August 10, 2020

One Big Problem with Evangelical Worship

On his blog and Facebook timeline last week, Tim Challies posted the following picture and quote. In my opinion, it represents a point of view that is a constant problem for evangelical worshipers. Challies represents the new calvinist tradition, so the quote takes on a distinct cast, but other evangelical groups share a similar perspective, even though the specific requirement they place upon believers might be different.


The big problem this quote reveals might be labeled pietism. Evangelicals of all stripes tend to approach worship from a pietistic perspective. What I mean by this is that the emphasis falls on what believers bring to worship rather than on God’s actions in worship. In the end, this approach is about my piety or lack thereof. That’s what makes things really happen.

The quote from Donald Whitney clearly recommends this. It is the believer’s mindset that determines whether or not worship occurs. The burden falls upon each individual, therefore, to make sure his or her mind is right when worshiping in the sanctuary. If we sing without concentrating on God, then it is not worship.

Which begs the question, how fully must I be “thinking about God” in order for worship to occur? What percentage passes the test? How can I be sure I’ve thought hard enough, long enough, rightly enough to satisfy the requirement?

Other evangelical groups might stress something different. Perhaps it’s not so much a matter of “thinking about God,” but “experiencing God’s presence,” or “feeling the Spirit.” Perhaps in those churches it’s about people clapping or raising their hands, closing their eyes, swaying to the music, smiling, singing enthusiastically, dancing, speaking in tongues or expressing spiritual ecstasy in some other fashion. Maybe the emphasis is not so much on our thoughts, but on our feelings or certain specific experiences or spiritual manifestations that the particular community recognizes as evidence of “real” worship.

As one commenter last week wrote, “One old girlfriend said she left Evangelicalism . . . because she got tired of having to be excited all the time.” Excitement!!! is the requirement, apparently, in a lot of evangelical churches.

Is this really what coming before God in worship is about? Trying to work up the right thoughts and feelings? Making sure I don’t sully the divine presence with unworthy concerns and emotions that are weighing me down?

I don’t think so.

Burden-BearerI’m thankful I have a God . . .

  • who accepts imperfect sacrifices from distracted people whose minds are a thousand miles from where they should be on a Sunday morning.
  • who welcomes me into his presence through Christ even when I can’t sing or smile or lift my hands.
  • who hears my unspoken prayers, my fears, doubts, and laments, my unbelieving hesitations, and even my rebellious rants.
  • who doesn’t give a hoot if I fit in to the accepted patterns of “worship” some church community tries to impose on me, either through specific teaching or general peer pressure.
  • who simply invites us to come, we who are “weary and laden with burdens,” so that he might give us rest.

He invites us to a place where he speaks a Word so alive it can cut through the distractions, and even when it seems like it doesn’t, it still finds ways of doing its work in our lives.

He invites us to a table where he provides food that sustains the weary, worn out, and empty of heart, mind, and spirit.

Next time you’re in worship, whether you are singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” or some other hymn or praise song, go ahead, try to focus on God, who he is, what he’s done to bring newness of life to us all in Christ. Nothing wrong with that, and if you can do it, great. And if the song lifts your spirit and brings a rush of emotion or a manifestation of God’s presence in some special way, be thankful.

However, if you can’t stop thinking about your finances or your kids or something that upset you at work or all you have to do this week, don’t beat yourself up. You are still there, in worship, with God and with your brothers and sisters, many of whom are probably equally distracted and finding it hard to concentrate. And I have good news for you: God is still present and active. God will still speak to you. God will still feed you. God will still call what you are doing “worship.”

Pietistic expectations with regard to worship are cruel. They put the burden on us, rather than inviting us to come and have our burdens relieved by the One who never stops thinking graciously toward us.

Now that’s something to think about.


  1. Did you really, really, really mean it when you prayed this prayer and accepted Jesus into your heart?

    • Faulty O-Ring says

      But did your attention wander later, so you thought about something other than Jesus?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        (Of which the one who asks you that NEVER has.) Just another way to Count Coup in the game of Spiritual One-Upmanship.

    • I used to be quite terrified of that question.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        As does anyone who’s been sealed inside that Personal Salvation pressure cooker for any length of time.

        “Do You KNOW Where YOU Will Spend ETERNITY?????????”

    • If I could give my whole heart to God, I could redeem myself. And I’d wager that most of the time, when I think I’m thinking about God in worship or anywhere else, I’m actually thinking about an image of my own making rather than the living God.

      • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says

        If I could give my whole heart to God, I could redeem myself.
        Wow. That is so very well put.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      Does anyone else ever read this as an at least quasi-occultic approach to prayer? Like you didn’t really concentrate/focus with sufficient energy for your spell to work.

      I developed this feeling about prayer, especially prayer-chain type prayer, and started trying to bow out whenever politically feasible to do so. Sometimes if felt a lot like an incantation; like we were only a couple steps from joining hands in a circle and lighting candles.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Did you really, really, really mean it when you prayed this prayer and accepted Jesus into your heart?

      Like Wretched Urgency. And usually played as a form of One-Upmanship by those (unlike YOU) who Really Really Really Meant It.

      “Are You Sure? Are You Certain You’re Sure? Are You Sure You’re Certain You’re Sure? Are You Certain You’re Sure You’re Certain You’re Sure? Are You SURE You’re Certain You’re Sure You’re Certain You’re Sure?????”

      That way lies Madness. And Despair.

      • Brookbabbles says

        I suffered like this for years and still have a remnant of that thinking left. Old habits and emotions from early childhood. Now a rejoicing Lutheran but the devil still whispers…

      • ““Are You Sure? Are You Certain You’re Sure? Are You Sure You’re Certain You’re Sure? Are You Certain You’re Sure You’re Certain You’re Sure? Are You SURE You’re Certain You’re Sure You’re Certain You’re Sure?????””

