Patient Worship

October 19, 2008

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, many of the elements of worship are marked with a kind of meditative song called troparia [singular is troparion]. This means “repetition” but it is not an empty repetition.

ImageIn a troparion, the chanters sing a short hymn which meditates on single phrases of a prayer very slowly and methodically. This extends to ten or fifteen minutes what would take a westerner about a minute to sing.

Here is an example – the Paschal Troparion, which is sung at the celebration of Paschal, or Easter. I will provide it in Greek transliteration (my editor has problems with Greek characters) and then in English.

Kristos anesti ek nekron
Thanato thanaton patisas
Kai tis en tis mnimasi
Zo-in karisamenos!

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!

These four lines take nearly a minute to sing through. It takes about 7 seconds to read, so that’s a really, REALLY slow pace. Usually, a troparia is repeated several times, often in a call-and-response style.

Troparia are intentionally slow. In ancient worship, time was not thought of as a commodity to be conserved or expended “efficiently” as it is today. Time had significance to the ancients, but there was always more of it. Tomorrow would come and time would continue.

Thus, time had less value (for lack of a better term) in worship. They had the freedom to dwell on single thoughts, to revisit them again and again rather than rushing from one idea to another.

In our modern, Western context the troparia might have little significance to us because we find anything repetitive or slow to be “boring.” But slow is not synonymous with boring or dragging; and repetitive is not synonymous with empty ritual.

I am not going to pretend that singing the troparion makes the Orthodox any holier than someone singing a contemporary worship song, because both can be boring and empty. But there is something about the methodical, slow, meditative approach to the words that would change our thinking if we would just take the time to listen and worship in it.

Our world rushes around like mad. Everything is driven, driven, driven. There is no passion, only urgency. We go from crisis to crisis and unless worship is “necessary”, we just cram it into whatever space we have available.

It is a shame that we have lost the ability to sing slowly, to think for more than a passing moment, to be carried away by the weight of our words.

One of the problems we encounter with many areas of church ministry is that their form simply does not allow for them to function within the supranarrative.

A lot of church music, for example, is mostly independent of the narrative. It is not intentionally so, but it is true nonetheless.

Hymns are often held up as a form of standard for church worship although with the exception of perhaps “All Creatures of Our God and King” which finds its roots in the writings of Francis of Assisi and “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” by Martin Luther, it is hard to find a hymn dating earlier than 1800. Ironically, “All Creatures of Our God and King” was not set to music until 1919, and “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is an 1853 English paraphrase of Luther’s original.

The past two hundred years have all but eradicated the music that predated it. The newer trends in music look to do the same thing, replacing hymns as the standard for church worship.

And yet, how do these songs fit into the supranarrative? How do they connect people in the community? Perhaps we need a new ancient hymnody. The early church’s songs were founded in the Scriptures (particularly the Psalms) but not bound to them. They expanded upon the base of the Bible, reaching into their culture and creating their expression of worship.

Unfortunately most modern Christian music is not a true fusion of Bible and culture. It is a fusion of a Christian message and culture. It is an expression of culture in Christianity rather than Christianity in culture. In this case, word order matters, so re-read that last statement carefully.

Rather than seeking a Biblical base and expanding from it, much of modern and postmodern worship music builds on the existing “Christian” base and expands from it. This creates a top-heavy pyramid.

There is a rising movement in some parts of the Church that is returning to the biblical roots and creating new expressions of worship in culture. This is what we need to be doing.

Relational worship must redefine and rediscover two ancient practices:

  1. Spontaneous, guided worship rather than highly planned, led worship
  2. The Use of Symbol and Sense in addition to culture and technology

Finding a New Term for ‘Worship Leader’

In order to connect to the story, we cannot be led to follow. We must be led into participation. When we talk about leadership in our modern context, we see either the board room or the battlefield. These are our models of leadership; but these are not the models of leadership required in worship.

There is something ineffective about our use of the word leader when it comes to worship. How did the early Christians worship? Was it at the behest of an appointed leader or was it more spontaneous expressions of faith and celebrations of God?

One would be hard-pressed to find a single record in the Bible of early Christian worship leaders. Even the worship of heaven’s court is spontaneous and communal (see the book of Revelation).

This is not to say that worship leaders or music directors are wrong or evil; but it is to call into question the nature of their role in the church.

Worship leadership is inviting people to participate, opening doors for people to connect to God and one another. Leader may not even be the appropriate word for what how we are supposed to be interacting. If anything, the “leaders” are guides.

In short, these guides should facilitate worship rather than provoke it.

Our expectation is that upon entering a worship gathering, we will be prompted by someone (or a group of someones) to worship. We expect to encounter a program of some kind which involves practices pieces and we participate in a secondary capacity. This is the classic form of Christian worship.

If those “up front” are not properly prepared, we are not under obligation to participate. If they are not personable or do not have stage presence, we feel excused from involvement.

But Scripturally, worship is a communal celebration. It is not dependent upon the performance of those “up front.” In fact, the line between “up front” and “in the pews” should be a hazy one at best. This is not the worship of the chosen few before the gathered masses. It is the worship of the church, together.

The worship band/choir/worship leader/ensemble or whatever else your church might use is nothing more than the backup band for the voices of a grateful church.

Perhaps we need these worship leaders and other elements because we are not a truly grateful church. We are not focused on God as he is but rather we see only what we can get from him. We want to be served rather than to serve.

Rediscovering the Symbol

The Church was once rich in symbolism. From the cross’ many forms, each representing a different aspect of Christ’s sacrifice, to the use of color, sound and scent – the worship of God was once layered and textured with symbolic elements.

