On Church Shopping

Moving to Aberdeen has meant that I have had to find a new church to join. Having worked in a church for years, I can spot the church-shoppers. They often want continuity with what they were used to and they sometimes want a change from their normal routine but the main thing is they want a Sunday service that services their perceived needs.

I am he.

I think I have found the church I will join in Aberdeen. It is not Presbyterian. It is not sufficiently Catholic for my theological commitments. It doesn’t share Eucharist every week and when it is done, it is tragically casual. They meet in a school, not a vaulted cathedral. Their leaders are not wise old people, schooled in the art of prayer over decades but folk younger than me, bearing the markings of their generation in the form of prominent tattoos.

I could go on for a thousand words about the things that I find difficult about the church that I will almost certainly join. That is my natural inclination. Instead, as of today, I will try to discipline myself and cite instead the things that are in their favour. Women teach and lead. They haven’t mentioned how British Christians are “persecuted” or how there is a thing called a “gay agenda” or even hinted that they doubt the Earth is 4 billion years old.

More importantly again, they are sincere. And they seem to love God and want to love each other. They don’t approach the pursuit of justice the way that I would, but justice in the social sphere matters to them and they don’t just talk about it. They welcome difference, at least as evidenced by the undramatic presence of a disabled teenager whose groaning attempts at song are more beautiful than the choir I heard in an Anglican cathedral a fortnight ago.

My wife is a prison chaplain and they have a thriving prison ministry. I am a preacher and they do their best to actually engage with the text. And they are the closest church to our house.

But even with all these good things going for them and with my sincere desire to discipline my thoughts away from consumeristic church, there is one thing that remains very problematic for me: the “worship”.

In the kind of low Protestant church that we are dealing with here, “worship” is the dreadfully inappropriate word used to describe the music that the congregation sings on Sundays. There is a global industry dedicated to the creating, crafting, recording and distribution of “worship” music for sale to churches like this around the world. That alone ought to be sufficient to prompt a serious theological reconsideration. But the songs that are written and then performed almost always tend to be in the first person and to deal vaguely with human experience.

There were about eight songs in the course of yesterday’s service. Seven of them were written primarily from the perspective of an individual. One song, which was an old hymn updated, was written with God as the topic addressed. The best of the seven Me Me Me songs was a new one from one of the titans of the global worship music industry, Matt Redman.

It is a slick product.

Let’s get past that. It tells no lies against the historic declarations of Christianity. It has serious merit. For one thing, it can be sung by people who don’t have good voices. Secondly, it can be learned by people not used to committing things to memory. Thirdly, it can be read by people with low levels of literacy, including children.

We can even say that it is brave. It explicitly deals with the topic of death and directs a contemporary audience to consider the worship of a God who is going to let them die. This is theologically fruitful and culturally bold.

If you visit one of a hundred thousand churches around the world next Sunday and find yourself faced with this song, you’ll sing Verse 2:

You’re rich in love and You’re slow to anger
Your name is great and Your heart is kind
For all Your goodness I will keep on singing
Ten thousand reasons for my heart to find

What does the word “heart” mean in the final line?

If it went, “Ten thousand reasons for my mind to find” it would scan slightly less well but innoculate the singers against anti-intellectualism. But instead the gifted team who put this together went for a word that means nothing and everything to everybody. Heart obviously doesn’t refer to the organ in the human chest that is incapable of finding. It may be a secular-age version of soul, but there is ambiguity about whether the singers think of the soul as a component of the self or the equivalent to the self. Heart was a concept that was at work in the communities that composed the Bible but their anthropologies were very different from ours and aren’t straightforwardly compatible.

I get that worships songs focus their attention on us. We are interested in us! I get that they make declarative statements that I feel uncomfortable about because people want to feel intensely and strong words induce that. But why do they use words with some ill-defined meaning and why do we so rarely recognise that what we’re singing is formally meaningless?

I’ll go back to church on Sunday. I’ll have a better attitude. I’ll know the songs better, feel more at home and before long have settled in so that I don’t think to notice these things anymore. But in the meantime, my HEART longs to know why we use short words no one understands.

Your Correspondent, Here he is, in a sewer eating pizza with 3 other dudes

3 Replies to “On Church Shopping”

  1. I think when people sing the word “heart” they have a fair idea what they’re talking about: their “inner core”, “emotions”, “unseen self”, symbolised by the organ. The word, “soul”, however, which is found in the chorus, is much more confusing. I think if you asked 10 people in church to define “heart” they would give reasonably similar definitions, but if you asked them to define “soul” I think you would get a much wider variety.

    The problem is that these word – heart, soul, mind – are all found in the formulation of the greatest commandment. We have to use them, and yet our use of them probably obscures what is being commanded of us. Is this where good preaching/theology can help, or do you want to abandon these words in favour of something less wishy-washy?

    Also, I have been reading Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, and am wondering what you think of his “heart-centred” (as opposed to mind-centred) anthropology? He even gives a defense of Jesus-is-my-boyfriend worship music. Is he defending the indefensible, or is there – in light of some of the intimate, personal, even erotic psalms and poetry in Scripture – a case to be made for them?

  2. Talking with the Methodist minister Brent White on Twitter earlier today I confessed “I just am in a surly bad mood with CCM at the moment. Forgive my snark.”

    I think Smith’s book is fascinating and compelling. I wrote him a letter once. He didn’t write back. 🙁

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