What Most Christians Don’t Know About “Church” and How It’s Hurting Us Right Now – Part II – “The Worship of the Church”

I don’t know how many hours I’ve sat in class listening to debates regarding Christian worship style.  Some people in the Christian world contend that worship needs to look like what consumer America is purchasing today if we are to truly reach the lost in a consumer-driven society.  Sometimes, however, it’s just personal preference under the guise of “cultural sensitivity.”  This was the minority where I studied.  More commonly, many argued that we need to follow a more historical, traditional form of worship, but many on this side of the debate only really wanted to go back “historically” to their favorite time and template of worship (which typically meant whatever Luther was doing).  Sometimes it was just personal preference under the guise of (truncated) “Christian history.” 

My personal concern is that neither opinion really reflects what is seen in apostolic era, early New Testament worship.  Are we free to worship in a variety of different ways?  Absolutely.  Don’t let anyone ever tell you that worship of God “must” be done in a certain way, other than that it be “orderly” (1 Corinthians 14:40).   As the body of Christ, we have the freedom to worship God in a variety of ways.

Today, many Christian churches (particularly Catholics, Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox, and Lutherans) opt for the liturgical route.  The wisdom behind the Christian liturgy is that it provides consistency, organization, and ensures that every worship service is focused where it needs to be – on Christ.  To do so, it almost invariably includes several acknowledgements that this service is conducted in worship of the Triune God, worshippers confess sins and are absolved by God through the minister, worshippers praise God using specific songs from Scripture, worshippers listen to readings and explanations of God’s Word, worshippers confess their Christian faith together, worshippers celebrate Communion together, worshippers present offerings to God to support his work on earth, worshippers offer prayers to God with and on behalf of one another, and worshippers receive a blessing from God through words of the minister.  Sound familiar?  If so, then you worship in a liturgical church. 

Many Christian churches today (particularly Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Charismatics, and numerous Reformed churches) opt for a less formulaic route.  Typically they begin worship with a combination of songs and prayers.  They’ll then proceed to a series of announcements and communication.  At this time, younger members of the congregation are guided towards a more Sunday School type of environment.  Adult worshippers then listen to a 40 minute (or so) sermon (typically more casually presented than in a liturgical worship service).  The wisdom behind this style of worship is that it typically provides less temptation to “go through the motions” and assume we’re right with God.  It also is tailored to meet people where they are at.  For instance, it’s assumed that a sermon for adults might not resonate as well with children, so a separate biblical message is customized to meet the needs of and communicate with children.

There is conventional wisdom in both approaches.  Neither is mandated by God in Scripture.  If you feel so strongly about one or the other that you suggest (or imply) that others are sinning by not doing it a certain way (i.e. your way), it’s probably time to re-read Revelation 20:18, where John writes this about those who are putting their words/preferences/laws on par with God’s Word, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll.”  To take the worship of God and turn it into mandated laws is Old Testament, old covenant Judaism, or………unchristian. 

So how did we get where we are today?  Are there any potential flaws or blind spots that we may have?  These are important questions.

To understand what we see in worship today, we really need to go back to the formation of the Roman Catholic Mass in the 600s AD.  Gregory the Great, the first monk to be made pope, although recognized as a generous, talented man and wise administrator, is also considered by historians to be a superstitious man who was greatly influenced, like Emperor Constantine, by mystical, magical, and pagan concepts.  The medieval Mass, in some respects, represented some blended components of paganism and Judaism, mixed with Catholic theology and Christian vocabulary.  Special vestments for priests, incense and holy water for purification rites, the architecture of the worship building and the concept of a worship building itself (see last week’s post), and even the title Pontifex Maximus, a title given in the Roman Empire for the chief of pagans, were incorporated into Christian worship (for the pope).  The Catholic Mass remained for nearly 1000 years, until Martin Luther.

