Liturgy and the Disquieted Soul

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“Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)

Speaking to Jesus' famous words in Matthew 11:28, John Calvin writes that, "Christ stretches out his hand to all the afflicted ... [He] included all, without exception, who labour and are burdened, that no man may shut the gate against himself by wicked doubts."

Calvin did not deny that Jesus had those who laboured under the law in mind, but neither did he limit Jesus' call to those alone. Instead, writes Calvin, anyone weighed down by the burdens of life is invited to find "rest" in Christ (Gk. anapauĊ).

Acknowledging the Disconnect

While the idea of finding rest in Christ is appealing to many, it may be a difficult concept to apply for some, especially those new to the faith and/or those who who are in the midst of suffering, or caught up in a pattern of sin.

How can I rest in someone I cannot see or touch or smell in any natural or immediate sense, represents a question on the minds of at least a few for whom rest seems distant. What at first strikes the heart as a passage that holds out tremendous hope, comfort, and care, winds up feeling to some like another impossible Christian calling.

Where then, or how, are Christians to find this rest of which Jesus speaks?

While the question's answer may well be found in any number of contexts, perhaps there is no greater intended place of rest in Christ for our present day than the Lord's Day gathering of saints for worship. In this setting, unlike any other, the elements of song, prayer, the preaching of the word, and the administration of the sacraments come together for God's glory and our joy.

Jon D. Payne, in his book on worship, writes, "On the Lord’s Day we are provided a preview of our heavenly rest as we set aside our common earthly labors, a foretaste of the great wedding feast as we come to the Lord’s Table (see Revelation 19:6-10), and an anticipatory, forward-looking experience of eternal fellowship with God and His glorified people" [emphasis added].

But, is this rest to which Jesus calls his people being found in the church during Lord's Day worship services? Do the forms, styles, and liturgies employed on Sunday, across the broader American evangelical landscape, foster rest in Christ for disquieted souls, or is something much less than that being served? Are the people able to anticipate the calming effects of particular liturgical elements of historic church worship, or, are their minds unnerved by what innovation they might soon witness?

There may well be no way to defintively answer these questions. From one congregation to the next, the answers may change. But, there does seem to be common ground in many of our churches, big and small, concerning liturgical flow and devices used to construct Lord's Day worship. Unfortunately, for many (though not all), it would appear that there is a disconnect between the rest Jesus calls us to and the nature of worship practices employed on Sunday in many evangelical worship services.

What's Guiding Our Sunday Worship?

Instead of rest, many worshippers on Sunday are met with services that are as sensual as the most raucous of concerts and performances. That is, the service itself is designed to agitate the senses, and in so doing, to stir up the hearts and minds of participants to euphoric emotional conditions. Sophisticated lighting, fog machines, fragrance enhancers, concert style musical performances, and inspirational talks (over/against expository preaching) are combined in the most extreme examples for no other purpose than to whip a large crowd up into an earthly frenzy.

Sadly, these instances do not culminate in a hope-filled heavenly feast with family at the Lord's table, but with the "oohs" and "ahhs" that come after watching a fantastic sporting event or theatric production.

The question I'm seeking to investigate and promote reflection upon is whether the common practices witnessed in evangelical worship at large promote and serve the "rest" of the soul to which Jesus calls his people, or has a much different concern become the guiding light?

For the majority of those in attendance, the status quo is all well and good. But, what about those who enter the worship service carrying life altering burdens, like cancer diagnoses or spousal abuse? Or, what about those who struggle with sensory processing disorders that make bright lights and gut-shaking music not comforting, but unsettling?

Where is the "rest" for these?

It would be easy to dismiss these concerns out of hand as representative of a minority that can surely go elsewhere to find their needs met, but is that approach in keeping with Paul's instruction to the church in places like Philippians 2:3-4:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.

In a brief, introductory way, I'm seeking to introduce the idea that, in fact, the church's liturgy and practice in the Lord's Day worship service has everything to do with ministering the "rest" of Christ Jesus to all the flock, and that the emotionally-spiritually hurting and "least of these" who suffer from natural, physical disorders of the body ought to be taken into serious account.

In other words, the worship service has everything to do with soul care, even if soul care is not its primary function, but an outflow or result of worshipping the triune God in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24).

While it may be exciting to draw a crowd through pragmatic means approved of by church growth experts, is that what the widow, walking into a worship service without her husband for the first time in fifty years, needs most from her church? Will she find rest in her Savior in the company of her heavenly family, or will the nature and tone of the service be found to her in utter disjunction with the present condition of her soul?

It may be that Alistair Begg has commented on these issues better than anyone: Knowing vs. Feeling in Worship.

Rest or Recreation?

My hope for this post is not to thrust a particular form or style of worship on this or that church, but to provoke a conversation of sorts among some who may not have well considered why the liturgy and forms of evangelical worship at large may not (always) well serve the actual emotional-spiritual needs of the flock. While there are many theological reasons for considering liturgy and practice, my concerns here are for the practical outcomes of our choices. As a biblical counselor, I always point my counselees to the church and to Lord's Day worship as primary means of care.

But, sometimes, I cannot help but wonder, to what am I sending them?

For final clarification, I want to say that none of what I'm suggesting is meant to lead the church into a boring, lifeless form of worship. Worshipping the living God in spirit and truth should never suffer such a fate. But, I suspect that the most common assumptions in the pulpit and pew concering what properly constitutes Lord's Day worship have been shaped less by Scripture (and perhaps church history), and more by cultural preferences and modern church growth strategies.

Anecdotally, I want to know: Does the one struggling in their attempts to flee porn addiction need a time to confess their sin and receive assursance of pardon in the worship service prior to the Lord's Supper (if it's even offered), or do they need a litany of "exciting announcements" of events that will be held at the church next week?

Our biggest fears and greatest concerns are made evident in our most common practices.

These are hard questions for some to hear, but we are in desperate need of reminding that the worship service is not a time to market the church's community service. There are more appropriate avenues for those announcements. 

On Sunday, the sick need a hospital that administers the hope of the cross, not a variety show that appeals to our carnal pleasures.