Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz has recently made a stir admitting he rarely attends church and when he does he doesn’t really get much out of it.
Miller says he can worship God in other ways, and other means of intimacy with God suit him better than the corporate worship of a local congregation on a Sunday (morning). He assumes a few things about worship: any form of worship serves the same purpose as any other form of worship. Therefore, as long as you have something in your life you can call worship you are in a spiritually good place. He assumes worship is about learning about God. He assumes that worship is about intimacy with God. There are a few of problems with these assumptions.
There is a deficient ecclesiology that underlies these assumptions, which isn’t the focus of this post but will eventually post something here.
Another problem is that “worship” is a catch-all term for anything that brings you close to God, or provides you with an intimacy with God. A view of worship that focuses on intimacy with God, does not jive easily with images of heavenly worship of God found in Isaiah and Apocalypse/Revelation of St John, nor does it easily jive with Ezekiel’s Vision of God on the move with the four living creatures. These biblical descriptions of worshipful meeting God aren’t intimate affairs. To be fair, the worship that Donald miller is talking about hardly if at all reflects these biblical accounts of heavenly worship at the throne. I dare say few if any in these churches think that in their worship they are before God at the Throne with the twenty-four Elder’s and the four living creatures, and the seraphim and cherubim, but maybe they should.
I don’t mean to say that intimacy with God is unimportant or that all “worship” must be earthshaking, psyche rending, overwhelming with mind bending beauty and awe described by Isaiah, Ezekiel and Saint John the Apostle (though we probably need more of that kind of worship than current American Christianity offers). There are ways to develop intimacy with God, I just am not convinced the worship of the gathered people of God is the best place to foster that intimacy.
I believe we should cultivate intimacy with God and I agree with Donald Miller that the corporate worship of the church isn’t the place to do it, though we may experience intimacy with God in “church”. I would argue a more proper place for fostering intimacy with God is in the work of the Church known as the cure of souls, or in more contemporary parlance – in spiritual direction and the spiritual disciplines.
When Miller talks about worshiping God in his work, I say well yes I’m glad you are preaching what Benedictine Monasticism has known for centuries and what a particular monk, Brother Lawrence, taught in a collection of sayings The Practice of the Presence of God. And there is also the Apostle Paul as well saying do your work as unto the Lord. But strictly speaking having a worshipful and prayerful attitude in ones work is a spiritual discipline of a member of Christ’s body the Church, who is also to have the spiritual discipline of gathering with other members of that body. So, yes we find God in our work and find it to be worshipful (even if our work isn’t as fulfilling as Donald Miller’s work is, though I’m sure there is drudgery in what he does as well.). Finding God in our work doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t seek to find God in the gathered people of God. The practicing the presence of God in all things and in all times is a key and important discipline for maintaining and developing intimacy with God, but it doesn’t replace being the ecclesia.
If I say I find God in the world it doesn’t mean I won’t find God in Christ’s body the Church. (I seem unable to avoid ecclesiology).
There are many ways through which one can develop intimacy with God: Spiritual journaling, painting icons, centering prayer, etc. What does or doesn’t foster intimacy with God will (as Miller points out) vary from person to person. You should work with a spiritual companion or spiritual mother or father (that is a spiritual director) and work out what will foster such intimate worship and relationship. Such practices and awareness should eventually permeate your life (though it probably will take your entire life time).
If you think that going to church once a week will bring you closer to God, well…, you are fooling yourself. What happens on the day members of the Body of Christ gather together to worship God should certainly permeate one’s life, and one should find ways to carry that corporate encounter with God and God’s saving work and intention for the world into ones daily life. Yet, that hour on a Sunday morning isn’t going to (on it’s own) provide you with intimacy with God, or really much of anything else. It’s just an hour, maybe an hour and a half at most, out of all the many hours in a week with which we occupy ourselves in other myriad of things.
Certainly there are intimate moments in a worship service, when one receives the bread and wine, or when one is anointed with oil, or when hands laid upon. There is an intimacy in a number of liturgical, symbolic and ritual acts in worship, but that intimacy might be missed if one isn’t’ practicing the presence of God in one’s daily life.
All in all the point of corporate worship isn’t intimacy. Corporate worship with God is perhaps actually distancing, and this is as good and true as good and true as the experience of intimacy. God is after all totally other than we are and is incomprehensible, unknown, and unknowable. We come together and we are to realize that God isn’t like us at all, and we are reminded that we’ve done somethings were not proud of during the week. God is confounding, refuses to be controlled by us, and that’s kind of off-putting, even scary. Being in relationship with God is at times raw and unnerving and a disintegrating encounter with that which is other than we are. This, perhaps is what corporate worship is about, and it is out of that experience that we can have true intimacy with God.