Originally penned on 8/30/2015. Due to the controversial nature of this topic I have sat on it for nearly two years. It’s time to post it and begin the discussion as carefully as I am able.
UPDATE: Be sure to read the comment stream on this post and look at Screwtape’s reaction.
I am in a congregation that I love, serving youth and young adults that I love, living in a neighborhood that I love, and in a denominational synod that I love.
What is missing from that wonderfully blessed situation?
I have experienced contemporary worship since I left for college in 1987. I know all the words to every Michael W. Smith, Twila Paris, Amy Grant, Rich Mullins, etc. worship song. Nobody can say I don’t know the contemporary music associated with contemporary worship. I am also familiar with Episcopal (1968 – 1987), Baptist (UT 1987 – 1992), LCMS (1992 – 1997), Methodist (1997 – 2004), and LCMS (2004 – present) theology, hymnody, and worship styles. And by visitation, I have seen Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Assembly of God worship services as well as the myriad of student worship gatherings for the Baptist Student Ministries, the Wesley Foundation, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and CRU.
I have become convinced that these worship methods are strongly targeted to the emotional side of Christianity. I have been told many times by well-meaning brothers and sisters in Christ – layman, laywomen, elders, and pastors that “churches with young people have these types of services”. I have observed this as well. But I have also seen that the laypersons’ Biblical literacy, apologetic ability, and knowledge of the basic theological tenants of the Christian faith are in a pathetic state of decay.
These two trends are related.
“What you win a person WITH, is what you win a person TO.”
– Ravi Zacharias, Christian Evangelist and Apologist
No matter what congregation you are in, pay attention to the next worship music “set” and you will see “the buildup”, “the climax”, and “the afterglow” with an occasional echo of the climax and afterglow. It is a very effective emotional technique. It produces predictable results for those who are drawn into the experience. They get lost in the experience – some laughing, some crying, some simply drowning in the endorphins.
I understand. The world is a crummy, fallen, and heartbreaking mess. We are crummy, fallen, and heartbroken. We need an escape. We need to feel absorbed in the glory of our Lord and what He has done for us. We need to forget the world and our sinful selves as we rest on the Lord’s atonement.
However, escapism doesn’t help me truly deal with Monday-Saturday issues. The Sunday morning high helps me cope. I might even get a midweek booster shot on Wednesday nights. But being won with emotionalism, I am left with emotionalism.
(Please do not dismiss my next few points because of any prejudice on your part against words like Liturgical or Episcopal. That is called the Genetic Fallacy and it prevents you from listening to my POINT because you disagree with my BACKGROUND.)
My earliest worship experiences were in St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Fort Worth, TX. This church uses the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and the liturgical portions were exactly the same Sunday after Sunday. Yet, it was deeply moving without being escapist. I learned to read the big words in those prayers as a child. I learned what inestimable meant. I learned what presume meant. I learned that I was a miserable sinner. It seemed fitting to have a formal “you” (Thou, Thy, and Thee) which was used for God (and God alone since we do not speak this way, today).
What made this worship meaningful to me? I wasn’t sure. After a few years in the Baptist church at UT I began to miss it. I was afraid my longing for it was merely nostalgia for my childhood. Then, I visited the Lutheran Church with my girlfriend (later we were wed there). I heard similar prayers and similar portions of the service with the same strange names – Agnus Dei, Te Deum, Hosanna, etc. Something clicked. I thought growing up that the liturgy of St Andrews was written in 1928. It was not.
Fast forward in my search. Seeing the same portions in the Lutheran and Episcopal service meant the service predated the split between those two. Later I saw the same upon visiting a Roman Catholic church, meaning the service predates the Protestant-Catholic split in 1500 AD. Imagine my surprise when I visited my Greek Orthodox friend’s church and saw the same portions of the service with even the same words in the Kyrie Eleison and Agnus Dei! This predates the East-West split in 1000 AD. I was finally able to pull the thread back to the 70 AD Liturgy of Saint James – brother of Jesus, leader of the first century church in Jerusalem.
- K. Chesterton was paraphrased by John F. Kennedy as saying,
“Don’t take a fence down until you know why it was put up.”
The passage he was paraphrasing is:
“There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.”
What IS Worship?
At this point, it is appropriate to ask “What is worship?”
- Is it a purely escapist emotional experience, a few readings, a message, and some cut-and-paste parts from a loose order of worship?
- Is it a stiff and stodgy recitation of words written by the forefathers of our forefathers?
Let’s take a detour from opinions and go to the actual words of divine scripture.
From the Blue Letter Bible website
Worship in Hebrew (shachah, Strongs #H7812 is translated in the following manner: worship (99x), bow (31x), bow down (18x), obeisance (9x), reverence (5x), fall down (3x), themselves (2x), stoop (1x), crouch (1x), misc (3x)
Outline of Biblical Usage
- to bow down
- (Qal) to bow down
- (Hiphil) to depress (fig)
- to bow down, prostrate oneself
- before superior in homage
- before God in worship
- before false gods
- before angel
And in Greek (proskyneo, Strongs # G4352 is translated in the following manner: worship (60x).
