Formulaic Idolatry: Why Christians Should Stop Making Idols Out of Methods
Unanswered prayers have become a humbling aspect of my Christian experience.
You see, not many of us know how to pray, because, as James states, “You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and don’t receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your evil desires.”
Wisdom and character formation are derived from unanswered prayers.
Did you know that?
I had made an idol of spiritual methods to acquire things from God. I wanted nothing more than to accomplish a set of patterns and modes to find favor with the Divine Creator, much like the prophets of Baal sought to do whatever it took for their god to send fire down from heaven to consume the water on the altar.
No, I’ve never cut myself for a spiritual answer to my material problems. But I have starved myself, punished my body, endangered my mental well-being, and ostracized friends all in the name and search of some answer to a prayer request.
I too thought God was asleep and all I had to do was shout a little louder, a little longer to get what I wanted from Him.
Before I continue, I must admit that there is nothing inherently wrong with submitting one’s prayer requests to God. There is nothing wrong with wanting Divine help and assistance, in asking for miracles, signs, and wonders, to help guide and possibly deliver us from some uncertain end or a very certain one that is not in our favor. We must, under God’s wisdom, pray and pray well. Not just often for often’s sake, but pray to know and be known by God. There is a robust relationship developed in communion and conversation with God that may be an end in itself. If prayers were never answered again, in the sense that God would only converse with us but never dispense out miracles again, I believe, and I am confident of this, that God would still be God.
God isn’t God because of what He does but because of who He is.
Now that we’re past that minor disclosure so you don’t think of me as a Christian fatalist, I can elaborate on the dangers and risks of idolizing methods.
Earlier this week I was texting back and forth with my pastor and he asked me whether I had experienced high church environments and what that experienced might’ve been like if I had. For many of you who don’t know, “high church” in so few words is a church experience that seeks to emphasize historically liturgical and ecclesiological practices, namely, rituals and rites, wearing certain vestments that imbue if not expected regal and honor, holding certain hierarchical structures in reverence, in a way to heighten or perhaps better appreciate the sacredness of what we call corporate worship. “High church” is something very common within Anglican, African Methodist Episcopal, Episcopal, and Catholic movements. The practices, neither good nor bad in and of themselves, are respected and have made meaningful appearances within Pentecostal movements as of late.
Because I was raised within a Pentecostal church, far removed from mainline Protestantism and suspicious of anything even remotely connected to Catholicism or Anglicanism for fear that bishops and priests might revisit our sola fide movement with their “man-worshipping” practices, I seldom witnessed what I now understand as high church environments. Again, this movement I was part of was in Brazil, very far removed from the way most westerners think, even more from the way Christian North Americans and Northern Europeans think about church liturgy. Therefore, I had little to no experience within “high church” environments.
My church, the Assembly of God, Bethlehem Ministry, devalued Tractarian high church rituals and settled for low church or simply put, modernized corporate worship settings where the presence of catechisms, books about creeds, and hymns older than 100 years or so was fairly absent from our gatherings. Granted, some churches prized traditional practices more than others but as a whole, our denomination, or more so our denomination within a broader pentecostal denomination did not value the ritualism of high church experiences.
With that said, Pastor Rohan and I spoke about the value certain practices add to a worship experience, especially in an age where Millennials and Gen Z’s have made it their goal in life to deconstruct everything, including their faith. Therefore “ancient” practices, traditions, customs, and norms are now up for grabs if not worthy of the trash bins, depending on who you ask. Many of our next-gen church family members want less to do with modes and methods of old and more to do with feelings, emotions, experiences, sounds, visuals, and mystical moments that catapult them into better and possibly, they argue, wholesome experiences with God.
I’m not here dogging the traditionalists for upholding what they believe is best nor am I disparaging the new kids on the block for trying something different.
What I contend with is the idolization of methods, namely, how we begin to worship not God for who He is but the means and streams we use to carry us to His graces only to accomplish and merit some personal benefit for us to use and misuse with impunity.