        Uggghhh. Sorry HUG. Apparently you’ve had the affliction, too. How wonderful. All the downward spirals and the circular questions. Yippee.

        BTW, anyone who want to know the answer to the above questions, it is always ‘NO.’ Been there, tried that. Repeating the exercise doesn’t change anything.

        See, look at all the time I just saved you! 🙂 Now, run. RUN!

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          At Cal Poly Pomona in the late Seventies, the above “downward spirals and circular questions” were a known Witnessing(TM) tactic called “The Ressegue Regression”, taking every one of the victim’s answers (starting with “Are You SAVED?????”) and throwing it back in their face with “But How Do You KNOW You’re (fill-in-the-blank)?????” in an infinite regression until the mark ran out of reasons. Once all their assurance of salvation had been thus broken down, you pulled out your Bible and put another Sinner’s Prayer-reciting notch on it for brownie points at the Bema. I became a notch on half a dozen Bibles that way.

          • You must be freaking kidding…..tell me your kidding…you gotta be kidding…

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            No, I’m not. At least within whatever fuzzing of memory could have happened in the intervening 35 years. (And when you have a storyteller’s mind, you always have to figure that into the account.)

            “The Ressegue Regression” was my name for it, named for a big-name “Soul-Winner” in a local splinter para-church who DID use that tactic on me. Said local para-church was called “Studies in the Word of God” and was active on the Cal Poly Pomona campus roughly 1976-78. They did not seem to be affiliated with any larger group or organization (except possibly some local Fundagelical church) and their reputation was “More Navigator than the Navigators”.

            In retrospect, That’s what happens when you apply Entropy to Wretched Urgency and let it simmer for a while. A Wretched Urgency that’s already been supercharged by Rapture Fever (peak of Hal Lindsay’s fame) and the (local?) meme that the only thing that counts in Eternity is “How Many Souls Did You Save?” (Everything else was all gonna burn.)

          • Answer the bozo back with the right bible verse, like Jesus did with Satan.

            1 John 5:13, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”

            Then tell the bozo to go away, like Jesus did with Satan.

      • Desert Storm Libertarian says

        God is quite adept at stripping away the veneer of social piety, “Churchianity”, and drone-like denominational conformity, to peer in at our sin-soaked hearts with our carnal motives and determine who belong to Christ and who belong to Satan. “That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Romans 10:9. Game, set, and heaven-bound match!

      • Panda Rosa says

        “Are You Sure? Are You Certain You’re Sure? Are You Sure You’re Certain You’re Sure? Are You Certain You’re Sure You’re Certain You’re Sure? Are You SURE You’re Certain You’re Sure You’re Certain You’re Sure?????”
        After a while it starts to sound like SpongeBob: “Are you suuuure? Are you really suruuue? Are you really really suuuure? Are you really really really suuuuuure? Are you really really really really suuuuure?”

  2. Beautiful time of worship reading this – with an emotional response of tears, flooding my heart with gratitude for the good news for me!. Will finish by singing Holy, Holy, Holy – loud enough for the Lord to hear, but not loud enough to wake my neighbours. Thank you!

  3. It is rather ironic, as well, as new Calvinists blast pietism on a consistent basis.

    • From my experience, neo-calvinists blast the piety of emotions while promoting a piety of intellectual and attentional sincerity (the notion that you must be 100% focused on God in EVERYTHING you do, particularly WRT worship). I had several modern reprints of Purtian tracts about curing wandering attention in worship on my shelves during my sojourn in Neo-calvinism. Needless to say, the only practical effect they produced was more guilt.

    • No they don’t. SGM is Charismatic, which is a very pietistic “reach out with your feelings, Luke” sort of worship. Piper is an out-of-the-closet pietist. He believes emotional sincerity and fervency is essential for salvation. What Calvinists blast is emotionalism as a source of doctrine. They LOVE it as a source of assurance. Love for God is, according to R. C. Sproul, the evidence of election.

      The only exceptions are Mike Horton and Tullian Tchividjian (or however you spell it). They are genuinely critical of pietism because they have discovered and understand Law and Gospel. It’s just one of those things you can’t un-learn. …and of course, they are regularly accused of being closet Lutherans. Go figure.

      • For Lutheranism, the sign and sacrament of Baptism is the primary evidence and assurance of election, correct?

        • I believe so. But I think we mean something quite different by the word “election.” It’s more connected with being “in Christ” than being predestined.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Calvinist Pietism is yet another attempt by Calvinists to PROVE to themselves that they are among the Elect. Because with Total Depravity and Predestined Election, there is literally NO way to tell if YOU are Elect. So they have to whip up more-Elect-than-thou proofs to prove it to themselves. The Protestant Work Ethic (which after enough Entropy becomes the Prosperity Gospel — God will prove you’re Elect by making you rich). Perfectly-Parsed, Truly Reformed Theology. If you’re more the Pentecostal type, Tongues Tongues Tongues Signs & Wonders Tongues Tongues Tongues. Or, as Challies did in the poster that started all this, Are YOU Constantly Thinking of GOD GOD GOD GOD GOD? (I am, so that PROVES I’m Elect and You’re NOT.)

      And it eventually degenerates into one-upmanship games.

  4. Since when did neo-Calvinists put any merit on thinking?

    • The link you provided is a good illustration that Calvinists–neo or traditional–are not a monolith and should therefore not be painted with a broad brush stroke. This is also true of any other orthodox Christian tradition.