Luther criticized the medieval mass as being too much of a human work that came from a misunderstanding of Christ’s one-time, complete sacrifice for sins.  So, in 1523, he went about revising it to create the German Mass.    The chief change Luther made was removing all references to “re-sacrificing” Christ in the Lord’s Supper.  While he believed that a specific order for worship should not be mandated, he felt that this order was wise and proper.  Through all of this, you really have to admire Luther’s understanding of harmonizing Christian freedom with conventional wisdom.  He continuously seemed to teach and practice the “not add to or subtract from” God’s Word life that has escaped many churches in history. 

While the German Mass wasn’t by any means a complete change from the Catholic Mass, some of the changes that Luther did make to the Catholic Mass are still felt today in most mainline Protestant churches: worship in the actual language of the people (it’s almost inconceivable that this was not the case prior to Luther), the elevation of the sermon as a more central part of the worship service, collective congregational singing, removing the concept of Communion being a “re-sacrificing” of Jesus, and allowing members to partake of both the wine and the bread in the Lord’s Supper (whereas Catholicism had only allowed the priests to drink the cup at this time).  All of these were beneficial changes. 

But, there were still some elements of early Christianity that Luther ignored, perhaps merely because he was a product of a certain age (we’re all, to some degree, products of our environment).  For instance, although Luther encouraged the singing of hymns by the congregation, most of the service remained presided over by ordained clergy.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with having a worship leader.  It makes good sense in a variety of ways.  The problem could come in, however, if it lends itself towards non-participating, passive, (God-given) talent-squelching worship that becomes merely a show.  In both liturgical and non-liturgical worship circles, this can be a real problem, particularly in a society that is accustomed to passively sitting in front of a screen for entertainment.  It could become “we’ll watch you worship God.”  The congregation could become an audience, not a body active in worship. 

In addition to Luther, there were other Protestant Reformers and subsequent church leaders who also contributed a great deal to the molding of worship as well.  Swiss Reformer, John Calvin, is credited with encouraging Christians to enter worship with a somber attitude, in reverence to God.  In fact, in Puritan New England, children were sometimes actually fined for smiling in church.  Conversely, eighteenth-century Methodists are credited with encouraging worshippers to sing loudly and vigorously, seeking to generate emotion and creating the sense that emotional zeal equates directly to strength of faith. 

Frontier-Revivalist George Whitefield is credited as the one who primarily shifted the emphasis in preaching from God’s plans for the church to God’s plans for the individual.  The current popular prosperity-theology message in American Christianity that “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” (while true with the right understanding, but could be terribly abused) has its roots in Whitefield’s preaching.  Nineteenth-century Methodist Charles Finney contributed the theory of pragmatism to Christian churches.  Winning converts by any means necessary became the basic philosophy.  And, while outreach and evangelism are obviously great, if it relies primarily on technique rather than the Holy Spirit working through God’s Word to change hearts, then it’s not real evangelism.  Today, many churches struggle with compromising the ethics and integrity of God’s Word for the sake of bringing in members and staying “culturally relevant.”  As a result of Finney’s work and revivalist D.L. Moody, Christian worship, in many cases, became spiritual seeker-sensitive, politically correct so as to avoid offense, entertainment-driven, and emotionally charged. 

Going back to our opening points, we remember that we are free to worship in a variety of ways.  So the question isn’t so much “What is scriptural?”, because the Bible doesn’t prescribe a specific form of worship for the New Testament Church.  The question for Christians and Christian churches then becomes, “Is there anything that we’re currently doing that could lend itself towards being ‘unscriptural’?” (i.e. either ignore or directly violate New Testament truth).    Again, this is my personal assessment of what might be hurting us today:

1)   Lacking participation – Every Christian is blessed with spiritual gifts, gifts that God gives with the specific intention of serving the church.  The Apostle Paul makes this abundantly clear in 1 Corinthians 12:4-7, when he says, 4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.  7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” 

