Worship as the Antidote to Postmodernism

Zac HicksWorship and Pastoral Ministry, Worship Theology & Thought10 Comments

Some out there don’t think that postmodernism needs an antidote, for that would imply that something’s wrong with it.  I happen to think that almost every “ism” needs a check.  Many writers and thinkers on postmodernism point out the fragmentation that occurs in a culture of postmodernity.  Common belief-structures are no longer shared in large quanities among the masses, and the truth that once glued us together, as both whole individuals and whole communities, is no longer present (existentially speaking).  The resulting postmodernity is a fragmented culture and fragmented persons.  

As I’m reading through James K. A. Smith’s great book, Desiring the Kingdom, I’m realizing that the battle for wholeness and shalom cannot be waged solely on the field of ideas, propositions, and worldviews, as much as I’m all for that (maybe even a little more for that than Smith is).  As Smith would point out, because the core of the human being is more properly seated in the heart or “gut,” people are, essentially, beings who desire, beings who love.  Smith spells out what this means for how we are formed as human beings into the image and likeness of Christ, and while this certainly happens on the cognitive, “head” level, it happens more basically (and perhaps more holistically) at the existential, affective, experiential level.  In other words, we are formed by practice and ritual.  Now, let’s see if we can keep this in mind as we listen to a prescient word from the 1960s, from worship theologian, Jean-Jacques von Allmen:

Worship has also a sociological usefulness.  It brings men together and gives them the deepest cohesion, the most basic solidarity which can be found on this earth: “Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the same loaf” (1 Cor 10:17).  This sociological usefulness does not, however, consist merely in its property of cohesion. It implies, further, a personal integration and appeasement, since it imprints on our life a certain style and mode of being, a simplicity, a haplotes [a New Testament Greek word which means, “simplicity, liberality”], which deliver us from the agonies and the contradictions of the natural man. And it has further a cosmic implication in the sense that the cult [i.e. “corporate worship”], as has already been suggested, unites men in the only way which does not make of them a solid body, that is, in and for the operation of grace, so that we may go so far as to say that Christian worship stabilizes the world, penetrating it with something which opposes its fragmentation and contends with its chaos.1

I’m convinced that we evangelicals suffer from a genetic disease which causes us to think far too anemically about the power of worship in our (post)modern world.  If worship is the place where God chooses most accutely to meet with, nourish, nuture, and strengthen His body, it makes sense that it is in this place where humanity finds its greatest concentration of wholeness and integrity.  It’s in this place, as we practice the faith and ritualize it, that we discover in greater depths, the meaning and purpose of our existence.  As I said in a sermon on Psalm 10 (a psalm of lament) yesterday: some truths of Scripture are best understood not as we study them or contemplate them, but as we sing them and pray them.  Worship, in large part, is singing, praying, receiving, tasting, hearing, rehearsing, acting, and living out Truth.  And a funny thing happens when we engage worship wholeheartedly…God continues the slow, steady quilting process of stitching our fragmented selves back together.

(One final jab: Maybe this raises the stakes for those of us who plan or lead worship.  We can’t just plan what tickling ears want to hear.  We must choose to engage our planning as pastors, who know that worship is far too formative to be taken lightly.)



1Jean-Jacques von Allmen, Worship: Its Theology and Practice (New York: Oxford, 1965), 119-120.


10 Comments on “Worship as the Antidote to Postmodernism”

  1. I was thinking about this topic in a different way while in church this Sunday. I had a paragraph from N.T. Wright's book The Last Word in my head:

    The Enlightenment thus offered to the world a new analysis of, and solution to, the problem of evil, standing in radical tension to those offered in classical Judaism and Christianity. The real problem of evil, it proposed, is that people are not thinking and acting rationally, and Enlightenment rationalism is going to teach them how and create the social and political conditions to make it happen. The biblical scholarship which grew up within the Enlightenment world went along for the ride, reducing the act of God in Jesus Christ to mere moral teaching and example. . . . The point was this: if Enlightenment progress is solving the problem of evil, all Jesus needs to have done is to point the way, to show people what love and compassion look like. Being reasonable, people will follow his example. If they do not, they need more teaching in reason.