      But I have learned that it is easier to focus on the shortcomings of a particular tradition–even when such statements are inaccurate in the aggregate–than to be analytic in our opinions of others outside our own tradition. And it also makes us feel better about ourselves, perhaps even more pietist.


      • I would agree; however, this is why the problem with celebrity preachers cannot be isolated to their local church. They step onto a public forum like the internet and make statements representing their entire demography. It isn’t enough to point to diversity; someone has to stand up and say, “Call what you are preaching anything you want, but don’t call it Calvinism” (or fill in the blank).

  5. This blog piece is spot on.

    I immediately think of the “Desiring God” ministries.

    We quite often do not desire God. We are at heart, unbelievers…and we are basically determined to stay that way.

    And God KNOWS THIS about us…and is determined to love and forgive us…and to keep us in His faith.

    Not because of how we feel about Him…but in spite of it.

    • What if, at our core, we do desire God? What if being sinful is not natural, but we have rather become naturalized in the unnatural, since we were not created for such? Even the sinful desires that arise only show that I’m longing for something deeper, something bigger, something greater, something more glorious.

      As C.S. Lewis put it: “……it would seem that Our Lord finds our desire not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, we are like ignorant children who want to continue making mud pies in a slum because we cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a vacation at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

      • I see what you are saying. But that old sinner in us is bound in sin. And so the spiritual battle is on.

        The world, the flesh, and the devil on one side…and our Lord Jesus on the other.

    • Steve, please be aware that Desiring God ministries was founded and is led by John Piper. Therefore, since John Piper is on most everyone’s @#%$ list here, and a Calvinist to boot, you only invite criticism of both him and yourself by mentioning that there could be even a smidgen of good stuff coming out of DGM.


      • Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

        I have listened to many of Piper’s sermons. They are just dreadful. Filled with flowery language of the greatness of God and how you ought ‘feel’ that way about Him, too. But no relief for the real problem, that being that we so often don’t feel that way about Him…but about ourselves instead.

      • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says

        I don’t think that is fair, CC. Piper has said some really very unchristian things in the past few years, which many people find offensive on several levels. This has nothing to do with his Calvinism. Same thing with Mark Driscoll. In fact, I dare say Richard Baxter would have little to do with either one. On the flip side, Michael Horton is a calvinist, and I (and others here) appreciate him very much. But there can be no doubt that pietism is at the heart of DG. Maybe that works for some people; for my part, I find any inward-looking philosophy (be it pietism or any of a number of issues, Christian and otherwise) to be ultimately flesh-empowering.

  6. David Cornwell says

    When one ages it is likely that one or more permanent ailments goes with the body into a church on Sunday morning during the worship service. It is also likely that the week that has just been left behind burdens the mind and spirit in one or more ways. I take several medications on a regular basis for spinal stenosis. Sometimes my back or legs are hurting and the pills are making me drowsy. And so I am bringing my imperfect self into the house of God.

    Sometimes the worship service is not even conducted in a perfect manor (surprise!). The hymns might be poorly chosen. The pastor may preach a flawed sermon.

    So bringing the correct mental attitude may be very difficult. Yet there are prayers of confession. And words of assurance. And the Word of God is read and proclaimed, and sacraments are celebrated. We come in faith and worship God in spite of all that may be wrong. In fact that is one of the reasons I try to go each Sunday. I do not know why, but it changes my day, my week, and my life.

  7. Wow. That quote sums up so much of what I was taught growing up and I rarely questioned it. I’ve learned to let grace into so much of my life now, but never really thought about God’s grace in our praise and worship. Wow.

  8. Christiane says

    I have read that it is a good thing ‘to disappear into the Mass’ when praying the liturgy . . .

    I suppose ‘laying down our burdens’ can mean a way of finding that, in the liturgy, we may rest from the heaviness of being focused on ‘I, Me, and My’

    can this be refreshing?


  9. flatrocker says

    Thanks CM for this reminder.

    My voice will be raised this day …or not.
    My hands will be lifted this day …or not.
    My smile will beam this day…or not.
    My thoughts will soar this day…or not.
    For God is with me…this day.
    And that is enough.

    For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it. You will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise – Ps 51.

  10. This feels a little knee-jerk to me. You seem to be assuming a lot of things based on a simple FB meme and reading a lot into a pretty simple comment.

    The word “worship” is a verb as well as a noun. As a verb, it is something we do, right? How is that a problem to point out? How is it nefarious to suggest that you can be in church but not actually worshiping God? You seem to say as much when you talk about God being able to cut through our distractions. Even though we are not fully there, God sometimes grabs us. Doesn’t that imply even on your part a sense that people can be in worship but not be worshiping God?

    You would not object if someone said, “I had the TV on the news, but I was not really watching the news. because I was distracted by the argument my wife and I had just had.” There is nothing cruel in saying if you aren’t paying attention to the news you aren’t really watching it even if the TV is on in front of you.

    How many of us have had a discussion partner say, ‘You aren’t really listening to me” only to reply that we are distracted by something else.

    How is this different from “I was at church but I was not really worshiping because I was thinking about the bills.”

    You seem to be reacting to this fairly simple statement based on a network of other ideas that you assume are behind it.

    A couple years ago, I led a Sunday School which we looked at Christmas carols and talked about what the words actually said and meant. One old fellow told me afterward what a revelation it was because he had been singing those songs for 40 years and never really paid attention to what he was singing.

    I like to think that the next time he sang “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing” he was worshiping more deeply than he had before because he was not just doing a mechanical and mindless thing, but actually paying attention to what he was doing and saying as he sang.

    How is that “cruel”?

