Seeking Peace in the Worship Wars
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Come, hear, believe, recieve, go. The Shape of Worship
Worship Wars. The very term sounds ominous and troubles us all if we have been in Evangelical churches over the last two or three decades. I have been pondering this question many evangelicals wrestle with but never seem to find a common answer to. Just what is worship? It is not that we don’t care about worship. We do. Passionately. We know there should be a set of sound Biblical principals that mediates this debate.
But what our passionate concern for worship has led to are debates primarily about musical styles, the aesthetics of the room, the fashions of the participants, the lighting, the technology. We know that these stylistic things should be secondary, but we still are drawn back to the debate because we sense something is not synchronizing between the deeply spiritual term worship and what we actually do on Sunday mornings. Our Sunday services seem out of focus, our purpose is unclear. We think that maybe if we do something different with the music or the lighting or the scripture translation it will all be resolved, or so we hope.
I have become convinced that the “worship wars” are not about style. The issue is not the music, the technology, the attire, the vibe. I believe the primary reason we battle about worship is that most evangelicals have not considered the theology that underlies each of the various contemporary patterns of worship we argue for or against. We all know worship means to “bow down” before God and that we should in one sense worship in all we do. But when it comes to the Sunday service, ultimately, we become focused on the cultural trappings of a particular style because there is a lack of understanding about what is underneath it all – the purpose of the corporate worship service is unclear, so our cognitive dissonance gets focused on the peripherals.
In a word, the tension we feel is about the purpose of corporate worship, it is a tension between reverence and relevance. Though the two words are not mutually exclusive, we cannot easily pursue one as the purpose of our Sunday gatherings without overshadowing the other. Which is not to say the two are mutually exclusive. Rather, which concept defines the purpose of the corporate gathering ultimately determines the context in which the secondary questions are asked.
It is my hope, that if Evangelicals can grasp a larger, universal and Biblical picture of the historic purpose of corporate worship, the cultural incidentals can be moved from the center of the debate to the periphery and we can find common ground even in uncommon settings. To understand my thesis, let me very briefly outline how worship has changed, not merely over the past few decades, but over many centuries.
A 3000-foot View
Historically, worship has been a gospel shaped series of events focused around Acts 2:42, the apostles' teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer. In short, the historic pattern has been “word” (apostles teaching and fellowship) and table (breaking of bread and prayer). There is more detail implied within these two broad terms, of course, but this is a basic pattern common across denominations and spanning many centuries. All truly Christian churches do these things in some manner – the question is: why such diversity in how these two broad activities are observed?
The pattern of “Word and Table” originated in part because early Christians were Jews. A Jewish spiritual life was centered on the Temple and the Synagogue. The temple was where sacrifice and offering took place, where Jews looked for atonement from sin. In the first century, the synagogue was where the reading and explanation of the scriptures happened and was a central place when the Temple was not available.
The first Christians from this Jewish vantage point saw Christ’s death as the final sacrifice and the final atonement. Temple sacrifice was not necessary, even forbidden according to the writer of the Book of Hebrews. They instead “broke bread” in remembrance of the cross as the fulfillment of both the atonement and Passover events of the Old Testament and they gathered in the mornings for that purpose. In addition, New Testament Christians often went to the temple or synagogue for prayer or teaching. Paul preached Christ in many synagogues.
But as the New Testament era progressed, non-believing Jews saw Christianity as a rival religion and banished Christians from synagogues. Eventually the Jerusalem temple would be destroyed. As the gospel spread and Gentile Christians came into the church, both the breaking of bread and teaching functions of church life were brought into local house churches, fulfilling the function of both synagogue and temple. Hence the common pattern of word and table, teaching of the word and breaking of bread, became the broad pattern of worship by the second century.
Documents from the early church clearly reflect a pattern of believers gathering to hear the scriptures read and explained and to share in the bread and cup with prayer and thanksgiving. It was also, of course, common to sing hymns, to pray corporately, to give gifts of charity and to recite common creeds as a sort of pledge of unity and common faith. Parishoners were generally not literate, so rote memory of prayers, creeds and hymns was a natural way to teach and disciple. Over time this pattern led to specific “liturgies” (literally “common works”) which tended to unify Christian worship in a consistent pattern. There was no single liturgy, but having a common form symbolized “one faith” and the universal nature of the gospel.
