Existentialist theology vs community

In a recent post, I discussed the implications that a common contemporary worship style has on the community of the church:

… what I see happening is that our contemporary freedom in worship – to raise hands or not, to sit, stand, jump or twirl – plus the existential nature of the lyrics in our worship songs is undermining the goal of our churches, which is to create a corporate worship experience. I don’t have any sense of community with the people around me, who could be (and often are) engaged in any number of activities.

One of the things happening in our local church, ever since we got this new building without windows in the sanctuary, is that they turn down the lights during worship. It’s bugged my wife and I since they started it, but I haven’t said anything, as I’m already known as somewhat of a malcontent; I prefer to save my comments for more serious issues than “mood lighting.”

Well, today the pastor explained, for the benefit of visitors, why the lights are being lowered. It is to help us focus on God, the theory being that we won’t be distracted by our neighbors if we can’t see them. Now, this does address one of the points in the quote above, that we are involved in individual worship expressions. Granted, this shows some sensitivity in that area, but I don’t think they’ve thought the issue through from the standpoint of community. What the leaders are encouraging is now an even more individualized, existential worship experience. Not only we are to do our own thing, we are to try to forget that the rest of the congregation is even there. To me, this is absolutely counter-productive; that is, if you believe “church” is about corporate worship.

Those who work in early childhood education will probably understand what is called “parallel play.” Until a certain age, the most we can expect of toddlers is that they may engage in the same activities as other children at the same time. They are not playing “together,” they are playing along side each other. When they grow older, they are able to understand the concept of others as individuals to interact with, and corporate play activities begin.

This, of course, illustrates what I am saying about what is encouraged in existential worship. There really is no corporate worship going on; at best, it is “parallel” worship, and may not even be that. What is the point of coming together to worship, if it is to try to ignore the body and enter into our own little worship bubble? Why not stay at home? At least there, we could worship to songs of our own choosing, something that perhaps we could actually sing and mean. Part of the wonder of a confessional, liturgical worship style is that we are knowingly joining together with Christians the world over. We are Christians alone most of the week – on Sunday mornings, we are joined to the Church Universal. By reciting the creeds, by corporate recitation of The Lord’s Prayer, the many become one.

For 10 years or more, I’ve heard churches that I’ve been involved in lament the loss of community. Leadership conferences have focused on it, and church publications have discussed it. The small group strategy that worked 20 years ago is no longer working. Postmodernity is blamed (for everything, it seems). However, what do people expect, when the main focus of the corporate church is taken away, and we are encouraged to become more individualized? Why bother going to a building on Sunday morning only to be isolated? To make things worse, many of the songs are so personal in nature that not everyone can sing them. Many don’t affirm any universal truth, they affirm individual, existentialist experience. What if I, alone and in the dark, can’t join in with the experience being sung from the front?

As Marshal McLuhan said, the medium is the message. I believe it’s time to evaluate our medium of worship, to see what message we’re sending.

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4 Responses to Existentialist theology vs community

  1. me says:


    First, you are up way too late (or too early)! However, as long as you are up, you might as well read my blog.

    I hope that you’ve read enough (and I’ve been clear enough) to see that I’m not really talking about style or personal likes and dislikes (although I do feel that to some extent, “the medium is the message” and how we do things communicate things we may or may not want to). I’ve been full circle, as it were, in that regard, having been in the present “movement” for over 20 years. I was also involved in leading worship for much of that time, and wrote a few existentialist worship songs myself.

    And, as you say, I like the people in the church, and church is also about relationship; so, we’ve made a commitment to stay, and I can’t see us going anywhere else. I’m not critiquing from outside, but from a position within (although that position is shifting and I’m not sure how it will end up – perhaps I’ll move to the right side of the room?).

    I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with subtle changes in recent years – in me as well as in the larger community – that have major implications, both theologically and personally. I’ll be posting more from a personal standpoint in the next couple of weeks as I work through this book I’m reading by Robert Webber.

    So, stay tuned…

  2. Josh Woods says:

    I started reading the previous entries in the section to get a holistic glimpse of your perspective. I’m hooked, I’m reading from now on. Whether or not I agree, the questions you are asking are crucial in the process of defining what goes on at “that church”

    I find it interesting that at “that church,” we have members (or have had members) who like yourself, have originated in a (orthodoxly defined) liturgical church and desire a return to that strong, blatantly corporate style of worship. I have worked at Lutheran you camps for the past two summers and have been to my fair share of Lutheran services, and there is definitely something to be said for the practice of worshipping in unity of posture, word, and action.

    On the other side of things, we have people who hate the Evangelical liturgy of songs, offering, announcements, greeting, teaching, song, prayer, leave. Some people want to abolish any sort of format and come to church without knowing what to expect.

    -“What kind of ice cream would you like, dear?”
    -“I dunno, surprise me.”

    How can we worship together in unity of mind and purpose when, as individuals, we all prefer to worship in different manners? The solution in the Church has been to fracture. We have 32 flavors of Baptists alone, not to mention the factions of Methodists, Lutherans, and [insert name brand here], ad infinitum. What happens eventually, once denominational gene pool gets diluted too many times over crucial theological decisions–chairs or pews? transubstantiation or consubstantiation or remembrance? 3-in-1 or 1-in-3? gifts or no gifts? gays or no gays? democrat or republican?–is that we all end up being alone by ourselves in our own denomination.

    The Church of Josh. First order of business, abolishing the employment of sound-deflecting plexiglass cages for drummers. Would I love it? Yes. Would anyone else come? Probably not, unless the Doppleganger Theory turns out to be true. My lack of feeling corporately plugged-in would be just as isolating as if I would have chosen to worship in a specific body, which doesn’t have everything right the way I want it, despite its failing. Personal sacrifice so that I can contribute to loving His Church.

    “That church” falls short of fulfilling my utopian fantasy. However, I love the people there–and I feel loved by the people there. However, we can’t be dependent upon love by peers for our survival. My dad has told me that marriage isn’t about love, it’s about committment. Sometimes you may not love or even like your wife, but what sustains the marriage is committment. I am committed to “that church” or perhaps more appropriately “those people.”

    By the way, I will try to un-emo the percussion section of the worship team. Just for you, Alden.


  3. me says:

    Better to light a single candle…

    drat! it’s against the fire codes!

  4. Quixote says:

    Rage, rage against the dimming of the lights.

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