There is little that seems to draw as much controversy within congregations as the thorny issue of “worship”. For some, it seems to be almost synonymous with singing. For others, it might be more of an unspoken state of the heart/mind or a feeling. What is clear is that it is something very important to our identity as Christians, but something we find it hard to agree how to express.
In an earlier article, “Praying with Scripture Part Two – Praise & Worship”, we looked a little at what “worship” might be. Here, I want to explore a little more the dilemma of worshipping together.
If worship involves describing God’s acts and attributes in some way then it would seem logical to assume that worship will use words – either sung or said. This much we tend to be able to agree upon. However, which form of words should we use? How do we cope with the fact that some will like formal liturgy whereas others will not and some will enjoy older forms of English used in older hymns whilst others like more modern ones?
One possible solution is to have different services that use different forms, e.g. a Book of Common Prayer service and an informal one. However, this risks having the effect of splitting us further into groups that only attend our particular favoured forms of service. Worship effectively only becomes possible in homogeneous groups made up of people who want the same thing. This can end up being a generational divide – older Christians wanting something reminding them of their youth, whilst today’s youth want something that represents their culture more accurately.
How about mixing old and new hymns/songs in a service? This at least has the aim of keeping diverse people together, allowing the body of believers to remain a multi-generational, multi-cultural family. Yet even such an attempt at compromise will itself attract grumbles and some songs will still appeal more to some than others.
Perhaps we should look a little at what lies behind the idea of worship – why do we do it and why do it the way we do? I would like to explore 3 areas – 1. God, 2. Others, 3. Ourselves.
1. God – Firstly, we need to remember that worship is centred around one person and that is God. So often we effectively make out that it is all about me or us by squeezing it into a mould that suits us.
Arguing over the various forms of worship can be a bit like arguing which of the presents people have brought to a birthday party are superior. There is nothing wrong with bringing presents to someone on their birthday. Each one might show recognition of a different facet of the receiver’s character or their relationship with the giver. It might be that nobody else would have thought to bring that gift – it is peculiar to the way one person expresses their love on that day, perhaps. However, if we were to argue perpetually about whose present is “best” whilst effectively ignoring the birthday boy/girl then are we really there for them on their day or are we making it all about ourselves?
God is the only person who is truly worthy of worship. To express this to anyone or anything else is idolatry. God is unique and it is our position to celebrate this, to celebrate God and focus our and other people’s (as well as all creation’s) attention on the Creator. Whilst we argue about worship, are we risking at times destroying its true purpose?
2. Others – Secondly, as I’ve just hinted at above, worship is also about drawing others into worshipping and praising God. Through our worship, others hear of who God is and what God has done and are (hopefully!) drawn to join in. Just as Israel’s obedience was to be a witness to the nations, Israel’s worship (expressed in obedience too, of course) was to stand out and point to the one true God.
Sometimes I wonder if we risk neglecting this aspect of our worship. If it is not sufficiently different and obviously God-centred then it might fail as a counter-cultural witness to those around us. However, equally, if it is not understandable to those who may see and hear us, how are they supposed to join in? Without meaning to single out any particular Christian group, might I suggest one simple example – the use of modern English. If our services are completely in old-fashioned language, how can the youth of today understand and join in?
Is this something that should play a greater role than our personal preferences, perhaps? Maybe we should consider the nature of the community around us and what would speak to them. Maybe we should consider if there is anything about the way we worship that could speak more to others, help them understand who God is and want to worship for themselves? What if we don’t get visitors – does that mean we can do what we like or that we should focus on building up the faithful or that really we should somehow be getting people “into church”?
Our understanding of our identity as congregations and our understanding of mission and how we do it needs to inform our considerations of how we worship. In fact, it already does implicitly – perhaps what we need is to examine our presuppositions and see if our theory and practice match?
3. Ourselves – Thirdly, worship is an expression of ourselves. As such, it is profoundly personal and therefore likely to take as wide a variety of forms as there are not just personality types, but people. Not all of us are “wordy”, not all of us enjoy or express sentiments using music or song and not all of us are able to express our feelings in art, for example. We can each worship God in quite different ways, bringing our own particular gift to the party.
This is all very well, we might think, for our own “private devotions”. You can do what you like at home on your own; but what about corporate worship? Clearly, corporate worship is something that has always been at the heart of the life of God’s people – in the Old & New Testaments and into the centuries beyond. So, what are we to do when we are together? Should we only seek out like-minded people and go homogeneous?
I don’t think this is the answer for a number of reasons, not least the fact that the metaphor of the church as body with members acting as different parts suggests diversity. We can think, too, of the mass of diverse worshippers gathered together in Revelation 7, or the apparent expectation that congregations of believers contain mixed generations (like a family), for example.
The well-known chapters from 1 Corinthians used in debates about “spiritual gifts” suggest that we could (and perhaps should?) express some of our diversity when meeting corporately. Not everyone has the same gifts or personality type, so let’s incorporate opportunities for various gifts and personality-types to find expression when we meet. If the format of services, the words used, the hymns sung and the people involved never change then we will risk only serving up a few of the various “gifts” of worship to God that we as congregations could offer.
To some this might sound like a licence for chaos. However, structure does not have to be completely abandoned and as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, God is a God of order and not chaos so we are still responsible for bringing our contributions in a suitable manner.
There are times in Scripture also when the masses said or sang the same words – the Psalms are a good example of this. It would appear from the New Testament that such corporate acts were not abandoned, but that greater flexibility (as all are now “priests” and able to contribute more directly) entered into their meetings as the Spirit was given room.
We are diverse because God has made us diverse. Worship is something that happens as God’s Spirit works in us and brings us to overflow with praise to God. Because we are different and the gifts He gives are different, the ways that the Spirit leads us to worship will vary.
This becomes a problem as we try to safeguard our own preferences above God being praised, the world being witnessed to and God’s Spirit moving amongst us. It troubles us also, if we are truly honest with ourselves, as it removes us from places of power and control. Perhaps we like certain types of sermons or when a certain person sings, or having the chance to be up front ourselves – but what about if there are others whose gifts are not being given room? Will we be willing to stand aside for a while?
For the sake of others we will sometimes have to take part in worship that is not an immediate reflection of ourselves. Conversely, we would hope that others would support us in raising our worship to God. Corporately we can celebrate God together, gladly offering up a wide variety of gifts of praise rather than cherry-picking what we think are the best ones.
To conclude, I cannot help but notice the risk of perpetuating through this article precisely that same dilemma we have been looking at. My hope is that we can find ways forward, support one another and begin to overcome arguments that divide us and cause many to leave our churches.
© Joe Lenton, October 2012