This is the third installment in my series on middle Isaiah, so if you have not read the first two, I encourage you to do so. That will provide the necessary background for what I want to convey in this post.
One of the necessary, although frustrating, statements that needs to be made anytime an entire group of people is discussed is that in doing so the author must depend upon generalities. So, in this post I am going to be making some general observations about the Churches of Christ in the United States, and invariably someone is going to be able to say, “That is not my experience at all!” To which I will say, “Great! I am glad that you have not had the experiences that I have had, and that you can see things from an entirely different point of view.” But, I cannot see things from eleventy-billion different sets of eyes, so what you will read below is my observations based on years of study and personal experience. As with every automobile commercial ever made – your mileage may vary. If the shoe fits, wear it, if not, find one that does.
What I can say from my experience and study is that the Churches of Christ, as a whole, are not a liturgical group of people. That is to say that our services are largely extemporaneous (although sometimes highly routine). We do not follow the lectionary readings, we do not follow the “church calendar,” and we most certainly do not have a hierarchical view of the priesthood v. the laity. This very decided “low church” atmosphere is even reflected in our architecture and interior building designs. Most congregations are housed in simple wood frame buildings, or if necessary, other very simple structures that, if the name outside were hidden, could be confused with a mortuary or a nursing home. “Ostentatious” is NOT a word that could frequently be used to criticize any of our buildings. Likewise, the interior of our buildings are almost exclusively utilitarian. We have no majestic arched colonnades, no awe-inspiring auditoriums, no sparkly stained glass windows, no lofty pulpits and certainly no jaw dropping organs or choir lofts. Most buildings in the congregations where I have served or worshipped have simple floor plans, and the auditoriums are sparsely decorated, save for a simple table that provides a place for the Lord’s Supper emblems, and a simple (although sometimes massive) pulpit for the preacher to hide behind (just kidding about that one!).
So what does our decidedly non-liturgical form and functionality have to do with middle Isaiah – and the points of emphasis I have made in the last two posts? I’m glad you asked, even if you didn’t.
I have often said, and even now repeat, that one of the greatest failings of the Churches of Christ – particularly in the late 20th and early 21st centuries – is that we have forgotten who we are. We have no sense of history – of our own and certainly not of the Christian church. It seems like for many decades we have tried to prove that we are so unlike everyone else that we have lost sight of Him who we should be like.
In a short, pithy little sentence, – we have forgotten who God is, and in so doing, we have forgotten who we are supposed to be.
Enter in middle Isaiah. In the middle section of this magisterial prophecy, Isaiah proclaims the word of God to a people who have not only forgotten him, but who have actively rejected him and who are following gods that are not gods – the idols. While making a show of being good Yahwists, those who believe in and worship the true God, these syncretists had created a religion that by all appearances was devoted to Yahweh the true God, but in all reality was simply a veneer to cover their real worship of human imagination, and more to the point, of human strength. They had created God in their own image, and would have nothing to do with prophets who tried, with all their might, to get them to return to the Holy One of Israel.
I really have no objections to being non-liturgical, and there is much to be said for having simple, utilitarian buildings. However, there is an insidious danger that is attached to both of those characteristics that I do not think we have cared to think about. When you minimize the truly awesome experience of coming into the presence of a holy God (by making the worship merely extemporaneous and by minimizing the glory of the meeting structure) you inadvertently and I would say quite unintentionally minimize the God to whom you are offering your worship. There were good reasons why the liturgy developed – and why the churches of the middle ages became such magnificent edifices. The Christians of these ages realized it was simply too dangerous to come into the presence of God without some structure, some careful guidance, about how to do so. They also realized, just as with David and Solomon, that the place where God met with man was to be a magnificent dwelling place – not that God was restricted to that place or that he lived only there. But, I believe they rightly understood that if we were going to invite God to meet with us and to feast with us – might we not want to make the meeting place just a little more important than our own homes? I’m not arguing for the kind of ornateness that makes you afraid to enter lest you get dirt on the floor. But I am suggesting that if all we offer to God is some ramshackle little building, then maybe our view of the awesomeness of God is just, well, ramshackle.
Anyway, I think the teachings that are encapsulated in the middle chapters of Isaiah indict the majority of congregations of the Churches of Christ. I think we are too flippant when it comes to worship, and I think our “low” view of our meeting places communicates something that we do not intend, and would actually actively deny. In a word, I believe we are too humanistic in our approach to worship. We do not have, nor do I think we attempt to create, an Isaiah 6:1-9 kind of experience when we “enter his courts with thanksgiving.”
The natural outgrowth of this lack of “awe” in our worship is seen when we promote humanistic approaches to solving all of our problems (the parallel of Isaiah’s compatriots sending down to Egypt for deliverance from the Assyrian hordes). If our God is simply too small to demand our finest and our best, then why not put our faith in politicians and in the Supreme Court justices? They do demand our allegiance! They do demand that we respect their power. Notice how majestic the House and Senate Chambers are? Notice the pomp and circumstance when the President enters the room? Most male members of many congregations cannot even be bothered to put on a nice dress shirt these days. “Come as you are” has now deteriorated into, “who cares what you look like, just wear whatever ratty old clothes that are in the bottom of your closet.” Try wearing those clothes in a courtroom. I’ve heard of judges throwing people out of their courtrooms because of inappropriate dress.
How can we claim to worship a Holy God if we treat him with less respect than we are called to give to a magistrate judge?
You see, middle Isaiah (along with Amos, and Micah, to say the least) has much to say to the 21st century Churches of Christ. I’m afraid not much of it would be pleasant, either.
We have forgotten who God is. We have forgotten who are are called to be. And we have forgotten who we are.
May we all ascend by climbing lower.