Smiling in Church

“I need to say something,” the seminarian said prior to giving a benediction to a surprised congregation. “I’ve led worship here three Sundays in a row and I detect an absence of Christian joy,” he declared from the top of the chancel stairs, facing the center aisle and two long sections of pews, peopled by a small congregation of Reformed Christians, all of whom were much older than the twenty-something seminarian.

“I see serious faces and frowns rather than smiles when I look out from the pulpit of this church,” he explained, “and I believe you are holding back the Holy Spirit.”

“Christ came to give abundant life,” he added as further explanation, “and I think you ought to show it if you have it.”

Having relieved himself of a burden, the seminarian proceeded to give a Trinitarian benediction and was soon on his way home.

I was contacted later that day by one of the troubled church members. “I don’t know what to think,” he confessed. “I was taught to be serious in church, to be quiet and disciplined. Am I wrong? Should I smile more?” he asked.

What could I say?

Perhaps I could say it was simply a difference of generations. Most of the members of that church were born during or before the Depression whereas the seminarian was born after the Vietnam War. Generational developments have partly to do with whether or not we smile in church, as well as countless other details of worship decorum.

Or, perhaps I could say it was a difference of ethnicity. Most of the church members were Dutch, or at least thought of themselves as Dutch, even though most of their families had lived in the United States for over 100 years. The seminarian, in contrast, probably thought of himself as simply American, a concoction of the local melting pot, which boiled away his pre-American identity long ago. Such ethnic origin differences have partly to do with facial expressions during worship, whether consciously dictated or not.

Still, the seminarian was flagging, however awkwardly, an underlying theological issue. What is “abundant life” and how is it to be expressed outwardly? Jesus talked about abundant life in John’s gospel (10:10), referring to his followers as sheep and saying that he came to give life that they might have it more abundantly. The comparative term is used, indicating that the life Jesus gives is superior in quality as well as superabundant in quantity. Yet he did not answer the question about facial expressions.

In fact, Jesus was critical of those who performed religious activities with an eye toward public relations. “Do not be like the hypocrites,” Jesus said, “for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:5b). The Apostle Paul’s advice is likewise relevant. Paul wrote, “rejoice in the Lord always,” (Philippians 4), but he said nothing about smiling in church. Neither was Paul a proponent for conformity. In his letter to Christians in Rome, Paul counseled that unity does not require conformity on non-essential matters such as diet, use of wine and Lord’s Day observances (Romans 14).

Paul was a proponent for the Spirit. His list of the fruit of the Spirit given to Christians in Galatia includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). It is widely agreed that Paul did not intend his list to be exhaustive and that the Spirit is powerfully manifest in other fruit, as listed in his letters to Corinth, Ephesus and Colosse. Yet it is also true that Paul emphasized the interior work of the Spirit and not resultant physical appearances.

There is pressure on worship leaders to be positive and upbeat, a pressure that seminarians can feel acutely, and then place on congregations, too. The church member’s question, therefore, remains, “Should I smile more?” It makes me wonder: What is gained when the whole church smiles? What is lost when no one frowns?

Edward H. Schreur is pastor of Faith Reformed Church in Brookings, South Dakota.