After Christianity become the official faith of the Roman Empire, worship in both the Eastern and Western Roman Empire took on a ceremonious air, and the power and influence of the office of Bishop grew. Doctrinal drift and ecclesiastical abuse through the early centuries of the second millennium is well documented, and the church accumulated some non-essential baggage that, in the eyes of the Reformers, clouded the gospel. Preaching fell into disuse as rural clergy were often uneducated. The Mass, still performed in Latin, became the central and primary act of Worship.
Because of theological abuses in the medieval church, Luther in Germany, Calvin in Geneva and Cranmer in England reformed worship around a corrected theology. Traditions that conflicted with clear Biblical teaching were set aside, but not all traditions were deemed “traditions of men”. Drastic changes were not immediately instituted by the first Reformers – the move away from medieval Catholicism was gradual in terms of the form of worship.
Protestants in particular rejected an overwrought sacramentalism that suggested the sacraments of baptism and communion were effective “by the work that is worked” or in an automatic manner apart from faith. The Reformers in particular rejected Transubstantiation, the dogma that during communion, the bread and wine were truly changed into the real body and blood of Christ. Very troubling to the Reformers with respect to worship, was the corresponding implication that the Roman Mass was a perpetual sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. Salvation, the Reformers taught, came through faith and not through the ceremonial works of the church. The Reformers shifted away from the overemphasis on the Mass in the church service and increased the emphasis on Scripture read and taught. The prominence of the high altar was lessened and the place of the pulpit was increased. Luther penned new hymns to teach theology to his parishoners. Services were held in the common tongue and the preaching of the Word was restored to a central place.
Both Calvin and Luther retained a belief that the church was found where the Word of God was rightly preached and the sacraments (baptism and communion) were rightly administered. Worship, as it had been since the book of Acts, remained a two-part service including the service of the Word and the ministry of the table in the Lutheran and Reformed traditions. In England, Cranmer specifically created a liturgy that very strongly emphasized salvation by grace through faith and followed the Word/Table pattern. But as the Protestant movement spread and fractured into multiple sects, the form of worship continued to evolve and fragment based on shifting theological emphases.
Those Reformers who moved the farthest from Roman Catholic practices separated themselves from any pattern that might be attributed to the "traditions of men". Zwingli, argued that the concept of sacrament was derived from the Latin sacramentum which simply meant an oath. This shifted the emphasis of baptism and communion from being an action of the church to an act of individual faith on the part of the recipient. The emphasis on the outward signs of water in baptism and bread and wine in communion diminished and the emphasis on the personal faith of the individual became central. Communion in many Protestant circles came to be celebrated only periodically. Creeds and confessions of faith were viewed by some as man-made statements and removed from the corporate worship setting. Some even put an end to singing. The focus of worship for the later Reformers was almost entirely on the preaching and teaching of the Word. “No book but the Bible, no creed but Christ” was a common rallying cry for later reformers. Worship largely became synonomous the reading and teaching of scripture.
But more changes would come quite quickly in the modern era. With the coming of the great revivals in England and America, corporate worship in many evangelical churches took the general shape of the revival meeting or open air crusade with a primary emphasis on gospel preaching to stir repentance, followed by an “altar call”. The Jesus movement of the later 1960s and early 1970s emphasized contemporary music and openness to street culture, and churches whose main focus was gospel preaching were often ready to embrace this emphasis for evangelistic purposes. The Charismatic movement left its stamp on worship, emphasizing a powerful experience of the moving of the Holy Spirit and this idea would filter into many denominations through contemporary music.
For most evangelical Baby Boomers, Sunday morning worship in Evangelical settings was either a teaching or outreach event where the preaching focused either on converting the unbeliever and challenging the believer to be more fully sanctified. The baseline for Sunday morning had shifted from corporate worship to teaching/outreach - but the event was still commonly called the “worship service”.
When church growth pioneers Rick Warren and Bill Hybels tailored their services in a way that would appeal to unchurched families in their communities, the "seeker" movement was born. Sunday services in this movement became "pre-evangelistic" events where the unchurched could explore Christian ideas about relevant topics like family life, personal finances and the meaning of life from a Christian perspective. This meant removing from the Sunday service many explicitly Christian elements that might discourage the seeker from attending. Hymns were replaced with contemporary songs, pipe organs were replaced with soft rock bands. Crosses, stained glass, communion tables, and baptismal fonts were removed and the central piece of furniture on the sanctuary stage was a small, non-authoritarian looking podium rather than the traditional pulpit. The Sunday service for many was primarily about relevance to the broader culture, not reverence in the presence of God.
