December 2, 2020

Contemporary Worship and the Walnut Street Epiphany

“Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion….I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

-Thomas Merton (1915-1968)


For those who don’t know, Thomas Merton was one of the most influential spiritual writers of the twentieth century. Born in France to a New Zealander father and an American mother, Merton grew up in England, converted from atheism to Catholicism, and eventually came to America to attend Columbia University. In 1941 he entered the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani near Louisville, Kentucky, where he spent his life as a writer and spiritual director. Merton’s books continue to exert a strong influence on contemporary Christian spirituality.

Thomas Merton is a friend of mine. He has been endlessly helpful to me as a Christian, a minister and a human being. Many who study Merton divide his life into three “epiphanies.” The first being his conversion to Roman Catholicism and the third being his vision of a unity between Eastern and Western monastic spiritualities. It is the second- and most influential- epiphany that interests me: his famous “Walnut Street” epiphany of connectness to the world of “real” humanity, an experience that reclaimed and rebirthed a love for the world he had renounced.

I’m going to connect this experience to what’s going on in contemporary evangelical worship and what seem to be the goals of contemporary worship. In particular, I want to examine where true Christian spirituality takes us, and the disturbing contradictory currents that are being evidenced in evangelicalism today.

The “Walnut Street Experience” happened at a crucial point in Merton’s life. He had come to the monastery with the zeal of the new convert, and wanted nothing more than to fade from the surface of the earth into a life of prayer. Instead, on the orders of his superiors, he wrote an autobiography (“The Seven Storey Mountain”) and became a best-selling author. He was the best known Catholic in America in the 1950’s. After following up with several other books, Merton became disillusioned with his writing career and notoriety, and wanted to stop writing and resume his calling as an anonymous, contemplative monk. His superiors wouldn’t hear of it, and told him to keep writing. Merton was miserable….until he went to Louisville one day to see the dentist, and was captured by a vision of humanity and his love for and commonality with, the human race. It is one of the brightest and best paragraphs Merton ever wrote, and his joy is evident.

It was a transforming experience, one that all Merton lovers are grateful arrived when it did. The “Walnut Street epiphany” returned Merton to his writing, but it was not the same writer. He took off in new and daring directions, writing his most influential and appealing books; books that explored the connection between the Christian and the world of suffering, art, love, war and real living. Instead of the retreated spiritual writer, Merton became the involved political and social writer. He became “worldly,” and embraced a role as spiritual advisor to movements for peace and social justice. After moving to a private hermitage away from the monastery, Merton became a celebrity again, but this time hosting writers, poets and musicians whose names are a “who’s who?” of the sixties.

It would be easy for me to quibble with the politics of Thomas Merton, because I do not share a number of his liberal stances, and have to smile at some of the naive sixties’ sentiment that fill his pages during this period. But at the same time, I am impressed with Merton’s spiritual progress. He came to the monastery convinced that following Christ would take him out of the world, into prayer, into a separate world of Christian spirituality. The Walnut Street experience brought him back into the world, back to the place where involvement and service to people was a clear expression of love for God.

In his early years as a convert, Merton had worked in Harlem with a Catholic ministry to the poor. Merton considered this as a vocation, and then later considered life in a Franciscan lay order that would have allowed him to teach and work in the world, rather than live in the monastery. Merton decided against these callings, feeling in his new convert’s zeal that God surely wanted him to disappear into a life of prayer for others. (It should be understood that Merton saw monastic prayer as undergirding the ministries of those in the world, and not cut off from them.)

Did the “Walnut Street epiphany” reconnect Merton with his earlier callings? Perhaps, but it is more likely that Merton discovered a very simple truth, a truth that inevitably flows from the Gospel when properly, deeply understood.

God is love. God loves me. God loves people. I love people. Not a series of “shoulds” and “oughts,” but a discovery of the reality of the Christian God. Not an audible voice, but the discovery of how the world looks through the Gospel and in Jesus. A stark contrast to non-Trinitarian understandings of God and certainly a contrast to views of reality that cannot accept the incarnation. It was, I would contend, a most healthy development in anyone’s Christian journey.

Merton’s experience suggests that Christian spirituality, worship, prayer and calling ought to bring us, eventually, to the love of people. Where God is most clearly seen and known, compassion and love for people ought to overflow. It is a wrong expression of Christianity that bears the fruit of hostility towards the world of humanity, and directs the Christian away from that world’s brokenness and reality. Merton shows us a rediscovery of true humanness, one where the world and the people in it have the glory of God about them, and we are called by that God into that world.

Why do I see a connection between this insight from Merton and the current state of evangelical worship? Think with me. What is the most representative image of evangelicalism today? I would suggest that it is a young person, in their twenties or early thirties, eyes closed, hands raised, worshiping in a mega-church or a concert, lost in the experience of musical worship. Such images are common, and while some might complain that they are stereotypical, I think they are quite accurate in presenting where we find ourselves today.