Unfortunately the Protestant Reformation labeled all of this as pagan and discarded it. Practices that might be similar to practices in pagan religions or even Jewish synagogues were discarded carelessly. Puritans called for churches purged of all symbol, all music, and all variety.

Such iconoclasm was so rife in Europe that in the throes of the Reformation, even most of the beautiful Celtic crosses of Britain were smashed to pieces rather than allow for the existence of a symbol! Christian purity became monochrome and monotone. The symbols were lost.

But the Scriptures are filled with vivid imagery and symbolism. Biblical authors from Moses to John did not dream in black and white. They saw thrones of emerald rainbows and lambs and lightning and indescribable variations of heavenly creatures. Imagine what the Revelation would read like if it were written by a modern Protestant preacher. Would he even accept it as a vision from God given just how bizarre it really is? What about the visions of Zechariah or Jeremiah?

Symbol is powerful. It is fundamental in human existence. The patriarchs of ancient Israel built altars everywhere that they met with God because they were symbols for others to know of the encounter. Burning bushes, wrestlers, small still voices, enthroned kings – God himself appears in symbolic form to connect to our minds in powerful ways.

Yes, symbolism can be overused. There are many traditions that worship symbols. This happened in ancient Israel, where the brass serpent became an idol and had to be destroyed (2 Kings 18:4). Sometimes old symbols do need to be destroyed and replaced, but this does not mean that we abandon symbols entirely.
We have lost so much texture and variety in our scrambles to be correct.

Crosses – the lost symbol

As just one example of lost symbols, we might consider the cross. Most modern churches do not feature the cross prominently in their worship space. I know of several new churches in our area that do not have a cross anywhere in view. Our own worship space has been sadly devoid of this ancient symbol.

Part of the problem is that we have lost the ancient meaning of the cross. It is commonplace; and when a symbol becomes commonplace, it ceases to be significant. Rather, we fail to view it with significance.

Particularly, let’s look at the Celtic cross. This symbol is found throughout Britain and parts of Europe dominated by the Anglo-Saxons. The Irish maintain that the Celtic cross is a cross, symbolizing Jesus obviously, and a sun, symbolizing the creation. The idea is, to them at least, that St. Patrick combined the two symbols to connect Jesus with the life-giving energies of the sun.

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If this is true, then the Celtic cross is meant as a symbol of dependence on Christ, as a separation from our pagan roots. It claims the truth of the Celts’ world – that the sun gives life – and unites it with the truth of Scripture – that Jesus is the life-giver. This rich symbol reminds us of so much when we know its meaning.

Perhaps the problem with symbolism in our modern world is that we are so literal. We have no room for the spiritual or supernatural. Everything must be defined by cause and effect. There can be no grey area.

And yet, the spirit is a grey area. By its very definition, spirit is not governed by physical. Spirit is much bigger than the physical. In fact, it is to the physical what mauve is to square – different in order, not simply a variation. Perhaps I had better explain. Mauve belongs to an order of things we call color. Square belongs to an order of things we call shape. They cannot be compared or contrasted. They are entirely different orders.

This is what the spiritual is to the physical. It is not the same thing with variations. It is a different order. And perhaps symbols can serve as effective bridges between the physical and the spiritual.

ImageThe cross has been supplanted with the fish. While the fish might have some significance to it as a symbol, it should not be the primary identification of the church. This primary identification should always be, as it was for Paul and Simon Peter, the cross of Jesus Christ.

Above, I mentioned the symbol of the fish. You will see this symbol as a metallic decal on the backs of many cars in most church parking lots. When we abandoned the symbol of the cross, we found another one. Many Christians wear crosses on necklaces or intricately crafted into their clothing (Christian t-shirts often feature prominent crosses). We cannot be truly iconoclastic. Something in us longs to identify with Jesus; and if we do not do it in the church, we will do it in private.

Like with so many things in our worship, the cross must be reintroduced into Christian worship. We must learn the value of the symbol, and that will make the symbol significant again.

How can we reclaim the significance of the cross? First, we must get past our iconoclastic roots. Protestantism is rife with it. I understand our forefathers’ need to purge themselves of the corruption of Catholicism, but now we must realize that symbol is part of who we are.

We cannot constantly be living in fear of idolatry. Yes, we must be aware of the tendency of humanity to worship the symbol; but we cannot disparage symbols altogether.

The Substitution of Media for Symbol

Because our churches have been emptied of symbol, we have introduced different media to communicate the message of the gospel. This is not inherently wrong, but it raises some concerns.

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In fact, I would argue that we have done so specifically because we have lost our symbols. The postmodern church has reinvented its symbols in its media. Unfortunately, these new symbols do not have the history or the staying power of the ancient symbols we have lost.

Our new symbols are the images of our preachers and musicians, projected on huge screens for all to see. Unintentionally, human beings have become the center of our worship.

Our churches have become bigger and bigger, and despite what the advocates might say, this megachurch growth is based on the power of personality and corporate mentalities. Technological media has become our symbolism.

And technology is a great tool, but a terrible symbol.

Perhaps our admiration for all things big and advanced comes from a heartfelt desire to reach people for Jesus. Certainly this is a desire that we share. But this desire cannot exist in the modernist vacuum.

Less media, less technology will certainly mean smaller churches. It will require that rather than one teacher leading tens of thousands, we must train and equip many teachers. It would require a transition from the corporate model of doing ministry to something smaller, more intimate, and more intense.

It also would require us to rediscover and reteach symbol as our reinforcing media, because symbol is much more inexpensive and accessible than technology.