Although they debate what these gifts may be, most Christian churches won’t deny the existence of spiritual gifts in believers.  However, the typical template used in worship for our national church body is 1 pastor standing in the front leading and 1 organist sitting at the organ bench playing music and a couple of ushers directing traffic (before, after, and during the offering).  While we acknowledge other gifts, we restrict them to outside the confines of the worship service.  Again, I guess there doesn’t necessarily have to be anything wrong with that.  But it’s worth noting that it’s not really what we see going on in the early church, not until Constantine’s Christianization of Rome.  It would be a great deal of organization (perhaps even a full-time job), but I believe our churches would benefit tremendously by having many people involved in worship beyond just singing hymns or responding in dialogue with the presiding minister.  Readings, prayers, multiple musicians, organization, greetings, encouragement, support, could all, in theory, be portions of worship that are handled by those in the congregation that have particular God-given gifts in such areas.  Our current structure and paradigm is perhaps restricting the use of such gifts. 

2)   Attitude in Worship – I have no problems with someone who desires to express “reverence” to God.  I have the same desire.  However, I would have a problem with quiet solemnity (or even apathy) under the guise of “reverence” that leads someone to be inhospitable, unfriendly, or downright rude toward fellow worshippers (existing members or visitors).  If you think you are revering God while at the same time you’re failing to care for your fellow worshipper, you’re being a Pharisee, plain and simple.  Matthew 25:45 “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”  Remember, God doesn’t exist in the “Most Holy Place” anymore.  The body of Christ himself is the believers themselves.  Therefore, if we want to love and respect God, we need to be loving and respecting his people.

3)   Not Using the “Common Language” – I once read a story about Bill Hybels, a nationally-recognized, very influential pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, which has approximately 20,000 weekly worshippers.  He was preaching at a pastors conference fairly early in his ministry and, during the sermon, one of the attending pastors leaned over to a colleague next to him and said, “I don’t see what all the fuss is about this guy.  He doesn’t even talk like a pastor.” 

The gist of the article was that this was precisely the point – that part of Hybels’ success was due to the fact that he communicated “like a human,” not like a pastor.  For a long time, worship in mainline churches has incorporated such inflated rhetoric that it almost comes across as (and at times has actually been , cf. Catholic Church pre Vatican II) a foreign language. 

So, for instance, while the texts of many several hundred year-old hymns remain beautiful, the message, unfortunately, may come across as clouded in verbiage, the presentation may come off as wooden through expression, and the melody may be perceived as disconnected from “what music is” in the 21st century.  I do think it’s wise for us to look long and hard at the words of our orders of service and the songs we use in worship and the music of worship itself that we use and ask if they’re clearly communicating what we want them to communicate.  Everyone has different preferences when it comes to styles of music.  The goal is to target clear communication. 

I think a similar example of this is seen in the King James Version translation of the Bible.  Not too many scholars will argue for any other English translation of the Bible as the best English translation ever.  When it comes to a combination of accuracy and faithfulness to the original languages as well as eloquence, probably nothing tops the KJV.  That said, today, the message gets lost (or at least blurred) in that type of language.  Consuming it becomes unnecessarily burdensome.  So, as Luther did with translating Scripture into the common man’s tongue, modern scholars have done likewise.  I believe it’s important for us to apply that same mentality towards all of our language and communication in worship. 

There are other ways to appreciate a sense of history than reciting the exact words used by saints who have come before us.  Clear communication is too important when it comes to gospel proclamation for it to be clouded in antiquated language.  If I’m living in 2011 and praying for hearts to be won for Christ in 2011, it probably makes sense to communicate to the people in 2011 the way that people in 2011 communicate.  Otherwise, it’s like I’m handing a KJV Bible to a 5-year-old and telling him it’s good for him.  Does it contain the gospel?  Of course.  Is it the best way to communicate the gospel to him?  Probably not.  Why?  Because he doesn’t communicate that way, and failure to clearly communicate clouds the message.

