C. S. Lewis on Corporate Worship

Article
05.29.2018

Early in both The Screwtape Letters and Letters to Malcolm, Lewis addresses the relationship between the individual Christian and the church. In Malcolm, Lewis primarily confronts the question of liturgy and corporate worship; in Screwtape, the elder tempter instructs Wormwood on how to foster the patient’s disillusionment with the church. This article will address both dimensions of the Christian life.

THE DANGER OF THE “LITURGICAL FIDGET”

With respect to liturgy, while Lewis has clear opinions about church music, public prayers, and so forth, his main concern is elsewhere. More than insisting on his preferences as a laymen, his main exhortation is for ministers to avoid constant change and flux in the church’s liturgy. His whole position boils down to a plea for permanence and uniformity. He laments the perpetual churning of liturgical novelty—what he calls “the Liturgical Fidget”—the ever-changing “brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgments, simplifications, and complications of the service.”[1] Such novelty inevitably tends to move worship in the direction of entertainment.

In Lewis’s view, the worship service is “a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore.”

It’s something we use or enact in order to honor God and edify each other. Thus, the best worship service is one we don’t have to think about. Rather, it’s something we think with. “As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing, but learning to dance.”[2] The best worship service is one in which our attention is fixed on God, not on our steps.

Novelty in the service prevents us from using the service to worship God. Instead, our attention is drawn to the service itself. We must think about worshiping, rather than actually worshiping. Or worse, the novelty may draw our attention to the minister (or the musician). This distraction endangers devotion. In fact, Lewis wonders whether much novelty in our worship is driven by “clerical one-upmanship,” the desire of a pastor or worship leader to stand out from the crowd. Christ’s charge to Peter, Lewis reminds us, was “Feed my sheep, not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks.”[3]

FIXED FORMS IN WORSHIP?

Lewis thus encourages churches (and especially pastors) to adopt a liturgy and to stick with it. At the same time, he is not completely hidebound. Updating language for the sake of congregational comprehension will be necessary (even if it ought to be done gradually and carefully). Introducing new songs, prayers, and forms may be appropriate. But the goal should be to create a stable and consistent liturgy that allows Christians to feel “at home” in the service so that they can make progress in the art of worship. In a fixed form of service, the congregation knows what is coming. The challenge of spontaneity is that people must engage their critical faculties as they listen; they can’t “Amen” what is said until they’ve evaluated whether it is true or false, phony or sincere. But it is nearly impossible to carry on this critical activity while engaging directly with God in worship. Ironically, “the rigid form really sets our devotions free,” because we’ve learned what steps come next, we’ve “gone through the motions” before, and we can keep our thoughts from straying and thus fully focus attention on God. Additionally, spontaneity in the form of worship runs the risk of becoming preoccupied with the present moment—current events, present fads, and so forth. Fixed prayers allow the permanent shape of Christianity to show through.[4]

For my own part, Lewis’s commendation of mostly fixed forms has proved helpful to me as a pastor. As we’ve sought to establish the liturgy in our church, we’ve tried to accent the permanence of Christianity through a mostly fixed order of service and the use of consistent prayers and words at key parts in our service (such as the assurance of pardon). At the same time, we vary the songs and some of the prayers to remind ourselves that God does speak to us here and now, in our present circumstances (another important insight from Lewis). As Lewis says in the second letter to Malcolm, “We ought to be . . . simultaneously aware of closest proximity and infinite distance.”[5] In worship, we are mindful of both God’s transcendence and his immanence, of the permanence of Christianity and its relevance to our own day. In this case, the choice is not to adopt either complete permanence or total relevance, but to insist on holding both of them, even as they may stretch us in opposite directions.

WORSHIP MUSIC

I mentioned just above that the goal of worship is to honor God and edify each other. It’s important to note that both of these purposes are necessary as we consider the question of worship. Any lawful activity can be an occasion to glorify God. Singing, drinking a beer, throwing darts, taking a dip in the sea—all of these can be done unto God. “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do . . . ” (1 Cor. 10:31). But not everything that glorifies God should be done in a service of worship. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Eccles. 3:1). There are a great many things, good in themselves and in their proper place, that would be inappropriate—out of season—in a worship service. Throwing darts, for instance.

