I recently read a wonderful article by Matthew Sigler titled “Misplacing Charisma: Where Contemporary Worship Lost Its Way,” which was reprinted in the Seedbed Sower’s Almanac & Seed Catalog 2015-2016. In this article Sigler provides the background of Contemporary Worship as originating from the charismatic movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and posits that while mainline denominations adapted the style of contemporary worship, for the most part they did not adopt the pneumatology—that is, the work of the Holy Spirit—that undergirds it. That pneumatology being, as Sigler states, “Specifically, the singing of praise-and-worship songs was understood sacramentally. God was uniquely encountered, by the Spirit, in congregational singing.” This insight is profound, and carries profound implications.
Sacramentality has to do with an encounter of the Divine Presence in and through the created world. While the Protestant tradition confesses two Sacraments of the church, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, many recognize that other actions may carry a “sacramental” character. Certainly as heirs of the Wesleyan tradition we believe in the Means of Grace, which include prayer, fasting, studying the scriptures, and holy conferencing. And although we do not share our Catholic brothers’ and sisters’ perspective on marriage as a Sacrament of the church, one can surely see in this special relationship a way in which we experience God. Likewise, I would agree that in the corporate worship of the church, including congregational singing, we encounter God. The church is itself sacramental in nature in that it is the body of Christ, composed of created beings, with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the Divine Presence. But the word Sigler used which caught my imagination is “uniquely.” I believe it is significant that uniquely and not exclusively is used. It would be wrong to assume the charismatic movement made any kind of claim to the exclusivity of encountering God in congregational singing, yet there is a privileged and significant place assigned to this act. This, I believe, is problematic.
Historically speaking, the church has confessed two sacraments (from the Protestant perspective). As I have already stated, I do not believe this means that the church claims exclusive encounter with God in these acts. To do so would be to limit God, binding God within our religious and ritual structures. This is not consistent with biblically orthodox Christian faith. But neither is human prescription of our approach to God. The reason Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are confessed as Sacraments, meaning they are privileged as the acts in which “God was uniquely encountered,” is because these are the only two given us by the Lord Jesus Christ. These are not the exclusive place to experience the Divine Presence, but they are unique. If we instead choose for ourselves how we will uniquely encounter God, we are in danger of emulating the Israelites who worshiped YHWH around the Ashram poles upon the high places. The entire character of biblical worship is that it occurs on God’s terms, not ours. In the covenant of faith God is the superior party who dictates the terms of the relationship, not us. This is important, because although our intentions may we well meaning enough, distortion of God’s truth is a constant pitfall for humanity.
So why has this happened? I believe that not only is Christianity an inherently sacramental faith, having at its very core the principle of sacramentality in the Incarnation of Christ, but that as human beings we are creatures who need sacramentality. We are creatures made for relationship with the Creator; therefore we must have something which bridges the gap between the Infinite and the finite – a mediator. Christ is that Mediator; Divine nature and human nature together in hypostatic union – a mystery.
Until Christ’s return, we the church carry this same sacramental character in that we, human beings in community, are the Body of Christ inhabited by his Holy Spirit in order to mediate Christ to the world. Because we have a need for this deep and intimate encounter, our Lord gave us the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper precisely because he knew we would otherwise seek out our own sacramental encounters. So much of evangelical Protestantism, both mainlines and charismatics (the Catholic and Anglican charismatic movements, which tended to pour more spiritual significance into the Sacraments, not withstanding) has tended to drain the spiritual or metaphysical reality from the Sacraments. Whether from the Zwinglian influence on a non-sacramental view of the acts instituted by Christ as “ordinances”, or the cessation of regular celebration due to the influences of Revivalism and a lack of ordained clergy on the American frontier, true sacraments have largely been absent from the evangelical Protestant landscape. In the absence of “true” sacraments, people have adapted new ones.
The Spirit of God was always at work in and through music and singing, that’s not in question here; however the privileged position these acts of worship now enjoy may really more a function of our prescription rather than God’s. The same might also have been said in earlier times about preaching. The safest guard against an anthropologically centered “worship experience” is the guardrails provided by our Lord in the Sacraments of the church.
More seeds to explore: Read Matthew Sigler’s other articles, such as “Stuck in No-Man’s Land: The New Sound of Contemporary Worship”; you can also watch a video by Lester Ruth, and download the group discussion guide on the history of contemporary worship music; check out our Worship Design Collective for weekly resources like this one; view all articles related to worship on Seedbed.com; get resources specific for the season of the Christian worship calendar.