Caught in the Act: Praise and Renewal in the Church

by Leander E. Keck

Leander E. Keck is Winkley Professor of Biblical Theology at Yale Divinity School, and former Dean. His books include The New Interpreter’s Bible (Abingdon 1994-96), Who is Jesus?, Paul and His Letters, and The Life of Jesus.

Keck’s article is adapted from The Church Confident, to be published by Abingdon in January (1993). Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. This article appeared in The Christian Century, December 16, 1992, pps. 1167-1172. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Why has so much of mainline Protestantism become joyless? Perhaps we are more impressed by the problems of the world than the power of God. Perhaps we think everything depends on us; that surely ought to make us depressed.

Renewing any institution requires revitalizing its core, its reason for being. Unless this core is refocused and funded afresh, renewal becomes a matter of strategy for survival. Accordingly, the churches’ renewal becomes possible only when their religious vitality is energized again by a basic reform of their worship of God. Worship enacts and proclaims a construal of Reality and of our relation to it. Aidan Kavanagh put it well: In liturgy the church "is caught in the act of being most overtly itself as it stands faithfully in the presence of the One who is both the object and the source of... faith."  To call for a reform in the worship of God, however, implies that the churches’ standing before God is flawed seriously enough to require a turnabout, the biblical word for which is "repentance."

Is the situation really so serious? Some people would indeed claim that many "mainline" churches have already "repented" of their inherited Protestant worship. Have they not turned to lectionaries, gotten the preacher out of an elevated pulpit and onto the floor with the congregation, adopted color-coded vestments and paraments, encouraged "experimental worship," and, like the seventh-inning stretch, stopped worship of God in order to shake hands, embrace, kiss, and chatter briefly under the rubric of "passing the peace"? Indeed they have, but in many cases it has amounted to little more than a substitution of the trivial for the ossified! Some changes have been deeper. The liturgical movement, for example, has helped congregations rediscover the rich resources of the church catholic, but many Protestant congregations remain only marginally affected by it.

In any case, far too often the "mainline" churches are indeed "caught in the act," engaged in worship which is thoroughly secularized. I recall an occasion when the traditional invocation was replaced with the rousing cheer for God: "Gimme a G; gimme an 0; gimme a D!" An extreme example, to be sure, but nonetheless an example. There will be no renewal of mainline Protestantism until its worship of God is redeemed from such silliness and the secularization it reflects. If Australian historian Alan D. Gilbert is right in asserting that "secularization is a much deadlier foe than any previous counter-religious force in human experience," then one can see immediately what is at stake in the secularization of worship—the identity and integrity of the church as church, that is, whether the church "stands faithfully in the presence of the One who is both the object and the source of faith." And the antidote to this secularization is restoring the integrity of the center of worship—the praise of God.

We use the word "praise" with respect to people and things as well as with respect to God; so it is useful to start by recalling what praise is and does generally, leaving latent just now the application of praise to God. To begin with, praise is an oral activity, whether in speech or song, which acknowledges a superlative quality (like patience or beauty) or a deed (like a heroic rescue). It is more than an attitude of appreciation or an emotion like delight, although it usually includes elements of both. As verbal acknowledgment, praise is response to what we see or experience.

Praise does not express a yearning or wish but responds to something given to us. The "Bravos" at the end of a brilliant concert, like the "Fantastic!" when a Larry Bird arches a long shot through the hoop without the ball touching the rim, are a response elicited by the act itself. When praise acknowledges, it proclaims truth; otherwise it is flattery and deceit, deceiving both the one praised and the one doing the praising.

One can also respond negatively to people or things, whether with envy or resentment, or with a put-down ("What’s so great about that?") or outright denial of excellence ("Pure luck!"). Praise, however, reveals a positive response to what or who is being praised.

Further, this positive relation implies that who or what one praises is an important clue to one’s character. The object of praise reveals what we deem praiseworthy, what we value and perhaps aspire to be like. But even if we do not aspire to sing like Pavarotti, in praising his rendition of a difficult solo we show that we value excellence. And whoever does not value excellence, especially if it is achieved by discipline, will not strive for it in one’s own life. Whether by affirmation or by aspiration, the thing or person praised both reveals and shapes the praiser.