Outline of Biblical Usage
- to kiss the hand to (towards) one, in token of reverence
- among the Orientals, esp. the Persians, to fall upon the knees and touch the ground with the forehead as an expression of profound reverence
- in the NT by kneeling or prostration to do homage (to one) or make obeisance, whether in order to express respect or to make supplication
- used of homage shown to men and beings of superior rank
- to the Jewish high priests
- to God
- to Christ
- to heavenly beings
- to demons
Jesus linked service to worship in response to Satan’s temptation. The word for service he used is letreuo, Strongs #G3000 in the following manner: serve (16x), worship (3x), do the service (1x), worshipper (1x)
Outline of Biblical Usage
- to serve for hire
- to serve, minister to, either to the gods or men and used alike of slaves and freemen
- in the NT, to render religious service or homage, to worship
- to perform sacred services, to offer gifts, to worship God in the observance of the rites instituted for his worship
- of priests, to officiate, to discharge the sacred office
It is clear to me from the outlines and the usages that worship is about bowing down, prostration to God, and service to Him and His wishes.
There is no hint of an emotional high. That does not mean it is emotion-free.
I have often been moved to tears through the words of the various liturgical settings in the Lutheran Church and still when I go back and visit my childhood church home. The distinction is this. The words moved me to tears, yet they were not designed to move me to tears.
The words in that service were not written to move me through any emotional arc. My emotional connection to them is rooted in what they move me to say about myself, what they move me to say about God, and what God has to say to me in His Word.
In “wordy” worship, I am being won “with words” and thus I am won “to words”.
When I need mid-week strength, I don’t need my worship song playlist. I can be fed with the pure Word of God – strengthened and uplifted by the encouraging scriptures that have been incorporated in the order of worship and committed to memory by a lifetime of recitation.
“Come unto me all who travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
“It is more blessed to give than to receive”
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten son, so that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but shall have everlasting life.”
And on, and on. (These scripture passages are at the beginning of Morning Prayer.)
One last point
Worship is about sacrifice, and sacrifice comes in many forms. For worship, we sacrifice sleep on the weekend, we sacrifice time, and we sacrifice our resources. Why is it when it comes to worship that we refuse to sacrifice our opinions about what matters in worship? Instead, we insist that WE are right and that OUR wishes are the only ones that will “keep the church alive” or will “bring in young people”.
It is unreasonable for me to ask YOU to sacrifice your opinions, wishes, desires, and yes, even emotional needs.
Unless a compromise can be found, I will do the sacrificing. I will continue to stay in a congregation that I love, serving youth and young adults that I love, living in a neighborhood that I love, and in a denominational synod that I love.
But when the cacophony and emotional arc begins I will sacrifice my preference and my need of meaningful and familiar words and hymnody. There will still be parts of the worship service that speak to me, in the readings, the sermon, the confession, absolution, words of institution, and the creeds. But even if the familiarity is taken away through weekly re-writes, I will continue to see this as my prostration, my worship, and my drink offering to the Lord. And if I get too hungry for the old words, I can always pull the LSB or Book of Common Prayer off the shelf at my house and have my own worship “service” alone with the Lord.
I do ask that I not be insulted by calling my worship “dead”. It is as alive as my Savior Jesus Christ.
Moving Forward with Hope
I appreciate our Pastors’ interest in opening the door to a discussion about worship. I would like to keep the ball moving.
Some objections to deal with up front.
The retort that people fall into a rote recitation is often used as an argument against using the service book for worship, but this is a problem with the worshipper not the words. Leadership should always encourage the congregation to engage the mind and heart when reading responsively.
The same observation can be made of people in praise services checking their phones or standing bored with their hands in their pockets during music sets. It is not consistent to use disengagement as a criticism of any form of worship.
The real issue for us is that there are two preferences in one congregation.
The following suggestion would breathe new life into our congregation, because it is something that people have been asking for since 2005. For over ten years, many of us have been asking for a service that allowed us to know exactly what we were going to be doing and saying on Sunday morning so we could throw our full attention into worshipping our Savior.
This should not be seen in a negative light. This should not be seen as a defeat or capitulation to those immovable traditionalists. This should not be seen as creating two congregations. There are already two groups attending one service on Sunday morning and two different sets of voices on each type of music.
This should be seen as proactive service of the needs of those who need structure to their worship. This will also provide an outreach opportunity. I predict that the 8 am service will bring people in. I do not know of any no theologically conservative churches in Huntsville who have structured worship on Sunday mornings. Why can’t we provide this for the community? It is an unmet need that we can fill.
If you are worried about structured worship producing dead Christians, then I hope to allay those fears with my very life.
To worship one way or another is a matter of preference on BOTH sides. Please acknowledge that my preference is no less holy than someone else’s.
“19 Therefore, brothers, since we have boldness to enter the sanctuary through the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way He has opened for us through the curtain (that is, His flesh), 21 and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. 23 Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. 24 And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, 25 not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near. ” [Hebrews 10:19-25 HCSB]
Flexibility in this area by providing two worship forms on Sunday morning will greatly “promote love and good works”, and will express the concern we have for people who are “staying away from our worship meetings” (physically or mentally).
Please receive this long text with the grace and love that went into writing it. I hold NO ill will, nor do I want a worship war. I want peace in the congregation, and I want to proclaim Christ’s love in many ways each week.