In my experience, I’ve seen and participated in Pentecostal services where members felt as if they were missing something if there was not a session or two of timeless tongues-speaking. If the minister, the worship leader, the band director, or the tithe collector did not break out in an impromptu, ear-shattering, visitor-scaring unintelligible shouting match between them and someone else who wanted to perhaps reach the same level of spiritual experience through glossolalia, if not surpass it, many people might have walked away at the end of service complaining that it was a bit dry or dull because the experience did not match what they’re accustomed to experiencing when they attend a “worship service.”
If ministers did not scream and sweat from that screaming while preaching, people would say the sermon was subpar or too “mainline” for their liking. What got people “moving” was the fervency of the minister. What sustained their spiritual experiences, what kept them believing that God was active and present, wasn’t the Biblical fact of God promising His omnipresence and omnipotence to all, but more so the pastor’s excitement when he braved the stage to hug the pulpit while making us believe the microphone was the only thing holding him together.
I’ve slept through all-nighter vigil services where prayer wasn’t prayer, they were public therapy sessions, shouted at the top of one’s lungs for whoever happened to grab the microphone next. Members who sat, praying in silence and peaceably, once in the hold of the microphone became whirlwind prayer warriors as if the same gamma rays that made Bruce Banner turn into the Hulk were present in the genetic makeup of microphones in our church. The moment the quiet sister grabbed that device she transformed and with her, the church.
Some call it Holy Spirit and others call it an Oscar-worthy performance. Depends on who you ask.
Without these accepted “methods” or social habits within the church, people began to believe that perhaps something was wrong with the church and not their expectations and idolization of acquired methods.
Think about it.
Can you walk into a church, any church, from Joel Osteen’s “church” or stadium, or campus, whatever he calls it, or into an Episcopalian, Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, or Baptist church, and freely worship God?
Now, if your answer is “Yes! Of course, I would!” Then you may have transcended the corrupted gene within the human genome experience that forces us to worship, under comfort and hopes of repetition, to hold on to the methods and modes that best help us attain what we believe is best for us and what feels and works best for everyone else. You may have come to a state of mind, spiritual maturity, and reliance upon Jesus so advanced from the rest of Christendom that to walk with God’s children is the easiest thing for you to do. You can celebrate worship where it is offered to God and you can walk away “filled” by the Spirit of God.
You have and will continue to transcend ephemeral methods that mean little in God’s grand scheme for humanity’s redemption.
Now, if your answer is “No! I cannot because…” Then you may have made a God out of your accepted and time-established socially and locally accepted, geographically inherited methods.
What I mean is that the practices that you feel accustomed to today, that you have come to associate with sacred rituals, that you feel belong in your corporate worship setting for which they cannot be replaced, and the garbs, vestments, colors, hymnals, instruments, service structure, and practices have all, with time, come into existence as part of a geographical and cultural makeup and less so as Divine directives.
Within Christianity, only one major practice is considered timeless and immutable and it’s the practice Christ asked that we practice together in corporate worship (even that term, corporate worship is new) and it’s called communion or The Lord’s Supper or The Lord’s Table. The breaking of bread and drinking of wine in remembrance of Christ’s death, resurrection, and second advent is to be and has been a definable aspect of Christianity through millennia, alongside water baptism by immersion or however else. I prefer immersion because it made me feel like I was truly dying to myself and living for Christ. But that’s another story.
Everything else is up for grabs and equally up for holding on to, but must not become the bridge by which we worship God nor the aim of our worship, ever.
If you wear purple vestments and robes that reflect an ancient aura of respect and honorability, do so, but do not make clothing and appearances an unshakable necessity of your worship life.
If you speak in tongues and believe in prophetic utterances or words of wisdom or whatever Pentecostals choose to pull out of the Pokemon ball of spiritual mysteries next, then do so and enjoy these spiritual liberties and gifts wisely and to the honor of God. But, do not make the practice of speaking in tongues and hearing the prophetic or miracles a necessary part of your spiritual formation and worship experience otherwise you will worship the method instead of worshipping God. If you fall prey to this line of religious reasoning your world will implode when you seek miracles God has not promised and you’re left devoid of that which you unwisely expected, thought you were entitled to and never received. This way of religious thinking will shatter not only your faith when you believe God has “failed” you but will also shatter your identity, your idea of belonging, and your optimism is going on when you realize life is not about that which you thought it was entirely about.