    • John, you’re right that it can be helpful to teach what the words of a hymn mean, or otherwise to encourage people to worship more effectively. But what Chaplain Mike wrote struck a chord with me. I’m seeing a pattern in some of the new-calvinist sentiment that has been showing up in my baptist church in the past couple of years. With it comes a pressure to feel guilty that one is not right with the Lord, or a pressure toward an elder form of government—and at the heart of it I’m suspecting a lust for power in the guise of doing the Lord’s will.

      I can’t prove it, and much of it may be subliminal or subconscious, with the proponents themselves innocent and unaware. It’s possible that they’re merely attracted to the latest theological fad. I do notice that they’re men, and involved in a men’s ministry, and that the style seems to be to encourage a more masculine Christianity. They might deny this, but the move is nevertheless to get men in the church to “step up” and “man up.”

      If this phenomenon hasn’t reached your church, thank God for that.

    • Richard Hershberger says

      What this comes down to is a discussion of what constitutes worship. The first time I attended an Evangelical service as an adult, at the invitation of my roommate, I came out trying to think of a delicate way to ask if that was all there was, and when would the actual worship service begin? (I concluded there was none, and made polite noises instead.) What I had seen there was not what I think of as Christian worship so much as the throat-clearing preparatory to Christian worship. But then again, I am an unregenerate Lutheran.

    • I think it’s a matter of intent of the message. It is true that to some extent music does need some attention paid to it to be worship. And some underlying conditions need to be met. For instance, I love old timey gospel music and I also love Christmas Carols. But I’m not a Christian and don’t believe the tenets of the religion. So clearly, when I’m singing from the Messiah or “Silent Night”, I am not worshiping in any meaningful sense of the word. Nor do I believe I’m worshiping when I’m learning “Queen of the Sabbath” or “Eyn Keloheinu” on my clarinet. However, when I make an effort to physically get my body to the shul and join my voice with my faith community, then I’m worshiping because my faith is a communal one. What I’m hearing in the comments is that Christianity is also a religion best expressed in community.

      So when you try to add in a little guilt to people who have already made an effort to actually be present, and who are, therefore, presumably well intentioned (no one other than the worship team and children must go to church), it does seem cruel. It seems, as others have noted, to be in a piece with are you 100% absolutely sure you are saved (Spencer talked about how he’d have to do cleanup duty among his flock after the revival show swept through). It’s laying heavy burdens on folks who are doing the best they can.

    • David Cornwell says

      It is impossible to come to church an empty one’s thoughts of everything else in the world. One’s physical ailments cannot be stacked at the door outside of church in order to bring the right attitude to God. Maybe I do have a huge medical bill that looms over everything else in my life. There are many reasons a person may not be able to “get in the spirit” of the service. Sometimes worship is not “heart warming” regardless of the emotional state the worship leader or pastor attempts at conjuring. I’ve seen these leaders stand up front and try everything possible to get people in the right frame of mind; from singing louder, to closing one’s eyes, to singing softly, to waving the hands, to dancing in the isles, to speaking in tongues, to crying and laughing, to singing five verses of a song. Even it they have value in worship they seldom change our worship readiness.

      I can’t remember coming to one single service in my life with my mind emptied of everything else. So am I to suppose that all those times worship has been a failure? I simply do not believe it. We come just as we are with all our humanity, flaws, feelings, and distractions. And God is still there.

      • David Cornwell says

        So much of what we have termed “worship” is based on personal subjectivism i.e. feelings of one sort or the other.

        • Does this not apply then to those who find something other than evangelical worship more to their taste?

          • David Cornwell says

            I see what you mean. But I’m talking about emotionalism in worship, where a certain state of feelings must be worked up one way or another.

            But you are right. We all have the subjective element in whatever we do.

    • One fundamental problem with the accusation, “you are not worshiping,” is that the Christian is already worshiping who has come to receive what God gives, return what God is due, and encourage his brothers and sisters in the faith.

      Another problem with the accusation, “you are not worshiping,” is that it fails to answer the obvious question, “What, then?” It offers no discussion of the consequences, and no guidance for how the common failing of distracted thinking is best addressed before the Lord. It raises the specter of guilt without recalling the foundation of God’s grace for all of Christian life.

      Attentiveness during congregational worship is desirable, of course, and mental distractions are not. Nor is it desirable to go through the motions of worship unengaged and presuming upon God’s grace. “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” John 4:24

      The Christian who finds himself distracted during worship nevertheless stands as God’s redeemed. And, “because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!'” Galatians 4:6 That cry does not evaporate just because we are mentally preoccupied with other things. And we are at liberty to bring it to our lips at any time, to HIs glory.

      Abba! Father! Help us to render in worship what you desire.

      And let the people say, “Amen!”

    • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says

      So, the next time I have a birthday party, before I thank any of those who sang “happy birthday” to me, I’m going to ask them, “Did you really mean it, or were you thinking about the bills?”

      • HA! Then kick them all out, and tell them to take their worthless presents home with them.

        “We both know you didn’t really out enough effort into this when you bought it.”

  11. I agree with Christine….the Mass is about God, not me, and I spend a fair portion of it apologizing to the Lord for my sins of commission and omission. And that is OK, since I am focused on HIM and thanking Him for NOT giving me exactly what I deserve.

    This post circles back to one of the main problematic issues with Evangelicals…..the focus on that often mentioned “personal relationship with Jesus Christ as my Savior”. It leaves our brothers and sisters and worshipping together with them out of the picture, since even in a group service everyone is expected to put forth the correct attitude and effort……individually! Leaves the Body of Christ and focus on Him and Him alone in the dust.

