Should worship be tragic?

A Presbyterian writes in First Things magazine about worship and tragedy. The column will elicit defensive reactions, I suspect, from those who love praise worship, but I think the piece sounds an important note in our conversation about the meaning of worship.

One quote I thought hit the nail on the head:

Yet human life is still truly tragic. Death remains a stubborn, omnipresent, and inevitable reality. For all of postmodern anti-essentialism, for all the repudiation of human nature, for all the rhetoric of self-creation, death eventually comes to all, frustrates all, levels all. It is not simply a linguistic construct or a social convention. Yet despite this, Western culture has slowly but surely pushed death, the one impressive inevitability of human life, to the very periphery of existence.

And here:

Of all places, the Church should surely be the most realistic. The Church knows how far humanity has fallen, understands the cost of that fall in both the incarnate death of Christ and the inevitable death of every single believer. In the psalms of lament, the Church has a poetic language for giving expression to the deepest longings of a humanity looking to find rest not in this world but the next. In the great liturgies of the Church, death casts a long, creative, cathartic shadow. Our worship should reflect the realities of a life that must face death before experiencing resurrection.



2 thoughts on “Should worship be tragic?

  1. John, this is a good post about a good article. How do people who are experiencing tragedy perceive a worship service that implies “good Christians” are always upbeat and in the mood to praise God? Does pure praise equip us for the dark nights of the soul that are pretty common experiences? In worship and in preaching, we need to be careful to present the depth of the faith and the Christian life. We certainly should not imply that the faithful are not afflicted and its converse that all afflictions are caused by unexamined sin. I have seen such simplistic theology hurt people deeply.

  2. When worship is “Spirit-led” and spontaneous (as some of the worship experiences of early Methodism were) rather than planned and controlled by professional worship leaders as most of today’s American church services are, then the full range of emotion can be touched in deep ways. Lament and repentance may find a place. People may groan out-loud as they long for God’s assurance of salvation; sometimes a congregation may be led to break out in spontaneous praise. One of my favorite moments in Wesley’s journal was when he recorded that the entire congregation suddenly burst out in praise with the “Te Deum”. (I believe that was at one of the New Year’s Eve Covenant Renewal Services, but I am not sure.)

    I am disturbed by the one-dimensional character of our “worship” services, which are generally designed as entertainment. If the Holy Spirit is allowed to take control of our gatherings, worship may take on a surprising and even scary richness for us.

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