Evangelical worship is in transition. In much of the current discussion and argument, we focus too often on whether or not forms are seeker-friendly or on the merits of contemporary praise songs (as contrasted with traditional hymns). But there is a core issue at stake in how evangelicals understand worship, writes Gary Burge: how we encounter God in corporate worship.

Burge uses his varied experience—raised Lutheran, enlivened in the Jesus movement, ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), worshiping at an Evangelical Covenant church, and teaching New Testament at the interdenominational Wheaton College in Illinois—to offer a personal plea for addressing what is wrong with our Sunday mornings. Not everyone's faith tradition is reflected in his assumptions about worship, but we believe everyone will benefit from wrestling with the questions he raises.

Say "liturgy" and my evangelical college students have a reflex akin to an invitation to take a quiz. Say "mysticism" and they are drawn, fascinated, eager to see what I mean. They want spontaneity yet drift toward the Episcopal church. They carry NIV study Bibles but are intrigued by experiments in prayer, Christian meditation, spiritual disciplines honed in the medieval world, and candlelit sanctuaries. Some play the Chant CD endlessly. Os Guinness, Saint Teresa of Avila, and Richard Foster might all inhabit the same book bag.

Karen is typical of these students. She grew up in a large, independent Bible church in the Midwest where she attended every youth camp and mission trip her family could find. Her role models came from the glossy pages of Campus Life. When she came to Wheaton College, she attended a large, influential, conservative evangelical church. But after a year, her mind began to wander. "There was no imagination, no mystery, no beauty. It was all preaching and books and application," she told me. Now a senior, Karen is attending an Episcopal church nearby with a sizable group of her best friends.

Ask her if she likes liturgy and her eyes narrow: "Liturgical? Like in robes and candles and that sort of thing? Of course not." But I press, asking what she likes about the Episcopal church. "I truly worship there. It's the wonder, the beauty I love. It feels closer to God."

In reading my semester exams, I discovered that one particularly insightful student, Amy, wrote about worship: "I think that much of modern society has lost a sense of divine, holy space. This becomes obvious to me in our church architecture. The splendor and holiness of cathedrals which created the ultimate feeling of divine space has been replaced by gymnasiums and impermanent buildings. A sanctuary should be a place that is completely separate—that radiates the holiness of God. Plastic cups and folding chairs aren't enough. There has to be an environment that communicates God's holiness to my senses and to my spirit."

Article continues below

What is going on? What deficit, what paucity of experience in their world is not being met? What drives this irony, this rejection of "liturgy" and this embrace of things that undergird every liturgy? What leads countless students to attend a breakaway Episcopal church (The Church of the Resurrection) where waving banners, the Book of Common Prayer, dance, guitars, ornate liturgical decor, and healing all work together? One Wheaton colleague who attends there commented, "At last a place where I can find intelligent charismatic worship—with dignity."

A new Greek Orthodox church opened in Wheaton just last year. Already a sizable number of our students are passionately committed members. Chrismation is a new word on campus. Some of us are predicting a small migration there, with icons soon to follow in Fischer dormitory.

And I just received a copy of Rediscovering the Rich Heritage of Orthodoxy (Light & Life, 1994). What amazed me is that it was written by an old friend, Charles Bell, with whom I studied at Fuller Seminary. "I have finally come home," he penned on the inside cover. And in the book he describes how this centuries-old, high liturgical church attracted a classical Pentecostal like him—a former chaplain at Oral Roberts University who holds a Ph.D. in theology from Scotland and was ordained by the Vineyard Fellowship.

My pilgrimage is less dramatic but shares a common thread. I grew up in the former Lutheran Church in America, chiefly through the inspiration of my Swedish-Lutheran family. I still remember serving as a young acolyte, tending the mysteries of candle and altar and Communion table. My Catholic high-school friends wore "Saint Christopher" chains, but I had my own "I am a Lutheran" medallion.

But when I entered the University of California I met the "Jesus movement," a spiritual counterpart to the 1960s counterculture. I followed them to Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, and witnessed something no Lutheran boy could imagine. It was a world of rock 'n' roll healing services in Hawaiian shirts, leather Bibles, and speaking in tongues by the thousands. I began to question my liturgical Lutheranism. When I entered Fuller Theological Seminary in 1974, the charismatic renewal was in full swing, and again, the diversity of the church and nonliturgical emphases on personal decision, power encounter, and healing swept me into their orbit.

Article continues below

It has been a long journey, but along the way I left the Lutheran church behind. Calvary Chapel, too. I even keep my hair cut. And now I swim in the mainstream of evangelicalism. Soul-winning, hard-hitting sermons, and revival hymns have become a staple of my diet. And deep inside I know that something is terribly wrong. Something is missing. My friends bravely announce the certainty of evangelical orthodoxy, but somewhere the mystery of God has been lost.

