What is worship? I know that sounds like an elementary sort of question. But really, what is worship? Why do we organize once a week, at an odd hour of the day, and sing strange songs and say funny words? I ask because I wonder sometimes if whether we really think about teaching a theology of worship in our local congregations.
Thanks to Christendom (and in particular, my context in the southeastern United States) attending worship is a bit of a cultural norm. The irony is that we no longer live in a world where Christianity and the church sits at the center of cultural life. Blue laws are a thing of the past and even my state of Georgia is beginning to ease into the idea of selling alcohol on Sundays. These aren’t necessarily bad, they only point to a larger reality that Sunday is no longer observed by the wider community as a special day set apart during the week for Christian worship.
All of this raises the question, in a world where Christian worship is no longer accepted as the sole cultural norm, what does it mean to worship?
This is why worship as experience has been the driving force behind our theologies of worship for some time now. Seeker Services, Praise Services, Small Group Retreat Services, all of these have an implicit goal of generating an experience between the worshipper and the divine. This trend lays at the heart of the worship style debate that has dominated many local faith communities for 25 years or more.
“We need to worship like we’ve always worshipped, it’s been meaningful for us all this time.”
“If you want new people to come, you need to worship in a different way; one that will be attractive to someone outside of our circle.”
These are common responses in the debate of “traditional” vs. “contemporary” styles of worship. I intentionally put quotes around both terms because they are, by and large, misused by our local congregations.
Traditional worship tends to reflect only recent tradition. An aesthetic worship experience with fancy words and a push toward beauty and art as a focal point of worship is not very traditional at all. This doesn’t take away any of its beauty or grandeur, we just have to recognize that this style is rooted in much more recent tradition that we sometimes realize. It carried some ancient elements but also intrinsic goals of not only allowing the attendee to worship, but also to teach through beauty and art.
On the other hand, contemporary worship covers a wide spectrum of style and tools for worship. The average person in a local congregation may have their thoughts immediately go to screens, projectors, and electric guitars when they think of contemporary worship. But the truth is, the vast majority of so-called contemporary worship reflects a style that is now going on 25 years old. So we have to ask ourselves, how long before something can no longer call itself “contemporary.” Keep in mind, the misuse of a lable does not take away from the power and stirring nature of a service geared specifically toward heartfelt praise and adoration.
The problem with the discussion of style is not which style is better than the other. The problem is in the discussion itself as a whole. Why is style the driving force behind meaning in worship? Why is it that we see it fit to use worship as an evangelistic tool for our local church? Why is the question always posed in an either/or argument?
[My guess it is much of this is symptomatic of a generational divide in our churches and church leadership, but that’s a post for another day]
Worship is about participation in a larger reality; one that remains a mystery and yet where the very transformative power of this reality is found in its mystery. It is an exercise of praise, adoration, lament, proclamation, and fellowship. Faithful worship does not seek to create experiences with God. Instead it’s about creating space where experiences can occur. It may sound like a simple manner of semantics, but please note the emphasis in the two statements: one puts humans and human desire at the center and the other puts the worship of God at the center; the by-product of which can create space where the Holy Spirit can meet us by the surprising grace of God.
Issues of style become secondary to the worship of God. And the worship of God quickly becomes a statement not of our taste or preferences, but a statement of who are and who we long to be.
What does worship mean for you? And how does practicing Holy Commuinion every week fit into this framework?