A few days ago I commented on my concerns about the handling of the Bible in churches and the problems associated with merely displaying passages on a screen or notice sheet. An interesting conversation ensued, but with the usual ‘either-or’ assumptions about what I was querying. Yes, different people need different approaches, but questions remain about the use of the text itself in public worship and what effect the medium has on the message itself.
This morning I was with friends in an urban church in a tough area of South London – a church that has grown in just over three years from an average congregation of 15 to one of around 80. This morning the congregation was over 80 and multiethnic – a wonderful place in which the church is growing a worshipping and serving community. When I licensed the vicar there I had no idea if it would work or not – and I feared the challenge and stress might damage the vicar. This morning I felt very close to tears witnessing such an encouraging community worshipping and belonging together, reaching out in welcome to newcomers.
During the service I was reflecting further on the phrase I used in my earlier post: ‘liturgical osmosis’. I had questioned whether people learn the faith (and the Bible) merely by absorbing some of it during disconnected services, but without realising it. I was urging a more serious approach – after all, I would be rightly suspicious if my children went to school and the teacher simply hoped that something of a disconnected discourse might either accidentally or incidentally enable the child to learn – for example – to read or count or learn grammar. We expect teachers to take ‘learning’ seriously and teach in such a way as to make learning more rather than less likely.
However, I want to redress the balance a little by urging that ‘liturgical osmosis’ be taken as seriously as other forms of ‘deliberate’ learning/teaching. We are constantly absorbing not only sensations and feelings, but ideas and constructs that impact on and shape our mindset and, therefore, our behaviour.
For example, this morning we sang that unfortunate song, O let the love of God enfold you. Why unfortunate? The chorus line asks God to ‘come and fill your lambs’ – but doesn’t say what with. Sage and onion stuffing?! It is a very odd line to sing without feeling weird. So, why do we keep singing it – especially when the post-resurrection Jesus enjoins Peter to ‘feed’ and ‘tend my lambs/sheep (John 21), but not to ‘fill’ them?
Perhaps a better example of what I am saying can be seen in the great Easter song we used to sing a lot in my church when I was a vicar in Rothley, Leicestershire: Graham Kendrick‘s In the tomb so cold they laid him. The first verse goes like this:
In the tomb so cold they laid him, death its victim claimed; powers of hell, they could not hold him – back to life he came.
Nothing wrong with that, you might think. Except, of course, that Jesus did not come back to life. As Paul puts it, ‘God raised Christ from the dead’. But if you keep singing about ‘coming back to life’, it isn’t too long before you are thinking at a subliminal level that when we die we simply come back to life. We don’t. Christian hope/trust is rooted not in an outcome, but in a person: that if God raised Christ from death, so will he raise us also. The rest is detail.
As Tom Wright has noted many times, Christians are really confused about death, resurrection, heaven, ‘spirituality’ and the cosmos, etc and slightly dodgy songs don’t help. Wesley noted that we learn our theology from what we sing rather than from what we read or hear in a sermon. Or, to put it more bluntly: sing rubbish and you’ll believe rubbish.
So, those who are responsible for leading worship carry a great weight of responsibility in terms of both content (theology) and form (the choice of medium). Perhaps more is going on than sometimes the quick choice of songs or hymns might suggest.
In other words, the content of what we believe/assume is shaped by what we red/sing/hear/imbibe – which means that the message cannot be divorced from the various media in which it is represented.