Evangelicalism is not a monolithic environment. I have been many places where the profundity of spiritual life and the numinous character of worship are celebrated. My Pentecostal/Holiness friends will be quick to point out that in their sanctuaries the sermon is secondary to a holy encounter with God.

Still, I suspect that there is a growing dissatisfaction in evangelical ranks, and nowhere is this pain felt more deeply than in the context of worship.

These migrations and impulses among my friends and students have forced me to ask new questions about what we are doing when we worship. In our zeal to be practical and relevant, perhaps we have missed something. We are participatory—including testimonies and prayers and choruses from the congregation—and yet some are saying their experiences seem hollow. They are not participating. We engineer "worship experiences," and yet heartfelt needs still go wanting. As a friend recently said, "I'm tired of sitting on my hands during worship."

So what is worship? Worship, I believe, is a divine encounter that touches many dimensions of my personhood. It is an encounter in which God's glory, Word, and grace are unveiled, and we respond, in songs and prayers of celebration. Worshipers seek an encounter with the glory of God, the transcendent power and numinous mystery of the divine—and in so doing, they recognize a Lord whose majesty evokes strong praise, petition, and transformation.

But my evangelical training has emptied Sunday's worship hour of God's majesty and mystery. Divine encounters seem few. Two factors have stood in our way.

First, we have been taught that the sermon must exposit the biblical texts, and that immediate and timely application should follow every message. While all of this is true, nothing has been left to our imaginations. Little has been left to our hearts except postsermon feelings of conviction and exhortation. We leave the hour heavy, thinking more about what we must do than wondering about the mystery of God and his doings on our behalf. Therefore we have evolved an experience that is at best intellectual, a worship that studies the Bible. Homilies evolve into 30-minute teaching sessions. And when it touches our emotions, it weighs us down, convicting us of wrongdoing and inadequacy.

Article continues below

I believe evangelicals are yearning to recapture
worship that lifts us—as a medieval cathedral
lifted the eyes of the fourteenth-century
worshiper—to truly meet God.

To reinforce this we have created our own liturgy, a friend once told me, and its rhythm goes like this: we sing, pray, sing, pray, preach, pray, sing, pray. Before long the monotony of its cadence leaves us numb, wondering if there is no new form, no new dance that can be written for us. Even benedictions have become nothing more than reminders of the sermon's three points. These observations have forced me to question our role as ministers and worship leaders; to question the function of the sanctuary, the aesthetics of our music, and the content of our prayers.

There is a second barrier. Paul suggests that worship includes the mundane affairs of living, that we should "present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual worship" (Rom. 12:1). Some of us have used this verse to distort the principal meaning of worship. Rather than encountering God, our worship has become ethical.

Good Christian behavior has become the expression of true, spiritual worship. Sunday worship hour has become an equipping/training station for the world. Rather than being an "otherworldly" encounter reminding us of our heavenly identity, it has become "worldly" in the sense that its focus is horizontal, sharpening our discipleship in the world.

I see this horizontal emphasis symbol-ically in our use of the sacraments. In what sense is the Lord's Supper a unique meal with Christ? What has become of the church's historic interest in "divine presence" in these elements? Does this meal emphasize fellowship and confession (namely, our efforts), or does it represent communion and encounter (God's efforts)? I see liturgical routines that speak paragraphs of this "horizontal" theology, routines that gradually shape worshipers who have never known Eucharist as encounter. The same is true with infant baptisms and child dedications that become platforms for talking about better parenting. I have actually left such baptism services despairing over being an inadequate parent rather than contemplating the wonder of my childlike dependence on the generous mercy of God.

Article continues below

Thus two handicaps stand in our way. We have reduced our worship service to intellectual exhortations and ethics. Don't get me wrong. Both of these are good. But they do not evoke the sort of divine encounter many of us yearn to find on Sunday morning at church.

I believe evangelicals are yearning to recapture worship that lifts us—as a medieval cathedral lifted the eyes of the fourteenth-century worshiper—to truly meet God. Some will object, saying that this yearning is gnostic ("such world-denying behavior!") or narcissistic ("such emphasis on personal gratification!"). But it is neither of these. Incarnational theology demands that we emphasize encounter.

The mystery of our faith is the eruption of God's divine presence in the commonplace things of this world. But if it is only the commonplace that we see, we may fail ever to see God at all. What will facilitate this eruption of divine encounters for me as I worship? And can evangelicals find merit in something that is neither intellectual nor ethical?