    • Yes, we are part of one another; if my brother or sister receives from God, so do I; if I receive from God, they do, too. If they look to God when I’m unable, they have looked for me as well, and I will do as much for them when I’m able. This is the Communion of Saints. Yes.

      • +1

      • +100

        This is a tremendously comforting thought.

        One of the strengths of the evangelical paradigm is the emphasis on the individual. But when individual’s interior world is all that matters, you are also pretty much stuck within its confines. The most anyone else can do for you is try to inspire or cajole you to feel differently. It’s rather lonely.

      • Two things have pressed themselves upon me in recent months: In the Communion of Saints, we do nothing alone, either good or bad, and we participate in each other in every way, though we don’t know or feel it most of the time; the Communion of Saints is in the heart of Jesus, and the heart of Jesus is in the heart of God, so however imperfect our aggregate heart may be, Jesus outweighs our many negations with his infinite “Yes!”.

        • David Cornwell says


        • One body and one spirit. Though we say it and sing it, the significant reality eludes us on an extraordinary scale. We are wildly unaware.

        • I don’t have any follow-up thought to post to this. But I just want to say, it floored me when I read it, and spoke to some things I’ve been mulling over lately.

          Thank you.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Don’t know if I should be saying this, but one thing that often happens to me at Mass is having large swaths of storytelling or worldbuilding fall right into place with a ZANG! at some point during Mass. Often I have to rush home and either write down notes or make emails to whichever writing partner I’m collaborating with this time. (One of these times was the story which gave me my commenting handle.) Happened again today, regarding wolf pack characters in a fantasy in-progress.

    • Desert Storm Libertarian says

      In John 4:24, Jesus said, “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” Since Jesus said he was the truth (John 14:6), our focus in worship should be in praising and thanking our Lord and Savior for his great sacrifice and gift of eternal life to those who draw near to him. Fleshing out the practical and spiritual meaning of worshiping in spirit and in truth is so intellectually and spiritually daunting that this task must be left to the Holy Spirit’s revelation to each believer, taking into account the unique personalities and character traits that we individually possess.

  12. The Lutheran understanding of the Divine Service is that we come, first and foremost, to receive from God. Only secondarily do we come to praise Him.

    He gives us what we need in the forgiveness of sins, His life giving and faith producing Word, and the body and blood of our Lord for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of our faith. We respond to this grace with praise and prayers.

    • Amen. God initiates, we respond. He gives, we receive with thankfulness. And I can say the words even if I don’t feel like it without feeling like a hypocrite. I believe these words, even if my soul is a smoldering ash heap. Now thank we all our God!

  13. It is a confusion of law and gospel. Lutherans confess that true gospel worship is receiving God’s gifts – not doing something for God. From the Apology of the Augsburg Confession:

    “And the difference between this faith and the righteousness of the Law can be easily discerned. Faith is the latreiva [divine service], which receives the benefits offered by God; the righteousness of the Law is the latreiva [divine service] which offers to God our merits. By faith God wishes to be worshiped in this way, that we receive from Him those things which He promises and offers.”

  14. In my church there is such an emphasis on joy. Most of the time my joy doesn’t look like someone else or even the majority of those around me. I know if I yell at God because I am angry He is big enough to overcome it and still love me. I say to the young men all the time talk to Him with what you have at least you have opened a dialogue. Knowing from experience He will answer. My joy to hand split really big pieces of wood for hours isn’t the same as someone reading a book. My joy to walk up a mountain as fast as I can while praying isn’t the same as someone who goes quietly into their prayer room. Sometimes on the mountain I am completely distracted but I showed up. So does He and every time too. Getting back to it when I sing Holy, Holy, Holy I can’t help but think about God. If I wasn’t thinking about God I wouldn’t be singing. So many don’t sing but it still doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking about God. I always try and not focus on the others less condemnation would occur on myself or me judging them. I agree encouraging one to think and dwell on God is a good thing but using another choice of words would be far better than what I read as a qoute especially in big black letters. Maybe as we come to worship let us lay aside the heaviness on our hearts and join together to praise and love the one who loves us and if you can’t others of us will lift it for you today because there will be a day when I need you to do the same. For me that would be today.

    • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says

      My joy to hand split really big pieces of wood for hours isn’t the same as someone reading a book
      You have a kindred spirit here, my friend.

  15. Maybe I’m missing something, but this seems to be saying that the actions are what counts and not ‘the heart’.
    My suspicion is Amos and Hosea would disagree. I don’t particularly think what we sing, or how we sing is the big issue but rather whether or not we come hearts (as ‘good soil’?) to receive from God, whatever our present circumstances, so that we can be refocused on where we are going.
    Again, perhaps I’m missing something but many people are trying to get away from doing rote religion.

    • How would Amos and Hosea disagree? Can you be more specific?
      (In full disclosure, I for one, do believe it’s more about actions than heart… I think that’s the valid critique of evangelical pietism…the emphasis is all on ‘heart’. I believe that the overarching theme of scripture is on action over ‘heart’. IMO God cares more about what we do than about what we’re “thinking”, but that’s what makes me so un-evangelical because the emphasis is decidedly opposite of that. But I may be wrong, and I’m open to counterpoints from scripture, especially from OT prophets who were very hard on Israel for failing to act in the ways God had commanded)

    • I don’t believe that this saying that actions are what counts, and not “the heart.” I believe this post is saying that we can bring our imperfect hearts and actions to God, however focused or unfocused they may be, and that we don’t need to achieve some level of inner purity before God is willing to accept our worship, or our works, or our lives, or our hearts.

