Friday, September 3, 2010

Casually Worshiping God

After arriving, you grab your coffee at the church's coffee shop and take it with you into the worship space, often some sort of auditorium with a stage. Generic CCM is playing in the background as announcements flash across the screens. Small groups of people are standing conversing while others are finding their seats. Without much notice from the congregation, the music worship team comes up on the stage. As the band begins to play, the leader welcomes people to the church and encourages them to worship in whatever manner is comfortable for them. Following the music, everyone sits and listens to a relevant message.

The atmosphere is relaxed, informal, casual.

Are there evangelicals that worship differently than what I have just described, and who take their worship very seriously and reverently? Yes. But it hasn't been the trend, and it is no longer the norm. What I have described above, isn't just how some evangelicals, perhaps the more norminal attenders, happen to be approaching their worship of God. This is the environment that many evangelical churches today intentionally create, and take pride in doing so.

An example: Life Church claims over 26,000 weekly attenders at 13 campuses in 6 states, making it the 2nd largest church in the US. In the "What to Expect" section of it's website, it's first point is "casual atmosphere".

A Google search with "casual worship atmosphere" returns results of innumerable churches that also tout the casualness of their worship. One such less known church that came up had this picture and accompanying description on their home page:

"We are using the coffee illustration to best define who we are. When you think of coffee, you think of relaxing with friends and getting to know them better or enjoying the view over a steamy cup. That's how church should, relaxing, and all the while giving you the boost you need to go through the week! At our services you can expect extremely creative messages that are relevant to what's going on in your life. Our services are an hour and five minutes long with a casual dress code. It is a comfortable environment that easily fits into your life, yet provides you with a worthwhile experience."

Of course, many evangelical churches that do not self-describe themselves as casual on their website nonetheless worship in the same manner.

The problem, I hope, is obvious: there is nothing casual about worshiping the Almighty God of the universe.

Let us compare what the Catholic Church expects of it's worshipers.
The sanctuary is truly that - a sacred place. The most prominent feature of the room, front and center, is a representation of Jesus on the cross. On the side walls hang the Stations of the Cross. You enter the sanctuary silently, or at least quietly, crossing yourself with holy water as a reminder of your baptism. You genuflect before entering the pew out of reverence. Once you reach your seat, you kneel to pray in prepration for the Mass. In some Catholic Churches, a speaker will welcome the congregation prior to the start of Mass and ask everyone to take a moment to silently prepare their hearts and minds. The Mass that follows is orderly and specific, and has both standing and kneeling at various points to show special respect. And it all culminates in the profound reception of the Body of our Lord.

In other words, the worship is reverent and serious.

Do all Catholics approach Mass as reverently as they should? Sadly, no, though many do apporach Mass reverently. But however imperfectly, reverence is for what the Church strives. And it is not just an abstract ideal that is recommended; it is built in to every aspect of the ritual of the Mass.

Because there's nothing casual about worshiping God.


  1. "Are there evangelicals that worship differently than what I have just described, and who take their worship very seriously and reverently? Yes. But it hasn't been the trend, and it is no longer the norm."

    It's not just evangelicals. A lot of the "mainline" historically liturgical churches -- Methodist, Lutheran, Anglican, etc -- have gone casual. A lot of Lutheran churches I've visited and been involved with in the past decade or so have (usually mediocre) worship ensembles. Gone is the great classic hymnody of the Lutheran tradition. A lot evangelical Anglican churches too. Then there's a UMC Methodist church I drive by every now and then that has "Casual Worship" on its sign. I've always thought that that's a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron.

    Of course, while *in theory* Catholic worship should be and more or less usually is how you describe it, there are many, many many Catholic parishes whose masses are just dreadful, singing the cheesiest of tunes from the 70s and 80s, with lyrics shallow at best and heretical at worst (Ashes -- "We create ourselves anew", for instance).

