Treasuring the Presence of God in Liberty image

Treasuring the Presence of God in Liberty

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One of the great shifts in western society since (and to a large extent because of) the Second World War has been the move to informality. The pace of this change has accelerated with the decades and even compared to when I was growing up in the 70s & 80s the world we live in is remarkably less buttoned up. Manners are less formal (the use of first names by strangers, salesmen and doctors is now the norm – though I thought the informal had met its most dreary nadir when my gas supplier asked for my ‘friendly name’. I told them it was Mr Hosier). Dress codes are way more relaxed (and very definitely less buttoned up). Deference towards those in authority and those who are older is no longer a given. A lot could be said about the pros and cons of this informality (and I think there are both) but here I want to confine the discussion to our approach to worship.

The church has largely mirrored society in its move to the informal. Pastors rarely get called ‘Mr’ anymore. Jeans are worn even in more traditional churches. ‘Worship bands’ have largely replaced organs. As I’ve argued before, it is easy to get the cart and horse confused on this one – we might think we have become less formal in our churches from theological conviction when in reality it can have far more to do with general shifts in culture. This can make it challenging to discern what genuine liberty looks like in worship.

Certainly I have been in worship settings which gave the impression of great freedom – worship settings a million miles away from formal liturgy and decorous behaviour – but about which I’ve not been sure if what was being displayed was true spiritual liberty or simply extreme informality.

Spiritual liberty and informality are different. Spiritual liberty is an actual experience of freedom. This is illustrated in the history of Israel: when the exiles in Babylon were told to sing the songs of Zion they could not because they were not free (Ps 137:3-4). This was in contrast to Israel’s earlier experience of the exodus, when Moses could not keep himself from singing (Ex 15), because the people were now released from slavery.

Christian liberty is an experience of freedom from slavery and truly liberated Christian worship will reflect this, not least in the content of the songs we sing. Enthusiastic singing of songs with great melody but little content is informality, not spiritual liberty. I’ve been in settings like that – the same songs with little if any meaningful content sung over and over. At first it might look free, but in reality it isn’t any more meaningful than the freedom experienced at any exciting gig. Real liberty focuses on what we have been set free from and for; it cannot be content-less.

This means that church elders need to take responsibility for the worship in their churches. Elders should check the content of the songs being sung and check that the worship leaders know what they are doing. It is too easy to delegate worship leading to anyone who can play a guitar, without checking they understand how to lead a congregation into the liberty of truth.

Liberty in worship means focussing on truth in the presence of the Spirit. Often informality can help in this: it really is easier to worship freely when there is freedom to engage the body as well as the mind. I’ve been in more conservative settings with rousing singing where the desire to then express the emotions stirred is palpable, but to shout or clap or raise a hand is forbidden. This is deathly! Informality can help bring liberty, but informality on its own is very far from being enough.

Focussing on truth in the presence of the Spirit is also a pastoral necessity. As we do so the congregation learns about their place in Christ, and is lifted out of the distracting realities of life. Our congregations come together with parents distracted about their teenage kids, and people worried about their aging parents, and with those carrying financial worries. What those in these situations need to hear and proclaim is the message of freedom form slavery! We need to proclaim and experience genuine liberty together, not just informality.

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