Grammatically, praise can use either the second person or the third person. We use the second person to address the person directly: "Your work is brilliant"; we use the third person to extol that excellence to others: "Her work is brilliant." Using the second person, speaking to the one praised, establishes or maintains a relationship; using the third person, speaking about the praised, invites others to share in the praise, and so generates and maintains community. Half the fun of being a sports enthusiast is finding out who else praises or blames the same players that you do.

Finally, although praise is not the result of weighing evidence judiciously but is usually a prompt and spontaneous response, it does reflect comparison. Otherwise, one would not know the difference between the excellent and the ordinary. But where does this capacity to discriminate and discern excellence come from? It is learned and warranted in a community of discourse. Like an antiques appraiser’s ability to recognize and value a rare piece of Limoges porcelain, or a judge’s ability to spot a superlative collie at a dog show, the acquired capacity manifests disciplined habits of seeing and valuing which reflect the ethos of a knowledgeable community.

These elemental observations about praise deserve to be amplified and nuanced; nonetheless, I trust that they suffice to allow us to consider more directly the praise of God.

To begin with, there is a significant difference between praising a person and praising God. Syntactically, of course, there is no difference between saying, "Susan’s kindness is outstanding," and saying "God’s kindness is outstanding." Yet the content is not the same, because God and Susan belong to totally different categories; God is not simply Susan in italics but the Ground of her existence. In praising Susan we acknowledge the excellence of a fellow creature; in praising God we acknowledge the excellence of her Creator, and ours as well.

We cannot take this acknowledgment for granted, because praising the Creator must contend successfully with alternative impulses, attitudes and habits of thought. Only then can praising God emancipate us from the secularity that inhabits us. At precisely this point it becomes apparent that praising God is a discipline, a formative factor in the shape of our lives. Otherwise it becomes an occasional, sporadic exception to the rules, a flight from what we take to be reality instead of a sustained challenge to it.

For us creatures to praise the Creator is to acknowledge our contingency, a contingency that is more than the psychological state it tended to be for Schleiermacher, who spoke of the immediate feeling or sense (Gefühl) of dependence. Rather, this contingency is a built-in status to which we refer when we speak of God’s transcendence. God’s transcendence is not a matter of distance between heaven and earth but is one of ontic difference. In praising the transcendent God, we recognize that H. Richard Niebuhr got it right in saying, "We are in the grip of power that neither asks our consent before it brings us into existence nor asks our agreement to continue us in being beyond our physical death." To praise the Creator is to acknowledge joyously, not grudgingly, that we did not make ourselves but are contingent on the One who cannot and must not be reduced to the guarantor of our cultures and causes, however noble their aims and achievements. To praise the transcendent Creator is to acknowledge that it is not the divine Reality that is contingent on us, but we on it.

In other words, authentic praise of God acknowledges what is true about God; it responds to qualities that are "there" and not simply "there for me." This is true generically of praise, not just of God-oriented praise. The person who praises an athlete’s achievement, a work of art, or the manifestation of a person’s virtue affirms that these are indeed praiseworthy, and that something would be wrong with a beholder who did not acknowledge them. In other words, God is to be praised because God is God, because of what God is and does, quite apart from what God is and does for me. Anyone can, and should, praise God when the Lord blesses one and keeps one, when the Lord makes his face to shine upon one and is gracious to one, when the Lord lifts up his countenance upon one and grants peace (Num. 6:24- 26). Gratitude is indeed often expressed as praise, and rightly. But that does not make praise and gratitude identical. Or does God cease to be praiseworthy when gratitude has fled because the Lord seems to withhold blessing, when the divine face appears to be set against us, and when agony drives out peace? If God is indeed praiseworthy, must God earn our praise?

