Long ago, when I first gave my heart to Jesus, I spent time sojourning in some churches that were rather restrained in outward or individual emotional displays during worship. It was a really big deal if someone lifted a hand up, or even two hands, during the worship time: enough to provoke entire late night conversations among the youth group (which I was part of at the time). Questions abounded: “Why would anyone do this? Was their hand like some sort of God antennae? Were they feeling something at that moment that the rest of us weren’t privy to, that resulted in the hand being raised? What was all that about?” But the biggest question that would eventually emerge in these conversations was this one: Was this person’s outward display of worship creating a distraction for the rest of the congregation?
Over the years, I moved on to other settings, other churches – churches where raising a hand to the Lord was not only understood as normal, but was also considered quite a mild and, even at times, “overly restrained” expression of worship (and/or praise.) In these churches, there was a much more full-bodied concept of how one expressed praise – instead of the tongue being the only part of one’s body that moved during singing, people were allowed to AND encouraged to use whatever bodily posture most expressed their heart in the moment. So, I’ve been to churches where people were on their faces, on their knees, or twirling about in wild expressive dance complete with streamers and flags in their hands. And in these churches, the concept of distraction is almost completely foreign. Instead, the overriding concern that the people in those congregations often have is a concern for freedom – is the worship “free enough?” The belief in these settings is that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” and in the most direct and momentary sense, this means that to them, freedom of congregational expression is paramount – in order that the Lord’s Spirit might be given room to “do what He wants to do.”
Additionally, there is also a concept in the “worship-freedom” loving churches, that the Lord’s worship and praise ought to be extravagant – that people lavishing expressions of unbridled emotion and awe and love and whatever else towards the Lord in a corporate setting, with no concern for how others might view those personal expressions of love and praise, is something honoring to the Lord, something of which He is worthy. Thus worshipping in this manner is not something done just for one’s own emotional satisfaction, but is regarded instead as a personal offering of eschewing one’s regard for their own appearance, dignity, etiquette and personal composure, to instead bring a gift of wholehearted, expressive, and whole-bodied praise towards God.
I have to admit that over the years I’ve definitely become more partial towards the latter paradigm of group worship than the former. From this vantage point, what in my early years was once considered a potential “distraction” -seeing someone else express individual worship and praise in a unique, creative, and less-conformist-to-everyone-else way, is no longer something that I see as a distraction. In the mindset of the “freedom” concept of worship, a brother or sister’s creative worship expression, which I once viewed as a distraction stealing my attention from focusing on God, is something I instead now consider to be mutual “edification” – something that helps me see God even better.
Seeing a fellow worshiper be demonstrative in how they worship or pray to me now is a chance to see their faith being expressed, which in turn is something which bolsters my own faith and experience of meeting with God. But it took a change in my mindset for me to be able to view someone else’s spiritual expression as something that I could receive as a beneficial aspect of Christ being made known to me through His people. I now see this as the living faith in one person’s heart being made known to mine; and then in turn, my own worship being made known to those worshiping with me as well, creating a mutually reinforcing dynamic. On a human, sociological, natural level this is psychologically supportive of one another’s faith expressions, but on a deeper, more supernatural level, also is an arena where the Spirit of God is able to express His own nature corporately, through the weak yet creative expressions of His people who are passing expressed faith back and forth to one another in their full-bodied signals to Him and to one another.
But it did take a shift in mindset – if worship is about me and God being alone, and undistracted, to have this inner exchange of prayer, worship, honor, love, repentance, etc., then the question becomes: “Why gather together with other believers for worship at all?” If worship is a private thing, where I shouldn’t notice your worship and you shouldn’t notice mine, then why do we bother coming TOGETHER to do it? God *can* be encountered out in the woods, or on the seashore, or on my bed or in my living room, or alone in my car – so why not just let that be sufficient?
I think the reality is, as I’ve written before: we need both. We need to experience God in our closets, alone, or at the seashore, alone. We each NEED to have a unique connection to our Creator that doesn’t depend on man. But we just can’t pass over the fact that if we believe the New Testament scriptures (and I’m writing mostly to Christians here as I write this) that the overwhelming testimony of that scripture is that God Himself is really into this concept, of believers in Jesus sharing a corporate experience of Christ – what is called being the “body of Christ” together. Being the body can be a simply static concept: we are the body of Christ whether we get together or not – but this concept can be realized as also an experience-able concept, something which if when we get together and have some idea what we’re doing to gather “in the name of Christ” together moves from being a mere doctrine into a functional reality.
The mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (the “you” in that verse being a plural you) is that there are new facets to knowing Christ, and to worshiping Him, or gathering with Him, that really can only be realized when we do this in conjunction with one another, functioning no longer just as individuals alone, but individuals in connection with one another, experiencing the dynamic that results from each person’s faith expressions feeding into the others’. This is why so many people will share that something unique occurs when they worship with corporately – that they have an experience with the Spirit of God that is unique and cherished apart from what they have with Him while they are by themselves. And it has something to do with each of us bringing something of our own heart with God to each other, where the whole of the corporate expression becomes greater than the sum of its own individual expressive parts.
It’s like what you see when a flock of birds fly overhead – a bird flying is just a bird, which is a marvelous thing. But when hundreds of birds come together and each of them does its own little flying part, suddenly a whole new structure of expression is seen in the sky, as the flock moves in a way that creates new shapes, new forms, and new expressions of movement that any individual bird could never demonstrate to an observer. When you’re *in* that flock of birds, you can undoubtedly see some angle on this unique thing that is happening even while you are in it – and, you get a chance to see where your own little part becomes an expression of something so much greater than yourself – it gives new dimensions to your own experience of being a bird, to fly along with the others.
This post is not meant, however, as some sort of “you need to go to church” sermon, as it may be tasting right now to some of my readers. Church can be valuable to the degree that it truly gives you a chance to experience being part of the body of Christ with others. Or, it can itself unfortunately at times be the single most distracting element that believers experience to truly being the body of Christ with one another – it depends on the church, its way of being, its beliefs, its leadership and its format of meeting. Church is simply a scaffold, a structure, for people to be in spiritual life with one another. And a structure can be something that living things thrive on – and build life on, like a coral reef growing on the structure of a sunken ship or stone outcrops, or a tomato plant being helped along with a stake for it to grow around. Or structure can be something averse to life, something which destroys it – like putting a Walmart building and parking lot into a former wetland area. Some of my readers would find their spiritual life greatly enhanced by leaving their church, and others need to find one. I’m not making any statement about your own situation in regards to that, because how could I even begin to know?
But my goal here in this post is simply to point out: that there has long been this tension in the body of Christ between knowing what constitutes a corporate “distraction” from Christ for one another, and what actually constitutes a valuable opportunity to edify one another’s faith by each member of the body bringing their own expression of knowing Him to the corporate table. And I think that we can meaningfully distract one another right into loving Him more, as we offer our own distracting expressions of knowing Him and loving Him to one another.