Reflection #15 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 15 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #15: As one whose metabolism seemed to go on permanent leave after my sophomore year of high school, I tend to listen more and give more credibility to pastors who don’t look like they just came from a GQ photo shoot.  (I am guessing it works the other way around for some people.)   

What do revered theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), influential evangelist chestertonGeorge Whitefield (1714-1770), esteemed preacher Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899), and respected theologian G. K. Chesterton (pictured, 1874-1936) have in common?  All of them, for good portions of their adult lives, struggled with obesity.  Portly pastors.  Beefy brothers.  Hefty hombres.  And passionately committed to spreading the gospel, winning souls for Christ, and/or making difficult theological concepts comprehensible for Christians the world over.  Both/and at work here, not either/or.

I have commented in this space earlier re: the number of churches–which, historically speaking, have clearly placed great emphasis on the “presentational” aspects of Sunday worship–that now regularly feature a greater cross-section of physical fitness on stage, and this seems to happen a bit more frequently for those bringing the Word, as well.  Pastors in non-presentational, low-church settings have rarely been subject to fat-shaming–in fact, the opposite has usually been true–but now their (mostly) brothers in churches that project their larger-than-life visages on gigantic screens each week are being extended a little grace in this area.

Let’s acknowledge the, er, elephant in the room any time we talk about obesity in the Body of Christ and Americans’ general obsession with superficial beauty and our penchant, even in the Church, to worship at the altar of the airbrush.  Legalism where corpulence is concerned can be conjured up with little effort.  And those of us who aren’t as physically fit as we would like can easily work up a weird mixture of righteous indignation (“I’m more gracious than you”) and reverse snobbery (“I’m more in tune with the mission field [which, in America, is increasingly overweight] than you”).  Neither extreme helps the cause.

I find the following intriguingly titled, both/and exhortation from Jared C. Wilson more beneficial.  I will excerpt “In Praise of Fat Pastors” below, but in case you don’t get a chance to read it in its entirety, know that his one-sentence opening paragraph, answering the obvious objection to the title, is “Sort of.”  (He writes from a complementarian perspective, but his words ring true for egalitarians, as well.)

In the age of Pastor Fashion and sermons forbidding the eating of pork in service of the gospel of weight loss — I mean, does anything scream “Judaizer” more loudly than preaching the dietary law? except maybe actually preaching circumcision — don’t the pastors who don’t care about their image, their profile, their reputation seem more dignified? . . .

I don’t think you even need me to list all the evidences that American evangelicalism is obsessed with image, with cool, with seeming impressive. What we need are men (and women) who will lead the way in rejecting the Photoshopping of our faith. And wouldn’t it be a huge relief, wouldn’t we all just kinda exhale in relief if we were led in this way to stop sucking in our guts? Our stomach might increase, but wouldn’t we actually decrease in the right ways? Wouldn’t that kind of freedom to breathe — the freedom to simply be ourselves — be a fruit of the gospel? . . .

So no, I am not advocating gluttony here, just a Christward self-disregard, a godly un-self-consciousness. I am praying for an increase in the tribe of self-forgetful pastors — if not all-out dorky ones — with platforms thrust upon them genuinely “aw shucks”-wise, men who will love not their images even unto death. Men who at least are not obsessed with the camera catching their good sides. Give me a fat guy in the pulpit so long as he preaches not himself and not the law but the glorious gospel. And if you’ve got a pastor with washboard abs who does that– well, that’s okay too, I guess.

I preach to myself as much as anyone with many of these reflections, so here’s the takeaway: I will try hard not to roll my eyes every time a preacher throws in gratuitous references to daily workout regimens, and I hope my physically fit friends will extend a little grace to those of us who can’t buy off the rack in most stores.  And I pray for, in Wilson’s phraseology, “a Christward self-disregard, a godly un-self-consciousness” among our pulpiteers, “an increase in the tribe of self-forgetful pastors.”

The Lord be with you!

Coming next week (Lord willing): Variety in the praise team.

About Warren Anderson

Emmaus Road Worshipers is written by Dr. Warren Anderson, Director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University (Elgin, Ill.), where he also directs the Judson University Choir. A Judson alumnus, he has served his alma mater in a number of capacities over the past 30+ years, especially the chapel ministry, which he led for 22 years. From 1982-2016, Dr. Anderson served six different churches--American Baptist (X2), Converge, Evangelical Free Church of America, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist--as a "weekend warrior" worship musician/pastor. He is a former member of the editorial board of Worship Leader magazine. The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily the views of Judson University.
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