constellations or 'faces' in wallpaper...

      I don't think I've quite understood the relation between your last two paragraphs - in the former you seem to suggest that thinking/learning is important but in the latter that humans are more lovers than thinkers... ?

      I don't disagree with you that intellectual education is an important part of the overall life of the Body, but I suspect that it isn't as important to me as it is to you. But again, I think we're in danger of over-generalising and misunderstanding each other because it's hard to do justice to these ideas in a short blog comment.

      My own impression, which is probably wrong, is that you sometimes place a slight over-emphasis on the importance of theological education, understandably given your background and career.

      I would agree with Smith that humans are more lovers than thinkers, and for me (at risk of cliche) Christianity is above all a relationship - which does involve thinking and understanding, but I don't believe these are primary or even essential elements. Someone with severe brain damage or learning difficulties can still be a Christian - perhaps I secretly think a better Christian rather than the opposite.

      But as I've said before, if 'Good good Father' and the like were our sole and entire diet, I might be slightly more concerned - however, that's not what I see.

    7. Yes . . . and songs aren't the only part of worship either. I think this is why a poorly chosen or a poorly crafted song grates so much. I dare say that there are many talented songwriters out there who could compose decent songs for use in the Church. But we're left with Good Good Father instead . . . ;)

      The stuff about education and loving . . . Smith's claim is counterintuitive at first glance, but it seems correct on further reflection. We are created to love, but our love is misplaced - going after the created rather than the Creator. Liturgy is that which helps orient our desires; this is why Divine Liturgy (however it's practised) is important to orient our desires towards God, whereas 'cultural liturgies' (e.g. the practices encouraged by, say, consumerism) orient our desires away from God. The point is that liturgy orients our desires, whereas so much that passes for worship in church orients our thoughts by disseminating information rather than giving opportunities for formation. Naturally, thinking is a right and important thing for the Church to do, and I believe every person needs to make sense of their faith - that is, part of Christian growth is to grow deeper in understanding according to their abilities (think of how adolescents (in theory) are taught and understand deeper things than, say, a five year old). But it's our liturgical practices that shape how we think. I'm probably not explaining myself well, but it's a both/and, not an either/or.

    8. That's very interesting - and probably a more gracious response than I deserved ;)

      So to clarify, our liturgical practices/frameworks shape both how we think and how we feel (or orient what we desire)?

      I can certainly see something in this claim, at least in theory. In practice, for me at least, I'm not sure that it's often the case that our liturgical framework does shape/orient what we desire, but I can see that it could do, and that that would be a good thing! And perhaps I'm taking rather too narrow a view of liturgy.

      Altogether, an area I feel I may need to ponder a bit more deeply. :)

      Returning briefly to 'Good good Father', I would certainly agree that it's not the best-written congregational worship song, and my feeling is that it would be more appropriate for private devotions. It also does contain a few spectacularly wince-worthy lines.

      Nonetheless, I would contend that at its core is a profound theological truth and uniquely Christian spiritual insight - that God is our good Father, and that our primary identity in Christ is as 'the Beloved' (as Henri Nouwen puts it). And I do genuinely think that these are truths that many Christians - including me - need to imbibe.

      And I'd far rather sing it than 'Cornerstone', a song to which I have taken an almost entirely irrational dislike.

    9. Cornerstone? Is that the one based on the old hymn, My hope is built on nothing less? Yes, I have problems with that, too. The original had the refrain 'On Christ the solid rock I stand / all other ground is sinking sand', whereas the new revised version seems to this with a chorus that, once again, is little more than emoting and an occasion to mix metaphors. I'd be interested to know why you dislike it.

      But Good Good Father - does it really have our identity in Christ at its core? I'd need to be persuaded of that!

      On liturgy, I said that liturgy shapes the way we think - in much the same way as we might say that confessing the Nicene Creed shapes the way we read Scripture. If our liturgy shapes us to live lives that glorify God in the world (e.g., in the C of E's terms, 'Go in peace to love and the serve the Lord'), then it will shape the way we think about the world and our relation to it. Liturgy is unlikely to shape our emotions in the same way, but I suppose it might act as a kind of canon against which we can make sense of the emotions we (legitimately) feel.

      And don't forget, liturgy is not to equated with Common Worship or with words. Services automatically have some kind of liturgy simply by virtue of being services. So the important thing, in my view, is to ensure they're as coherent as possible. And this is why I say 'no' to just singing songs that happen to be flavour of the month and 'yes' to songs - including Good Good Father - that fit the service appropriately in some way.

    10. I'm not sure why I dislike 'Cornerstone'... I think partly it's that the chorus is so out of keeping with the rest of the song. Also the line 'my anchor holds within the veil' seems such an obscure mixed metaphor that I only have the vaguest notion of what it might mean.

      I'm not sure how I'd persuade you that 'Good good Father' has our identity in Christ at its heart. It seems to me that only our relationship with Christ enables us to call God 'Father' in any meaningful way, and that it's in Christ that we experience being loved by the Father as our primary identity ('I'm loved by you / that's who I am').

      I'm not sure how much I agree that liturgy shapes the way we think - I would perhaps say that it can help influence the way we think to some degree. I'd need to be persuaded of the stronger case you appear to make for it! :)

      Whereas actually I would suggest that liturgy, including the musical elements, may well influence us emotionally in quite profound ways, and that this may be no bad thing. I'm also not sure whether I'd agree that there are such things as emotions that we can legitimately feel or otherwise, depending on what you mean by that...

      I do value coherence in services, but having spent several years trying to come up with songs that fit the theme but that don't fit together in any other way, I'm personally very glad to have more freedom of choice. I do still think that a set of songs should 'flow' in some way, to have a sense of direction and movement, and that songs shouldn't be wildly out of keeping with the rest of what's going on.

    11. I can well appreciate your interpretation of Good Good Father, but I think this relies on reading a trinitarian syntax into the song that's not readily apparent. I can't see any obvious Christological referent in the song; indeed, for me, the song seems to bypass Christ and posit an immediate relationship between God the Father and me. Personally, I think the old song Father God, I wonder captures the 'identity in Christ' motif far better. But it's a few decades old, so I suppose its theology is outmoded now. ;)

      I'm not going to make a case for liturgy. I don't need to. Every church service adopts a liturgy, whether it's taken from a denominational service book or from the mind of the person 'leading' the service. The only question for me is whether it's good liturgy. Otherwise, I can only suggest reading Smith's book You Are What You Love - or the Ponder Anew blog!

    12. "I'm not going to make a case for liturgy. I don't need to."

      I wasn't asking you to make a case for liturgy - just a case for your contention that liturgy strongly shapes our thinking. ;)

      I think that given the context in which 'Good good Father' is intended to be sung, the Christological referent can be read by implication. I'm not sure it always needs to be spelt out in every song... and there's no specific mention of Jesus in 'Father God I wonder'.

      I like 'Father God I wonder' (and keep intending to record a kind of speed-thrash-punk version of it!) but Rosie's pointed out that the words are hard to sing if you've always grown up with a knowledge of God as Father as she did...

      I'll very happily read Smith's book, but I'm afraid Ponder Anew is a bridge too far for me. :)

    13. True, Father God I wonder has no explicit Christological referent . . . but I'd say the language of adoption it uses is far more evocative of Scripture - because we are chosen in Christ - than anything in Good Good Father. You're right to say that the Christological referent isn't needed to be spelt out in every song . . . but here we're back to the point where those planning the service need to ensure that everything complements each other and has a purpose. I think we both agree on that one.

    14. Wow, I think we may have found *two* things to agree on here - that we both quite like 'Father God I wonder', and that services are mostly better if they're well planned! Perhaps not a bad place to pause the discussion for now... :)

  2. I went to a Pentecostal church earlier in the year and they had almost exactly the same sermon. I appreciate the idea of life being an adventure but it is a dangerous idea to think that being a follower of Christ is all about 'what I get out of it' and the seeking of experience over Faith. I can end up with an idolatrous desire to be 'special'. But the RCs have been aware of this for centuries - just look at Dark Night of the Soul or The Interior Castle, both of which reflect a depth of faith barely touched by contemporary Protestantism (probably by Catholicism too, but I wouldn't know). On the other hand... no church is perfect and I could pick faults in every denomination or style of worship. The main thing is to not let the Stuff get bigger than God. Our little church does manage this, because the leaders are genuine, compassionate and humble. Humility and compassion seem to be so often overlooked. Anyway, that's my tuppence-worth.

    1. And your tuppence-worth is worth a million, Sandy.