    And I was thinking, one way to apply Wright's comments is that if we overly emphasize the role of the sermon in sanctification, we're essentially doing the Enlightenment in the church–reasoning people into holiness. Sunday school, teaching, learning–these are good things, but they're not everything. We can't reason our way to righteousness. If we don't seek the help of God's spirit, we're no better off than the world.

    Your emphasis on worship (and the sermon is part of the Sunday worship, yes, but not the sum total) accommodates a fuller way to address the condition in which we find ourselves.

  2. Geoff,

    Great quote! It's an interesting check. I wonder, though, whether you might be thinking too narrowly about what the sermon does or is capable of. The sermon is never merely a rational treatise to be imbibed by the mind. It is that, plus more. It's God's declarative act, and, as the gospel is proclaimed in it, it has a unique sanctifying quality that transcends its rational assertions. I've found Michael Horton's writings on the sermon (addressed in Word & Sacrament sections of his works…like his recent systematic theology) helpful.

    I'm not disagreeing with your greater point, though. We've probably gone too far as evangelicals with sermon-centric worship schemes. However, we need to be careful to not throw the baby out with the bathwater (which I'm not necessarily saying you're doing), because the sermon really is a formative part of worship because of what God chooses to do in it and through it.

    Thank you for interacting!

  3. Tim Keller has some excellent thinking on the nature of the sermon as something the Holy Spirit uses to sanctify worshipers on the spot in the worship service. It's based on his idea that the sermon should be all about lifting up Jesus Christ as beautiful and so the beauty of Christ becomes "weightier" to the heart than the desire to sin (picking up on Smith's "desire" language).

    This idea of the sermon I think works beautifully with Smith's ideas regarding rehearsing the gospel in an embodied way throughout the worship service.

    Both are formative – I haven't worked out the thinking very carefully but if the Holy Spirit is active in the sermon the way Keller lays it out (see his Christ Centered Preaching Class with Ed Clowney available on iTunesU at Reformed Theological Seminary) and we are "practicing" the gospel with our bodies (singing, praying, rehearsing, listening, confessing, receiving, eating, giving) then I think we are really making our whole selves available to the Holy Spirit for His ongoing filling and really re-ordering of our desires in the service.

    By the way this works nicely with an idea I read in a post from Zac sometime ago that worship is a protest. What is a protest? It's an objection to disordered priorities – worship is a corporate protest of disordered loves (within the individual and out there in the world) and a meeting with Christ himself where he re-orders our loves through the Spirit.

  4. Good thoughts, Zac and Matt. I definitely would endorse the possibilities you express about the sermon's role in our lives, and in my own life I can attest to the way God has used the words I've heard from my pastor to guide me towards himself. Perhaps it's the time I've spent in an evangelical church with a more sparing liturgy that makes me think the sermon can be over-emphasized, as it can be done at the expense of so many of the things you describe in this post as part of worship.

  5. I am reminded, along these lines, of the role of the sacrament of baptism in constituting the people of God, and Eucharist in re-constituting the people of God, with frequent communing addressing the fragmentation of our individual and corporate selves.

  6. Wow. This is the best post-post string of comments and dialogue I've ever seen up to this point. I'm resonating with what you all are saying 100%. Matt, I'm loving the Keller references. Great connection. I listened through those classes once and probably need to do it again. Chris, well-said. That could be a post all by itself. I believe it wholeheartedly.

  7. I have yet to read through the 3 years worth of your posts, but this is really one of the best that I've read. My response is WHOA. Thanks for giving me a lot to think about!

  8. Yep, it's another mind-bending Friday night hanging with Zac and the boys. You fellas have a way of making a worship leader feel important. Thanks for that.
    It strikes me that the discussion seems tethered to the ethereal world of the universal church but we should remember that the application of these ideas ALWAYS occurs in the context of a local church. So for many of us the sermons we hear are anchored deeply in the truth of God, giving them supernatural redemptive and sanctifying power. While for others the sermons may barely scratch the surface of truth leaving them weak and anemic in their approach to men's hearts. The truth of God is the only tool the Holy Spirit has to use. Worship is first a by product of regeneration before it is a catalyst of sanctification. We will meet frustration when we try to get unregenerate folks to worship. Dead men don't sing! The balance between me as leader of worship and the pastor as proclaimer of truth is crucial in fostering an environment where the Holy Spirit is free to work in folks' hearts.

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