[This blog is in response to my friend Tony’s post (The Art and Act), an ongoing and amicable dialogue. Lest my position be misunderstood, I don’t believe in the abolition of evangelical music. My point is that it simply can’t replace liturgy in the church].
Like many evangelicals, I encountered God by learning my favorite worship songs in various evangelical churches like Calvary Chapel. I diligently practiced my guitar playing and even served as a worship leader. Realizing there was something missing later on in my life, after attending seminary for several years, I concluded my journey as an evangelical recently and converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. There are many things that attracted me to Orthodoxy. For more info check out The Road Home.
Studying in seminary didn’t simply make me question my understanding of the Christian faith, but also the manner in which it is expressed. I can’t agree with Tony’s insinuation that God doesn’t really care about incorrect theology because he will honor my ignorance if my heart is in the ‘right place’. I have guides throughout history to correct my course as I ‘watch my life and doctrine’ carefully (1 Tim. 4:16). We will never be perfect in understanding or in expressing who God is; however, we are called out of our misunderstandings toward a more correct theology of God.
I would agree with my friend Tony that it is through experiential means and the words of others that we are often first brought to an awareness of our need for God. I further echo his sentiments that faith without works is dead and involvement in the church is vitally important. Where my position tends to diverge is my examination of the local church and where this “birthing ground” leads us, or I would argue can fail to lead us. In my study of the historic church I found a great deal of discontinuity compared to our local churches. While I don’t like to appear as someone who endlessly “knit-picks” at modern evangelical songs, I do believe the historic church reveals a better way. So many modern evangelical songs are repetitive shallow at times and yes they can make theologically inaccurate or incomplete statements.
Often this method of music leadership is driven by a desire for entertainment and getting ‘butts in the seats’. These deficiencies should matter to us!
I agree that God looks at the inward heart and posture of the person and would rather us be honest in heart than dishonestly Pharisaic in our theology, but I believe this is a false dichotomy. To advance the conversation I must point out that it is possible to be an honest and genuine theologian.
It’s not really about us in the first place and I believe evangelicalism often suffers from an anthropocentric (man-centered) focus. I have often told friends that as an evangelical we typically gauged the success of church on the talent of the speaker and how it impacted us personally. In hindsight, what an odd and unscriptural measure for worship! In an Orthodox service I am often moved emotionally and intellectually, but this is not the focus. I can walk out of Divine Liturgy knowing the worship of God remained central.
I am certainly valued as an individual, but I am also welcomed into a Church community that is forged and tested by time and trial. Within this community my individual strengths are bolstered and insufficient understanding corrected by the historic faith. The theology of our songs and sermons matter greatly, because how we articulate God’s identity informs our very lives and relationships. For example, the early church argued over a single word to express whether Jesus IS God, the same essence, or LIKE God. The ramifications are profoundly important. (Language certainly has limitations and this is why Orthodox tend to use an apophatic approach.)
I certainly don’t look down upon those who sing modern evangelical songs, but I believe there is much more that can be discovered and learned in experiencing the liturgy and creeds of the early church. A more comprehensive expression of the faith if you will. I believe in the liturgy because it focuses less on how I feel and more on affirming who God really is and worshiping him through sung scripture and powerful theological pros. I’m going to over-generalize a little here, but I am no longer drawn into the melodies and fog-machine choruses of a God who loves ‘recklessly’. Instead, I am moved by the richness of liturgical expression sung over the many centuries. At an Orthodox service I am not standing in isolation and I am not simply standing with fellow believers in a 21st century structure. We stand as individuals of a much larger community- the “hallelujah” chorus of heaven with all the saints and angels. We are involved with the historic model of worship and engaged at every level of our being- by standing and kneeling, the sights, sounds, and smells of worship.
Since attending seminary, I would agree with Tony that I am often more theologically incorrect than correct. The truth is everyone appeals to some standard to test the correctness of said theology (perhaps some would erroneously claim they simply appeal to themselves).
Respectfully, I think many churches have merely created a theological buffet-line by picking and choosing according to our own understanding. Some may call it a crutch, and I’m okay with that, but I don’t think I should rely solely on my theological correctness and understanding when I can appeal to the Church Fathers to aid in this journey! This is part of the beauty of joining the body of Christ! Perhaps one of the failures of the modern church is an innate desire to try and be original, new, and cutting edge- the commodification of our faith as they compete for attendance.
The beauty of Orthodoxy is that it allows each jurisdiction (Romanian, Antiochian, Russian, Greek, etc.) to express themselves according to their language and culture, without sacrificing the continuity of doctrine and theology, found in the creeds and liturgy.
I applaud the notion of throwing ourselves toward God as Tony has suggested. That is exactly how I feel about my transition into the Orthodox Church. But I don’t think this act is ever without our communal safety net. How do we know whether one is a heretic or an honest or dishonest theologian? There must be some measure or guide. Historically that measure has always been the Church, evident in the seven ecumenical councils. This tradition is faithfully handed down by the Apostles and expressed in the Orthodox Church.
As Tony states, I know we can be infantile in the faith, but this is not the desired state. We are supposed to grow, change, and improve as we are guided through the process of participation in the faith community through the sacraments and the disciplines becoming more Christ-like (referred to as theosis). For me, the creeds and liturgy sung for the last 2,000 years surpass even the most heart-felt and good intentioned evangelical worship song. For the critics who have told me they are simply dead traditions I would agree that anything done with no heart or desire to understand is dead. They are alive, tested, and express the faith which has been faithfully made available to each of us through the witness of the church that fought to preserve our faith and traditions, resulting in the blood of many martyrs. In recognition of this reality, I am stirred in body, soul, and spirit to worship God with all my being in the same manner as the Saints of the past. Since I can’t adequately describe God I rely on their wisdom and beautifully articulated pros and creeds to guide me.
“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit- One God, Amen!”
***Check out the Catholic perspective , contributed by my friend Zach.
*See the upcoming topics for our ecumenical dialogue.