Sex, the Church, and Miss California: Worship and Sex

meatcutsWe must be a community that … worships in a way that orders desires towards God and away from narcissism (feel-good pep-rallies), for any other kind of worship cannot train us out of our narcissistic obsessions with sex.

I admit that I wasn’t expecting this particular thought to pop up here. How can worship be about sex? Worship is about the least sexy thing there is. I mean, if you’d grown up in the church where I grew up … well, worship was about keeping rules and suffering through s … l … o … o … o … w singing and bad preaching, because this is how we bought our way into heaven. Miss three services in a row and you’d go straight to hell. Maybe sooner. Maybe just one if you weren’t “Providentially hindered,” not that we believed in Providence, not really.

Okay. Here’s the point, and it’s a good one. We Americans are a narcissistic people. We are all about ourselves, autonomy, and self-indulgence. Therefore, we demand a worship service that meets our needs. But not our real, actual needs … our “felt needs.” And if we don’t feel the need for a lesson against fornication, well, the preacher needs to find something else to talk about.

And the way we worship shapes us as God’s people. Therefore, we need to carefully consider what lessons we are teaching ourselves in the way we worship.

Silence before worship

For example, what are we taught when the elders demand that we enter the auditorium and sit quietly before worship begins? Well, the intended lesson is that God should be approached with reverence. What’s the actual lesson?

That God lives in the auditorium. Right? And that God takes no pleasure in our fellowship and conversation — even when we’re meeting and greeting visitors or recruiting volunteers to sit with a sick member. Indeed, we can push reverence for God so hard that we sometimes push “love your neighbor” right out of the building. Because if you love your neighbor, you talk to him, ask about her children, and make yourself open to his needs by listening.

Announcements

Many of our members hate announcements. Really. Now given that announcements are about who is sick, suffered a loss, or is needing a volunteer, what does our hatred of announcements tell us about our hearts? I think we don’t want to hear about other people’s problems because it makes us feel guilty. We don’t want to hear about their successes because it makes us jealous. Therefore, we want to cut straight to the singing.

God says, however,

(Rom 12:15)  Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.

and

(Heb 10:24-25)  And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Announcements are one way of encouraging one another to love and good deeds. And our resentment at announcements is symptomatic of a serious spiritual illness. You see, we come to worship for what we can get out of it. We are a selfish people.

Going forward

Going forward in response to the sermon is a 200-year old practice, and not a bad one. But it can, at times, be extremely graceless. You see, when we refuse to forgive someone unless they go forward and confess sin before the church, well, aren’t we glad Jesus doesn’t impose the same terms on us!?

We once taught that Jesus wouldn’t forgive us until we’d confessed, repented, made restitution, and asked for forgiveness. Therefore, we felt quite comfortable in refusing forgiveness to our fellow members unless they did the same. And part of the process was “going forward” and begging for congregational forgiveness.

And I’m not at all opposed to our members confessing sins before the congregation. I just don’t think we should be stricter in our forgiveness than Jesus.

(Col 3:13)  Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

Worship wars

Ironic, isn’t it, that you know exactly what I mean by “worship wars,” isn’t it? You see, we’ve all been through the battles or know people who have or know we’ve got a battle coming. And these wars aren’t unique to Churches of Christ. Even denominations that have no doctrinal issues with changes in worship styles go to war over worship changes.

What’s at the heart of worship wars? What is deep, deep at the core of the willlingness of Christians to split or leave a church over the century in which the hymns were written? Selfishness — the notion that worship is all about what I get out of it and how much I enjoy it.

Well, we aren’t called by God to musical theatre. And if the church needs to change musical styles to be more evangelistically effective, what does Jesus want?

Conclusion

So what does any of this have to do with marriage? Well, if we believe that relationships are about rule keeping rather than our hearts, that God lives at church and not in our bedrooms, that we don’t need to care about other people’s problems, that we can withhold forgiveness until the other person meets our demands, and if we enter community so we can take what we want from those who are there, well, we will be pretty lousy spouses.

If we can’t even have a right relationships at church, with the preacher talking to us every week and teachers teaching us lessons two or three times a week, how on earth are we going to make marriage work? Based on a six-lesson counseling series before we get married and a class on marriage every 5 years?

But it’s not so much about the volume of lessons as the impact of the lessons. You see, we don’t insist that our members actually honor their Christian commitment in church, and so they don’t honor it at home either. Until we not only teach but exemplify and insist on selflessness at church, we’re going to keep on having messed up marriages. And we’ve got messed marriages aplenty.

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5 Responses

  1. “Miss three services in a row and you’d go straight to hell. Maybe sooner. Maybe just one if you weren’t “Providentially hindered,” not that we believed in Providence, not really.”

    We believed more in being providential hindered than in being providentially guided. And that’s a fact! Still is for too many folks. I’ve always had a hard time figuring out why God “providentially hinders” us when He wants us there so desperately!

    Excellent post, Jay. Being a Christian is about so much more than what we do in our “worship service!” But what we do there can certainly affect what we do elsewhere!

  2. “What is deep, deep at the core of the willingness of Christians to split or leave a church over the century in which the hymns were written? Selfishness — the notion that worship is all about what I get out of it and how much I enjoy it.”

    Not really. And yes. If you want to refer to a starving man running to a feast selfish, then I suppose that’s technically correct. But it doesn’t describe what’s actually happening.

