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A rebuttal to fors clavigera

Response to http://forsclavigera.blogspot.com/2012/02/open-letter-to-praise-bands.html

What is “fors clavigera”? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fors_Clavigera

A few thoughts of rebuttal:

In paragraph 4, Smith says, “Let me offer a few brief axioms.” Though I’m sure he may be intending this in a less divisive way, the meaning of axiom is that is it a widely accepted truth. I find it odd that Smith seeks to be an encouragement (paragraph 2 and 9) yet chooses to bring these axioms (widely accepted truths) for which there is no such acceptance, nor are they identifiable truths, merely opinions of his and, I’m sure, a somewhat wide margin of others. An opinion by its very nature is not truth.

As you can tell from my first paragraph, I find very little to agree with in what Smith is saying. That he begins so divisively, I will as well in my rebuttal.

My first point is an overarching theme of the points that follow. It is in this point that I find most of my difficulties in agreeing with Smith in whole. This is also a major point that cannot be denied and I cannot believe a professor of Philosophy at a Christian college would leave this out of his statement of belief as presented in the above blog post. It is this…I find zero references to Scripture in his statement. Scripture is the only truth, the only axiom, from which we can form our opinions. Any other truth is merely preference, and by nature, like an opinion, is not truth (maybe a relative truth, but that’s another sermon).

As a result, in my rebuttal, I hope to respond with Scripture, and Scripture that is interpreted wisely.

In Smith’s points (1, 2, and 3), he takes an “if…then” approach, very popular in the world of philosophy. The goal of “if…then” is, of course, to prove a point; that “if” something is true, “then” something else must also be true. But what happens when your “if” can’t be proved, or quantified? What if your “if” is merely an opinion in itself? If this is the case, your “then” is now flawed as well. The reverse can also be said…if your “then” has any flaw to it, then your “if” has holes too.

I’ll tackle the former points later, but Smith makes three statements of “if” with the same answer, “[then] it’s not worship.” It is from here I begin digging deeper into my disagreement with Smith’s Scripture-less opinions.

In John 4, we have the story of Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman. It is in this conversation that Jesus first reveals Himself as the Messiah (“The One speaking to you, I AM.” Vs. 26). It is also within this conversation that we get the clearest description of worship (vs. 19-26). Vs. 23 says “the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” Two major points we find in this passage; 1. God is the seeker – no one else and 2. The object of His divine mission is not merely worship, but worshipers. So, if our worship is a response to God’s seeking and His seeking is of us as worshipers, not the worship (type, form, feel, style, etc.) we bring, then who but God alone can say what is and isn’t worship? For Smith to say, “it isn’t worship” assumes a divine knowledge on his part of what is and isn’t acceptable to God Almighty. By saying “it isn’t worship” he is also, in effect, saying what “is” worship…the opposite of his “if” statements. But I must ask this question, “How can Smith know what is and isn’t worship?” If worship begins with God’s seeking, and His seeking is of us as worshipers, is it not He alone that decides what is acceptable worship and what is not?

Another thought here is that, in Scripture, most words translated as “worship” literally mean “ministry to God”. When we break that down a little further, worship is about the role of the servant to the Master…the inferior to the Superior. That being so, there is no place for arrogance or pride in that ministry to God, in worship. Smith’s words of “it’s not worship” carry way too much prideful arrogance for me to swallow. And, I do admit, that may just be an opinion, though I believe a Scripturally based opinion.

So with those overarching statements, now to the rebuttal of his individual points directly.

