Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Is There a Wrong Way to Worship?

A reader recently saw an opinion piece I'd written about yoga, then sent me this question via email:

"My church is developing a ministry that will help our members grow in their relationships with Jesus Christ via prayer. One of the objections I have heard to this ministry is that it is New Age. I abhor New Age practices and want to steer clear of its influence. At the same time, I do not believe it is right or fair to categorize every prayer practice that is unfamiliar to us--such as a prayer of examen--as New Age or related in any way. Would you have any insight, as a result of your experience, on what practices should definitely be avoided?"

Here's my reply to the reader:

I agree with you 100 percent that we as a church have this problem of prejudging unfamiliar practices without even examining them. About a year ago, the worship leader at my church encouraged me to read Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline. At first, I couldn't bring myself to read the chapter on meditation. As a former New Ager, the entire practice of meditation seemed too closely tied to the New Age--even though I knew meditation was practiced by many of God's worshippers in the Bible. I enjoyed Foster's book so much that I just kept praying about it, that God would give me enough wisdom and discernment to read that chapter without either prejudging it or accepting it wholeheartedly.

When I actually read the chapter, I was amazed to discover I was already doing some of the things Foster discussed, such as slowly reading a Scripture verse and deeply meditating on its words, and looking at nature and meditating on the greatness of God. Before I read Foster's book, I never would have called my practices meditation. They were just actions that came naturally to me as I worshipped God. I came to realize that meditation itself wasn't a bad or evil practice--rather it was the goal of the practice that mattered.

To illustrate, yoga is basically stretching that's been spiritualized by being infused with Hindu worship. Many of the stretches in yoga are very basic ways anyone would stretch. I see young kids doing such stretches naturally without having ever been instructed on how to stretch. The Christian's problem with yoga itself is that stretching--something that's natural and good for us--is given the Hindu goal of becoming one with the universal mind through postures that exalt other gods. But to say that doing yoga is the only way we can stretch is like saying astral projection is the only way we can meditate. I think Christians who throw out stretching (and meditation) are, pardon the cliche, throwing out the baby with the bath water. We should stretch. But we don't have to do yoga in order to stretch.

The same can be said of prayer (and I notice you're considering one of Foster's methods for prayer). If our prayer is focused on God and our relationship with him, who is to criticize the form of that prayer? I once heard someone question whether a certain posture was appropriate for prayer because it looked "like how the Muslims pray." I believe we are made uniquely by God, and it's pretty apparent Christians worship him in different ways. Some are deeply moved to worship through upbeat music and dancing, others by quiet prayer and reflection. It would be quite silly (and unbiblical) for someone to say, "Christians can only worship God quietly, and anyone who thinks otherwise isn't a good Christian." Unfortunately, we often judge other Christians' relationships with God based on our personal experiences.

With that said, I can offer a few ways I proceed with caution when I'm considering a new idea or practice. First, I ask, "Does this focus on God and/or my relationship with him?" and also, "Is there anything in this that I recognize as being unbiblical (or that is supported by the Bible)?" Second, I ask God to give me discernment. Third, I go to a trusted source, ChristianityToday.com, to see if they've written something about it. I've also had conversations with the pastors and staff at my church, as well as other mature Christians, to get their thoughts. And lastly, I pray about it again.

There is at least one practice I wouldn't do myself, but I wouldn't tell other people not to do it, either. (And I know other people do this thing and are greatly blessed by it.) God has let me know that because of my New Age past, this particular practice is something that would be counterproductive to my spiritual growth right now. Maybe at some point, it will become a practice that God would have me do to worship him.

I'm sure God is leading you to bring these prayer practices to your church for a reason. Don't be discouraged if people aren't immediately on board--it can be difficult to get people to try anything new, from a new food to a new clothing style, and especially a new style of worship! My worship pastor did a special service on Lectio Divina, got a seemingly ho-hum reaction, and later told me, "We'll probably never do that again." I had to immediately tell him how meaningful it was to me, and how I'd incorporated parts of the practice into my devotional time. While some people might have thought it was boring to deeply think and reflect on the meaning of a small passage of Scripture, it meant everything to me as a writer and words person. I was so thankful he'd taken a chance so I could learn about it.

