Of all the many, many (many) things Donald Trump said in the run-up to his election–and since then too–that should have bothered Christians more than they apparently did, one stands out. I am thinking specifically of his claim that he has never asked God for forgiveness in that, apparently, he cannot seem to find any sins to confess. In this Season of Lent when we meditate on the cross as God’s ultimate, terrible solution to the intractable problem of human sin, it seems odd we would give anyone a pass on the claim to be without confessable sins.
But maybe this is not so odd after all, at least if my experience in any number of churches is any guide. I am privileged to preach more weeks than not in a variety of congregations. And every week I meet wonderful people I am only too happy to join with in worship and before whom to preach God’s Word and to whom to give a blessing at the end. I am not trying to cast aspersions on any such good people in what I am about to observe. Yet I have to note that with increasing frequency I participate in worship services that have evacuated most any semblance of a liturgy that has some sense of forward movement and that evinces the idea that among other things, worship is an encounter with God that elicits varying responses. Traditionally for many Protestant churches (and Reformed churches most especially) it was the vision of Isaiah 6 that set the tone.
Like Isaiah, when we enter into worship we are greeted by a God that is holy, high, and lifted up. Although it is true we live in the presence of God always, the corporate approach to God in worship has from the days of ancient Israel forward been regarded as a particular encounter with the Holy One. And when we see this resplendent God in all his awful beauty, we sing to him, joining that chorus of “Holy, Holy, Holy” that is perpetually going on in heaven as it is. But following this encounter and this exclamation of praise, we look back at ourselves and, again with Isaiah, we see the disconnect between all that grandeur and our day-to-day fumbling attempts to be like this God. “Whoa is me!” Isaiah confessed. And so we have traditionally made the confession of sin next on the liturgical agenda. But as with the angel that purified Isaiah’s unclean lips with a burning coal from God’s altar, so we get to rejoice all over again in the Gospel in hearing the words of forgiving assurance. And really, can we ever hear Good News like that too often? Does it ever truly become old or stale (much less unnecessary)?
Yet in recent years all that confession and assurance stuff has been the first thing pitched out, most often in churches that say they are being intentional about being missional or more open to the community. It’s hard for me to see what will drive people to the foot of Jesus’ bloody cross if the first thing we do is remove all mention of sin and the need to have it crucified with Christ. But that is the drill today. We sing a lot (and increasingly there is no formal “Greeting from God” to kick things off either), we take an offering, we pray some (maybe, though I have been in churches with no public prayers too), we have a sermon, sing once more, and go home. There is no sense of liturgical rhythm, of an encounter with the Holy, of the summoning out from us varying responses (other than praise).
People who study worship (like my colleague John Witvliet) point out that in the shape of its worship week after week what the church really does is recapitulate the whole story of God, creation, and their relation. But since you cannot tell or even summarize that story without including our tragic human fall into sin and God’s history-long efforts to undo the damage sin caused, any worship that brackets that out more often than not (much less all the time) cannot get the story right. But if we know and love the story–and if we know it’s the only story we have to tell–then why tinker around with key components of it?
If there is one thing all parents know well, it is that when reading to your children at bedtime, you absolutely do not mess around with favorite stories. You don’t skip a page, you don’t substitute so much as one single word. “You didn’t tell that part right,” my kids used to say. “Start over.”
Worship narrates our sacred story. It recapitulates no less than the precious Gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord. If we are not telling it right to ourselves, our children, or those neighbors we want to come to the Lord, then maybe it’s time to start over.