Pastor and author Kevin De Young has compared the danger of familiarity within worship to watching a flight attendant give the pre-flight instructions. You know the routine: how to properly buckle your seatbelt and what to do in the slim chance that something goes terribly wrong in flight.
I clearly remember the first time I flew. When the attendant started doing her pre-flight routine, I was all ears. Of course, it helped that these were the days before iPhones and earbuds. If I wanted to listen to music, it meant taking out the portable CD player and remembering to take headphones that didn’t fit neatly into my pocket.
Regardless, I listened to her every word as if my life depended on it (because it might). In case the plane goes down, take the oxygen mask and secure it over my own mouth before helping someone else. Got it. No problem, I thought. Except that I knew, deep down inside, that if the plane really were to take a nose dive, I was quite certain it wouldn’t matter whether I helped myself first or not.
That was many years ago. Now, whenever I fly, my electronic device is up and running long before the flight attendant gets around to her routine. And unless I’m sitting in one of the first few rows, I flat-out ignore her.
Why? Because of familiarity. I’ve heard it all before.
Identifying the Log
It’s not that different when it comes to church. Most of you who are reading this article have been there, done that. Sunday morning and Sunday evening. Week in, week out. Month after month, year after year, decade after decade.
But could it be that we’re so familiar with attending church and gathering for worship that we tune it out, like I tend to do with the flight attendant?
One of the beautiful things about Reformed worship is the biblical liturgy. There is a reason we do what we do. Yet there is where the danger lies. Its predictable nature makes it easy to check out.
For example, how often don’t we let the call to worship go in one ear and out the other? Trust me, I see it every week. God is kindly and graciously gathering us into His holy presence by His Word as His covenant people, yet all we can think about is where the lady in front of us got her coat, or what a rotten morning we had just to get to church, or how we’re going to get anything out of the service sitting in front of that family.
Or take the greeting. How often are we left unfazed that the creator of the universe meets with us sinners in a stance of mercy, peace, and grace? Ho-hum. On to the next.
And we’ve all been there when it comes to singing. The same words that may have led us to tears years ago now leave us unmoved. All we can think about is how slowly the pianist is playing or how loudly the organist is pounding.
We are so familiar with Exodus 20 that we could literally say it in our sleep. We know the pastor’s cadence. We could mimic his every pause and intonation. We check our watch. Then he says something about Jesus, reads a Bible verse that is supposed to be assuring, and we’re on to the prayer.
And we Reformed pastors love to pray long prayers! We’re all encouraged to listen, but it’s hard not to daydream. Occasionally we’re jolted when we hear our name mentioned, but usually we’re hearing words without listening.
We haven’t even got to the sermon yet. But if we’re being totally honest, even a great sermon sometimes leaves us uninspired. In part, because we think we’ve heard it all before. Or at least most of it.
Element by element, with each new passing week, we drift away (some of you literally) into our little semi-comatose kingdoms of self. While God is speaking directly to us, all we hear is white noise. Like Charlie Brown, blah-blah-blah.
Getting to the Root
We have to honestly assess ourselves. Why are we often numb to that which is familiar? Is it a case of been there, done that, heard it all before?
Speaking as a pastor, some of the blame rests squarely on us. If we rush through the elements of worship without challenging people as to why we do what we do, no wonder they have a tendency to be distracted. If our preaching lacks passion, how can we expect our people to be passionate?
Part of the reason I’ve given up listening to the flight attendants is that the vast majority of them go through their routine with about as much passion as a stump. I can understand how this happens. Maybe at first they were young and optimistic. “I’m going to be different. I’m going to be funny. Whatever happens, they can’t blame me for not trying!”
But then reality sets in. People aren’t looking. Some are even sleeping. No one seems to care. After a while, you lose the passion. Is it even worth trying? What’s the point? So the flight attendant does what she does because she has to. And some pastors are there. All duty, no delight. If he’s not amazed, why would I be?
But there is a deeper problem that affects both speaker and listener alike, and it is this: we are bored with God.
Bored with God? How is that even possible? God is a lot of things, but boring isn’t one of them!
But it’s true. Think of your reaction to seeing new Christians show up at your church. They’re excited, on fire, full of questions. Their enthusiasm exposes the darkness of our boredom. Or worse yet, we quietly congregate and criticize their newfound joy as either emotionalism or naive.
Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7:36–50 was like that. He invited Jesus to his house (because he thought he was pretty important). Everybody who was anybody was there. And then she walked in.
A notorious sinner (probably a prostitute). How embarrassing. She obviously wasn’t invited, but then it got even worse. She started making a scene. Talk about inappropriate! She was weeping and pouring perfume on Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair. And oh, how she carried on!
Yet her love for Jesus contrasted sharply with Simon’s lackluster pride. “Whoever is forgiven much, loves much. And whoever is forgiven little, loves little.” The point was clear.
Could it be that we in the Reformed community love God and others poorly because we aren’t all that amazed (at least anymore) that God has sent Jesus to forgive us?
And so the grace that used to amaze us bores us now. We still sing the song. We still talk the talk. But deep down in the recesses of our hearts, we’ve lost our sense of wonder, our sense of awe, our sense of surprise in the gospel of grace.
I wonder if that’s what happened to the older generation mentioned in Judges 2. We’re told these sober words: “And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judg. 2:10).
Kids, these days. Will they ever grow up? But wait. The question that begs to be answered is this: How did the younger generation suddenly not know the Lord or the work that He had performed? Were they not listening?
Or could it be that their parents lost the wonder of the exodus, just like some of us have lost the wonder of the cross?
How the Gospel Addresses Familiarism
Familiarity is not the problem. We are. The answer is not to abandon the same old story and catechisms and liturgies and traditions and forms but to see that the doctrine, to use a line from the English playwright Dorothy Sayers, is the drama.
The gospel story that runs through the pages of the Bible is the most exciting, exhilarating, passion-producing story ever written. The problem is not God. He is amazing. His story of redemption is stunning. No, the problem is us.
Not only do we tend to take familiar things for granted, but also our hearts are prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love.
It hardly ever happens overnight. We usually don’t wake up one day and decide that we’re now unfazed by Jesus.
It’s more like the proverbial frog in the kettle. Slowly, over time, the temperature rises, and we don’t realize that we’re being lulled to sleep.
What’s the answer? How do we keep ourselves amazed? Not by turning to a different story or to different methods or to different means. The solution is found in being amazed again and again by the same old story—of Jesus and His love.
To be touched by the flames of the gospel, we have to get close to the blazing center. We must go to the cross daily. We must expect and long for preaching that brings Christ to us and us to Him. We must let the gospel be good news to these sinners’ ears.
And we must tell the next generation. Not merely out of duty, as if this is part of our job description. But out of the glorious duty of delight!
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised,
and his greatness is unsearchable!
One generation shall commend your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds,
and I will declare your greatness.
They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness
and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.
The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
—Ps. 145: 3–8
Man of sorrows! what a name
For the Son of God, who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
Rev. Michael J. Schout is the pastor of Grace in Alto, MI. He welcomes your feedback at: firstname.lastname@example.org