      In his life, and in his death on the cross, Jesus made us one with himself, and with each other, in the pure heart of God, which is his own heart, and our hearts now, too. We are one with him, truly one with him, and with all that are in him; we don’t need to perform well for God when we worship, and we don’t have to have pure and focused hearts, because worship is what God gives to himself through us. Only he can utterly and adequately ascribe worth to himself; it’s hubris to think that we can do that. It places far too much burden on us, a crushing burden that only Jesus can carry.

    • Our culture sees the “heart” as the seat of emotions, and the “mind” as the seat of the will. This is not the case for the culture of Hosea and Amos: The bowels were the seat of emotion, and the heart was the seat of the will. This ought to change how we read them.

      No matter how hard you try, there is NO SUCH THING as “non-rote religion.” Everything becomes ritual and tradition by the third time you do it. The question is not whether we worship by rote. Everybody does. The question ought to be, “What does our rote confess? What are we proclaiming and believing?”

      • david brainerd says

        This is something it too me long time to learn, but definitely true. If your religious practice is not rote, then ultimately it is will-worship. Because rather than worshipping God’s set way, you’re constantly making up a new way to keep yourself entertained. It was probably an aversion to “rote religion” that led the Isrelites into idolatry all those centuries. Having to come up with new practices to keep your religion “relevant” always ends in some form of idolatry.

    • david brainerd says

      Its the overall intention of your heart, of your life, and not the specific motive and concentration at that specific moment that counts. If you trying to be a good Christian in general all the time, then it doesn’t matter that you weren’t completely into this particular prayer, or perfectly undistracted during that particular song, or fell asleep during that one really boring sermon. Quit trying to save yourself by perfect spiritual prozac emotion-mind-control.

  16. May I add that worship involves a lot more than just what we do ‘at’ church…a concept that seems at times to be dead in evangelicalism because ‘worship’ is never spoken of in terms other than the 1/2 hr music set.
    Being a dependable, hardworking employee for 5 days every week is an act of worship. Helping my wife clear the dishes and more is an act of worship. Tending the soil in my garden or harvesting the fruits of it are acts of worship… This mindset has helped me counter-balance the mindset this post critiques-and the one that dominates my evangelical setting – and although it is still taught/preached/implied as thick as molasses, as it has been my whole life, I pretty much let it run off of me;
    I found out over and over again that “excitement”, especially the kind I tried to put on or conjure up (because that is what one must do – imo it is THE evangelical sacrament); failed to make a difference, failed to relieve, failed to heal, failed…, failed….
    Now I let ‘worship’ wash over me as God wills (sometimes it’s music, but not the CCM kind), sometimes it’s a moment with my son/daughter, or a breathtaking vista, or picking a pepper. And other times it’s hindsight, realizing that in a particular situation I chose to the do right thing and that I had just ‘worshipped’ the Almighty with that choice/action.

    • Yes and no. If everything is worship, then nothing is worship. It’s like saying “You’re unique and special, just like everyone else.” If you follow that line of thought too far, there becomes no point in going to church at all (see: Donald Miller).

      I would argue that music is the Evangelical sacrament, not excitement. Or at least, excitement is the grace, and music is the means.

      What you describe as “worship washing over you” sounds to me like “thankfulness.” Nothing wrong with that!

  17. ‘Then the Lord said, “Because this people draw near with their words And honor Me with their lip service, But they remove their hearts far from Me, And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote. Therefore behold, I will once again deal marvelously with this people, wondrously marvelous; And the wisdom of their wise men will perish, And the discernment of their discerning men will be concealed.”‘ Isaiah 29:13 -14 NASB

    • In Jesus, our hearts have been transferred into the very heart of God. Jesus himself redeems us from the emptiness of tradition learned by rote, which may as readily be found in the lone believer’s heart as in the assembly at the foot of the altar.

    • pamela, I’m not sure if you’re referring to the pietists, or to those distracted in church.

      I think Isaiah was talking about apostasy or at least hypocrisy, not mere distraction or rote worship. This becomes evident with further verses in Isaiah 29, and seems related to what Jesus said in Mark 3:28-29, “Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”

  18. Very often, the worship leader and musicians/choir are the ones who are not thinking about God while singing Holy, Holy, Holy, due to concentrating on the next chord change, etc.
    It is interesting in the OT that Moses was able to converse with God, and lead God’s people in worship, but you don’t see Moses doing both at the same time.

    • As a student musician, I can certainly see that! When I’m playing, I’m concentrating on making a pretty piece of music, so my attention is on the dynamics and the technical aspects etc. On the other hand, might this lack of attention to worship fall under the Jesuit slogan of AMDG, ad majoren dei gloriam, to the greater glory of the Divine. So the musician in trying to create a pleasing worship experience for the community are in fact doing it for the greater glory of their deity?

  19. Thank you Chaplain Mike.

  20. Cherry-picking some verses about times when it’s OK to have distractions in worship:

    …And all the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter AND BECAUSE OF THE HEAVY RAIN. Ezra 10:9

    If therefore you are presenting your offering there before the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, LEAVE YOUR OFFERING AND GO YOUR WAY; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. Matt. 5:23-24

    Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control… the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and HIS INTERESTS ARE DIVIDED… the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband… I say this for your benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you… So then, he who marries his betrothed DOES WELL…

  21. Asinus Spinas Masticans says

    Worship entails sacrifice. “Thou shalt not appear before the LORD thy God with nothing in thy hand.”

    Maybe this is the reason why the Zwinglians [mostly] accuse the Cathodox of worshiping saints and Mary. By their lights we are, singing religious songs to them and bowing as we do, but we don’t offer the Holy Mysteries to the saints or to the Mother of God. That would be an utter blasphemy, like killing a goat to Kali.

