In a recent post, Donald Miller—post-evangelical author of Blue Like Jazz—admits to not being much of a church-goer.
Music and sermons don’t really do it for him, you see, as he is a ‘kinesthetic’ learner or a person who learns by ‘doing.’ There are also auditory and visual learners, who primarily learn by hearing and seeing respectively, and worship services (as he knows them) only really work for auditory learners while visual and kinesthetic learners are left out in the cold.
On one level, Miller’s post does point out a legitimate weakness in the structure of most evangelical, Protestant worship.
With a model of worship that is sermon-centric, and with music that is audience-centric and performance-driven, listening is really a disproportionately large amount of what you’ve come to do. If Miller’s concern was for visual and kinesthetic learners in church, at this juncture he should perhaps be suggesting ways to do church that would provide a more holistic learning experience, or perhaps he could investigate other, more ancient traditions of Christian worship and see if those offer any lessons about worshiping with the whole of one’s self: ears, eyes, body, mind, and soul. Instead, Miller assumes that his critique applies to all forms of corporate Christian worship—rather than just the sort he’s familiar with—and that the solution is to drop church altogether.
With that being said, listening and hearing are vital, and not exactly optional, aspects of Christian worship. Christ would preach wherever he went, and those who listened and responded to Him in faith did rightly, while those who had better places to be or were indifferent to Christ’s preaching and miracles erred greatly (Matt. 11:21–24). In Romans 10:17, St. Paul confirms that “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.” Christ, of course, commissioned the Apostles to continue His ministry of preaching (Mark 16:15–20), sending the Holy Spirit to accomplish this task (Acts 2). And, as Christ himself attests, there is no difference between the apostolic preaching of the Church and Christ’s own preaching: “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” (Luke 10:16). We are all called to listen to and hear Christ and his Church, and there is no special, alternative dispensation for visual or kinesthetic learners.
However, in the services of the Orthodox Church—and all of traditional, apostolic Christianity—visual and kinesthetic learners find plenty to see and do. Whatever type of learner you are—unless you suffer from the loss of one of your senses—participation in right-worship (ορθοδοξία) will engage all senses, and it always involves ‘doing.’
We are called to bring our whole lives to offer as a living sacrifice to God (Rom. 12:1), and the initial act of showing up to church is ‘doing.’ Venerating an icon is both ‘seeing’ and ‘doing.’ Processions are ‘doing.’ The kiss of peace is ‘doing.’ Bows and prostrations are ‘doing.’ Lighting candles is ‘seeing’ and ‘doing.’ Seeing and touching the vestments of the clergy is ‘doing’. Prayer is ‘doing.’ Preparing for and receiving the eucharist is ‘doing.’ Even singing the hymns of the church is (or should be) something you ‘do,’ and not merely hear. All of these are significant elements of Orthodox liturgical worship—which culminate in the central act of the Eucharist—and in all of them we are doing something, namely cooperating with the grace of God that is present in His Church in order to be united with Him.
Miller proceeds to add error upon error by assuming that worship in church is primarily about ‘learning.’ Given his evangelical or Protestant context, which can tend to place the sermon at the heart of the service (where the Eucharist ought to be), it is somewhat understandable that he falsely equates worship with learning. And ‘learning’—or the ‘transforming of your mind’ in St. Paul’s words—is, of course, a significant aspect of what should transpire in church gatherings. It isn’t, however, the heart or essence of worship. Worship is offering up our lives in praise and thanksgiving to God with His people, receiving the transfiguring Grace of Christ through the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church.
Worship shouldn’t end with corporate church services, of course, but it does and must begin there; there where the Body of Christ is gathered to offer up prayer and thanksgiving to God; there where the apostolic priesthood is; there where we receive Christ himself in word and sacrament. And without that source of true worship—Christ himself—to nourish and sustain you in the rest of your life at your business, at home, or out in nature, a life of worship is impossible.
And yet modern, ‘enlightened’ Christians would tell us that God can be worshiped just as easily in their work or in nature without attending church services. (One wonders if the worship-through-work holds true on the Lord’s day?) Ideas and excuses such as these aren’t novel, though they have grown especially prevalent. In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom heard versions of such excuses as prominent in his day: ‘church is boring’ or ‘it’s too far from my home.’ To this he responds:
The martyrs shed their blood for the Truth, and are you concerned about such a little distance [to the church]? They sacrificed their lives for Christ, and you don’t want to toil even a little? The Lord died for your sake, and are you too bored to come to church, preferring to stay at your house? Nevertheless, you must come, to see the devil being defeated, the saint winning, God being glorified and the Church triumphing.
This happens uniquely in the Church. The Church is not simply the sum total of her liturgical services, but this is the heart of her life of worship and an indispensable means for attaining union with Christ. It doesn’t happen anywhere else.