What’s more, not everything that glorifies God necessarily edifies your neighbor. And the edification of our neighbors must factor into the decisions we make about our worship services. This is how Lewis navigates the tricky waters surrounding the so-called “worship wars.” In his day, this debate centered on whether church music ought to consist of complex musical pieces performed by well-trained musicians and a choir or of the old favorites sung (or shouted) by the untrained masses. Lewis’s own preference was with the highbrows; he thought that church music should be a special class of music, excellent in its kind. “In the composition and highly-trained execution of sacred music we offer our natural gifts at their highest to God, as we do also in ecclesiastical architecture, in vestments, in glass and gold and silver, in well-kept parish accounts, or the careful organization of a Social.”[6]

I happen to differ with Lewis on this question; in my mind, the primary purpose of singing in church is the expression of congregational praise. The congregation is the main “instrument” in the worship service, and the music and musicians exist to accompany and assist the congregation. Thus, my skepticism of both the highbrow choirs that Lewis loved and the rock-concert-like atmosphere of many contemporary worship services.[7]

LOVE OUR NEIGHBORS

But this is not the main thrust of Lewis’s counsel. Whatever our preferences, our fundamental call is to love our neighbors. We ought to sacrifice and relinquish our own preferences for the sake of edifying them. Differences of taste and preference provide the opportunity “for mutual charity and humility.”[8] When a highbrow sacrifices his own preference for excellent music in service to his unmusical neighbor, and when the untrained congregant listens silently and patiently to music he does not really like and cannot fully appreciate out of love for his musical neighbor, there, we can be sure, the Spirit of God is at work.

And this principle applies to far more than church music. In general, we ought not to be choosy about church. Lewis’s attitude is the right one: “The idea of allowing myself to be put off by mere inadequacy—an ugly church, a gawky server, a badly turned-out celebrant—is horrible.”[9] And it’s precisely these things that Screwtape encourages Wormwood to prey upon. The devils take advantage of the fact that the church as she really is—spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners[10]—is invisible to us. Instead, we see a drab building and a gaggle of odd people, both only half-finished. We have difficulty connecting the high biblical language—the body of Christ, the temple of God—with the actual people in the pews, their voices out of tune, their funny clothes, their squeaky boots, their double chins. The apparent incongruity is an obstacle to us, creating disillusionment (“Can this really be the people of God, the bride of Christ?”) and leading us to look down our noses at the sons and daughters of God (“People who look/sing/talk like that must have a ridiculous religion, and aren’t I a fine chap to go to church with such as these?”).

Here as in other places, Lewis writes so compellingly about our temptations because he writes from experience. When he first became a Christian, he wanted a more or less solitary religion—retiring to his room to read theology and pray. What fellowship he sought was with others like himself—educated, intellectual Christians who recognized how aesthetically pathetic most church services were (he describes the hymns at his church as “fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music”). In his autobiography, he notes that, even as an unbeliever, he “hated the Collective as much as any man can hate anything” (though at the time he was also vaguely socialistic, not yet recognizing the connection be- tween socialism and collectivism).[11] Over time, Lewis came to see the dangers in both individualism and collectivism. More importantly, he came to see how the church is the antidote to both.

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EDITOR’S NOTE:

This article has been adapted from Joe Rigney’s Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.

[1] Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, 4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Lewis to Mary Van Deusen, April 1, 1952, in Collected Letters, 3:177–78.

[5] Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, 13.

[6] Lewis, “On Church Music,” in Christian Reflections, 95.

[7] Lewis’s perspective on the question of church music is excellent, and I would encourage pastors and worship leaders to consider well the counsel he offers (ibid., 94–99).

[8] Ibid.,97.

[9] Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, 100.

[10] Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 9.

[11] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 173.