It is also useful to think of what is NOT the image of evangelicalism. It is not the person with an open Bible, though obviously millions of evangelicals have their Bibles open. It is not the street evangelist, which might have been the case in the “Jesus Movement” of the sixties and seventies, though Southern Baptists and others are obsessed with evangelistic campaigns. It is not the soup kitchen or the food pantry, though these ministries are common in many evangelical churches. No, the face of evangelicalism is the face of the worshiper lost in song, for two reasons.

One is the increasingly prominent place of media and publishing in the world of evangelicals, and their agenda of turning Christianity into a huge niche market. The image of the worshiping evangelical suits this agenda, and so we will see a lot of it. You may read my thoughts on that charade elsewhere.

The other reason is that evangelicals have a strong “monastic” impulse, one that is increasingly manifesting itself in a “worship culture” that makes worship an end onto itself. Now, I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. John Piper that the end of missions- and evangelism- is worship. God is seeking worshipers. I have no quarrel with worship as an ultimate end. But the worship revolution happening in evangelicalism isn’t ultimate worship in heaven. It is worship that serves the end of more worship, the end of church growth and the end of a certain kind of spirituality. I think this is plainly seen, and ought to be a great concern.

In the last 15 years, worship has become such a preoccupation among evangelicals that it is impossible not to come to the conclusion that evangelicalism is largely a “worship movement,” that churches have become “worship centers,” and that ministers have become “worship leaders.” The prestige roles in evangelicalism are those who “lead us into God’s presence” in worship, and the mark of revival in the current atmosphere is continuous worship. The church that can say they’ve done nothing for the last year but worship is the church with a line of buses trying to find a parking space.

I am not silly enough to need readers to remind me of all the good that is done through “worship breakthroughs” and such. But I return to my beginning point. Is the worship focus within evangelicalism bringing us not only to a love of God, but a love of people? To a discovery of our commonality with human culture? To an involvement with the brokenness of our fellow human beings?

Most of my readers will know that I work for a Christian boarding school. You may not know that it was founded in 1899 by a man who was converted to Christ following being wounded in a local Appalachian mountain “war,” and he began our school as a way of ministering to the brokenness of his fellow mountaineers. He loved God. He loved people. He wanted to help end the violence. It was, in my opinion, the most natural of progressions.

At one time there were dozens of such schools in the mountains, all born of similar understandings of Christianity. But not today. Today, those schools are gone, Christians depend on public schools or withdraw to home schools, and we are the only remaining school of that era.

Now, our school worships as a community. Every day the school is open, we have a brief time of worship. But we return to work, to school, to our jobs and ministries. We are involved with our fellow human beings throughout the day and the week. Work and class are considered holy time. Time in the real world is worshipful time. No one can doubt this, and as I said, the progression from knowing Christ, to teaching a child to read is very natural. We have our heroes, those who have gone before us, who taught us this kind of connection between worship and offering our lives in service to the needs of the world.

From time to time in the history of our work, we are “blessed” with those who feel called to labor with us, but soon we discover that they are unhappy with our ministry. We need to worship MORE, they say. We are unspiritual, according to them. We need more music. We need more and longer worship services. More ministries happening in worship. One fellow left us angry because he couldn’t “pray” for our students. I assure you this was not true, but what he meant by prayer was a type of deliverance prayer that happens in Pentecostal worship, and we don’t encourage it. So we don’t “pray.”

Now, the number of these types of Christians are rising, and their influence is gaining. They are zealous young people. They are not without compassion. Far from it. But they are insistent that the end of Christian spirituality is worship, and their need for more and more of the current technology and gadgetry of worship is clearly informed by the accepted end of affecting us all into the image of that mesmerized worshiper.

For example- and I am not being a jerk here, I assure you- a worship music “need” insisting on $75,000 for audio/visual equipment or a similar amount for props for a pageant raises few or no ethical concerns for many contemporary worship advocates. Now, don’t start quoting me the prices of pipe organs, because I am there before you, and would ask the same questions: Did the organ bring about the end of the whole process of relating to God, or did it facilitate a step in that process? Was there an acknowledgment of the ethical issues involved in this expenditure? I am not talking about the place of art or music in the church. Clearly, I think scripture indicates an investment in beauty or art or architecture is appropriate, as long as other, larger considerations in the Christian life are addressed.

In contemporary evangelicalism, the $75,000 moves us closer to the chosen end: more worship. Now worship may have spiritual or pragmatic ends, but there are really no higher levels in the process of growth. It is entirely acceptable today to say that the end result of the Christian life is to become a worshiper- an entirely solid, Biblical notion- but to see that calling as almost entirely a “monastic” withdrawal from the world and into the haze of a higher life of worship.