God will not remove every cancer. He will not protect every child. He will not open every sea for us to cross. That does not make Him any less Godly, it makes Him nothing more and nothing less. We must turn the arrows of misguided expectations back on ourselves to recapture what this relationship between God and mankind is truly about.
If you read creeds, belabor the process of catechisms in hopes of educating the laity about the value of sacraments; if you perform homilies and devote the church to cyclical and nearly nonsensical periods and sessions of standing, sitting, kneeling, and moments of silence without cause, then do so, for the honor and glory of Christ. But please, for the sake of your spiritual growth in Christ Jesus, do not make these modes and methods, these practices that were not around in the 1st century or the 7th century a habit so formative and ingrained within your Christian psyche that to go without them makes you feel as if you’ve gone without “church” or without your fulfilling “experience” with God.
I’m not here to say that methods are bad, nor to promote the idea that a method-less church is better.
My beef, my umbrage, is with the idolization of these things, as if all that we do today in church, in a corporate setting, and possibly even in a private setting, is sacred simply because we have done them for generations.
One does not have to kneel to pray for their prayers to be heard. One need not verbalize prayer for prayer to be heard. One need not attend church on Sundays to be considered a valued member of a church. One need not take communion every month or every week to be considered part of the body of Christ. One need not listen to “worship music” whatever “worship music” means for one to elevate to spiritual bliss. “Music” for a great deal of time was poetic or religious. Poetic and romantic or religious, glorifying God, gods, or men who saw themselves as gods. So “worship music” seems more like a marketing neologism that helps corporate entities capitalize on religious groups who want to feel better about the songs they listen to, thinking that listening to and repeating the words in those songs, in and of themselves, makes them better people (better Christians) or gives them “worship-like” experiences.
Whether you listen to “worship music” or not, I do not care, what I care for you should not care for, as I prefer electronic, metal, classical, hip-hop, chill-hop, and alternative stuff. Regardless, do not make “worship music” how you enter into the place of worship as worship is a life-long experience not a momentary experience relegated to Sunday morning service.
I’ve witnessed Christians connect with God over silent prayer and others connect with God over gladiator simulated combat incidents where ministers throw invisible lances at participants who then drop to the floor. Some experiences are bizarre. It doesn’t negate them, nor does it affirm them. I am only stating that some are less accepted than others. Each needs to be examined or perhaps better understood to see whether there is validity to it or not. Independent of the method of approach or the mode of worship, we must not make these the end of things, the god of things.
If you find yourself constantly depressed by the overabundance of a particular practice in church or disturbed by the absence of a ritual, perhaps it is time to have a conversation with God and then one with yourself about why you feel the way you do.
Why has one thing or a set of things become so crucial to your worship experience?
If Jesus collects you into His glory and you enter heaven to find that the redeemed are roaming about naked, that heaven is racially diverse, and that no one is speaking in tongues, nor wearing purple robes, reading creeds, or baptizing babies, what will you do?
Will your answer be, “Well I’m in heaven so none of that matters here, right?”
Why must you wait to reach heaven to break from the mold of method worship? Why not start today?
I’m not promoting ecumenicalism for ecumenicalism’s sake. I’m attempting to express to you, my Christian reader, that if you follow Jesus Christ, these temporal methods you have become so accustomed to and are now sickly reliant on are worthless in the long run.
I will not belabor my thoughts on this any further. I’ve already taken too much of your time. Find comfort in Christ, dig deeper into the Lord’s redemptive and liberating work, and reflect on how that impacts your life independent of the method of worship you choose to honor Him with.
If you find yourself, once again, I hate asking this, depending on a certain denominational and liturgical structure to “experience God” you have made a god of your methods and your god is not Christ.
Therefore, unanswered prayer is in the long run a blessing because God wants to break us from the entanglements we’ve set up for ourselves and that will only happen when everything we expect to go right ends up going drastically wrong. It’s better to break from the idolatry now than when everything hangs on a single prayer through a preferred method.