A question of Context
It is important to understand this long history. The current debate over worship “style” could not have happened had the evangelical church not already, over many centuries, moved away from the corporate worship purpose of celebrating the saving acts of God with its “word/table” structure and Acts 2:42 ethos to an outreach shaped service increasingly focused on mission to the un-churched. Don’t misunderstand. There is nothing wrong with outreach and the motives for this were certainly often the best. But this was, historically, a shift in the pattern and structure and purpose of Sunday morning services.
Following the advent of the seeker movement many diverse approaches to worship have come at lightning speed. These new approaches are usually aimed at targeting different demographic groups from youth to young couples to truck drivers to cowboys with an outreach emphasis. Small churches feel pressure to adapt to a dizzying array of options to compete with churches that are attracting large crowds, but often lack the resources to stage such programs effectively. To be blunt, small churches can often be relevant if a particular leader has the savvy and charisma to relate to a sub-culture, but many small churches simply can’t be “hip” to the current cultural trends. An exodus away from the small community church to the large megachurch seems fueled by a “consumer” mentality where churchgoers want the best and most polished presentation, but it is also fueled by the outreach oriented desire to be “relevant”.
But many have asked “what happens to reverence in an exclusively outreach event? If Sunday morning is an event designed for outreach, when do Christians worship? When do believers focus entirely on the things of God in the Acts 2:42 pattern? Where is the “worship service” when the Sunday gathering focuses so much on outreach?
While many “seeker” churches attempted to retain a sense of corporate worship and moved communion and fellowship times to a weeknight, something still seemed amiss for many.
The popular "worship" renewal movement seems to have been born to fill this vacuum. An entire industry has been created to develop music that exalts God exclusively, based on the broad definition of worship as to “bow down”. For most evangelicals whose understanding of worship has been shaped almost entirely in their experiences during the last 25 years, worship is unconsciously equated with singing songs of praise. On the other end of the spectrum, an opposite reaction has occurred with evangelicals embracing liturgical traditions in Lutheran, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic movements. But for most evangelicals, the debate about worship lacks an understanding of the movements that have brought us to this point.
The end result is that many evangelicals struggle to find a common definition of what worship is, and we argue endlessly over musical styles and the whether a song that is 15 years old is outdated and irrelevant primarily because we are unwittingly conditioned to equate worship with music while preaching is equated with evangelism or teaching. We often take it for granted that both music and message must be relevant to the un-churched. The band is called the “worship team” as if prayer, scripture, teaching and giving had no part in “worship”. But in what sense is praise music attractive or relevant to a skeptic or a seeker? Contemporary choruses usually express an emotional connection between the Christian and Christ. Lacking historical and theological context, we debate about one or two elements of a Sunday service that has accidently mismatched elements of outreach (unchurched) and contemporary praise (churched).
The tension is because the event, Sunday Service, does not have a clear purpose. It is, for many smaller churches, neither clearly devoted to corporate worship, nor to outreach and so it fails at both. And ironically in this lack of context, even “worship” music often seems shallow because the very definition of the word worship in “worship music” is poorly defined. Lyrics can express the majesty of God or our feelings about Him but struggle to speak of anything broader or wider for fear of being opaque to the seeker. Preaching, in seeking to be relevant and accessible, often lacks depth and sometimes descends into mere self-help moralizing.
So our attempts at reverence fail at relevance, and attempts at relevance lack reverence.
Seeking a Point of Reference
Regardless of what cultural setting we are in, whether it be the Seattle grunge scene or a distant foreign mission field, there are some keys to a theologically rich and historically validated approach to worship that can, I believe, mitigate some of the controversy. If the purpose of Sunday Service is in fact outreach, then the church that chooses that path should, to be effective, make all aspects of the Sunday event serve that purpose. But if the purpose of gathering on the first day of the week is worship, then there needs to be a clear set of priorities that will serve that purpose. Plenty of ink has been spent on the seeker model. What follows are a few words about an approach that is both evangelical in intent and historical in spirit.
