Why the Spirit Requires New Worship Practices

June 18th, 2011

"…the curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom…"  - Matthew 27:51

Matthew's gospel provides a brief but crucial detail of the Passion story. Immediately following Jesus' death on the cross, the Temple curtain tore from top to bottom. Have you ever considered why this is important?

Until Jesus' death and resurrection, the people of God understood the presence of God according to geography. The Promised Land was the geography of salvation. God appeared in the Temple, or in proxy synagogues. On special moments, when God appeared in unusual places, the people of God quickly erected shrines to mark the occasion. This is why the destruction of the Temple was so devastating, not once but twice. How can people worship God without a specific place to meet God?

The torn curtain symbolized the end of a location-based God. Through Christ, the people of God now received the Holy Spirit. Now, God abides not in a specific space but with us. God is everywhere that Jesus followers are.

To understand this important biblical and theological distinction is to understand something important about our practice as the people of God in Jesus Christ. As Christians, we often make the unwitting mistake of worshiping God spatially. We talk of going to church, being in God's house, and singing God's music. When we do this, we are unintentionally reverting to an Old Testament understanding of God and of worship. This is bad theology because it denies the presence and action of the Holy Spirit as given according to Jesus' death and resurrection. And it is bad practice because it creates sacred spaces and artifacts at the expense of non-holy, or secular, spaces.

As followers of Christ, God invites us, even calls us, to tear down the walls--the curtains--between sacred and secular that have divided God's people from the world. The theological reason I advocate new (contemporary) music and new media in worship is because of the torn curtain. It is because I believe that the distinctions we make in church life between sacred and secular are false: they are bad practice and bad theology and they deny the work of the Holy Spirit. Good worship helps tear down the barrier between sacred and secular. It helps us to give honor and glory to God in every space of our lives--in church buildings and public buildings, in automobiles and living rooms, in kitchens and in gardens.

As worship designers and leaders, we need to be careful to avoid creating worship practices that echo Old Testament thinking. I see it done in "traditional" settings that declare by actions, if not by words, that choirs and organs are holier instruments of worship than guitars and drums. I see it done in "contemporary" settings that declare music is a holier means of worship than image or spoken word. In almost every congregation, an observer can find various attitudes of sacralization--the belief that certain expressions are holy, and others are not.

These attitudes are very pragmatic--they are driven by fear of change. An overview of new technology throughout history, in church and society, reveals a recurring pattern. A new means of expression is greeted with scorn, skepticism, and sometimes violence. This applies to any variety of music, such as new instruments, and any improvement in communication technology, such as writing, mass printing, and imaging. Images were considered idolatrous to the tribe of iconoclasts. Organs were dismissed as bar instruments to certain faithful. Fear of the new has been around for as long as there have been people. Socrates bemoaned the loss of wisdom that scroll writing would bring. Examples abound throughout history. New expressions become holy only over a long stretch of decades, if not centuries. There are many examples of disdain for the book in church life as late as the 18th century. The irony is that "new" practices don't become fully holy until they are threatened by something newer. Maybe so many churches finally accepted rock-n-roll music in worship when rock-n-roll was no longer as threatening as the dominance of image in culture.

So while I will not say that traditional expressions of worship are bad, I put them into a proper context. As believers, we may find them very meaningful and reassuring. They may remind us of glorious moments of faith past, just as shrines did to the people of God in the Old Testament. They may connect us to the long line of other believers over the last 2000 years. These are all important, and they need to be sustained. But they won't lead the way out from the torn curtain into a hurting world that desperately needs to know and experience God. The theology of the torn curtain calls us to new expressions of worship.

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