Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Some Thoughts About Worship

Thinking about worship has been a particular focus of mine for almost forty years. For thirty-three of those years I had a pastoral role in shaping worship from week to week. As I look back — it is said that hindsight is 20/20 — I see so many assumptions that were taken for granted.

What are the parameters for Christian worship? By this I specifically mean corporate gathering on the Lord’s Day, the latter of which is already based on something I consider to be foundational (i.e., a Thursday night gathering for believers, to cite a model that has been popular in recent years, is not the same).

Some would argue — or at least presumptively practice — that Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman are all that’s needed: worship.... in spirit and in truth (Jn 4). It should be obvious, though, that those words need a lot of interpretation. Does “spirit” mean that form is totally relative? Does “truth,” on the other hand, mean that form in worship is part of an authoritative tradition that was established from the beginning? (Of course, this brings up the issue of authority, which would take this post to a far deeper and more involved level; those who truly are interested on basic issues with authority could start with a recent triple post on another (and very thought-provoking) blog:

I recently read something that both exalted a “spirit” of worship and denounced any forms of “empty rituals” (again, there are basic presumptions with the adjective, “empty”). This caused me to reflect on what is often the catalyst for the energy so routinely connected to “great” / “moving” / “thrilling” worship — music. Increasingly over the past several decades, that which is called “great worship” is usually connected with music that is performance-based, more and more professionally oriented, and quite often emotionally manipulative.

I am not saying good music in worship is wrong — far from it, but I do think it is important to warn against what can be “good” taking an undue place of preeminence. I know how “moving” (and dominant) music is in our culture. I have heard too many people talk about “why my church has such worship: the worship band is incredible — they even have commercial CDs.”

I wonder how Paul and the other apostles managed to spread the Christian Faith over Europe and much of Asia without an electric praise band! What made the gospel compelling without a few crooners hovering over a microphone and gyrating to Jesus?

To those two questions I would offer two substantive things: First, a quality of life — modeled after Jesus and enabled by the Holy Spirit — that caused those early Christians to be willing to suffer and die to be able to love others like the One who had died and risen. Second, worship that was anchored in what Jesus gave His Church: His very presence in the Bread and Cup.

Some things in worship truly are relative to culture and even the abilities of a given congregation. They can be good and helpful. But those things should never overshadow what has been the essence of Christian worship from the beginning; there is meaning to “spirit” and “truth,” and it is found in The Great Tradition (which is another subject worth extensive reflection).

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