Victoria Osteen's Moment, or "What Are We Doing Here Anyway?"

It’s another week along the Southwest Freeway in Houston as Victoria Osteen has embroiled herself in a controversy over remarks about why we worship God.  The usual people say the usual things, and the usual fracas ensues, just as it has over much of what her husband Joel says.

I think we’d be better off, rather than attacking her for the falsity of her statement, looking at the truth content of what she said.  That truth content speaks as much for the current state of American evangelicalism and Full Gospel Christianity as it does for her own idea.

To start with, strictly speaking God really doesn’t need our worship.  In fact, he really doesn’t need us.  God’s self-sufficiency is at the core of the Judeo-Christian concept of God.  Consider that oft-quoted verse, John 3:16: God didn’t have to save us, or even help us, but out of love he did.  Evangelicals frequently undermine that with a mentality of “If we don’t do ___________, the world will end” (or conversely “If we don’t do ____________, the world will not end” in our creeping postmillenialism.)  We may be under necessity; God is not.

Second, there is always this contingent in Christianity who can’t stand the idea of someone being happy.  I’ve discussed this in the context of the sign of peace at Mass, Islam and that obsessively happy Frenchman, Bossuet.  Mohler tells us that happiness cannot bear the weight of the Gospel, but the Gospel can bear the weight of happiness.  We must find our happiness in God, and neither Mohler nor the Osteens have got it right on that.

Having said that, it’s certainly correct to accuse her of a weak idea of God-centred worship.  But let’s ask ourselves a question as we prepare for our next trip to church as clergy or laity: what are we supposed to be doing on Sunday morning?  We call them “worship services” but a little digging will tell us that things are more complicated than that.

The first problem is our definition of “worship,” and things are most complicated with liturgical churches.  We use the term “liturgical worship” but the plus of liturgy is that we do a variety of things during one gathering.  We have the “liturgy of the Word” which is more instructional than worshipful in nature, and the same can be applied to the homily.  We have penitential times.  The Eucharist itself is a form of worship but it’s also God ministering to us through the real presence of his Son.  So, if properly structured and executed, the liturgy is a tour de force of us meeting God.

Dumping the traditional liturgical structure as the Reformed–and many other–churches do only cuts back on the worshipful aspects of the service.  By putting the sermon at the centre of both the service and the pulpit of the church itself, it shifted more of the emphasis to education, instruction and edification. In the hands of the competent, it worked; in the hands of the inept and the heterodox, it didn’t.  That may be why Protestantism put so much effort into the splendid hymnody that’s slipping away: it’s the main act of worship in many Protestant services.

Modern Pentecost put worship front and centre into the services.  By shifting the emphasis to an experience with God himself, and de-emphasising the content of the sermon, we have the possibility of a wall-to-wall worship.  (And, in fact, while attending this, we actually did that for an hour one Sunday night.) Many traditional Pentecostals will remember “no preaching” services fondly; a few churches still experience that.

Unfortunately praise and worship these days, obsession though it is with many pastors and worship leaders, has become more of a production, with a radio-type of model for a new chorus a week, to be learned by a confused congregation.  Too much of what we see in churches draws too much of its inspiration from the entertainment industry.  What Victoria Osteen says about worship may not sit well with many Christians, but it’s very much the reality in many churches these days.

Mohler also attacks prosperity teaching.  While it’s deserved, I think he needs to stop and think that the Southern Baptist Convention worked harder than most to put together a proper, respectable and popular religion, which is prosperity teaching in another form.

Instead of launching a knee-jerk attack on Victoria Osteen, Christians should stop and, during their own worship services, consider this question: “What are we really doing here?”  If it’s too much like she describes, it’s time to do something about it.

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