Nelson Cowan is quickly making a name for himself among the St. Matthew’s community as our new(ish) Modern Worship Leader at 9:45 on Sunday mornings. Nelson’s love of our Creator is evident as he tackles the topic of barriers in worship in a recent post on his personal blog.
THE INTELLECTUAL BARRIER TO WORSHIP
by Nelson Cowan
When I attend a worship service, or even sometimes when I lead worship, it’s easy to feel like God is not present. Our Western, educated context often tells us that we are too intelligent to participate in such mystic and ancient practices. But when you turn to your friends or other people that seem to be passionately worshipping God, you want their experience to become your own. There’s something innately beautiful about a human being captivated by the wonder of an all-loving, creator God.
When our minds are racing at such a quick pace trying to understand why we cannot replicate that experience, it is easy to jump to conclusions. Perhaps one conclusion is that God does not care for you, or maybe, you feel as if you are too unworthy for God’s acknowledgment. I have met many people who have arrived at these conclusions, myself being one of them.
For others, it might not be the emotional idea of an uninterested or even spiteful God. It could, however, be an intellectual barrier brought about by the seemingly irrational practice of worship. Such questions could be: why worship a God that demands such worship? Do I seem foolish participating in this worship? Am I even singing to something, someone - anything? What is the point of all of this?
All of these questions are valid, and I imagine there are more questions of similar magnitude, as well as some with very deep implications for our faith praxis. Answering these questions though is not the intent of this blog post.
I do, however, want to offer a series of suggestions; of thoughts that may or may not help you (and me) deal with our various intellectual barriers to worship. This is not to say that intellectual barriers are inherently bad. I would be more concerned of the opposite: people who do not have/perceive any of those barriers, but that’s a different blog post altogether.
One way to overcome this intellectual barrier is to enter the worship service with a sense of gratitude – perhaps being grateful for the life that God has given you. To some, this is perfect. To others, it will simply not work, or it might take a long time to feel this sense of thankfulness. I invite you to consider God’s work in the natural world: the beauty of the skies, the ocean, or the mountains. If the natural approach does not help, consider God’s work in the life of your family, friends, and relationships. Finally, and in all things, consider God’s faithfulness in your life. How has God worked miracles, comforted you in times of distress, empowered you to do something incredible, etc.?
These suggestions may come easy for some people, allowing them to enter into some kind of personal, mystic encounter with the divine. For others, this process could take a longer, maybe even spanning 2 or 3 worship services or more.
At the risk of generalization, I think the bible, particularly the NT, demonstrates the experience of God in worship as an immediate thing. We read these stories and can clearly see God moving in such a distinct and intentional way. It is important to know that these stories are beautiful, but they are not the summary of how people encounter the living God. If the bible shared with us every worship experience of God’s people, then we would get overwhelmed very quickly. Not to mention, if we accept the idea of a personal God, then we must also acknowledge that we all encounter God in a unique way. It would be highly unlikely to record each individual’s experience.
That being said, some people may not encounter the Holy Spirit in such an immediate and noticeable way. Let’s take a look at Acts 2:1-4:
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” –NRSV
Quick disclaimer: in seminary, we get to “play” with the texts in class because we all bring our own context, social location, etc., when it comes to interpreting the text. Allow me to play.
The point is that these folks in the passage were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in other languages “as the Spirit gave them ability.” Pay attention to that language. This key line could be interpreted in a couple of ways. 1 – as a general statement about God’s Spirit giving people ability, or 2 – a statement about the independence of the Spirit in the act of “filling” people. I’m going to choose the second option and say that because the Spirit is independent, not everyone in the passage received the Holy Spirit at the same time. Perhaps it was immediate for some, but the text doesn’t claim with certainty that it was universally immediate.
As the story of Acts continues, we learn about the witnesses of this miraculous event. Clearly, they did not receive the Holy Spirit in that moment. They even criticized those who experienced the Pentecost event, saying that they were “filled with new wine.” Later in the story, even these folks get to have their encounter with the Holy One.
So, whether we identify with the immediate group in Acts, the delayed group, or the group that first criticized, the point is that everyone at some point encountered the living God. They might have had intellectual or emotional barriers in their way, but they were ultimately open to receiving the unique work of the Holy Spirit.
If you are having these intellectual roadblocks in your pursuit of an encounter with the divine, know this: you’re not alone. Many people right now are experiencing the same thing, and I bet many of the biblical authors did as well. As our society progresses and postmodernism and pluralism become the hallmark of our religious landscape, I believe that the intellectual barriers between humanity (particularly Western, First World humanity) and God will increase in intensity. To counter this notion, I think and sincerely believe that if we remember God’s faithfulness in our lives, and constantly remind ourselves of that gratitude, then these intellectual barriers can be conquered. God is greater than our intellectual barriers – and our worship is a response to God’s goodness, to God’s in-breaking in our lives, and God’s activity in this world. May we constantly remind ourselves of this. Let’s worship, y’all!