Like many evangelicals, I used to take pride in the decorative simplicity of my church. If we are to worship in Spirit and Truth (John 4:24), then why get carried away with ornate buildings, priestly garments, and religious imagery? I’m sure I said a number of times, “the church is a people not a place.” Similarly, “heaven is yet to come, so why try to get comfortable in a poor re-creation of it here on earth?” The church is on mission. It has work to do. So let’s not spend our time and finances on a church building, which is sure to be a passing religious relic! This minimalist and informal approach to worship is what I mean by “low church.”
Over time, I began to wonder how enduring this low church mentality really is. What was once called a sanctuary is now often called an auditorium, homilies are more and more like lectures, and the foyer discussions and refreshments have permanently migrated in both time and space to the “time of worship.” To be sure, catching up with a friend over coffee is a good thing, a great thing, even a “spiritual” thing. But when we think about good things we should ask, what is fitting? What is suitable to the reality before us? Because if everything is equally spiritual, then nothing is holy.
As it turns out, many other low church people have thought and felt similarly. Churches are now reaching back in time and out across traditions to recapture what may have been too easily forfeited. This retrieval includes a stronger emphasis on the Lord’s Supper, a liturgical approach to church services, and an overall more visibly rich aesthetic. Efforts like these are in many ways charting new territory. Because if these people wanted to become Catholic or Anglican, which are by nature more liturgical, then they would simply switch churches. So the question remains, if we want to incorporate aspects of the greater Christian tradition, then how do we do it without poorly copying what others have done? How does the evangelical low church unite with the spirit of the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches without pretending to be something it is not?
While I certainly don’t have all the answers, I do offer a suggestion. Most evangelical practices remain mostly informal, however, we still highly regard the wedding. If we use a wedding as our guiding light in matters of worship, then I think many of the possible tensions could be held in a healthy balance (a “between” or “suspended middle”). For instance, while we desire a recognizable, almost tangible, weight to our worship, we still desire liberty in our forms of worship. Weddings are trans-cultural practices that can take on almost any form. Every culture, language, and aesthetic sensibility can put on their own version of a wedding. And yet, weddings have a distinctively reverent aura, and shine forth (however dimly) from a divine weight of glory.
For all that we can draw from the wedding analogy, here are a few things I see as important:
However intimate and casual a wedding is, it seems to always have a ceremonial feel. Frankly, I don’t know where exactly this comes from. Perhaps, weddings are ceremonial because through them we enter into a living legacy of matrimony that goes far beyond the scope of any of those present. A wedding is bigger than us. But what is most striking about it is that everyone in attendance knows that what will take place in the period of forty-five minutes to an hour will forever change the lives of this couple, and their friends and families. The wedding effects, or pronounces, a change of monumental proportions that it cannot but erupt “ceremonially” among us. If we want to speak meaningfully about worship that changes us, the consumption of bread, wine, and the word, which effects a monumental change in those who now become the body of Christ, then maybe we have to retrieve the element of ceremony. Another way of saying ceremony in worship is ritual or liturgy.
If you have been to many wedding ceremonies, you’ll know that the smallest things can get a huge laugh. Why? Probably because of the weightiness or tension in the room. Wedding ceremonies can have wonderfully spontaneous moments, good humour, and can be a lot of fun. But for all the fun, they still somehow remain consistently “reverent” or weighty. A wedding can take almost any form, but the form that is finally chosen will still have its inner “boundaries” of what is suitable. I think this helps us think through the manner of pastors and worship leaders. What if the wedding band tried to “hype” the crowd during the wedding ceremony like some worship services with which we might be familiar? What if the pastor tore back and forth across the stage in a “zealous frenzy” for the sake of “passion” during a wedding ceremony? What if the ceremony’s program included funny or cheesy youtube videos? I don’t want to be too black and white about these matters, but I trust most people will recognize that these kinds of (perhaps painfully) familiar low church tropes would take away from the greater reality before us in the wedding, namely holy matrimony.
Holy of holies
Stuff “takes place” in a wedding ceremony. As a part of that taking place, a wedding usually celebrates distinctions. Those attending a wedding might wake up earlier than normal, take the time to dress and prepare for this unique day. As they approach the “sanctuary” in which the celebration is held, they will likely quiet their voices and throw out their Tim Horton’s coffee before entering the holy place. In this way, one’s whole morning is “sanctified” by keeping the wedding ritual holy. One might even brush their teeth differently so that they don’t get toothpaste on their “holy” shirt. So here we see that one’s very teeth-brushing can help consecrate what is holy. But of course, if the place and time is holy, the bride’s processional, which leads to an exchange of vows, is the holy of holies. Before the bride even enters the room, we are standing, waiting, anticipating. When she finally enters and we see the look in both the bride and grooms eyes, we know that we are participating in an unrepeatable moment, the impact of which will remain forever. What if each time we approached the Lord’s Table, we stood on ceremony, beholding an unrepeatable and monumental moment? Sure, there will be next week’s service. But never again this moment, this place, this week. What if all our good creaturely pleasures had their Sabbath in the holy of holies of Christian liturgy, the matrimony of heaven and earth?
May God prepare his bride.