If eternity and universality is to be found, not in dogma, but in worship—that means, in a common form of worship which will mean to the worshippers anything that they like to fancy, then the result seems to me to be likely to be the most corrupt form of ritualism. T.S. Eliot1
G.K. Chesterton wrote, “There is something purely acoustic in much of that agnostic sort of reverence.”2 Truly, much of today’s worship is done simply as a listener, as one standing in the balcony of a large auditorium and observing the worshipers down below. In a sort of “acoustical” way he is agreeing with what he sees, hearing the sounds and seeing the sights, but is only participating vicariously as a kind of a “virtual” worshiper.
In language we have first, second and third “persons” (I, you, he). Each of those has a singular and a plural (I & we, you & you, he & they). We speak to ourselves or about ourselves in the first person, we speak about someone who is not there in the third person, but we only speak face to face in the second person. Most of us are selfish conversationalists using only the first person, or we are gossips using only the third person, but a good conversationalist mostly uses the second person
Suppose you are the one in the balcony listening to someone speaking on the main floor. You may speak in the first person (“I like that”) but you are only speaking to yourself. You may speak in the third person (“He makes sense”) but you are not talking to the speaker. In order to speak to the speaker in the second person (“You are right”) you must be on the main floor in front of the speaker.
Now suppose you are perfectly content to remain in the balcony but still want to speak in the second person. You could visualize yourself to be on the main floor, standing in front of the speaker, speaking face to face. Now in this “virtual” way, you can watch yourself speaking in person to the speaker while all the time remaining removed from the actual conversation. I think this is what we often do in church. We watch ourselves worship. We may even speak as though we were there. But we are all the time safely keeping our distance.
Rather than entering into the worship act, we may describe it all in the third person. J.S. Whale said, “Instead of putting off our shoes from our feet because the place we stand is holy ground, we are taking nice photographs of the burning bush from suitable angles.”3 Perhaps this is what Tozer meant when he said, “I believe the very last thing God desires is to have shallow-minded and worldly Christians bragging about Him.”4 Surely God tires of our remote conversations in the third person (“He is a great God,” rather than “You are a great God”).
But I think the virtual first person is more subtle than the removed third person. This is a virtual world where kids grow up in the arcades “getting into” all sorts of games that, of course, they are not actually doing. Sometimes in our churches, when we sing songs with books or overheads, piano or other instruments, I wonder how often we are merely “experiencing the moment,” kind of watching ourselves do it, but are less than cognizant of what we just did.
We have a modern example. “Ethnology” is a popular field of Sociology. An ethnologist is one who goes to study a particular culture in its own habitat. The ethnologist must sit where they sit, wear what they wear, eat what they eat. In this way he “experiences” their culture while all the time remaining a guest among them. He is not really one of them for shortly he will go home to report about what he saw. His participation was real, but he was not really one of them. Ethnology is so popular today that television reporters also become ethnologists. They rush to the scene, especially that of a national tragedy, and become “one” with the people involved. You may see a reporter clad in sea-going garments, clinging to a light pole while a hurricane blows around him. He is being pummeled by the rain and wind; he is shouting into the camera; he is almost in agony; but he has now qualified himself to tell us about what is happening to the people who live there. But he is only a virtual participant. He will soon leave and go home. But he thinks, and the viewer thinks, that he has experienced a hurricane.
We may fall into this trap, this worship of worship, in a number of ways. Writing on Psalm 100, John Calvin said, “Every man makes a god of himself, and virtually worships himself, when he ascribes to his own power what God declares belongs to Him alone.”5 My favorite cartoon from a Christian magazine was of a soloist standing on a stage with a microphone in his hand, the spotlight squarely on him, while he prefaced his song by saying, “This song means nothing to me personally but it’s a wonderful showcase for my voice.”
Similarly, Albert Mohler wrote, “Although worship may be contemporary and remain authentic, it cannot be “seeker-oriented” and remain true to the biblical concept of genuine worship. True worship focuses on God—our gracious, loving holy Lord—the Trinitarian God who delights in the praises of His people.”6 Mohler is not knocking valid attempts to reach out to lost people. He is expressing concern about allowing people to worship in the first person, even virtually, who don’t know God in the second person.
Writing on the Psalms also, C.S. Lewis wrote of the worship act, “No sooner is it possible to distinguish the rite from the vision of God than there is a danger of the rite becoming a substitute for, and a rival to, God Himself. Once it can be thought of separately, it will; and it may then take on a rebellious, cancerous life of its own.”7 How else could Lucifer deviate from the blessedness of the heavenly Presence into the selfishness expressed in the first person, “I will ascend into the heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High” (Isa 14:13-14). Paul was not amiss in his concern for the Corinthians, with their over-emphasis on experience, to warn, “But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Cor 11:3). It may be human nature, that the more sensory we become in our worship, the more synthetic we are.
Ironically, there is one place where we ought to worship God as much in the first person as in the second person and that is in prayer. There we are instructed to confess our sins, to ask for our daily bread, to seek His will for our lives. How often do we catch ourselves telling God, in the second person, things He already knows? “You know, Lord, that people are lost,” “You have said, Lord, that we ought to go.” As if He has forgotten!
Isn’t it true also that much of our public prayer life is virtual? “Yes, I am praying for you.” “Let’s remember our dear sister in prayer as she goes through this time of trial.” But do we actually enter our prayer closets, get down on our knees and plead to God for her? Do we make lists for prayer meetings of all of the church’s needs and then take them home and attach them to our refrigerator door so that we are reminded of them as we pass by?
Tozer wrote, “The heresy of Samaritanism—the practice of picking out what we like to worship and rejecting what we do not like—is widespread.”8 I don’t think a saint, standing before the throne of God Almighty, will pick and choose what is appropriate worship. Rather, only the redeemed in heaven (not even the angels) can sing in the second person, “Thou are worthy . . . For thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Rev 5:9). And no redeemed saint will be sitting in the balcony watching!
Notes: 1. T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949) 65. 2. G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993) 24. 3. Quoted by Robert Wenz, Room For God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994) 195. 4. A.W. Tozer, Whatever Happened To Worship? (Camp Hill, PA: Christian Pub., 1985) 122. 5. John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary, Vol VI (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981) 84. 6. Albert Mohler, “Evangelical: What’s in a Name?” The Coming Evangelical Crisis (Chicago: Moody, 1996) 40. 7. C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1958) 48. 8. Tozer, 42.