When everything isn’t awesome: Is the modern evangelical worship service a safe place to lament?

December 5, 2017

A couple years ago, I took a day off and treated my family to a matinee showing of The Lego Movie. My wife and I have four children—three girls and one boy—so this day was like an oasis for my son and me, surrounded as we are by princess movies. As it turns out, everyone, girls included, enjoyed the film. What we didn’t realize, however, was that the theme song “Everything is Awesome” would replace “Let It Go” from Frozen as the tune that would get stuck in our heads most often. By the end of the summer, for the sake of our sanity, we nearly banned it in the Darling house.

But every time I watch the movie and see those little plastic figures running around gleefully, I can’t help but be reminded of church. If there is a soundtrack to most evangelical worship services today, it’s that everything is awesome. The music and liturgies on Sunday all reflect a common theme: God is astounding and worthy to be worshipped. And this is good. The act of worship, the very exercise of getting out of bed, getting dressed, and committing a sizeable portion of the day to declaring, with the people of God, the greatness, majesty, and glory of Jesus Christ—this is in many ways why we exist as His called-out people.

Yet there is a sense in which our worship seems to play only the high notes—victory, triumph, joy—in a way that reduces the Christian story to one giant non-stop series of confetti-drenched celebrations. This is not the whole of the Christian experience. The Holy Spirit -inspired writers of Scripture declared the story of God by including the very real sorrow of a fallen world. Witness Jeremiah’s distressed cries. David’s heart-wrenching psalms. Habbakuk’s righteous indignation. Isaiah’s woes. Paul’s anguish. In fact, Scripture is filled with lament and sorrow over the state of mankind, the presence of evil, and life in a dark, cursed and broken world.

To be sure, the Christian story is triumphant. We serve a risen King, victorious over sin and death, who makes His enemies His footstool, and who is the Christ reigning in judgment over the nations. But we also serve the Good Shepherd who rescues His sheep, the great Comforter who walks through the valley of the shadow of death with His people. The powerful Healer who binds broken hearts. The Man of Sorrows acquainted with grief. Sometimes God’s people need to meet this Man of Sorrows when they walk into church. They enter the auditorium broken, defeated—maybe even angry. To quote a pastor I know, “People use up all their faith just getting into the door.”

This doesn’t mean our times of worship should be somber. Quite often it’s the joyful clapping and hopeful singing that has lifted my soul from anguish to gladness. There are times, however, when I’ve walked into church and wondered just where to go with my distress. There are many faces to God, and the one I needed to see on those mornings wasn’t the triumphant Warrior but the gentle Shepherd. In those moments, I’ve wondered, Are there spaces for solitude, for lament, for grieving here?

I think church leaders can help in this without much disruption. When I have the opportunity, I try to set the tone through my opening prayer. I’d intentionally offer up to the Lord the broken, the downtrodden, and the weary. Doing this not only brought their heavy burdens before God’s throne; it also gave public permission, right at the beginning of our services, for those who might be afraid to be sad on a Sunday morning to give voice to their hurts.

We can also invite space for lament by slightly tweaking our worship. We might offer a more somber hymn or chorus in between triumphant melodies. This both works better to cover the range of human experience and presents a more holistic vision of the Christian story as recorded in Scripture.

Most importantly, believers must keep in the forefront of their minds real images of the people they are called to help. We don’t relate to one another en masse but as individuals made up of unique life experiences. Christians who actually know what the people around them are enduring each day, who are intimately familiar with each other’s trials and struggles—these are people who connect. They will not just push and prod; they will also comfort and encourage. And ultimately everyone in the body will find what he or she needs in the life-giving gospel of Christ.

Christians needn’t fear lament, as if acknowledging the fallenness of the human condition— their condition—is a lack of faith. Faith is not always expressed in the happy-clappy sentiment of a tent revival; sometimes it’s expressed through clenched teeth, survival and grit, and the bare-knuckled struggles of life.

I think of Job, reduced to a diseased and pockmarked mess, sitting by a refuse pile and scraping his sores with broken pottery. When Job said, “Though he slay me, yet I will hope in him” (Job 13:15 NIV), he was not sporting a wide smile. He was likely drowning in his own tears, his brow permanently furrowed and his head lowered in misery. This, too, is the stuff of faith. Could Job, fresh from devastating losses, find safety to lament in our church services today? If not, we may need to rethink the kind of gospel we’re presenting to our people every week—because “everything is awesome” is not the same as the Christian story.

This was originally published by In Touch Magazine.

photo credit: Sicko Atze van Dijk