I’ve never been more alienated from the modern worship approach than when it’s been made plain to me that what we were doing with all the music and effects and lights and such was seeking to create an effect upon the audience; one in which “God shows up” and we are “drawn into his presence” and so on. I have to tell you that this isn’t the end result we should be seeking in worship, and it appears to me to have become a rather bizarrely immature kind of self-stimulation, and I’ll stop that analogy before it goes too far. But you get my drift. We are stopping short of the goal that I think is crystal clear in Merton’s experience.

Merton’s spiritual progression wasn’t to abandon worship, prayer and the monastic life. He returned to the monastery, but he did so to enter the world of the human again with love for neighbor born of love for God. This was a maturing, not a departure. It was entirely congruent with what I know of people who have been with Jesus, and with the way the world of human concerns should be transformed in the light of the Christian gospel.

Let me close this excursion with an acknowledgment that many in evangelicalism have demonstrated that a mature, God-centered, neighbor-loving discipleship is possible in a community where worship is highly valued. There are many examples- such as Timothy Keller’s ministry in New York City, Redeemer Presbyterian- of churches with dynamic worship and an impressive and compassionate involvement in the world of human concerns.

At the same time, here is much to be concerned about. Discipleship is increasingly thought of as primarily worship and church experiences, not the grace of God producing love to God issuing in love to neighbor and service to others. The example of the towel and basin is being lost in a church-promoted theology of glory. The decorations of a Christian life lived in a consumeristic culture tend to be very much the expressions of that culture. The pop culture evangelicals love to imitate so much has a blindness to the realities of suffering, war, poverty, disease and justice. We are shallow people, and I fear this shallowness is being expressed in a kind of worship that ends far short of “as the Father has sent me, so send I you.”

My heroes the Puritans kept worship simple. Their reputation is wrongly presented as objecting to innovation just for the sake of negation, but this wasn’t the case. The Puritan wanted to be a man who worshiped God, and then devoted himself to his family, community and nation. To worship and worship and worship some more, all in hope of an experience of glory, would have seemed to the Puritans an attempt to import glorification into the world where we were meant to live as earthly servants. Simple worship suited them, because all of life was the worshipful dimension. I fear we are losing this, as worship becomes a spectacle, and the property of experts and technicians.

Marvin Olasky has documented how evangelicalism in its early years reflected a healthy balance between worship and concern for the poor. As government took on the role of public charity, the church became more concerned with selective moral issues, like drinking and gambling, and less concerned with every part of the world of human life. Spirituality took on more and more the emphasis of the “other worldly man,” the person who lived for prayer, Bible study, church activities and evangelism. This man was honest and upright, and certainly helped his neighbor in time of crisis. But the direction was set for the future, and now we are arriving at the destination: the man who worships in order to worship in order to worship.

I believe the challenge of the church in every situation is to develop disciples who follow Jesus in the present time and place, and especially in the world. Those disciples should be fully developed followers of Jesus. They should be mature, manifesting obedience to Christ, a love for God, the righteousness of the Kingdom and the fruit of the Spirit. I do not believe those disciples are living a life of “monastic spirituality.” I believe those disciples are standing on corners, amazed that they can love the world and the people in the world in Jesus name. Such disciples will be uncomfortable in a Christianity that constantly tells them the goal and end of Christian experience is to close their eyes and worship God. They will be looking for ways to go into the world, open their eyes, and love all they see with the transforming love of God.



  1. Brian Krafczyk says

    I appreciate your posts. They lead me to think much deeper and entertain many different viewpoints, theologies and ideas that I would not normally consider. I am interested in the writings by Merton and will be studying more.

    In response to your post about modern worship; I agree with your general idea. However, I feel that there is a balance that can be reached in worship. It is a balance that does not end with worship but allows the worship experience to draw you closer into your relationship with God while also filling you with a deeper love for Him. This love would in turn ignite a desire to perform the second part of the great commandment, to love our neighbor as ourselves.

    As an apostolic pentecostal I value my worship time with the Lord. In prayer, listening to and participating in worship service or just driving down the road in my truck listening to whatever. There is an intimacy that can be arrived at via this type of worship that I was not able to experience in traditional ‘church’, which I liken to your suggestion of puritanical means of worship.

    While I may not have the literary skills that you and many of your readers posess, I hope that my point was brought across clearly and in the spirit it was written.

    Thank you for continuing to follow your predecessor and keep nailing your thoughts to the doorpost.

    May God keep and continue to richly bless you in you work for the kingdom.

    Your brother in Christ,


  2. I, too, have been doing a lot of thinking on the heart of the human experience, and what Christ has to do with it. I think a potent blend of mysticism and service is in order. This is something I have tried to archive and promote on my alternative Christian portal, . I like your thoughts here…I am going to be adding you to my blog section.

  3. Speaking of “Christian Humanism”, someone sent me this link: the other day. Give it a listen, and tell us what you think.