  1. “If we, the congregation, can’t hear ourselves, it’s not worship.” By the context of Smith’s paragraph, I understand him to really mean, “if we can’t hear each other’s voices in worship…” After my opening arguments, you may find it odd that I agree with Smith to some extent here. It is very important for a congregation to hear each other sing; brothers and sisters side by side, children learning from their parents, etc. I agree that there is a place for that and to deny that from ever happening in worship is a disservice to the “collective, communal, congregational” practice. The church needs to sing together. However, what Smith is saying is that if it’s too loud and you can’t hear each other, then it is not worship…in effect, it cannot possibly be worship. Based on my earlier response, who says it can’t be worship? What’s wrong with moments of “private, passive” worship at times? Don’t we all need that at some point? Who says because it may be too loud that it becomes passive? Some people are more apt to sing out at the top of their lungs in response to what God has done when they can…because it’s so loud (something they likely would not do with a soft, piano-only “Amazing Grace”). What I’m trying to say is that volume cannot be a determining factor in what is and what is not worship. I doubt the Israelites could hear themselves when the 120 trumpets were blasting away at the same time as all the cymbals, harps, and lyres at the “opening ceremonies” of the Temple in Jerusalem as described in 2 Chronicles 5:12-14. But yet God’s glory came down in such power that the priests were in such awe, they couldn’t even perform their duties. I doubt anyone would argue that wasn’t worship.
  2. “If we, the congregation, can’t sing along, it’s not worship…in Christian worship it just means that we, the congregation, can’t sing along. And so your virtuosity gives rise to our passivity; your creativity simply encourages our silence. And while you may be worshiping with your creativity, the same creativity actually shuts down congregational song.” When Moses led the Israelites into the wilderness, God instructed Moses to find the best of the best artisans to create and sculpt the different elements of the Tent of Meeting/Tabernacle. This was the place God Himself would dwell. God chose the creative to make, per His specifications, all of the elements of early worship. God chose creativity to be used in worship. Just because you can’t paint along with a great artist, does that mean you, therefore, cannot worship God because of the artist’s art? What about some of the great instrumental works of Bach? Just because you didn’t write any of the notes, or you can’t play it yourself, does that mean that you can’t worship God because of it? A little more striking…does this not mean that it is not really worship when you thank God for the beautiful sunset He’s just painted? “Passivity” and “silence” are not automatically outcomes of virtuosity and creativity, nor are they in themselves enemies of worship. That a worship leader’s (or band’s) creativity “actually shuts down congregational song” is more a problem of the congregation’s readiness and willingness to worship (maybe even “in spite” of whatever is happening on stage). As Bonheoffer surmises, we often think of God as the prompter, the worship leaders as the performers, and the congregation as the audience…when in reality it should be the worship leaders as the prompters, the congregation as the performers, and God as the Audience.
  3. “If you, the praise band, are the center of attention, it’s not worship.” Finally, a point I can agree with…oh wait, there’s more. This point has great validity, especially in church culture today. For example, my wife went with her sister to a large, well-known, “mega-church” in Texas. They had the doors closed until 10 minutes before the service. As soon as the doors opened, the band was jamming (very well, I might add) but so loudly, she couldn’t even talk to her sister. They never stopped jamming until the sermon. She said it was a very odd service in which she, a worship pastor’s wife, had a very difficult time engaging in worship herself. Though they had songs she knew, no one else seemed to be singing along, the worship leader never encouraged participation, and it felt too much like a show. All this to say…if the band is the center of attention, it cannot be worship. But who makes them the center of attention? Is it the band’s fault that while they lead worship, even striving to encourage participation, a congregation doesn’t worship? Disregarding my earlier point of God alone deciding what is acceptable worship, can you really blame any worship leader, good or bad, regardless of style of music, for you not worshiping? True…the band/worship leader plays a role in helping you to worship and can certainly distract you from doing so, but can you really place all the weight of that on them? No…it is your responsibility, the responsibility of every congregant, to worship God in spite of whatever is happening on stage. One other small point here, Smith makes the statement that any virtuosity shown from the stage tends to “tempt” the congregant into making the virtuoso the focus of their attention. Psalm 33:3 encourages (commands?) us to play skillfully. Any skillful virtuosity can be looked at like point 2 above…it is more of a congregant’s issue as to whether or not he worships the ultimate Creator or the virtuoso on the stage.

All of this rebuttal, mostly in a negative, opposite viewpoint, and you’ll find me as I plan worship every week considering all three of these points. Is there a place where the congregation can sing for themselves, a softer section? Is there enough for them to sing along with as opposed to the idea of “singing a new song”? How can they be encouraged to participate vs. be a spectator? If there is a spectator moment, can it be worshipful (solos, art, dance, etc.)?

In conclusion, even though I consider these points in my worship planning, I simply cannot agree with Smith on any man deciding or approving what is and what is not true worship.