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Maybe the Church should make a spectacle of itself more often

By Judy Paulsen

We arrived at the appointed place and time. We’d been told there would be someone at the front gate to let us in.  Sure enough a man approached the gate from the other side of the high fence and we made our way over to him.  “Your purpose?”, he asked; waiting for the secret password.  “We’re here for worship”, my friend and I replied in perfect unison.  He quickly opened the wrought iron gate and directed us to the side entrance where we should enter.  The gate was then firmly shut behind us. Gradually more people trickled in and took seats in the dimply lit, silent space.

Judy Paulsen runs the Institute of Evangelism at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.

We weren’t in a house church in Communist China, Saudi Arabia or North Korea.  We had just entered Westminster Abbey on a typical Sunday morning in London.  The apparent threat was not watch-dogs of an atheistic government, religious police, or ISIS militants.  The threat was tourists; and there were hundreds of them milling around outside the Abby. Westminster Abbey is closed to tourists on Sunday mornings.

Tourists there to see and take photos of the magnificent arches, masonry, and carvings; the tombs embedded in the floors and walls; the coronation chair in which English kings and queens have been crowned throughout the centuries.  Tourists there to experience and record the extraordinary beauty and history of this place of worship without participating in worship.

I got it. I understood the reasoning behind our cloistered state.

Who wants people milling about taking videos and selfies, when you’re trying to worship God? Shouldn’t there be a space and time when Christians are free to sing praises, lift prayers, hear the Scriptures, offer confession and receive Holy Communion, without the whole thing being viewed as some kind of religious spectacle by hoards of people with mobile phones?  Indeed, the amazing music of the boys and men’s choir lifted us all in our praise of God that morning.  The Scriptures were read beautifully and were solidly unpacked during the sermon. What a joy to belt out ancient Christian hymns and lift our prayers to God in that magnificent space!  All of it offered without the distracting presence of tourists. Shouldn’t we Christians be able to worship God in peace and dignity? The longer I sat there the more sure I was the answer was ‘no’.

The image I couldn’t get out of my head that morning was the New Testament woman who made such a spectacle of herself at the home of Simon the Pharisee.  She offered worship of a most extraordinary sort. It was full-bodied passionate worship; aromatic oil, sobs, tears, kisses, and undone hair. She made a spectacle of herself before what were most assuredly astonished, curious, incredulous, or even highly offended dinner guests. There is no evidence from the story that any of them joined in her audacious act of worship.  Were there a few smirks? It sounds like at least Simon displayed a few.

Yet, Jesus pointed to the offering of this nameless woman as an act that will be remembered across the ages. He said she had been forgiven greatly and so loved him greatly.  What a simple and beautifully motivation for worship. Maybe it’s time for the Church to again be willing to make a spectacle of herself.

What would it be like for the Abbey to open her doors every Sunday?  What would it be like for the rest of us to take our worship outside the safe enclosures we have constructed?  Perhaps even into settings in which no one expects worship to occur. Would we be willing to offer audacious worship in a context in which we’d likely receive more than a few smirks?  For the love of Christ, perhaps in this age, in which we are surrounded by so many non-Christians, it is time again for the Church to be willing to make a spectacle of herself.

Judy serves as Professor of Evangelism and Director of the Institute of Evangelism at Wycliffe College, a theological college associated with the University of Toronto.  She teaches courses at the graduate and post-graduate level on evangelism, the intersection of gospel, church & culture, and leading organizational change.