What kind of smoke fills the temple? Some thoughts on modern worship environments

Recently I got the chance to lead musical worship at a much larger church than I normally attend and was introduced to something called ‘in-ears’. These are basically fancy headphones that cut out most sound and instead give you the option to create your own mix of your own instrument and the others in the band. It was much more disconcerting than I’d imagined.

You see, I was grew up learning to play the guitar by strumming with all the teenage forearm delivered enthusiasm you’d expect in a side church room to a youth group. No amplification, just me and my guitar and the voices of the folks I was growing up in Christ with. With no amplification you could hear my poorly timed strumming, a guy called Jim’s off key voice, and the girl who fancied herself as a pop star and experimented with harmonies. The point was, we could hear one another.

Once a year we would whisk ourselves off to a huge national youth conference and have the times of our lives. Our poor singing and off beat strumming was replaced with excellent musicianship and the ethereal experience of singing alongside 1000’s of people. There was lights and occasionally even a little fake smoke.
And I loved it.

It is no exaggeration to say that attending that conference and the impact it had on my meagre but sincere youth group through the year was life changing. After every year we would buy an accompanying songbook of the new songs introduced that year, head home to our small side room of our church with the youth group and sing our hearts out. Close our eyes, and If we couldn’t quite ascend to the heights of John’s vision in Revelation, we imagined ourselves back in that big conference tent and our hearts were strangely warmed. We escaped.

More recently a well-known international mega church had their worship band tour through our city. Lots of excitement enused, living in the southern tip of africa that has a perpetual inferiority complex to the rest of the west, people were clambering over one another for tickets. I didn’t go, but the reports were abundant. Much what you would expect, light were low and the bright ones were focussed on the visiting worshippers. They played well-practised swelling tunes and lead prayer that the church in the city would be unified. The only challenge was, the church in the city couldn’t see each other, they were in darkness, literally.

Although we are involved in a church planting ministry that predominantly seeks to plant simple house churches amongst the neglected parts of the earth, I don’t ever want to take cheap (and honestly easily come by) shots at large church ministries and the attractional mega church movement. Partly because, I’m a recipient of God’s ministry through the conference I attended that ran down these same tracks. I honestly can’t imagine where I’d be without those existential, emotionally charged experiences from my teenage years. All that being said, I’ve often been very attentive to the words or theology of particular songs but until recently fairly unreflective of the mode or environment of worship itself. It turns out that not just the content of worship is formative, but the very layout and context of worship. This was wisdom cathedral builders and stained glass window artists were well aware of, but it has been forsaken.

I’ve wondered if certain worship environments are helpful or harmful depending on the phase of life or ‘felt-need’ in a certain season. In most peoples teenage years there is an incessant and haunting self-obsession. Teenagers are constantly aware of what they are doing and saying, how they are being portrayed. They are terrified someone (normally their parents) or something (an activity that has fallen out of fashion within the last 30mins) will embarrass them. In psycholgical language they are hyper-vigilant. When you are in a hyper-vigilant, hyper-self-aware state, the greatest gift you could receive is the self-forgetfulness that comes with the existential crowd worship times. It is, I’m suggesting often why young christian people love large worship gatherings, why unbelieving people love rock concerts and why business executives often love transcendent meditation. The greatest gift is to escape. To escape the busyness, the painful self-awareness, the sense of not being enough.

As I grew a little older in Christian faith I didn’t discount these large and transcendent experiences but I started to realise that they didn’t fulfill all of the needs of the Christian life. When things are difficult the conference is still months down the road. Who is there? Well out of tune Jim and the harmony girl from the youth group. Suddenly their additions to worship times and your life in community more generally, although quirky, becomes the very ministry of God to you. In 1 Corinthians 14:261 the writer is giving us a normative reflection of worship in the early church. One has a song, a word, a prophecy, a psalm, a teaching. Each one delivered by someone with a name, a past, maybe even someone who you have unforgiveness in your heart towards. But they are there, and you know them and see their face. They are not the stranger in the dark at your side as you gaze as the well-lit group ahead covered by wafts of smoke.

Later in life, my motivations are not so much to escape but to inhabit. Inhabit the community with the off-key singers and the embarrassing parent, because every spiritual quest to escape requires us to wake up. And we wake up alongside people with names, people with quirks and part of the journey of discipleship is to realise that those people are God’s gifts in our lives. They are the peole with the songs, the psalms, the prophecies and the lessons. Admittedly the songs aren’t well performed and the lessons might not be as well polished as the platform speakers, but they are our people. In my youth I often believed I had to ascend to heaven by shutting my eyes extra tight to see God, but now I am realised the good news that, as is popularly repeated from the message translation, “God has moved into the neighbourhood” (John 1) and He is living inside off-tune Jim and all his quirky friends.

...every spiritual quest to escape requires us to wake up Share on X

Much of this escapism can be traced back to a cult that threatened the message of christianity from it’s early days. The cult of gnosticism, believing God to be perfect and pure and recognising that our bodies and creation itself often wasn’t. Gnostics believed only the pure part of us, our soul, could dwell with God. It’s a familiar story, change a few key words and it was the gospel many of us were told. This is our ‘great escape’ gospel. Does this sound familiar, “put off your flesh” “saving souls”, “going to heaven” – all biblically rooted things to be sure, but they became the gnostic impulses that were distilled from a God-story that is in fact very earthy and embodied.

A God created matter and called it good, A God became flesh and dwelled amongst us, He resurrected in a new body, He ascended in that body, and He is coming back to establish his new kingdom on this earth remade. His plan has always been to inhabit, to dwell, not for us to escape.

  1. 26 What should be done [during worship times]then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 

One Comment on “What kind of smoke fills the temple? Some thoughts on modern worship environments

  1. wow!! so very well said, as a mum of a hyper sensitive 17 year old, I’m having to learn so much, HELP! Yet I do also have to shut my eyes during worship, it’s the only way, even if some times I don’t know the words, just so as not to be distracted by others! I’m rather nosy you see, and I need to praise my lord, he has saved me, still cleansing and healing me so much, I am so grateful and blessed. Any way thank you for such a good email.

    Yes I do need these Christian folk,who really do irritate me so much! Some any way, some times! know God has so much more to change in me!

    Thank you

    Bless you

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