For a number of years I served on the staff of a Presbyterian church in Evanston, Illinois. Among my many excellent memories, worship stands out. Its splendor had to do with many things: the architecture of the building (towering stained glass that paraded the heroes of the Bible; woodcarvings of angels and saints adorning wall and pillar), the music (instruments, organ, voice), the dignity of its liturgists (their dress, speech, and demeanor), theologically informed liturgies (crafting space for confession, silence, Word, and response alike), and the attitudes of the congregation (expectant, responsive, hushed as worship unfolded). Even our lighting was intentional, aimed at enhancing visual stimuli that would direct men and women to God. Our organist worked hard to build artful transitions between events in the worship service.

I recall sitting in the sanctuary next to our (then) nine-year-old daughter. Each Sunday we would pick a window and tell the story of who was represented there and what the symbols meant. They were beautiful and powerful and instructive. And they were densely theological, using eye-gate as vehicle for inspiration. The effect was disarming when one Sunday I asked her to stand and turn to count how many "stained glass" people were watching us in the pew. She realized that we were surrounded by a "host of witnesses" who had been faithful to God despite their circumstances (Heb. 12:1). On another Sunday our talk of a window was interrupted by bells. The bell choir had surrounded the sanctuary, and from every wall, complex and delightful notes swelled, calling us to worship. It was unworldly. Heavenly, perhaps. And it was intentionally theological.

Article continues below

Recitation is a reminder of what is
profound and important. Recitation
carries us with familiarity when
sometimes we cannot carry ourselves.

I tell this story only to suggest that many worshipers come looking for more than fellowship, exposition, and exhortation. They seek an experience of "the holy." They come looking for awe and reverence, mystery and transcendence. Furthermore, many of their sensory faculties need to be engaged: Their senses of sight, sound, touch, and smell are powerful avenues of communication. One glance at the Old Testament directions for orchestrating temple worship will remove all doubt that this is our task. Fire, incense, tapestry, and gold joined with ritual activities that reminded worshipers of the reverent awe demanded of them. Bells and breastplates provided a visual feast evoking images of God's presence. Even the temple's architecture did this. One climbed higher as steps led "up" to the Holy Place.

Evangelicals need to reclaim their Old Testament heritage. We need to unburden ourselves of those reflexes forged during the Reformation and Enlightenment that shunned the pageantry and visual media of medieval Catholicism. But as we head down this road, we must hear a warning that speaks to us out of the centuries. Spiritual transcendence does not occur simply through aesthetic techniques. Bells and glass and pageantry will not in themselves bring the spiritual reality we seek. Mysticism is not a magic act. It is an outgrowth of a genuine and vibrant relation with God. Gourmet recipes should always be served on expensive china; but exquisite china in itself can never supply a meal.

My evangelical roots have reminded me in no uncertain terms that the pastor is "one" with the people. We uphold Luther's "priesthood of all believers." In Presbyterian parlance the pastor is one of the elders—a teaching elder—alongside so many other elders. And so our demeanor, our dress, our participatory leadership style have evolved to communicate that there is no hierarchy in our congregations.

Article continues below

I now disagree with this model. I am not suggesting that pastors have privileges in the grace of God or the economy of the church unavailable to others. But I am suggesting that in worship, the pastor must become priest. The pastor plays a role—a significant role—in the divine encounter offered in worship. The pastor assumes the role of mediator, incarnating God to the people, forging an atmosphere and image that men and women will absorb when they contemplate divine things.

When I go to my kitchen hungry, I often take the food that is most easily within reach. When we go to worship empty, we assimilate those images that are most accessible. I have seen this at work again and again. One pastor I have watched is serious and severe. One seems to be "going through the motions." Another exudes grace radiantly and powerfully. As they conduct worship, they set patterns in place that form the image of God in worshipers' minds.

I remember when one of our daughters was baptized. She stood near the baptismal font as our pastor bent over, asking her questions of faith. His dignity, his well-prepared words, his touch, and his gaze all entered the archive of her experience. Later she said, "I remember Pastor coming near, and I was covered and lost in his long, black robes, and he baptized me." Responses from a standing congregation and a thundering hymn cemented images that have never gone away.

If it is true that we forge images for our people, that we are priests and mediators of God's encounter with his people, that congregants look to us and pattern their mental images of God from us, we must be intentional about everything we do as we lead worship. In a word, we must be leaders, strong leaders. We must be architects of worship because it is through our craft that we will be able to enrich and build the spiritual lives of our people. Through our craft, we will facilitate worship.

In our evangelical tradition we are comfortable saying that our words must be true because as we preach, we speak for God. Now more is required. Our total leadership, our complete conduct must be true because (like it or not) all that we do speaks paragraphs about God and his desires.

Part one of two parts; click here to read part two.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.