4)   Regularly Rotating from Church to Church for Worship – I’ve heard it said before “how wonderful it is that you can go from church to church in our church body and be confident that you’ll hear the same Christocentric message.”  While I’d certainly agree that doctrinal unity within a church body is obviously important and increasingly rare, my first question to someone who is making a statement like that would be, “Why are you bouncing around churches so much?”  Just because I can worship with another church that practices the same doctrine doesn’t mean I should be, particularly if it means that I’m neglecting my home church.  If we are really each given unique gifts by God to serve the body, that means that my gifts are missed whenever I’m not there.  The Christian church of the mobile 21st century struggles mightily with getting to know one another.  Split attendance between local churches, something that’s become fairly popular, doesn’t help this at all.  I’d strongly encourage worshippers to find a place to call home and truly make it “home” – invest time, energy, resources, and self into it so that you’re as comfortable as possible with that local church and so that you can actually help make others more comfortable too.

Some may argue that the Apostle Paul bounced around from church to church, so it must be okay.  For starters, the Apostle Paul was a rare bird – a missionary sent by God to do the work he was doing.  He probably shouldn’t be our blueprint for the average worshipper.  Second, prior to his calling to mission work, Paul spent 6 years at the congregation in Syrian Antioch.  As much as anyone, he probably understood the benefit of worshippers spending quality time with one another.  The average worshipper in the early church, by both necessity and choice, stayed predominantly with one church for long stretches of time, and the churches benefitted from that. 

Again, I’d like to make it abundantly clear that I don’t pretend to know all the answers.  The more I’ve grown and matured as a Christian, the more I’ve realized how many answers I didn’t have that I thought I had, and how much farther I have to go.  By the grace of God we’re saved in the blood of Christ, not by our perfect understanding of the “way things should be.”  I take all comfort in that.  But, between now and singing with the saints in paradise, I don’t ever want to give up on the pursuit of the healthiest church we can have. 

“Custom without truth is error grown old.” – Tertullian, third-century theologian and church leader

8 thoughts on “What Most Christians Don’t Know About “Church” and How It’s Hurting Us Right Now – Part II – “The Worship of the Church”

  1. S says:

    Since we have complete christian freedom to worship God the way we want, what biblical principles do we use to determine the proper and orderly way to do so? What makes a song or sermon appropriate for christian worship? What things would not appropriate for worship?

    • Very good question. The principles for Lutheran worship that I was trained with are as follows:

      1) Let the good news of Jesus Christ be the most important part of worship (1 Cor 2:2).

      2) Let the people participate in worship (1 Peter 2:9).

      3) Let all of God’s gifts be used in worship (Col 3:16 & 1 Cor 12)

      4) Let the experience of the Church be honored at worship (Hebrews 13:7).

      I believe those points are pretty spot on. Through the article, you can probably tell that I personally think that the areas we could still improve upon are points 2 & 3.

      Also, if I could add a point, I’d suggest something to the affect of “communicating the gospel as clearly as possible to the worshippers present.” (Col 4:4; 2 Cor 11:6;Heb 6:17; and others – obviously the desire to communicate the gospel clearly is important)

      Look at this famous statement from our hymnals: “Jesus sinners does receive. Oh, may all this saying ponder. Who in sins’ delusions live. And from God and heaven wander.” I feel like that was written for Yoda from Star Wars, not 21st century worshippers. Does it contain the gospel? Without a doubt. I’d never suggest otherwise. Does it communicate the gospel as clearly as I’d like? Probably not. My concern is that complicated expressions, some music (despite having historical precedence), and repeated formulas, at times, become “spiritual white noise” to worshippers.

      I’d also say this as a quick note about worship music. Why have believers for thousands of years worshipped with music? In other words, why has God allowed music to be such a great gift to the church? Why don’t we just speak everything? Is it not, in part, because God recognizes that the humans he created are emotive creatures. Sometimes we get so fearful of emotion (because, understandly, it can potentially be used to manipulate false feelings and false doctrine), that it almost seems that structured German Lutherans want to divorce themselves from emotion completely.

      If God does desire music to serve as an emotive backdrop to sound teaching, then shouldn’t the music be consistent with the emotion of the message? I do believe that it can be difficult for 21st century worshippers to connect emotionally with several hundred year old music. And IF that’s the case, then the music is distracting from the message, not assisting it.

      While maintaining freedom, I think songs, sermons, etc. that use the above guidelines are appropriate for Christian worship. Songs that ignore the above are not.

