"We value God-honoring, understandable worship," announces one Pennsylvania church on its website.

A North Carolina church says, "Meaningful and understandable congregational participation in worship is essential."

Another still, this one in Illinois, offers "intelligible worship that affects all of life."

If you are trying to reach seekers, people who don't know Jesus and have had little acquaintance with church culture, you don't want them to feel lost and confused when they worship with you. The Apostle Paul says as much when he cautioned the church in Corinth about excessive speaking in tongues: "For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit" (14:12).

So the urge to avoid "speaking mysteries in the Spirit" is understandable and intelligible. But when it comes to the worship of the Creator of heaven and earth, we've got a problem.

In his sermon "The Divine Being," medieval mystic Meister Eckhart quotes Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Gregory the Great, and the Bible to remind his listeners about a commonplace of Christian theology. At one point, he sums it up by saying:

To know him really is to know him as unknowable … . God is something which is in no sense to be reached or grasped … . God's worth and God's perfection cannot be put into words. When I say man, I have in my mind human nature. When I say gray, I have in my mind the grayness of gray. When I say God, I have in my mind neither God's majesty nor his perfection.

In other words, God is anything but "meaningful," "understandable," or "intelligible." And worship, if it is authentic worship of the biblical God, will, at some level, remain incomprehensible. Worship that enables us to encounter the living God should leave worshippers a bit stupefied; they should leave their pews, pump the minister's hand, and enthusiastically blurt out, "I didn't understand large portions of the service. Thank you!"

As noted, our desire for worship that is "understandable" is, well, understandable for evangelistic reasons. But there is a less seemly side of this desire: It's sometimes about worshipping a God we can control. Just as we furiously pursue some line of study in order to "master" a subject, so we are tempted to pursue God in an attempt to master him. As A. W. Tozer put it in Knowledge of the Holy:

Left to ourselves we tend immediately to reduce God to manageable terms. We want to get him where we can use him, or at least know where he is when we need him. We want a God we can in some measure control. We need the feeling of security that comes from knowing what God is like.

This is the sin of the moralist, who wants to box God into a set of religious rules, and of the rationalist, who imagines that God fits neatly into his systematic theology. This is the sin of the prideful seeker who wants to fit God into his preconceived notions of divinity. This is also our sin when our longing for understandable and intelligible worship masks an unwillingness to love God as he is—ultimately mysterious and incomprehensible.

Understandable worship, in the end, can become the sin of idolatry—the worship of that which is not God but a mere figment of our imagination. As Eugene Peterson says in ALong Obedience in the Same Direction, "We are not dealing with the God of creation and the Christ of the Cross, but with a dime-store reproduction of something made in our image." Worship that doesn't in some ways leave a large space for transcendence and mystery is not worship of the God of the Bible, who when asked to name himself—to explain his essence—said rather truculently, "I am who I am."

That's as evasive an answer to a direct question as any politician could muster. The difference between the politician and God is this: The evasive politician is trying to skirt the truth; God is getting to the core of it.

For all the good that seeker-friendly services do, they will not make a lasting difference if they don't also traffic in the seeker-unfriendly, the incomprehensible.

Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today and author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untameable God (Baker, 2006). Comment below, or on his blog.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous SoulWork columns include:

The Cost of Christian Education | Getting schooled in the faith is more unnerving than I care to admit. (May 31, 2007)
Surviving a Family-Wrecking Economy | What the church can do about working mothers. (May 17, 2007)
The Real Secret of the Universe | Why we disdain feel-good spirituality but shouldn't. (May 3, 2007)
Peace in a World of Massacre | What Jesus calls us to when we're most frightened. (April 17, 2007)
The Good Friday Life | We need something more than another moral imperative. (April 4, 2007)

In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is former editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.
Previous SoulWork Columns: