Worship is tricky business.  It is at the heart of the Christian life, and was important enough for God to give detailed instructions as to the appropriate manner, location, and form for worship in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.  But worship itself, while properly focused on giving honor and praise to the divine, is also an anthropological undertaking.  As such it has always been governed to some degree by tastes, aesthetics, fads and the biases of those who participate or lead.

Transfiguration by Fra Angelico

Transfiguration by Fra Angelico

That the concerns modern Christians have about worship are not new is evidenced by the fact that many of the concerns of today are foreshadowed by the words of St. John Chrysostom, who as patriarch of Constantinople dealt with a congregation and populous no less cosmopolitan than those we deal with today.  Chysostom’s concerns include the perennial issue of irregular church attendance, but:

Irregular attendance at worship is not the only blight upon the life of the churches. Many regular worshipers at the two hour-long services enter with ostentatious displays of devotion, ritually washing their hands and stooping to kiss the porch as though, says Chrysostom, “constant churchgoing” in itself is the heart of religion.  Once inside, they employ exaggerated “gestures of body and loudness of voice” to display their devotion, some even “throwing themselves prostrate and striking the ground with their foreheads.” During seasons of fasting, many who do not observe the required discipline  still “where the masks of those who fast,” lest they be accused of impiety, and they ensure that they are seen at the “vigils and holy hymn singing” associated with great festivals. Such people, complained Chrysostom, “surpass the hypocrisy” of the Pharisees, and since they act “merely out of vanity,” the voluble prayers which issue from their “unwashed mouths” have no “earnestness or inwardness” and simply serve to annoy those around them. 1

What this demonstrates is the tendency of worship to become more about us than about God.  The worship of Chrysostom’s day, which was ceremonial in nature, attracted those who desired their own ceremony in honor of the self, and so they entered with great pomp and circumstance.  There are still those in churches today who attend for the reason of being seen, to be thought of as the “right kind of person.”  And yet, I would say that this is a motivation that is fast losing its appeal for many people.  Folks simply don’t need to be seen at Church to “make it” in society circles any more.  In fact, being seen as a Christian might be seen as a detriment.  But there are still people attracted to our own sort of “pomp” in the form of entertainment.

Entertainment can, of course, come in many forms, but the commonality is this: one is not a full participant in that by which one is being entertained.  Instead, the individual becomes a consumer to whom a certain product, a particular sort of vicarious experience, is being sold.  This is not always  bad thing, but it is always bad–and even harmful–worship.

Once I have become a consumer of a particular sort of vicarious expereince, I can then become angry at anyone or anything that gets in my way of experiencing such a vicarious high.  Just as I might get angry at the obnoxious person whispering on their cell phone in the movie, I suddenly find myself angry at the energetic two-year-old or suddenly grumpy infant two rows ahead of me or a few seats behind at my mega church.  As a result, I choose to exercise my right to complain, “who let those kids in here?!?”, and the cheif entertainer, for fear of loosing his or her audience enacts a rule:

Suffer the little children?

Suffer the little children?

“No children under 2 years of age allowed in the sanctuary.”  The first time I saw this sign I was attending a seminar and I did a double-take.  What kind of church, I wondered, purposefully excludes children from their worship?  Why would they do it?  Why would they exercise such presumption, such hubris?  I finally decided that several things, none of them good, could be be opperative in such a decision:

  • They don’t believe that children can worship (meaning that they have an impoverished understanding of faith, worship and childhood development)
  • They don’t believe that children should worship with the adults (meaning that they have bought into modernist educational constructs that don’t really have a place in the Church)
  • They’ve forgotten what worship really is.  What they’re doing is actually not worship and is instead some sort of entertainment experience.

Intentionally excluding from Christian worship those who are, by their place in life or due to disability, sometimes distracting only makes sense in the context of worship that has ceased to be worship of the Almighty and has instead become entertainment and worship of the self in some way.  Worship is intended to be reverential precisely because it is always about God rather than us.  Sometimes though, our desire is not that respect and honor be shown to God, but rather that others honor our pet peeves.  In worship, my personal needs should take a back seat to the obligation of giving God praise and to my spiritual need for formation within a community of believers, of all ages, stages and ways of life.  The Christian community, as my wife and I often discuss, can be compared to a bunch of rocks thrown into a rock tumbler–it’s only by knocking around together that our rough edges are removed.  For the record, I am not criticizing those congregations that give parents the option of child care, or children the option of their own service where their questions and concerns can take center stage as they grow and develop.  Instead, I am criticizing the idea that has taken root among some Christians that they somehow have a “right” to be free of the distractions of community.  Unfortunately for all of us, they have bought into a lie.

Recently I read an article in the local news paper and it highlighted this issue, using the very church that had hosted the seminar I attended as an example.  I thought it was interesting to read the article, because I could then see the rationale of the church leadership for myself.  So here it is:

The policy makes sense to the Rev. ________, pastor of  ___________ Church.“There is nothing in adult service for the 1-year-old or the 2 years,” he said. “It is not an age-appropriate ministry. And obviously little children distract a parent from paying attention in a service.”

And later on:

[He] wants parents to bring their children to church; he just doesn’t want them distracting the adults who are trying to listen to the sermon.”The purpose (is) to bring the children to Christ, not to an event or to the sanctuary,” he said.

Just to be right up front there are some major theological issues that separate this person’s perspective from my own (if you couldn’t tell already). For one thing, this congregation comes from a tradition that is very “word centered,” in the sense of emphasizing the sermon or “teaching” as the centerpiece of Sunday services.  That’s fair enough, I was raised in a tradition (Southern Baptist) that is very much a word centered, didactic tradition, and moved toward one that had a stronger sense of balance between the word (scripture lessons, sermon) and sacrament (Holy Communion), as well as a participatory understanding of worship (which is seen to encompass the whole service rather than one segment within it).  It would be unfair and somewhat beside the point for me to criticize this perspective solely from my own more sacramental understanding.  So let me simply say this.  One of the strengths of traditionally word centered expressions of the Christian faith has been their emphasis on the Christian Community.  This is why, for example, it’s incorrect to speak of Zwinglianism as being being completely non-sacramental.  In Zwingli’s understanding the emphasis is on the body of faithful people who experience transformation by the Holy Spirit.  So, I’m not trying to criticize this perspective because it doesn’t see Communion as something in worship for 1 or 2 year olds, even though I find it problematic.  Instead, I’m saying that the understanding of worship presented here has veered away from historic Christianity and has taken on too many of the trappings of modernism and an entertainment craving celebrity culture.

and finally:

Even though ___________ policy differs from most churches, [the pastor] said he’s had no complaints. When the church has a special event, kids of all ages are allowed to attend.  And besides, he said, most kids would rather play in the church’s two-story indoor playground.  “Once the kids go back there, we don’t have an issue anymore,” he said. “They don’t want to go to big church. They want to go to the playground.”

Too bad they’re probably forming adults that are doing the same thing.