On the Boringness of Church Services
Perhaps the greatest excuse given for a Christian’s lack of regular Church attendance and involvement, which I have often heard as an aversion to the liturgical richness of the Orthodox Church, is the repetitive and abysmally boring nature of the services. Why is it that liturgy and repeated traditions are such a difficult obstacle for so many, especially in the modernized West? Why are we made to feel restless and obligated to attend, rather than refreshed and edified through regular Church attendance, if the service is not constantly revived, innovative, and made entertaining? I myself also often struggle with distracted boredom in services and a lack of ability to “get something out of it.” But I believe this is because as Westerners, especially of the millennial generation, we are culturally shaped to approach Church in the wrong way, with the wrong goals, and with the wrong mindset of what we are experiencing.
THE “PREFERRED METHOD OF WORSHIP” OUTLOOK
Until recent times Church services have been quite formal and discreet save for some very charismatic groups. We all know the stories of our parents and grandparents who were dragged to Church every Sunday morning and made to sit still and behave, dressed up in their Sunday best. These stories are meant as an explanation for why so many, especially men, have a repressed psychological dread for and boredom in Church attendance today. It seems that over time it came to be discovered that the best way to resolve this lack of interest is to make Church more “fun.” The entertainment regime of the “contemporary” and “modern worship” movements today seems to have been constructed to alleviate feelings of passivity and lack of participation, especially for men who normally have an adventurous spirit and are uncomfortable with contemplative and introspective situations (see my last article for more on this). The result has been that modern churches have a constant pressure to reinvent themselves in order to keep things spiced up and fresh, since their congregations crave novelty and gravitate to the latest and greatest “method” of Church. Once the congregation gets bored attendance will plummet. Indeed many of these “movements” have tried to avoid the boring connotations of church by in fact removing the word “church” from their names altogether.
Since the diversity of denominationalism in the West had already produced a plurality of options for Christian worship by the twentieth century, the development of contemporary and non-denominational movements further established a mentality of worship as a buffet-style smorgasbord of choices according to one’s preferences, depending upon what method and style best speaks to and edifies the believer when they attend.
REPENTANCE – “CHANGING YOUR MIND”
As vehemently as modern churches avoid and deny terms such as “entertainment” or “performance” for their services, it is very difficult for this style of Church to get away from the idea that Church should be shaped around the disposition of the worshiper instead of the One being worshipped. Praise teams struggle with knowing whether to setup up front and center with the attention on them, or maybe over to one side of the worship area to “get out of the way” so people may focus on the lyrics screen and experience God instead of a concert.
Personally I came to the Orthodox Church through primarily an academic and doctrinal route rather than through a deep resonance with the “worship style,” but the latter seems to be the most important criteria in choosing a Church in today’s world. Probably the main reason I struggle with boredom in Church is because the ancient Church is peculiar in that it asks Christians to set aside preferences and even the endeavor to “get something out of” the experience of worship. This is not to say that Orthodox worship does not have the edification of its congregants in mind, but it is only in completely forgetting about ourselves and our lives that we will begin to receive what the Church has to offer its worshipers. Before the priest and servers come out of the altar carrying the holy gifts during the Divine Liturgy to pray for those present, the choir sings the Cherubic Hymn:
Let us who mystically
represent the Cherubim
And who sing the thrice holy hymn
To the life-creating Trinity
Now lay aside all cares
all earthly cares
Now lay aside all earthly cares
Now lay aside all earthly cares
Preparation for communion with God involves a dispensing of ourselves and our individual concerns in order to experience the life of the Church, “that they may be one, just as We [the Father and the Son] are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity,” [John 17:22-23]. This losing of ourselves in the love of God and neighbor is a lifelong pursuit that will eventually replace our selfish and individualistic tendencies as the Church becomes organically something greater than we are independently. The process of repentance is one that we must struggle with accepting because, literally in the Greek, it involves a “change” of mind or direction that progressively reorients the person onto the right course. It will not be pleasant and entertaining, for it is truly taking place if we are inherently resistant to being shaped by it. C.S. Lewis had some profound words for what this truly formative worship looks like:
“Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. And they don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best – if you like, it works best – when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or Spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.”[i]
THE RESULT OF UNIFORM WORSHIP
I have begun to notice my own being caught up in the pattern of my Church’s worship outside of its doors, catching myself bowing in response to a bowing performer, crossing myself when I pass over a walkway, or wanting to recite the Creed when I hear an iPhone make a bell sound. It is not that worship should be a mindless going through the motions without mental alertness; indeed many times during the Divine Liturgy the priest or deacon proclaims, “Let us attend!” Rather, worship should permeate and go beyond the cerebral faculty or even the emotional high, and become united with the very fabric of who we are.
This is especially illustrated in the historical practice of ceaseless prayer through the utilization of what is called “The Jesus Prayer.” Based on the words of the tax collector in Jesus’ story [Luke 18:13], its fullest form in English is the plea,
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
This prayer has been used throughout the ages as a means of fulfilling the words of Saint Paul, to “pray without ceasing,” [1 Thess. 5:17], allowing the words to continually roll off the tongue in whispers until it becomes a constant background to our mental thoughts throughout the day. The prayer can also be used to pray continually for those we currently have impressed on our hearts: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on [insert name].”
The phrase may be difficult for some, implying a feeling of deep guilt or self-denigration so that God will not strike us down in wrath. But what is difficult to communicate is the connotation it carried in ancient Greek culture, where “mercy,” eleos, was a sort of play on words having the same root as “oil,” a biblical symbol of the Holy Spirit. Making this prayer a perpetual component to one’s life invites the Holy Spirit to be poured out on us as we pursue intimacy with Him and become “filled up to all the fullness of God” [Eph. 3:19]. While many modern people remain very skeptical of such reports, there are countless stories, (and I personally know a man who observed such an occurrence), of Orthodox saints and monastics, both ancient and modern, who were witnessed as being involved in such prayer during Church services. Other parishioners noticed they were glowing with a radiant light even at night, or levitating a few feet off of the ground, completely oblivious to these miraculous occurrences since they were so caught up in Divine worship.
LEAVING BEHIND THE VENERATION OF INNOVATION
The Church’s duty in leading us to intimacy with God is to teach us to give up our distracted infatuation with the spectacular and stop being afraid of the mundane. The reality is that God is in the routine, the repetition, and the everyday rhythm of life, if we will learn to see Him there. Our relationship with God is likened to a marriage throughout Scripture, which is a sharing of life together that is mostly monotonous and lacking excitement. But it is in learning to become comfortable with this and share each other’s love within the ordinary that true love is achieved. C.S. Lewis continues:
“Thus my whole liturgiological position really boils down to an entreaty for permanence and uniformity. I can make do with almost any kind of service whatever, if only it will stay put. But if each form is snatched away just when I am beginning to feel at home in it, then I can never make any progress in the art of worship. You give me no chance to acquire the trained habit.”[ii]
[ii] Lewis, Ibid