This post is written to the church, but I think that non-church-goers will find it interesting and provocative as well. If you’re a person who has wondered what is the point of worship, or why some worshipers behave the way they do in worship, this may help your understanding. Personally, it has been helpful for me to understand worship in terms of romance.
What is Romance?
Of course we must start the conversation here. I make no claims to be an expert on romance, but when I got married, I thought a lot about romance because I wanted to keep my marriage from ever growing stale. As a guy, I found the whole subject to be pretty confusing. Yet I noticed that all women everywhere automatically seemed be experts on the subject. If any woman declared something to be romantic, it was so. Furthermore, women seemed to expect romance from their partners even though none of the guys I asked had a clue about how to deliver what was expected. We guessed it must have something to do with flowers. We hoped it might have something to do with sex.
Was there some secret body of knowledge on romance out there…somewhere?
I thought of a list of things that are considered to be stereotypically romantic:
Flowers…chocolate…dressing up…music…slow dancing…a candlelight dinner with a white tablecloth…poetry. But there seemed to be no consistent rules. Early in our marriage Mollie once told me that she thought a picnic we’d had was romantic. But it wasn’t even a very nice picnic. I was actually kind of embarrassed the whole time. First of all, we were poor art students. Then, it started raining, so we had to have our picnic under an overpass in midtown Kansas City. There was a big graffiti scrawl on the concrete wall behind us that said, ”CAROL IS A LESBIAN,” and I was concerned that we might get mugged at any moment. I guess I was pretty stoked that I had a wife who thought this was romantic, but what was the common thread? From the picnic I learned that it didn’t necessarily have to do with money, or sunshine and bunnies, or an exotic location. (But romance could involve an exotic location.) What’s a clueless guy to do?
Well…I have the answer! Go ahead – test my definition! Tell me any romantic act you have ever heard of, and it will fit my definition; everything from hiring a skywriter to write a lover’s name in the sky, to a simple candlelit meal at home without the kids. There is a common thread. Here it is:
Romance is an expression of loving, thoughtful, focused attention on one’s lover. Within those parameters, almost anything can be romantic.
(My female readers are now saying, “Duh.”)
Do you see how every example listed above fits? If you go out of your way to unexpectedly pick up flowers for your lover, (assuming your lover likes flowers,) do you see how this says, “I thought about you, and I cared enough to do something about it”? Our lame picnic, poor and simple though it was, began with thoughtful preparation and culminated in an afternoon of focused attention, (with a little spontaneity thrown in.) Romance has less to do with the specific material gift or activity than with the thought and intentionality of expressing one’s love.
Allow me to elaborate on the definition:
“Romance is an expression…
If it is not expressed, it’s not romantic. It might be a great idea, it might be loving feelings, but it mustn’t stop there. If you write your lover a note expressing your love, but you never give her the note, that’s not romantic. This means that romance involves making oneself vulnerable; but that’s part of the adventure of love.
…of loving, thoughtful, focused attention…
Romance is about transcendence, meaning, going beyond the everyday, ordinary, busyness of life. Yes, nice restaurants do in fact have electricity; the white tablecloths and candles are there to help to create a transcendent atmosphere. Romantic restaurants do not have a big freaking TV screen with a football game playing. It’s the same with dressing up; it says, “You are worth taking the time to get cleaned up for.” Dressing beyond the ordinary makes the statement that your lover is special to you. The point is focused attention. Therefore, talking to a third party or playing games on your phone during a date is not romantic.
Mollie inadvertently brought the idea of focused attention into focus for me early in our marriage. One Saturday, we’d been running errands together for a couple of hours, doing our necessary stuff. On the way home she said something like, “We should spend some time together. I feel like I haven’t seen you in a while.” I cocked my head, puzzled, seeing as we’d just spent 3 hours together. But we had been focused together on our errands. She was talking about set-apart, focused attention on each other. Running errands together is better than nothing, but a romantic relationship must at times transcend the daily stuff of life.
…on one’s lover.
At the risk of stating the obvious, romantic expression demonstrates an intimate knowledge of one’s lover, and that’s part of what makes it romantic. It stems from thoughts of the specific person, not generic techniques from a book, or a demonstration of how cool you are. If your lover is allergic to flowers, it’s not romantic to give her flowers. If she’s trying to lose weight, she might not consider a big box of chocolates to be a thoughtful gift. If the skywriter (who is really a proxy for you,) misspells her name in the sky, that’s not ideal. Love, romantic or otherwise, by definition is selflessness. Narcissism is at odds with romance. The power of love is selflessness.
What does any of this have to do with worship?
Possibly nothing, especially if you have a conception of Christianity that stems from religious tradition. However, if you place the authority of the Bible above human religious tradition, you will see parallels between romance and worship. To begin with, the Bible describes a relational Creator who desires relationship with us, and who has demonstrated His love for us by restoring communion through Jesus. In fact both Israel and the church are described as a bride (Isa 61:10; 62:4,5; Eph 5:31,32.) Jesus referred to Himself as a Bridegroom (Mat 9:15; Mk 2:19; Lk 5:34.)
Consider again the idea of transcendence – meaning, that which goes beyond our everyday, ordinary experience. I’ve previously written about how the arts speak the language of transcendence. I would now add that worship is an area of transcendence in exactly the same ways that romance is, and we see this transcendence created through the arts in exactly the same ways.
Consider our same list of stereotypical romantic trappings: flowers…chocolate…dressing up… dancing…music…a candlelight dinner with a white tablecloth…poetry. Excluding chocolate, can we not all say we’ve seen all of these things in a church? Can we not think of the communion table as the candlelit dinner with a white tablecloth – especially if we recall Jesus the Bridegroom’s words, “Do this in remembrance of me”? As a younger man, in my search for pure authenticity in my pursuit of God, I tended to reject these things as “religious trappings.” I saw the candles, the darkened sanctuary, incense, robes, dressing up, stained glass, and music as an attempt to “conjure up” God; perhaps even a substitute for the Real Thing. I still suppose this may be true for some people.
But now I see that these things can also be romantic expressions of love toward God.
In the same way that a lover makes himself presentable, and sets the table and lights the candles in anticipation of a set-apart, transcendent evening with the object of his affection, so the church can approach God in worship in this way. As with a romantic human relationship, such expression toward God begins with a singularly devoted heart. In fact, any romantic expression, be it directed toward God or people, is empty without a loving heart behind it. God has never valued religion over relationship:
“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings” ( – the prophet Hosea 6:6.)
“You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” ( – Jesus, Matt 15:8,9.)
In the same way that one’s loving, romantic expression must aim to satisfy the desires of a specific lover, so our worship must aim to satisfy the desires of our Creator, who is the lover of our souls. Whether we worship underground, in a humble house of worship, or in a lavish cathedral; whether our worship is private, corporate, spontaneous, or liturgical and ritualistic, Jesus has told us what the Father desires in worship:
“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I say to you, ‘You must be born again’…The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 3:6,7; 4:23, 24.)
I suspect that God created the unity in diversity of monogamous marriage, not only to reflect His nature, but also to give us a concrete help in understanding our “marriage relationship” with Him. This relationship, after all, must be the primary one, since it is eternal, while our human marriages will come to an end (Eph 5:31,32; Matt 22:29-32.)