Preachers are fond of quoting Annie Dillard’s devastating critique of worship as she experienced it in a traditional church:
On the whole, I do not find Christians outside of the catacombs sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense or the waking god may draw us out to whence we can never return. —“An Expedition to the Pole” in Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982)
To me the better line is her under-the-breath horror as a make-shift folk band comes to the front to lead the Sanctus:
“I would rather, I think, undergo the famous dark night of the soul than encounter in church the dread hootenanny.”
But no matter. Either quote will do and Dillard’s withering words are good medicine, even 35 years hence. Though Dillard herself recognizes that, even if we had more appropriate worship wear and the most excellent of music, we would still be unprepared to meet the living God.
I’ve been thinking about Dillard as I consider what it is that we are asking people to do in worship. At best practice churches, we hand visitors coffee and feed them doughnuts. We put friendly faces at the door and make sure that they are greeted by at least five different people. We make our bulletins visitor-friendly and we are sure to highlight entry points to the congregational life in our announcements. We don’t assume they know what the acronyms mean and we print the Lord’s Prayer in case it is unfamiliar. We have good lighting and clean sanctuaries, free of dustbunnies and spiderwebs.
The truth of the matter is that most churches, as much as they try, will never match the expectations of hospitality that have been set by the commercial spaces we inhabit. We’re not going to out-hip the coffee shop or exceed the bright, cleanliness of Whole Foods. And the sanctuary is not going to mimic the comforts of home.
I’m not making an argument for abandoning the practices of radical hospitality. The habit of welcoming is essential to a body that believes that it may be thereby “entertaining angels unawares” as Hebrews says.
But the culture that surrounds the church has diverged so sharply from the culture of the church, that a more effective hospitality is embodied in going into those other, non-church spaces to be a real human person there. To be a real-live Christian in the wild. It’s an old saw now, but the days of setting a shingle out in front of the church and saying, ‘Y’all come,’ are long gone. It’s more about going out and saying, “I’m here.”
Which means that worship is freed from its anxious superficiality to be an encounter with the fire that tells who we are. Why pretend that the worship space is as non-threatening as an aisle of Wal-mart when it summons us into the presence of a fierce and holy God? We are immersed in the idolatrous identities offered to us by our screens and other inputs. Where can we practice being something different and where can we learn what it means to be splayed out before an all-consuming Presence?
In her magisterial book, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, The Doctrine of God [Fortress, 2015], the theologian Katherine Sonderegger ponders Moses’s burning bush encounter with God and highlights its earth-shattering implications:
“It is a wonder that Scripture does not end here, at this blinding fire. It is a wonder that Moses is not annihilated—consumed—by the Name uttered to him in the wilderness. For all the other apocalypses in Holy Scripture can only pale before this Naming, the annihilating Speech of God as Subject. This is the end, the finality of all creatures, of all reality.” (222)
I don’t want to seduce the world to church by promising that we are all a few tweaks and life hacks away from perfection. I want to be in a place that reminds me of the “end” Sonderegger talks about. A place where I am told that the distance between what is and what should be is a chasm that can’t be crossed short of total surrender. And yet that salvation is closer to me than I am to myself.
I want to keep worship weird.