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This morning I propose that the increasing fatalism within the Christian community, the resignation that the world is as it is, is a product of our thin worship. I’m suggesting there a connection between the evangelical yawn in the face of injustice and the hyper-spiritualized worship plaguing the Christian church. Alexander Schmemann, in his book For the Life of the World, says this about the absence of symbols in worship: “Before we gain the right to dispose of the old symbols we must understand that the real tragedy of Christianity is not compromise with the world and progressive materialism, but on the contrary, it’s spiritualization and transformation into religion. And religion—as we know already—has thus come to mean a world of pure spirituality, a concentration of attention on matters pertaining to the soul.” The hyper spirituality of Christianity has created a religious time and a secular time that run parallel. The Christian hope, in this context, is to escape this world and enter into eternity. In doing this, secular time becomes it’s own version of eternity—the “eternal recurrence of the same” as Nietzsche described it. This contributes to the contemporary Christian apathy toward injustice, toward sexual assault, toward racism. Loving God and loving our neighbor means pointing toward the time when this life will fade away, and we will all escape into an eternalized heaven.

For Schmemann, the liturgical life of the church was not the abolition of time, but the redemption of time. It is not an escape into another dimension, it is the recognition through the liturgy that God has broken into created time and is at work transforming it. Created time has been opened up to receive eternal time; temporal time has been opened up to the possibility of a new future. This is the power of the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day; this is the significance of the 8th Day of creation in which resurrection takes all things into itself and transforms them. This is the time of the eucharist, the feast, the thanksgiving through which our Lord gives the gift of body and blood, bread and wine, a joyful feast that secular time cannot contain. It is forced to give way to hope, to faith, and to love.

Contemporary worship seems to be obsessed with novelty, with spectacle, with evoking emotion or fulfilling expectations. Schmemann writes, “Consciously or subconsciously Christians have accepted the whole ethos of our joyless business-minded culture. They believe that the only way to be taken seriously by the serious…is to be serious, and, therefore, to reduce to a symbolic minimum what in the past was so tremendously central in the life of the church – the joy of a feast.” (53) In becoming obsessed with time, we kill it, draining it of meaning, draining the symbols and liturgical action of it’s power.  Through our obsession with pragmatism, with technical proficiency, with performance, we’ve lost the central action of Christian worship—the presence of Jesus Christ in word and sacrament. This presence is not a feeling, it is a promise kept through the act of re-membering. It is the power of memory connected with the symbols and liturgical movements that bring divine time and temporal time together.

It’s time to remember that the word ecclesia is a political word, and the leitourgia is the beneficial work for the people, our public act of service that gives allegiance to our Lord Jesus Christ. This means our worship is, at its core, political, having everything to do with the transformation of this world into the coming Kingdom of God. So let’s stop saying our worship isn’t political, and let’s reclaim a deep worship that opens this world to the eschatological future of justice and peace.

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

10 Comments

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Love this! Preach it, brother.

  • Sue A. Rozeboom says:

    A wonderful — and wonderfully apt — reflection, Jason. Pastorally and prophetically well-spoken!

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Right now, at this very moment, I am sitting amongst 3000 Evangelicals in daily chapel at Cedarville University. Many of you may be thinking I am in the belly of the beast.

    The president of the college is preaching on Ephesians 2. The students are listening attentively. I am with my son on a college visit. There are a ton of prospective students with us. Enrollment here is on the upswing.

    The message was excellent. He went through the text verse by verse. Sin, salvation, service. I think almost every student attends.

    I’m watching the students walk out of chapel. They all look clean cut and ready to engage the world.

    I really like this place. It seems very unapologetic about where it stands.

    I suspect the people here agree with you that it is important to engage and redeem the culture, with all its injustice and sin. But I also suspect they may have different means to that end.

    I don’t sense any fatalism, resignation, or yawning at this place.

      • Marty Wondaal says:

        Yes, clean cut. They also seemed articulate.

        • Dr. Ron Zoutendam says:

          Clean Cut? What is this “clean cut” business? I don’t remember anything clean cut about the OT prophets, about the NT disciples, the apostle Paul, the reformers, or the many martyrs, John the Baptist certainly wasn’t clean cut, nor more certainly, our Lord Jesus. How about the crucifixion? How about our “truth denying”, spiritually challenged , inarticulate populist leader? I found that caring for the sick and dying to be extremely rewarding but anything but clean cut!
          To overlook the misogyny, racism, and bigotry of the present administration is indeed “yawning”. Thanks, Jason

        • Marty Wondaal says:

          Huh… of all the things I’ve said in the past this is the one that triggers?

    • Mero says:

      Thanks Marty for your comments. I never thought I’d hear people who are supposed to be leaders in church put down others, mainly evangelicals for reasons that are not true and to imply that evangelicals don’t care about those less fortunate is pure nonsense. It shows they know little about what is going on amongst the evangelical Christians and their work all over the world ESPECIALLY with those less fortunate. I guess the fact that we’re supposed to uplift each other doesn’t include most who write here. It’s a sad situation when our academia puts down other Christians.

  • Dale Hulst says:

    Thanks for your thoughts.
    Reminds me once again to see myself as an agent of redemption and transformation, working for shalom.

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