In the first book of the popular children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, four English children are transported into the other-worldly land of Narnia.
They find themselves befriended by a talking beaver (it could happen…) who gives them an overview of the current crisis in Narnia but then quotes a prophecy about how the True King of Narnia, a powerful lion named Aslan, will return to establish his kingdom. Of course, the children have no idea who Aslan is, but experience an interesting phenomenon:
And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning . . . so beautiful that you remember it all your life . . . At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in his inside.
Lewis referenced this feeling with the word numinous in his book of essays God in the Dock. The word was coined in 1917 by the German theologian and philosopher Rudolf Otto. Numinous refers to the transcendent feeling of something otherly, that something from outside the natural realm is felt and experienced in some way, a Divine Power, perhaps akin to what Celtic mystics geographically referred to as a thin place. Our best English word for the emotion is awe. In the Christian experience, it’s the sense that God is present in a way that moves beyond doctrinal truth—where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them—to some emotional or even physical sense of God’s nearness. Moses takes his shoes off. Isaiah cries “I am undone!” Daniel passes out. Paul repents. John faceplants. The question I’ve been ruminating on lately is this: how do faith communities restore the sense of awe—of God’s presence—in their gatherings? One of the reasons of this wonderment is a concern over surveys regarding the anemic numbers of millennials in the Church. There is no shortage of reasons, from the perceived intolerance and hypocrisy of Christians, to never having ties to religion in the first place (OK boomer…), to rapidly changing cultural mores that cause them to see religion as irrelevant, and last I might add: a non-experiential engagement with the God Who knows and loves them. My sense is that millennials have no interest in attending either a highly-produced show or a liturgical/traditional setting with no sense—or room—for the numinous. It’s not just wanting a cause; it’s wanting to experience the God of the universe in some tangible way. Sermons and special music typically don’t scratch that transcendent itch. It can’t be manufactured or manipulative. And you can’t make it happen every week. But there must be a sporadic, perhaps random, sense of God’s presence when we gather. There was a season—years, actually—where just about every week I heard of people attending our church and inexplicably weeping, particularly during the worship. My wife remembers first-hand bringing an out-of-town guest—they were friends years earlier in high school—to the church on a Wednesday night and as soon as they walked into the room where we were singing simple worship songs, she immediately began crying, almost embarrassed…and later even asked my wife why that happened. It was the numinous, not the program. As we used to say, one experience is worth a thousand words. To those far from God, it is the ultimate apologetic.
And so the questions we might ask are neither programmatic or prescriptive, but a simple point of leadership honesty: Are your people given the opportunity to actually experience God…or is your church simply going through the motions? When was the last time someone wept during worship…or sensed the numinous? What might you change to help accommodate that?
Dave Workman | Elemental Churches
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