I have a lot of conversations on my blog that have added to my thoughts and even changed my thinking, so I'm hoping to get some more feedback for you by posting your question.

Are there worship practices that should be avoided? How do we determine what's good or bad? What tools has God given us to protect us from false teaching? Please post your thoughts on the above question--or thoughts about my response, or other thoughts--here on the blog.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good topic! Spiritual/devotional practices and techniques are tools to help us to connect with the spiritual or supernatural. For Christians, our practices are meant to help us connect with God, to pray, hear God’s voice, or even to experience God in a deeper than intellectual manner.

People get hung up on labeling practices and techniques as "good" or "bad," and theological thought gets neglected. New Age and Eastern religions and philosophies have an entirely different view of “god” and spiritual reality than Christianity, and their practices and techniques reflect that belief. Eastern/New Age thought is based on the pantheistic view of God, e.g. the universe is divine. In that belief system, the way to connect with the divine is to somehow get in touch with the spiritual or unseen reality of the universe. Their belief is that the divine is all, and all is divine; thus, everyone and everything is divine. In New Age thought, there is an emphasis on getting in touch with the divine self (as is summed up in the namaste of yoga). There is an emphasis on tapping into the divine power within. Most Eastern/New Age techniques discourage rational thought in devotional practice. Practitioners are encouraged to use breathing, chanting, and so forth to empty or vacate the mind and just “be.” This is supposed to lead to some kind of enlightenment or deeper wisdom than what the rational mind, which is tied to the natural world of the senses, can provide.

Biblical Christianity cannot affirm pantheism: We know that God is personal and not just an energy or force that permeates or encompasses all. While we certainly need to be cautious about introducing some techniques to people who may have a shaky view of God, it's most important to focus on the Christian view of God--that He is personal, transcendent, and immanent--rather than fretting about techniques. I feel that if a person first adopts this Christian view, it will guide them to seek techniques that help in relating to that type of God.

That is probably why Judeo/Christian meditation has stressed more of a rational path. Lectio Divina and the like wouldn't make sense in a pantheistic framework, because in that philosophy, “god” is not a person who has anything to say to us. There is a Christian mystical tradition that encourages meditative techniques that are similar to Eastern ones. I have done some study and even practiced some Christian mystical techniques such as centering prayer. These tend to be the practices that many Christians worry about the most. However, I practice them safely because I do not abandon my basic Judeo/Christian framework of God. Christian mystics have just understood that it is possible to experience God on a deeper non-rational level. They advise that to get to this “wisdom of the heart,” one must go beyond thought and just “be” in God’s presence.

In the classic Christian mystical tradition, meditation isn't about tapping into some impersonal, all-encompassing force found in the deeper self. Rather, it is a tool for tapping into a deeply personal relationship with the triune God who is at once found at home in our hearts, but also transcends all (even our rational understanding).

Again, I would proceed with great caution here because many spiritual seekers have been lead into Eastern mysticism through the door of Christian mysticism. However, I would maintain it is not due to techniques as much as careless theology. Usually a person who checks out these techniques notices the uncanny similarity to, say, Transcendental Meditation. They then make a big theological jump of saying, “It's all the same,” or “all roads lead to the same thing.”

My advice to anyone who wants to use meditation as a way of experiencing a deeper relationship with God is first to make sure that they have a clear end in mind. There is a huge difference between getting to know a Person as opposed to just tapping into a universal truth or force. Christian meditation is a way of getting to know a Person. Consider the example of a long-term, committed relationship (such as marriage). I am going to get to know my wife in deeper and more profound ways as I experience our relationship in many ways over time. However, if I don’t have the basic understanding that she is a female human being, I am in big trouble with knowing how to get to know her. Most, if not all, of my attempts to get to know my wife would be totally futile and even misleading if I don’t have a basic framework of who or what “she” is to start with.