      For instance, probably every pastor has had a young couple request a country western song or a secular adult contemporary for their wedding. If it’s not a song that specifically glorifies God, but rather glorifies individuals, it really doesn’t fit in a worship service to God.

      Another item is a flaw in much contemporary music, that, interestingly enough, has to a large degree been corrected in the past decade or so. Many contemporary Christian songs from 20 years ago contained lyrics expressing “I”, “me”, or “my” relationship with God. As a church (assembly of believers), we most often should be singing songs that express connection to God and one another as a body of believers, using words like “we” and “us”.

      And another often legitimate knock on contemporary music is that it simply recites some message to the affect of “I praise you God, I praise you God” over and over (obviously I’m simplifying and generalizing). While there is nothing wrong with this technically, the more biblical example of praise music to God is expressing all of the reasons that we have to praise God (i.e. telling what he’s done for us). It’s the difference between saying “I love my wife, I love my wife” and saying, “I love my wife because she’s smart, and funny, and beautiful, and caring, and etc…” The second is a more thorough and informative praise. Make sense?

      Hope that answered your question 🙂

      • S says:

        Thanks! I’ve heard others use John 4:23-24 also cited as a principle… “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. 24 “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

        What does in “spirit” and “truth” mean in that verse and how does it apply to worship? Is it being applied correctly if used to describe how we are to worship? If someone isn’t joyful singing hymns of Luther but feels more joyful singing Christian radio songs, does it apply? Is emotion a natural occurrence of hearing the Gospel and being filled with inexpressible and glorious joy (1 Peter 1:8)?

        Is it sinful nature that prevents some from feeling joy in a particular style of music rather than the focus on the words that proclaim the Gospel in the hymn or should the church change the style of music so that others can proclaim in a way they feel more exuberant?

    • Hello again! This is a reply to your 2nd comment.

      As to the John 4:23-24 idea of “spirit and truth”, it certainly applies to our discussion of worship. It means that worship is our “spirit” (soul) being touched by THE Spirit. It’s not a mere going through the motions, but sincere worship. The “truth” aspect is that it is focused on the the true revelation of the Triune God as seen in the Bible. Any other religious worship is not done in truth. So….anyone who is worhsipping sincerely to the true God is worshipping correctly, regardless of form.

      To answer the rest of your questions at once, I believe it is the Christian worshipper’s goal to glorify God by proclaiming the gospel through whatever music is used in worship, even if it doesn’t happen to be your personal preference. I believe it is the worship leader’s work to provide music that best communicates the gospel without hindrance, music that matches the message and resonates with as many worshippers as possible.

  2. James,

    I can appreciate much of what your blog article says. I would be one of those people who wishes to maintain order and where change happens slowly. I particular, I want our Lutheran doctrine to not be influenced by culture, musical or otherwise which is often integrated into practices in our churches without thought.

    I really appreciate our pastor, who while using the old NIV (not the gender neutered new NIV), reference other translations like KJV for explaining words and phrases. Also the use of Greek and explaining what it meant helps.

    I am curious about the portion of the blog talking about Hybels and Willow Creek. Are you saying it is good to speak like a pastor or trying to speak like those in the culture?

    • Thanks for reading and for the comment, Perry. I can certainly appreciate your zeal to protect what is sound and pure.

      I truly feel the same way in that I don’t want our doctrine to be lost either -that’s really one of my points. My fear is that the church could develop such a communication disconnect from people in the world today in the way it speaks that eventually the message is lost. There were many problems in the Middle Ages that led to a corrupt Roman Catholic Church, but one of the main ones was that the people (i.e. the laiety) didn’t have any communication with God’s Word because it wasn’t even printed in their language. Poor communication is an enemy to the gospel.

      My point with Bill Hybels was that many people who really wanted to hear and understand God’s Word flocked to him because he spoke to them in ways they could understand. It really isn’t any different than the quote from Luther, (paraphrasing) “I preach to the milkmaids so that the doctors will understand.” In other words, he tried to make his communication as clear and simple as possible so that the gospel was accessible to as many people as possible.