  2. Nice Post. When I was on pilgrimage to Lourdes one of my fellow pilgrims asked our directer, "Why do we use Gold Chalices?" The director answered in the clearest of terms... "Because the best we can give to God is the least we can give to God."

    When we buy into the notion that God accepts us as we are, so therefore lets just remain who we are is a minimalist approach and it completely runs contrary to the effects of Grace on the person. Those who worship God formally actually have to prepare, and this preparation can be of use to dispose them to receive more grace.

  3. I agree with you here. The one thing I miss about Mass is the time you can spend on your knees before it starts. I used to get there 10-15 minutes early just to settle my soul. It is difficult to make the transition from "normal" life to worship.

    There's a tenet in Benedictine monasticism that sets a very firm line between what can be done in the oratory and what cannot. All in the name of the sacredness of the space.

  4. Nice post. I haven't ever been in an evangelical service, so I didn't really know that about most of them. As a Cradle CAtholic, and having attended Mass and worshiped in a variety of Catholic parishes, I am sometimes saddened at the level of casual-ness I see among Catholics. I no means...the most reverent person (I have small children, after's sometimes difficult to be the least bit reverent as I wish)...but sometimes it's the lack of effort I see that really disturbs me. It's good to reflect on this regularly, I think and make adjustments where necessary.

  5. Speaking as a pre-Vatican 2 Cradlecat, when I was little there was no such thing as a casual Mass. When such things began to sprout up it was very disconcerting.

  6. kkollwitz,
    you should refer to yourself as a Pre-Vat Cradle-Cat
    also, good point

    everyone, thanks for your comments! good thoughts

  7. I agree. I'm still trying to understand why people have drifted into a belief that informal, spontaneous, or casual services are somehow more genuine. I believe they come to be entertained, and it's a problem that services have come to be seen by some people as a place to be entertained. I'm sure it also has something to do with the pretty prevalent belief that "we don't really need organized religion anymore; it's just a bunch of irrelevant old rules", too. (I hear this a lot, though when I explain my reasons for believing what you said, that worship is "reverent and serious", they tend to agree with me.)

    I hope you don't mind if I include a quote that I once read:

    "God [is] the king of kings of kings—for the Roman and Iranian emperors were kings over many kings, but God is king of them all. When the Israelite approaches God in prayer, he comes before the ruler of the universe, the king of the world...Now a man does not approach a king lightheadedly or thoughtlessly, but in accord with the protocol and procedures of the court. This is how you honor the king, express your submission to him. So the careful consideration of the order of prayer expresses through the close analysis of the traditions and reasons of that order an attitude of profound reverence for God and of seriousness in prayer." -Jacob Neusner, "Invitation to the Talmud", p. 41

  8. The story of Jesus' ministry as reported in the Gospel is one of several informal gatherings (i.e. Sermon on the Mount, dinner with the tax collectors...) His message was one of inclusion of all without normal human pretense of pomp and circumstance. Isn't a casual service held in this spirit shared in the Gospel?

  9. "Pre-Vat Cradle-Cat"

    I shoulda thought of this.

  10. Anon,

    Great comment. Christ's Sermon on the Mount and his dinners aren't examples of Christian Sunday Sabbath keeping worship.

    His message was definitely inclusion of all who were willing to repent, but I'm not sure how that means that we should worship God in a casual manner.

    To see how seriously we should take our worship, see 1 Corinthians 11 where Paul says that people in Corinth are becoming sick because they are not celebrating the Lord's Supper properly.

  11. I'm trying to imagine Jesus worshiping at a casual service...either in his lifetime, or ours.

  12. Just noticed a typo in your headline... causually isn't a word. (Delete this comment when you see it)

  13. So what's your stance on what I guess I would call "contemporary Mass"? I attend a Novus Ordo Mass on a college campus, and while the Mass is celebrated in a reverent manner (or as reverent as Norvus Ordo can be, depending on your views), the music used is contemporary. The traditional parts of the Mass (the Gloria, etc) have been given new scores to be more contemporary, and then instead of traditional hymns, we sing Matt Redman and the likes.