If this Reality is the Creator to whom we trace our existence but who does not trace its existence to us, then it has an integrity of its own, an integrity whose ways are not our ways, and whose ends cannot be conflated with ours. Only such a Reality is worthy of praise, inherently.

If these reflections are sound, one inference cannot be avoided: Since the Creator is praiseworthy, the creature has a moral obligation to acknowledge this with praise. Indeed, the apostle Paul regarded the refusal to do so—to honor God as God, as he put it—as the root cause of the human dilemma. Not that humanity withheld God-oriented praise categorically. Far from it. In Paul’s words, people "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or fourfooted animals or reptiles" (Rom. 1:23). In other words, praise was directed toward the nonGod as if it were God. Instead of inferring that the created is not the Creator, humanity reified the Creator and deified the creature, thereby exchanging truth for falsehood while claiming it was truth. As a result, everything else went wrong, and stays wrong until made right by God. It is not accidental that when Paul characterized the person whose God-relation was right, he said that "Abraham was strengthened in faith as he gave glory to God" (author’s translation)—or as he might have put it, "as he praised the truly praiseworthy God." Let no one think that for aged Abraham praising God, honoring God as God, was easy. The patriarch had to overcome his resistance based on the evidence of his and Sarah’s age. And we live our own resistance as well. We cannot avoid facing it if the renewal of our worship turns on the praise of God.

The chief obstacle to praising God is the suffering that is not self-inflicted. Whether the innocent suffer because of natural disasters (like earthquakes) or because the consequences of human folly and injustice (like wars and revolutions) do not fall only on the guilty, the burden of suffering is so heavy that praising God seems not only out of the question but also a violation of our moral sense. And so we tacitly concede that the second-century heretic, Marcion, had a point: the God who created and rules this world is not praiseworthy, because God neither made a world that is disaster-proof nor arrests the consequences of our sins.

Still, in the mysterious ecology of joy and suffering, goodness and mercy can, and often do, appear even in suffering. Agony is not our only experience, though it readily overshadows the good that also comes our way. And just as we cannot explain all the suffering that is caused in pursuit of the good, so we cannot explain the coming of the good either. If we take the good for granted, we lose perspective also on the suffering that we must endure. Those who see only that the glass is half empty do not praise.

It would be as monstrous to require those whose lives are twisted by suffering to praise God as it would be to ask them to still their cries into the silence of heaven. Whoever did that must also tell the dying Jesus to stifle his "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" That Luke did so by replacing this cry with a statement of exemplary piety should not tempt us away from the paradox of the Markan and Matthean reports, which invite us to affirm that God was present although not even Jesus could see that this was so. 

The Christian community dares to praise the God who did not exempt Jesus from the agony of the cross but let him share undeserved suffering with us. This is the God who did not repudiate Jesus for hurling his "Eloi" heavenward and then dying with a primal scream. If God vindicated a man who died like this, we are assured that our own agonies need not alienate us from God either. In fact, Jesus’ cry did not break his bond with God but rather expressed it, for he did not complain to those on the ground but asked his "Why?" directly to God. The Christian community praises the God of Jesus because only a God who accepts that cry can be credible to those who suffer undeservedly.

In the last analysis, we do not know why the innocent suffer; what we do know is that this is part of the burden of our history, especially in the current century. But in light of Jesus we also believe that  in the midst of suffering, when a Ms. Job urges the sufferer to curse God and die, true praise may be silence. The community of faith can acknowledge that even as it gathers to praise God. Praising God is the ultimate "Nevertheless!" It is the supreme act of faith.

Now that we have a sense of what praising God involves, we can see the extent to which the worship of God in mainline Protestantism has become secularized, and then how praising God can restore integrity to our worship and so be an antidote to that secularization itself. If in worship the church stands in the presence of God, then in praising God we meet the Creator—no small thing. Ernst Käsemann was right: "In the confrontation with the Creator, history ceases to be what we imagined it to be."

If praise extols the excellence of another, and if praise is the heart of Christian worship, then worship is secularized when the focus shifts from the character of God to the enhancement of ourselves, when theocentrism is replaced by anthropocentrism, however much talk of God remains. In fact, the secularized character of worship is manifest precisely in the ways that God continues to be talked about, as well as in the ways that God is hardly talked about at all.