    Worship is a two-fold proposition. First and foremost is loving God – telling Him how awesome, powerful, beautiful, and loving He is, through all means possible. An elder should be very moved when he sees a sheep busting out of the status quo to praise God in a new way. That type of growth is required for a healthy church. Otherwise, if you’re not growing, you’re declining, which is supported by the current data on membership. Is it that we’re declining in numbers, or that we’re not willing to let God be worshiped however He sees fit, so true worshipers are leaving?

    Second, is edification of the church. Is slow singing edifying? Is bad preaching edifying? Why would anyone who cares about the Kingdom let that stay the same? Elders should be eager to find out how God is moving His people to worship Him in new ways, because that’s where edification happens. My worship story is as much a part of my testimony as my rescue.

    The main conflict here is not as much selfishness as it is a conflict between life and stagnation.

    Worship wars are about untrained leaders as much as it is about untrained followers. If the options presented are a full spiritual life or “suffering through s … l … o … o … o … w singing and bad preaching” why would anybody choose the latter? One reason: fear of Hell taught by an untrained leadership. So an untrained believer under an untrained leadership who finds out they’ve missed out on life because of the whole scenario is not going to know how to handle it, because they haven’t been trained! So things tend to unravel quickly.

    “Train up a child in the way he should go, and we he is old he will not depart from it” can also be translated “Train up a child in the way he is going…” and this should be the heart of any church leadership. “What is God doing in this person? Why is He doing it here? How can I facilitate this person’s growth in this?” “How can I help this person grab onto the full life that God is obviously offering them?” These are the rod and staff of a shepherd.

    Worship wars reflect an across the board failure at multiple levels. To try and convict selfishness for the crime is inaccurate at best.

  3. Brad,

    Churches split over worship either of two ways. Sometimes two factions fight selfishly over their preferred style. But other times one faction fights selfishly for its preferred style and the other faction fights for selflessness — to be more evangelistically effective or to keep the young members in the church.

    Either way, the split is caused by selfishness. I agree that sometimes the one leaving aren’t the selfish ones. But there’s always at least one selfish faction, or there’d be no split.

    My point (not made as I well I might have) is that we tend to garb ourselves in high and holy language when we’re sometimes just pursuing self-interest. My view is that the elders should never take seriously a worship-wars complaint expressed in terms of “This is what I want.” Rather, the complaints that should be listened to are along the lines of: “This is what the lost want” or “This is what visitors want” or “This is what the young people want” — or even “This is what the older members want” coming from a young person.

    Christianity is all about selflessness, and yielding to the selfish teaches precisely the wrong lesson. Good politics is generally pretty lousy Christianity. It’s not about keeping the members happy. It’s about keeping God happy — and he wants us to be self-emptying people who give up our rights for the Kingdom, like Jesus.

    Insisting that members grow up in Jesus through self-emptying is no easy task — but we’ll have lousy churches and lousy marriages until we do it.

  4. Hey guys,
    I guess I never thought of thinking of worship and marriage together, ie.e how attitudes that affect one will affect or be seen in the other, but I think you are right. Selfishness at home cannot be contained… it will be seen in the relationship we have with each other in the body. The ‘me-first’ idea goes against what Jesus taught, for sure. When He washed the disciple’s feet, no one wanted to serve. It’s no surprise, in the church today, there is a great need for servants.
    Thanks for the comparison. It will help in our series of lessons on the home, (“I love this house we built”).
    Keep it coming Jay.

  5. I’m thinking more of what causes the selfishness. My point is that it’s the nature of the CofC to foster this selfish behavior. It is trained into the congregations by leadership that selfishness is the tool for getting things done.

    Those in fear of new things may be aggressively resisting it, but I can’t call if selfishness. You and I both know they are genuinely afraid of going to Hell for violating the law. That’s not selfishness, that’s self preservation at the least, and protecting your congregation at most (if you truly believe that the new thing being pushed is out of bounds).

    For the person (or group) who has tasted intimacy with God for the first time, they are destined to chase it by design. God’s love is supposed to be irresistibly awesome, and beyond anything else experienced. And they will want others to experience this life, instinctively knowing that if others meet God in this way, the Kingdom will grow. There is a reason Jesus said that Kingdom people will have to give up mother and brother and other relationships. He expects the real pursuit of God to take over our lives!

    All of this comes out looking like selfishness because no one is trained in spiritual awakenings. Three songs and a prayer, Three songs and a sermon is the highest spiritual awakening expected and trained. Elders have no tools to deal with this new experience a person or group is having, and therefore see it as an unscriptural pursuit, and fight it as such. They would be right if what they were facing was as they perceived: error. Is this selfish, or misdirected good behavior for an elder?

    Those who have stumbled onto intimacy have no idea what they’ve found, because no one can tell them. All they know is they’ve found it in a certain worship style, and they must have more, because for the first time they’ve tasted what they’ve always – and only – read about. Like a man who needs air, this person needs that worship style to learn how to be intimate with God. Is needing air selfish?

    To clarify, I don’t think a particular worship style is necessary all of one’s life. Indeed that’s something you learn to let go of when you find that intimacy is not something that a worship style brings, but what a lifestyle brings. Once a person discovers this, they don’t hold onto worship styles, because they get fed in other, more mature ways.

    The way the argument happens (high and holy language) is not the issue, because it is two uninformed sides fighting for two different things, each side thinking their “thing” is the key to life. Selfishness may be a symptom, but taking away selfishness would not solve the issue. If either an elder or member was trained to recognize awakening, the argument could be avoided altogether (though not the stress of being stretched), and selfishness would not have the chance to surface.

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