    I'm personally on the fence about it. On one hand, it's nice to see so many of my peers being less timid in their singing, since they may know the songs, be more comfortable with the beat, etc. And I happen to enjoy some of those new scores - they bring a dynamic to the singing I can't seem to find at other Masses. But on the other hand, I feel the Church shouldn't lower her standards, not to mention that hymns usually have a more powerful message than what you get in CCM.


  14. I don't think God cares if you wear pajamas or a suit to service.

    I don't think I need to partake in certain rituals to prove my devotion to God. The intensity of my devotion and love to God cannot be measured by the routine actions of a service.

  15. I think what matters is what peoples hearts are like when they go to worship God. It doesn't matter if they drink coffee and are casual, that just means they feel comfortable there. It matters if they are there for God, and not just to appear spiritual.

  16. But where is a person's heart if they are specifically approaching their worship of God in a casual way? Worship of God is serious business.

  17. @Anon

    I suspect God may not care about what you wear. However, I look at it this way: Christ died on the cross for me, and my time spent worshiping is what little I can give back, although it will never be enough. Taking the time to dress up for Mass is just a little more I can do to show my love. There are times when I'm traveling and it may not work out, and it'll be jeans and a nicer shirt, or during daily Mass I don't always look my best, but I'm OK with that, because it does happen, and He understands, as long as it's the exception and not the rule.

  18. I really don't think "casual" and "reverent" are mutually exclusive.

    I have found that when I take things less seriously (be more casual) I am more in awe of God's power and love (I am more reverent). For instance, when I care less about my appearance in mass I judge others less on theirs. I am able to see people through God's eyes, the good and the bad, without judging.

    And I am able to remind myself of the times when I might have appeared irreverent when I wasn't - times when I had the choice to leave mass after Communion or not go to mass at all, and chose to go and leave after Communion. I think God would prefer a building full of people in pajamas drinking coffee as their method of worship over people giving up on God.

    I think it's good to remember that every person on Earth is a unique individual, and connects to God in a different way. Catholic mass just doesn't work for everybody, it's spiritually draining to them, or is just plain boring. It's not to me, but it is to them, and that's fine by me. I'd prefer they find a form of worship that brings them closer to God than abuse themselves in a form of worship that makes them feel like crap about God.

  19. I think Carla said it perfectly.


    I don't mean to pick a fight, but I just fail to see how spending time to dress nice for mass shows God how much I love Him and how much I appreciate all He has done for me.

    While I think it is great that you choose dressing nicely as another way to express your love to God, in my opinion, I think people spend too much time in picking out what they're going to wear to mass and getting ready for it. I personally feel most people worry over what to wear more because of their fellow mass goers...not because they want to look good for God.

  20. Yes, God would rather have a church full of Mass goers in their PJ's rather than an empty church and if a Protestant service brings them closer to Christ then a Catholic Mass then that is where they are in their journey right now. Yes, it’s what is in their hearts that matter most, but don’t we show what’s in our heart on the outside? If you love your spouse do you treat him/her with respect? If you value something don’t you take care of it? If you love God – don’t you give Him your best?

    All of you writing posts seem to be or at least I would like to think are "enlightened" to the fact that God is THE God of the universe – that He is Almighty and Powerful and has died on the cross for you and your sins. We owe Him everything!!!!!

    Are you telling me that you can't get out of bed a half hour earlier and put on a shirt that is ironed and comb your hair? I want to ask you if you were scheduled to visit the king of England, the president of the USA, or even the Pope - would you not take the time to maybe wear something nice? If you go to a wedding, don't you dress up?

    So then the God of the universe does not deserve the same respect?

    Yes, I have gone to Mass not looking so well, and I know it will happen again in my life, probably tomorrow. I don't plan to make it a habit though. Somedays, I’m just lucky to make it there! God knows what we have to deal with every day of our lives, He knows that our lives can spiral out of control - but He also knows when we don't give our best and put Him second, third, or even last!