A sample service in a recent book shows how utilitarian worship can become. The call to confession "invite people to get in touch with themselves and asks where they feel some empty spaces in their lives" (symbolized by a display of empty, clear plastic bags on the communion table), as if admitting emptiness were the same as confessing sin, and as if sin were merely the absence of good. Moreover, now the communion elements represent not Christ’s passion but "our creative powers," which are transformed into expressions of Jesus Christ; now the breaking of the bread is not the point but the prelude to the point: "When we the committed loving people gather to let the pieces of Christ be reassembled in us" we have "our most powerful statement of wholism" (Thomas N. and Sharon N. Emswiler, Wholeness in Worship). Such a Eucharist celebrates no longer the breaking of God’s man that occurred for us but our potential for healing ourselves. This "most powerful statement of wholism" is nothing other than a modern example of Gnosticism.

There are indeed positive, constructive, fiberating, healing and enlightening consequences of the worship of God. We do get perspective on ourselves and the world, and we do become motivated to address its wrongs. But the utilitarian mind gets the priorities wrong by making the byproduct the main product. It forgets, and perhaps denies, that the worship of God is an end in itself.

If praise is the heart of worship, then making worship useful destroys it, because this introduces an ulterior motive for praise. And ulterior motives mean manipulation, taking charge of the relationship, thereby turning the relation between Creator and creature upside down. In this inversion, the living God, whose biblical qualities like jealousy and wrath have been tamed, has been deprived of freedom and, having been reduced to the Great Enabler, now has little to do except warrant our causes and help us fulfill our aspirations. This now completely benign deity may still evoke a sense of wonder, but little awe and less mystery, and no fear of the Lord at all. The opening line of the Westminster Confession is now reversed, for now the chief end of God is to glorify us and to be useful to us indefinitely.

It is little wonder that one can depart a mainline Protestant service that has become useful with the feeling that one has attended a public meeting or a rally with religious trappings. Such an experience, instead of being an alternative to the secularity that marks the world we live in and that lives in us, has become the Sunday morning instance of the same thing because here too the transcendence of God, the moral integrity of God vis-à-vis all human distortion of God, is in eclipse, while the remaining God-talk nurtures the illusion that there is no eclipse. As a result, God has become an amiable bore, and worship a memorial service to a fire gone out.

Unless purposeless praise of God is restored to its central place in worship, mainline Protestantism will not be renewed. Only purposeless praise can cope effectively with our narcissism, with the grossness of our self-preoccupation even in worshiping the Creator, because by definition praise is not a means to an end but the end itself. If the transcendent God-Reality is indeed praiseworthy, then it is to be praised for what it is and not for what our fulsome talk will get it to do for us. Indeed, if the gospel is reliable, God is to be praised because of what has already been done for us, and will be done for us, that we cannot do for ourselves, because that is the kind of Reality God is. In praising God we know that this Reality has power sufficient to save us from the folly of our wisdom and from the weakness of our power.

If that be the case, let me paraphrase the Apostle again: How will people praise God if they have not believed? And how are they to believe in God if they have not heard who God really is? And how are they to hear if the preacher does not make it clear? (Rom. 10: 14-15). In other words, in the praiseful worship of God, the role of preaching is vital. In fact, renewal, preaching and praise belong together.