    By our lights, the Zwinglians don’t worship anybody, not even God. They honor Him in song and listen to a lecture about Him, but that’s it.

    The Eucharist is worship.

    • I agree. I see now why the Reformed think the Cathodox worship the saints. What you give to Mary is what they give to Jesus.

      I’d even agree that the Eucharist is worship. But it isn’t a sacrifice we make, as if we were offering to God the merits of our own labors. It is a gift we receive, freely. It tends to make us sing.

      • Asinus Spinas Masticans says

        “we offer unto Thee of Thine own on behalf of all and for all.

        I may be getting it wrong, but I have always believed this line in the Divine Liturgy to say that the Eucharist is our sacrifice to the Holy Trinity, which, after the epiklesis, becomes His hapax sacrifice for us.

        I’ll have to ask Father next week. If I’m wrong, I’ll report it.

        • Lutherans are not big on sacrifice as part of the Eucharist. I think Luther was dead set against anything that smacked of sacrifice in the Holy Communion, and eliminated the word altogether from his reworking of the Mass.

          • That is, from the human side; of course it was recognized by Luther that it is Christ’s sacrifice that makes the Sacraments possible and meaningful.

          • My understanding of the Catholic Mass is that the sacrifice made is the perfect sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. It is not our sacrifice we offer the Trinity, it is the sacrifice that Jesus made on Calvary. We of course do not believe that he is being re-sacrificed. Calvary is a perfect and timeless act of love between the Father and Son. We can be united to it, but not add to it. Somehow we also celebrate the Resurrection at the same time we celebrate Calvary: the Son emptied in love for the Father and the Father raising up the Son in love.

            Worship is more about stepping into the mutual self-emptying and love of the Trinity–they do all the work and we just say AMEN.

          • But the Mass refers to the Holy Eucharist as a sacrifice; Luther rejected wording that referred to the celebration of the Holy Communion as a sacrifice, because he believed, not without cause, that the wording gives the impression that a sacrifice is being offered in the Eucharist.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      “Asinus Spinus Masticans” — there HAS to be a story behind that pseudonym.

      (I know “Masticans” has to do with chewing, but that’s about it.)

  22. CM, this is one of my favorite posts you have ever written. Why don’t you come on over to the Missouri side for a while and teach us how to express these concerns so clearly. This cuts straight to the chase and is easy to understand. So many of us “confessionals” trip all over our tongues trying to express our concerns with the prevalence of pietism in our synod, we wind up treating it like pornography: “I can’t explain what it is, but I sure as hell know it when I see it.”

  23. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    To me, Pietism has a strong dose of “Don’t Think, Just BE-LEEEEEEVE!” and opportunity for/pull towards One-Upmanship to PROVE My Salvation/Greater Spirituality/Greater Favor with God. And that just ain’t right.

  24. Faulty O-Ring says

    The basic idea behind pietism is that mere membership in, or even regular attendance at, a state Protestant church is not enough–that one can’t just “go through the motions.” This raises the logical question of what, then, a Christian must do. For Spener the ideal Christian life would include Bible study, personal transformation through prayer/devotion/repentance, and a holy life. His state Lutheran opponents objected that pietism undervalues the guidance of the church and its theology, while some critics have found fault with his mysticism, or with the goal of personal holiness. The fact that Spener took a popular, vernacular approach, which sought a larger role for the laity, influenced his reception, as did the pietist practice of meeting in small devotional groups with a common rule. Early Methodists added a more missionary emphasis which included acts of public charity such as founding soup kitchens.

    For US evangelicals, pietism would likely recall the emotional revivals of the Great Awakenings, whose theological and social consequences have been criticized by this website. At the same time, pietism should not be reduced to a caricature of itself, or treated as a mere idea, and few modern evangelicals would not sympathize with at least some of the above-mentioned aspects of pietism.

    • Good comment. The term “pietism” has a history (histories). I’m using it in a more all-purpose way in this post to describe an emphasis. In my view, one big distinguishing mark between today’s evangelicalism and the emphases of the historic traditions is where that emphasis falls: upon the objective work of God or upon my subjective experience and my activities (or abstention from certain activities). Both emphases can be taken too far, of course, or corrupted in a variety of ways. Certain pietistic renewals in history have rightly awakened people and institutions that were simply going through the motions.

      In my experience, however, I don’t think “dead orthodoxy” or “rote religion” is the major problem in our day and culture — perhaps the most individualistic and subjective-experience oriented time and place in history.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Regarding “the emotional revivals of the Great Awakenings”, remember the comment referenced up top:

      “One old girlfriend said she left Evangelicalism . . . because she got tired of having to be excited all the time.”

  25. With he addition of one particular, significant word the Challies meme would be worthy of the full brunt of Mike’s critique. Yet, the meme leaves it out, and so I think we are pessimistically reading this word into it.


    We all have our differing notions of what constitutes acceptable worship. But I think most of us would agree that we haven’t achieved a state of unbridled purity of focus when we show up to worship. As David eloquently stated above, carry many heavy burdens into our Sundays, and I have to believe God smiles at us nonetheless.

    Even the most curmudgeonly would make room for this aspect of the human experience, Challies not excepted, I hope. I doubt he intends to make us feel guilty for our conflicted feelings and distractions and imperfections while trying to engage. I suspect he’s driving at critiquing any kind of worship experience that is completely *absent* of thoughts about meeting God, even if that meeting is full of anger, doubt, despair, etc. . At my most optimistic, I would treat this as a critique against individualistic worship that is more about my feelings and preferences than anything else.

    Perhaps I’m being more kind than usual to Mr. Challies, but I’ve been working overtime to put to death the cynic me. Long way to go.