      Ultimately, since you’re speaking TO people, it’d seem to make sense to speak LIKE people.

  3. Jon Micheel says:

    Thanks, Pastor Hein — first for this article specifically, and also for your blog in general. You are sharing your gifts and insights with us, and we are grateful!

    Clear communication in worship is certainly on my mind all the time. We are blessed to have, as often as not, first-time guests in our worship services. Things that I have spoken and sung for years and taken for granted — all of a sudden I wonder how these words are striking people’s ears for the very first time. I agree with you: there are many things that sound odd and are confusing, especially in old hymns.

    Here’s something I wonder about, though: There are also things that sound odd and confusing in the Bible! Even in excellent, contemporary translations. Part of growing in faith is learning to hear and understand God’s Word that is presented in ways foreign to our culture.

    This leads me to a question: Can teaching people how to interpret the poetry of old hymns help them learn to interpret the Bible itself? Can we teach people, even as we were taught, to step back, find the main image in a hymn, sort out the word order, etc. and find a powerful message? And could such a skill translate into assisting people when they read their Bibles?

    Now, this is not just an apologetic for keeping old, confusing hymns. Some hymns and translations just need revising. (Many of Paul Gerhardt’s hymns are simple, down-to-earth and powerful in German, for instance, but the English translations sometimes don’t share those characteristics.) I guess this is what I’m proposing: helping people to interpret and understand good things that aren’t instantly accessible. Teaching them in the children’s sermon, in notes in the bulletin, in short verbal comments in the service, to know that some words and customs are beneficial, even though at first glance they seem confusing. Then helping them apply those skills to reading Paul or Hosea or the Psalms, etc.

    I’ve got to stop for now. Worship services to plan! Your thoughtful article will help me as I do that. Thanks again!

    • Hi Jon!

      Great comment. Great thought. I completely agree that things from the Bible often sound confusing and therefore require explanation. Sometimes people make statements about the message of the Bible working apart from clear communication and I worry that such a person hasn’t grasped the way that the Spirit himself tells us he works according to Acts 8:30-31 (Philip & Ethiopian), again, through clear gospel communication & explanation. I guess I’m just not sure that worship music is the best place to have items that require explanation.

      To a degree, I think it goes back to the old question of “What’s the point of songs in worship?” While furthering education is a possibility, I think songs, because 1) they move too quick without opportunity to pause for clarification, and 2) they are asking you to combine a message with music (i.e. something else to concentrate on), are a very difficult place to require careful interpretation.

      Rather, to me at least, it makes sense that worship songs come from a heart that has been filled with faith and bursts forth to make joyful music to the Lord. Therefore, the music, in general, should likely be something that is clearly recognized as joyful in whatever era you’re worshipping and it would likely need to be something expressed in language that won’t in any way cloud the joy.

      It’s interesting to me that despite the fact that we don’t use a “one size fits all” mentality towards any other avenue of Christian ministry, we seem to embrace it in worship. And the “one size” that we promote is a size that I believe is somewhat difficult to connect to unless you actually lived in the era in which it was written or you are a serious student of liturgy and church history – which would be great, but I’m not sure is realistic for most.

      Can people be taught to appreciate and interpret poetry from a different era? Sure. People could also be taught to read Greek and Hebrew. It’d take a ton of time, but for those who stuck with it, they’d almost undoubtedly benefit from it.

      I think taking the time to thoroughly study hymns is a very worthwhile exercise. The problem comes in that issue of time and study though. Again, is it realistic? Or, is asking the average worshipper to fully grasp what’s being proclaimed in each verse of a hymn as they quickly move by perhaps asking too much?

      In general, I think your thoughts about liturgical notes in the bulletin, simple spoken introductions to hymns and portions of the liturgy, and teaching people to find a main image in a hymn are all very good ideas.

      Interesting you bring those up, because I’m in the process now of trying to compile good, concise summaries of liturgical notes and main hymn thoughts for use in worship. If you have any good materials, I’d love for you to send them my way.

      Thanks again for reading and for your thoughts!

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