That preaching has taken on many tasks is all too clear. Not so clear is why facilitating the praise of God is rarely one of them. Yes, expounding the greatness and goodness of God, the transcendence and freedom of God to be God, is not easy in a time when any talk of God is either difficult or glib. Yes, we want our preaching to be helpful and germane to the lives of those who listen. But is it not helpful and germane to put the disarray of life into the perspective of God’s greatness, of God’s judgment and mercy? Unfortunately, one can attend many mainline Protestant churches every Sunday for years and seldom hear the greatness, the judgment and mercy, freedom and integrity of God brought to bear on the day-to-day. Allusion to God has replaced affirmation and proclamation. Even in the churches that use the Apostles’ Creed the sermons rarely expound what is confessed. True, the sermon is not a lecture. But better to be instructed in the Creed than to be given common sense about better living or to hear the clergy’s exasperations with U.S. foreign policy—things gotten more easily, and probably more interestingly, from the op-ed page of the Sunday paper. In any case, it belongs to the preaching task to sort out the truth of God from the illusions of God, and to make the truth of God explicit. Where the truth of God is veiled in vagueness, there will be no praise but only a positive attitude toward the Ultimate.

Since the renewal of the mainline churches requires a reform of their secularized worship, which in turn entails restoring its focus on the purposeless praise of God, we cannot avoid asking, What renews the praise of God? The answer too is unavoidable: a fresh apprehension of the truth of God. How that apprehension is to come about, on the other hand, is not prescribable, though what occurs when it comes about is describable. For example, for some it will be primarily an experience of God’s grace, while for others it will be primarily a fresh understanding of the grace already experienced. For others it will be the discovery, whether painful or ecstatic, of the difference between believing one’s beliefs about God and believing in God. In light of what was observed about the nature of praise at the beginning of this piece, praise of God is renewed when some aspect of God’s character comes through so convincingly that it

must be acknowledged gratefully. The truth of God that renews praise is experienced truth, life’s validating Yes to the gospel, whether taught, preached, sung or enacted.

Finally, because praise is the joyful celebration of the excellence of another, there is no such thing as joyless praise of God. Where the news of God is clear and good, it evokes joy in those who receive it. In fact, one may well ask whether the gospel has been believed if our feet are not freed to dance and our tongues to sing. I cannot avoid the suspicion that one reason that neo-orthodoxy did not really renew the mainline churches is that, however much it sobered their theology, it gave them no song to sing and produced no hymnody of note. Be that as it may, the experience of the Protestant Reformation, the Wesleyan movement, the revivals on the American frontier, and the Catholic Church today shows that when the greatness of God becomes real, the church is renewed, and there is joy in the heart and a song on the lips of the people of God. All too often, however, the present situation is epitomized by a memorable scene: Adjacent to a church was a restaurant whose kitchen equipment evidently needed attention. Parked beside the church was the mechanics’ truck whose sign may well have been appropriate for both the restaurant and the church: "Refrigerated Services."

I do not know why so much of mainline Protestantism has become a joyless religion. Perhaps we are more impressed by the problems of the world than by the power of God.  Perhaps we have become so secular that we indeed think that now everything depends on us; that surely ought to make us depressed. Perhaps we have simply gotten bored with a boring God whom we substituted for the God of the Bible. We sometimes sing the Doxology as if it were a dirge. Even the Eucharist, despite the words of the Great Thanksgiving, is rarely the thankful, joyous foretaste of the Great Banquet with the One who triumphed over Death, but mostly a mournful occasion for introspection. A joyless Christianity is as clear a sign that something is amiss as a dirty church. 

If the predominantly white mainliners can learn anything from their black brothers and sisters, it is the power of joyful praise in the face of deprivation, prejudice and suffering. They dare to celebrate the great Nevertheless because they know that despite everything God is God. And in that joyous praise they find power to endure and to change the world.

To be sure, there have been many attempts to make the worship of God more joyous. On the one hand, we have deleted the somber aspects of God, thereby ignoring the tart warning by that relentless opponent of liberal theology, J. Gresham Machen, that "religion cannot be made joyful simply by looking on the bright side of God." On the other hand, we have blown up balloons, danced in the aisles, marched behind banners; we have turned to jazz and we have sung ditties whose theological content makes a nursery rhyme sound like Thomas Aquinas. But it is not enough to make things livelier, or set to music our aspirations and agendas. We can do better than that, and we must, for when the truth of God as made actual in Christ and attested in the gospel evokes the truthful praise of God, Christian worship enacts an alternative to the secularism which otherwise deludes us with its promises.