Fake worship in the dark night of the soul

April 16th, 2020
This article is featured in the Sustaining Worship issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

Worship leaders are to be commended for their quick response to the COVID-19 crisis. Most have created online platforms so their congregants can connect virtually for worship. Where some of those leaders may be falling short, however, is in how they are framing worship to assist their congregations through this lamentable season.

Worship participants are inevitably struggling as some have lost their jobs and others have lost their family members. Many are already lonely, depressed and frightened. Some are experiencing both present grief for what has already occurred and anticipatory grief for what might occur.

Before COVID-19, our worship actions may have unwittingly conditioned worshipers to fake their worship responses with happy songs, up-beat sermons and clichéd platitudes. But if we really want to help them worship from their deep emotions instead of around them, we can no longer offer just a steady diet of cheerful worship songs. Doing so is not just inconsiderate it is also dishonest.

In An Open Letter to Worship Songwriters, Brian McLaren offered the following commentary:

“Pain should find its way into song, and these songs should find their way into our churches. Is it too much to ask that we be more honest? Doesn’t endless singing about celebration lose its vitality (and even its credibility) if we don’t also sing about the struggle?”[1]

Musical superficiality may seem innocent and economical, but it is actually very costly. When we consume a steady diet of joyful worship songs, it alienates those congregants who are suffering, broken, marginalized, angry or mourning. In fact, leading worship superficially might actually exacerbate their hopelessness instead of helping it.

The 16th century Spanish poet and Roman Catholic Priest, Saint John of the Cross referred to seasons such as this as The Dark Night of the Soul. Even Mother Teresa wrote, “I am told God lives in me  and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”[2]

Worship that never addresses dark seasons like we are experiencing now is dishonest as it publicly communicates two messages: Either you must not feel that way or, if you feel that way, you must do something about it somewhere else  but not here.[3]

Authentic worship, even if led virtually, can give our congregations the freedom without stigma to admit they can’t handle the circumstances and struggles of this crisis alone. And what better place to let their anger, despair and grief surface than with a worshipping congregation they trust? Worship leaders and congregants admitting to God and each other that they can’t do this on their own is in itself a profound act of worship.

Congregants will be longing for leaders to facilitate an atmosphere of acceptability and permission to voice their pain. So, worship leaders must add songs to their repertoire to help their congregations sing their emotions of lost jobs, fear, anger, death and other dark nights of the soul.

When we can’t find songs to help us express those emotions or if the hymns and songs we do have available fall short, the psalmists provided texts to help us. John Witvliet reminds us that, “When faced with an utter loss of words and an oversupply of volatile emotions, we best rely not on our own stuttering speech, but on the reliable and profoundly relevant laments of the Hebrew Scriptures.”[4]

If our congregations are expected to walk through these emotions alone and outside of our dispersed worshipping congregation, then how can we expect them to walk with our gathered worshipping congregation once we reach the other side of this international crisis? Catharsis will begin when we as leaders and congregants understand and convey to each other that asking and even singing our difficult questions is an acceptable act of worship to a God who understands and can handle our anger, despair and grief.

[2] David Scott, The Love That Made Mother Teresa (Manchester: Sophia Institute Press, 2013), 107-113.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, “The Friday Voice of Faith,” Calvin Theological Journal 36 (April 2001): 15.

[4] John D. Witvliet, “A Time to Weep: Liturgical Lament in Times of Crisis,” Reformed Worship 44 (June 1997): 22.

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