    • Yes, if asked to explain he would qualify his statement, and add nuance. But the pressure and guilt the meme is designed to create is clear enough.

  26. Randy Thompson says

    Shakespeare weighs in on this issue rather well, I think. These lines are spoken by Hamlet’s murderous step-father:

    “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
    Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”
    Hamlet (III, iii, 100-103)

    I think I’d prefer an emphasis on paying attention to God, rather than on thinking about God. One can think about God because one knows about God, but not know God.

  27. I’d suggest that this idea isn’t exactly representative of reformed perspectives on worship which would emphasise that our worship is acceptable because it’s IN and THROUGH Jesus. Of course, one doesn’t have to be a pietist to think that affection is important.

  28. It’s all about Jesus. It’s about his death on the cross and resurrection. It’s about his work, not ours. It is done, finished, he was victorious.

    If Jesus didn’t die on the cross and if he didn’t rise from the dead, then nothing we say or do matters. We are finished.

    If he DID die on the cross and if he DID rise from the dead, then likewise, nothing we say or do matters. It was finished for us.

  29. Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says

    I’ll just go ahead and say this, since I haven’t seen it in the combox yet. Where on earth can we find this maxim in Scripture?

  30. This brings back memories of when I was growing up in the Catholic faith. There was a lot of talk about whether your soul was properly disposed to receive Communion, at least in the places where I experienced Catholicism. (There are many Catholic writers and commenters here; your experience may be different from mine.) At any rate, there were plenty of things to do to ensure that your soul was in a proper disposition for Communion; if not, then it was strongly recommended that you not receive. This was one of the things which I sought to escape in evangelicalism; yet here it is, albeit in a different form.

    • I experienced the same thing growing up Roman Catholic, Joe. If you’re soul was not in a state of grace, receiving Holy Communion would just compound your sinful state. If you had committed any mortal sin, you were required by the canons to confess it in the Rite of Reconciliation/Confession, and to perform any penance assigned there, before receiving Holy Communion in the Mass.

      I left Roman Catholicism for the Episcopal Church, where no such strictures surrounding Holy Communion are enjoined, except by some Anglo-Catholics, and such stringency is rare even among them.

      • @Robert….I am happy to share that the micro-legalistic examination of conscience we both grew up with has mercifully and correctly been scaled way, WAY back. While it remains true that mortal sin is a barrier to receiving the Eucharist, venial sins can be healed by the Body of Christ.

        I remember thinking as a child that I had to be extra “good” on most Saturday nights, lest I manage to re-stain my 10 year old soul with sin between Saturday confession and Sunday morning Mass. (Let me add that I am a perfectionist who overthinks and over analyzes everything, and was born this way; and it likely exacerbated the message I was hearing from Sister Felicita…)

        All that I know with 100% certainty is that when partake of the Holy Eucharist, I can feel His Presence in my soul, body, and mind in ways I cannot describe. THIS I cannot live without, and this is why I choose to overlook the annoying things about my Roman Catholic Church family.

        • Pattie, my St. Joseph’s edition of the Bible, which I received as a child, tells me in the introduction that even back then venial sins could be healed by the Body of Christ, and many other things as well, such as regular Bible reading, pilgrimage, etc., or in purgatory. But venial sin, even a whole lot of it, does not cast one into hell; one little unconfessed mortal sin, however, does, according to the canons.

  31. I think this post is spot on. This is certainly an expression of pietism, and in other traditions various other requirements are emphasized. Emotional or psychological states in the charismatic and pentecostal Certain arcane doctrinal adherences in the fundamentalist.

    What strikes me most about most expressions of pietism, wherever they come from, is that they are cast in the negative. They point out what you lack and how it is deficient; they rarely exhibit a positive statement of what one can do. And even more rarely do they produce gracious and giving statements about the riches available to all in Christ. The first expression is so often a negative.

    To me, that is not the Good News.

    And if you buy into it, you’ll soon find that you’re never quite sure if you’ve met all the requirements, and just as you think you might be getting close there’s usually some new requirement that comes up and sets you back again. Been there and done that. No thank you. Not going back.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      And if you buy into it, you’ll soon find that you’re never quite sure if you’ve met all the requirements, and just as you think you might be getting close there’s usually some new requirement that comes up and sets you back again.

      “Are you Sure? Are you Certain you’re Sure? Are you Sure you’re Certain you’re Sure? etc etc etc”

      • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says

        It would be funny if it wasn’t so true. I remember the dread mandatory testimony time from my sojourn in fundagelicalism, and the numerous times some timid young soul reported that they asked Jesus into their heart as a four year old, and then prayed again at age ten “just to be sure”. And at age 12. And several hundred times between the ages of 15-17, highly correlated to sneaking peeks at daddy’s magazine stash in the garage. Or even worse – the girl I knew (true story) who was afraid that she wasn’t really saved because she had always been a good girl and didn’t have some dramatic life of drugs and alcohol and bestiality to turn from.

        • david brainerd says

          That’s what happens when your reject baptism as the point of salvation.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          JUICY Testimonies are just how Church Ladies get their Respectable(TM) porn fix.

          The vicarious thrill of JUICY JUICY JUICY spectacular Sin Sin Sin without contaminating themselves.

  32. We sing its all about you jesus
    then proceed to speak all about
    worship is always worth ship
    putting him first reguardless
    of our feelings thoughts ect ect

  33. Given the common* use in evangelicalism (sp?) of “wasn’t that awesome worship?” where most people would say “wasn’t that an awesome concert?” I think a leeeeetle injection of piety might be good…

    (* in my anecdotal experiece)