    I personally find Protestant services very superficial, if I want to hear Christian music I’ll listen to the radio, when I’m at church I want to hear songs that are from Scripture like the hymns and Psalms! I don’t want my ears tickled; I want my heart to be moved!

    Love your blog Brantley - I don't care what the purpose is - they are good!


  21. Hey Brantly,

    While I think there is relevance in your point that people are not worshipping God with reverence, I don't think that this is uniquely an Evangelical thing. I think it is a humanity - thing. I think that even those who walked with Jesus, took it for granted that they were walking with the Son of God. They turned away repeatedly and I think frequently lacked the “serious” nature of worshipping our God. It’s the struggle of humanity, who in their sinful nature, have hearts that are prone to worship things other than the only One worthy.

    I agree that there are definite benefits to the structure of a Catholic Mass. However, I think there is danger in saying that if people do not go through these same rituals, they are not reverent or serious. I do not think that seriousness requires a certain set of motions. It may assist some people in getting them in the right mindset, but it is not required in order to offer worship. I think that to say so, would make our God very small! I have been to many Catholic services where people show up every week, fulfill their “duty” by going through these empty motions, and feel like they have done their part. They may have their “Sunday Dress” on, but that does not mean that they have submissive or worshipful hearts. I think that a danger with Catholicism is that people do tend to switch the emphasis from authentically worshipping the Lord, in whatever state of mind they are, to doing works to gain the right status with God. I think this results in a lot of “dead” hearts towards God, and a lot of empty actions (such as the ones you mentioned above).

    I wonder…if you’re going to go the route of addressing the issue of church dress….where do you draw the line? I mean sure, one may wear khakis and a collared shirt, or a nice skirt…and yet – that is not their best! They could be wearing a tux, and a gown! Surely God is worthy of their BEST! Is the woman who wears an ballroom gown more serious about her worship than the woman wearing a trendy skirt? And the trendy skirt more so than the woman wearing jeans? I don’t see this line of thinking being very purposeful. Rather than assuming that one’s reverence/respect of God is shown in their dress…I think the more important issue at hand is where the heart it. As cheesy as that sound, 1 Samuel does say that the Lord sees our heart, not simply our outward appearance. He desires for us to come and offer him our praise, worship, etc. as we are. If wearing nicer dress helps to put someone in a more reverent state of mine, than that person should do so, but if for some it distracts, then they should not. We are not cookie cutters going to church. We are a diverse body, with all different relationships with God! There is beauty in that!

    You said in another post “Why don’t Evangelicals confess?” You’re referring to confession as a once a week activity, done to a pope. However, I know many Evangelicals that do confess, daily, in their personal communication with God, in their accountability with one another, etc. Therefore, I think that as far as God sees, they do confess their sins, it just may not look like the ritual that it does in the Catholic church.

    Anyway, this is long. But those are my immediate thoughts ☺ And I enjoy reading yours. Thanks for making me think.

  22. Be careful how you judge people's hearts by the environment that we create in our services. The link on this post is to MY church. My husband and I started it four years ago and it is a church that holds a high reverance for God. I think God is more concerned with critical hearts than a cup of coffee in the service. We love Jesus with everything in us at and see people saved, baptized, and CHANGED all of the time. Let's focus on what matters and not get caught up in criticism for a church that you've never even attended.

  23. I agree with Stacy! We love Jesus at our church & are very reverent and honoring to God!!!
    It is very easy to take something out of context and not understand the illustration correctly. We use the coffee illustration to show people that they can have a personal relationship with Jesus! We might get them in the door with coffee but they come back because of their love of God!!

  24. Hi. Interesting post. I was brought up Baptist in the South and I have to say that the first time I wore jeans to church, I went to mass with friends. Nobody did anything with holy water. Everybody was quite casually dressed. I didn't think that the people whose church I visited were irreverent. I just thought they wore casual clothing to mass. I think the same thing applies to Protestants.