As we near the end of the 20th century the Christian church in the States is undergoing a huge identity crisis. The things that we used to consider sacred are questioned at every turn and the things that were clearly out of bounds twenty years ago are now evangelical options. Change and flexibility seem to be the only creed necessary to hold.
Sunday services are a clear example of our identity crisis. While we all agree we are at church to worship, we are having difficulty deciding exactly what constitutes worship. Is worship supposed to be a kind of ecclesiastical showtime or is worship best when it is most boring and in need of endurance? Should our liturgy be one part David Letterman and one part Moses? Should the music we use to aid worship be “Janis Joplin meets Fanny Crosby” or Gregorian Chant sung antiphonally? Should the preaching of the Word during worship be a Rogerian group therapy session or does good worship require 16th century Elizabethan language sternly administered? The worship style options are endless in today’s church and so are the contentions regarding the legitimacy of each style. All of this contributes to the ongoing identity crisis in the church.
Whatever we have to say about the overall identity crisis of the church, we can remove the confusion arising from the competing worship styles by understanding one essential point. Biblical worship does not depend primarily on worship style. Before we start contending for styles we have to go back to the primary issue of substance. Worship should have a purpose that transcends mere entertainment but avoids object boredom. Worship is not about what we get out of the service but rather what we give. Worship is not only about having our felt needs met but it is also about being forced to deal with our greatest need. Worship is not about being part of the audience. It is nothing that God is the audience and we are participants in the worship even if we are not directly involved in the mechanics of the service. Worship at its heart is the believer’s response to the majesty and splendor of God. Worship is not so much a question of how; it is a question of Who. The “Who” is God.
Forty years ago A.W. Tozer bemoaned the fact that worship was the missing jewel needing to be recovered by the church. That precious jewel remains lost. Worship continues to take a back seat to entertainment while corporate focus to the character and nature of God gets shoved further and further into the recess of some forgotten past. In the name of relevance, the language of the theatre replaces the language of the church. Congregations are now “audiences,” musicians are now “performers,” and worship is now the “morning program.” In many settings pews are replaced by theatre seats. Taken individually, none of these things amount to much; however taken collectively they communicate that vast changes are taking place in how we do and understand worship. Those changes result in worship becoming increasingly defined by our cultural disposition towards entertainment. This only reinforces the centrality of self over the centrality of God which is the death knell for reformational worship. Tozer was right; true worship is a rare commodity that is in desperate need of rediscovery.
Worship was never meant to be a synonym for entertainment, but this does not mean in order to have God honoring worship we must be bored. God is hardly boring. Worship can have tempo, excitement and energy flowing from a response of the congregation to the character of God, not from the ability of the worship team to entertain us. If we find ourselves bored in worship maybe we should as ourselves why. Are we bored because we don’t find God interesting? Are we bored because the worship is not really focusing on God? Are we bored because we don’t really want to be here? I suspect we will find the most common answer to our boredom in that we have not prepared ourselves to meet with God. Worahip becomes incredibly relevant and alive no matter what the style when we have prepared to meet with God. If we desire to regain a Biblical balance to worship that eschews both extremes of entertainment and boredom, we will seek to be a people who prepare all week to meet with God, and are not then surprised when we sense His presence during the worship time.
Once we strip away all the exterior window dressing of whatever worship style we prefer, we should pause to ask ourselves some probing questions. These questions will help us discern whether or not we know what it is to worship.
1. Does my heart respond in awe or love to some Biblically based insight into God’s essential character, or am I just impressed with the performance?
2. Does the worship seek to lead me into the presence of God or am I only appreciating somebody’s talent?
3. Is my inclination to fall prostrate at the Lord Christ’s feet in adoration, or is my primary urge to tap my feet and snap my fingers?
4. Do I find myself counting my blessing during worship in gratitude, or counting the ceiling tiles out of boredom?
5. Do I leave knowing I have participated in worship, or do I leave feeling like I have watched a show?
No matter what our opinions are regarding church worship styles, worship needs to challenge our hearts to respond to the awesome character of God. Worship needs to seek to lead us into the throne room of God. Worship needs to remind us of the holiness of God alone. Worship needs to promote gratitude to God. Worship needs to be participatory. Unless worship is all this and much more, we are only fooling ourselves.
Rev. Mc Atee, a graduate of Columbia Seminary, served the Longtown Independent Presbyterian Church in Ridgeway, SC. He currently pastors a Christian Reformed congregation in Charlotte, MI, and plans to further his education in the area in the near future.