A stealth bomber streaks towards its target. It unloads bombs on unsuspecting adversaries.
Similarly, an unannounced visitor attends a church service. He or she hides identity, adopting the moniker “Mystery Worshipper.” Using stealth as a shield, the Mystery Worshipper sifts through a worship service’s dynamics, writes a review for the World Wide Web and ranks numerically various parts of the service. Like a stealthy pack rat leaving a trace of its visit, the Mystery Worshipper places a calling card in the offering plate. It points church leaders to the Ship of Fools website, where the review is posted.
The Bible suggests God comes to earth “like a thief in the night” (I Thessalonians 5:2). Arriving unaware, He targets our lives, operating incognito like a secret bomber or a mysterious church visitor.
The Mystery Worshipper attended church to grade a service of worship. God, however, working undercover like an FBI agent, greeted this person. This worshipper felt compelled to write about this profound epiphany God initiated.
Last July, historic Trinity Methodist Church in downtown Denver invited me to portray the 18th-century cleric Jonathan Edwards, through whom God unleashed a huge colonial revival called “The Great Awakening” during the 1730s and 1740s. Cloaked in dark clerical garb, this Puritan minister used dramatic stories when preaching to amplify a punch line. “God loves us,” promised Edwards, “because of whom God is. Not because of anything good we do or leave undone. We’re apples in God’s eye.”
Courage through conviction
Three decades later, such conviction turned British loyalists into revolutionaries who rebelled against King George III. This British monarch treated colonials like scum, heavily taxing them. Revolutionaries fought back, believing God gave them dignity. This spiritual conviction gave them courage to fight the Redcoats. Three decades prior to the Revolutionary War, Edwards laid its foundation in “The Great Awakening,” a series of revivals that built strong self-identity within colonials.
The Mystery Worshipper liked what he saw and heard in Reverend Edwards. Using a rating scale, one being the worst and 10 the best, he gave the preacher a top score. This elusive guest ranked Trinity Church’s service a strong “9” for crafting compelling worship that engaged mind, spirit and heart.
This Mystery Worshipper described how God encountered him during the service. Perhaps this person didn’t realize some worship “distractions” are God’s nudges. “My distraction was my own,” he admitted in print. “I found myself looking everywhere, taking in details of this beautiful building” (the sanctuary).
God works behind scenes
As an organist, the Mystery Worshipper felt moved by strains reverberating from the 83-rank Frank and Hilborne Roosevelt organ, installed at the opening of the sanctuary 125 years ago in 1888. Brightly colored stained glass windows mesmerized him. When most church music programs take summer breaks, a 50-plus voice choir sang their hearts out. Graceful prayers, poetic hymn lyrics and an unusual sermon-in-drama “distracted” this stealth worshipper. Perhaps God worked behind the scenes.
Frederick Buechner, Presbyterian novelist and preacher, in his book “Telling Secrets,” alludes to the genius of preaching and worship in which God, who works underground, is the focus. Buechner suggests, “Basically, (preaching) is to proclaim a Mystery before which, before whom, even our most exalted ideas turn to straw. It is also to proclaim this Mystery with a passion that ideas alone have little to do with. It is to try to put the gospel into words not the way you compose an essay but the way you write a poem or a love letter.”
On a summer Sunday at Denver’s historic Trinity Church, Jonathan Edwards used stories spun dramatically to point towards the Divine. God, in turn, used a historic sanctuary, stained glass windows, a mighty organ, a full-throated choir, and a story-telling preacher to mark his presence.
Radio singer and story-teller Garrison Keillor creates fictional Lake Wobegon where stout-hearted Lutherans search for God and find him residing beyond dogma. “My problem with ministers,” grouses Keillor good-naturedly, “is that I can hardly bear their sermons.” Their “speech is of no account,” is the way the Bible rates much preaching (II Corinthians 10:10). That’s because God greets us in the arts more profoundly than through conventional pulpit articulation.
Former head of the United Nations the late Dag Hammarskjold mentioned subtle signs of God lurking off-stage. In “Markings,” Hammarskjold ponders, “God does not die on the day we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, daily renewed, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.”
God’s nearness encircles us if we hardly know where to look. Distractions in church may serve as mysterious divine inklings for those discerning enough to notice them.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.