(Artwork: “Free, Indeed” by Laura Gentry)
Someone said to me recently that the worship wars are over.
Do you know what I mean by “worship wars”?
I mean the struggle and tension generated by what are often constructed (unfairly and unhelpfully) as liturgical dichotomies:
- “traditional” versus “contemporary” or “modern;”
- “high church” versus “low church”
- “choruses” versus “hymnody;”
- “high tech” versus “high touch;”
- “transcendent” verses “relevant.”
Evidence of the tension that I am describing has been plentiful for many years. We find it in divisive church committee meetings and in passionate pronouncements on social media. We find it in churches’ evaluations of their clergy leadership, in clergy’s evaluation of their churches, and in lay peoples’ evaluation of their congregational worship.
As a pastor who has spent the last thirty years of his vocational life planning worship and preparing sermons, I have experienced my own spiritual schizophrenia related to the variety of perspectives on worship. In the congregations that I have served, I have heard people describe the exact same sermon series as “just what I needed to hear” and “frustratingly irrelevant.” I have heard the “modern” worship experiences that I have overseen (and sometimes spearheaded) described as both “contextually attentive” and “shamefully consumerist.” I have heard my own liturgical leadership described as both “creatively evocative” and “out of touch with the common person.”
If these “worship wars” are indeed over, then thanks be to God. In fact, God help us if we persist in warring over a spiritual discipline that has, as its primary objective, the glorification and adoration of the One who formed our lungs and breathed life into them.
…And yet, even if the “wars” are over, there remains the difficult work of clarifying and, in some cases, configuring a theology of worship that can inform and illuminate the current practice of worship in the 21stCentury church. While I do not have the wherewithal to say all that needs to be said about this important matter, I have forged two personal convictions that have become both the primary lenses through which I view the discipline of worship and the foundational priorities upon which my own approach to worship is built. I share these two convictions here, not because I am insistent upon their rightness, and not because I am looking for debate, but because the desire of my heart is to further the church’s contemplation and practice of worshiping God.
A Conviction About Worship’s Purpose:
The Governing Purpose Of Worship Is To offer To God The Only Response That God Deserves
I am prone to subordinating worship to my own narcissism, and perhaps I am not alone in this tendency. I have learned about myself that, if I am not intentional about the way I approach worship, worship can become for me merely another means by which to gratify my own personal preferences and proclivities—like watching television or going to a concert or eating at a favorite restaurant.
Did we sing the hymns or choruses that I wanted to sing? Were my favorite singers a part of worship? Did the flow and feel of worship appeal to my artistic sensibilities? Did the sermon inspire me sufficiently? Was the preacher articulate enough and funny enough and relevant enough? Were the people around me adequately friendly?
To be sure, there is nothing inherently evil about such questions. As I have learned in my own journey, however, when these questions become the sole mechanism by which I evaluate my experience of worship, I end up approaching worship with priorities that are shaped less by doxological impulses and more by my own egocentric consumerism. The glorification of God and the offering of self are subordinated to a checklist of personal preferences.
In one of my favorite biblical calls to worship, the Psalmist tells us that we are to “enter the Lord’s gates with thanksgiving and the Lord’s courts with praise” (Psalm 100:4). Every time I read those words, it strikes me that the Psalmist does not express any interest whatsoever in the mood, temperament, or preferences of the worshiper. “But wait! What if I don’t feel like being thankful?! What if I am not in the mood to offer praise?! What if the style of worship or the nature of the liturgy doesn’t speak my heart language?!” The Psalmist does not address such matters, not because the Psalmist is blind to the realities of human preferences, but because he understands that human preferences are secondary to the fact that “the Lord is good” and that “the Lord’s steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 100:5). The Psalmist, in other words, writes under the conviction that the primary purpose of worship is not to gratify the worshiper but to glorify the Creator, so that the worshiper might “know that the Lord is God” (Psalm 100:3).
I frequently re-read Psalm 100 on days when I am headed into congregational worship. The Psalmist’s words are a powerful and important reminder to me that the most compelling and urgent question for me to ask during worship is never “What am I getting out of it?” or even “Am I being sufficiently fed?” but rather “How much more of my life am I subordinating to the transforming and trustworthy Lordship of Jesus?”
There is an objection to this conviction that I have frequently heard:
This is all very lofty. But what about the people we are trying to reach who don’t yet know that God deserves to be worshiped and who are drawn to a certain kind of presentation and experience of music? Your approach to worship seems to ignore their priorities.
Such an objection is not to be dismissed, especially since it forces us to take seriously the evangelical potential of the church’s worship. But I would offer this caution: The varied and unpredictable preferences of worshipers make a far better servant than they do a master. When worship is subordinated entirely to the personal preferences of a congregation—or to what we think a particular part of the population would find meaningful or engaging—the church runs the risk of losing the beautiful strangeness of its liturgical language. I choose to believe that it is possible to generate artistic freshness, creativity, and even relevance in worship without sacrificing a clear vision of worship’s grand and governing purpose.
A Conviction About Worship’s Content:
The Worship Of God Demands A Mentality Of “Both/And” Rather Than “Either/Or”
I have heard an “either/or” mentality expressed many times in conversations about worship.
- “If I were to see drums in the sanctuary, I would walk right out the door.”
- “We don’t sing hymns in our worship because the language is too outdated.”
- “We don’t have altar calls because that’s too ‘Baptist’”.
- “We don’t want to hear personal testimonies in worship because they are too emotional.”
- “We don’t sing praise choruses because they are too repetitive.”
- “We don’t sing songs that are more than five years old because we want to be current.”
- “We don’t need printed prayers or creeds because they are too ritualistic.”
The problem with an either/or mentality related to worship, however, is that it limits the creativity of worship to the perceived boundaries of a particular liturgical style. When the church makes the boundaries around liturgical style too rigid, it risks losing sight of of the expansiveness of a God whose grandness demands a rich diversity and flexibility in worship.
I am not suggesting that it is inappropriate to guard or honor a particular liturgical style. (After all, the acoustics of Westminster Abbey might not be conducive to the dynamics of rock and roll!) The point I am making is that perhaps too often the church has settled for a mentality of “either/or” in the worship of a God who deserves nothing less than a “both/and” creativity.
Personally, I want to be part of worship teams that are asking deeper and more creative questions. Not, “How can we create worship that stays within our particular stylistic boundaries?” but rather, “How can we create worship that best communicates the Gospel with the kind of creativity and expansiveness that God deserves?” Not, “How can we create worship that will resonate primarily with millenials and iGen?” but rather, “How can we generate the kind of creatively diverse worship in which multiple generations can find their voice?”
Am I being too naïve when I envision the theological richness of the church’s hymnody finding new musical expression in modern worship services? Am I being too unrealistic when I imagine traditional worship in which both Bach and Hillsong can be held together with both artistic and liturgical integrity? Am I being too idealistic when I picture a church where worship planning is less about what we aren’t permitted to do and more about what the themes of worship require to find their most creative treatment?
I hope not. Because that kind of worship constructs windows instead of walls, possibilities instead of rigid boundaries, and sacred bridges between that which is ancient and that which is modern. When I spend time engaging in this deeper worship, it helps me to remember that worship will always be more about obedience than it is about technique; more about a transformed heart than it is about a particular liturgical style; more about Jesus than it is about us.