The Two-fold Pattern
While I do not mean to suggest that there is one prescribed order of service commanded in scripture or that every word of what takes place in Evangelical worship needs to be packaged into a rote liturgy, I believe there are some common threads in the historical pattern that dates back to the first and second centuries that can refocus Evangelical worship. The two movements of Word and Table are common, sound, and biblical and true to what the church has always done. Certain sub-sections of these two movements are sensible. And the key is this: None of the purposes behind such an approach to worship demand or preclude any particular “style” or cultural setting. Indeed, the historic pattern is independent of culture and style.
The ministry of the Word
Traditionally church services begin with a processional or “call to worship”. So we come to hear the Word of God, the teaching of Christ and the apostles. We enter the courts with praise. Psalm 100 is often cited as the pattern for coming together for worship.
We acknowledge that God is the center of worship. But it is He who calls us. He is the reason we gather. And we do gather with one voice singing of his Honor. The service is not about us, but it is for us in a real sense. Worship begins not with what we bring to God, but what God has done for us.
I find it interesting that the Old Testament patriarchs prior to the Law of Moses often offered sacrifices. But they often offered sacrifices after God had already done something for them. Noah built an altar after he exited the Ark. (Gen 8:20) Jacob built an altar after he returned to Bethel after fleeing from Esau (Gen 35:3) Sacrifice in these acts of the patriarchs was not an attempt to appease God or get something from Him, but was an act of thanksgiving for what God had graciously done. This is vital. Christian worship begins as a response to what God has freely done for us.
The Word is publicly read. This is the first act of the Gospel – it mirrors many New Testament events such as John the Baptist crying in the wilderness, Jesus teaching in the open air, Paul and Peter preaching in the public square. Timothy was commanded to publicly read scripture. (1 Tim 4:13) Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the WORD. Most liturgical churches include an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a New Testament Epistle reading and a Gospel reading in a three year cycle that covers nearly all of the Bible. A free church may not wish to follow a lectionary or a predetermined structure, but the point is that scripture is read – a biblical command to Timothy as a church leader. However we do this, however passages are selected, we do it to hear the voice of a living God in a living Word.
In addition, the Word is taught. The sermon is a vital teaching time. This is clearly a New Testament precedent and was practiced from the earliest days of the church. Again, see Acts 2:42 and 1 Timothy 4:13 “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.” See also Nehemiah 8:8, “They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.”
Hearing the Word also reminds us of our unworthiness as we stand in the presence of a Holy God and hear the Word Written. The word, sharper than any two-edged sword cuts away our pride. A time of confession for our sins follows the pattern of the people confessing after Ezra read the law. (Nehemiah 9).
We are called to come and hear and to repent. Cranmer’s English liturgy began with a reading of the 10 commandments which led to specific words of restoration. Worship is always about responding to the graciousness of God, answering a call from a God who invites us to come and receive of his graciousness, for the unworthy to bow in His presence.
But the Word attests to our forgiveness. As we confess our sins, He is faithful to forgive. Most churches offer some word of forgiveness in the context of confession. Our advocate with the Father sits at His right hand. He is faithful and just to forgive and cleanse. (1 John 1:9) Evangelical worship never is about needing to appease God or earn forgiveness. We confess in the light of grace. The Word leads to conviction, to repentance and ultimately to confession and restored fellowship.
The Service of the Table
It is no accident that Creeds, in many Liturgical settings, precede communion but come after the service of the Word. We are moved by the Apostles’ teaching to belief in a common faith - one faith, one lord, one baptism. The beginnings of creedal statements show up even in the New Testament. No one should participate in Communion without first professing the apostolic faith in the Triune God and the risen Christ. Creeds and confessions facilitate orthodoxy and are a natural precursor to participation in Communion. In addition, affirmation of a Creed unites us to other believers, including those who have come before us in centuries past. We are members of one Church rather than independent satellites.
Evangelicals who find reciting a Creed in unison uncomfortable think nothing of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, the Boy Scout Motto or the AWANA pledge. Even secular people find common pledges valid and worthwhile. I tend to think that churches that practice open communion would do well to restore a basic statement of Christian belief prior to communion, for it flows naturally that communion is intended for those who are of the faith. In some centuries of church history, non-believers were actually dismissed before communion.
I used to be puzzled at liturgical settings where there was a “passing of the peace”. Many churches do some sort of greeting at the beginning of their service, but for an entirely different reason. The “greeting” is intended to make visitors feel welcome, and outreach purpose. But the “passing of the peace” mirrors the Biblical concept that we have peace with God and each other because of what Christ has done. I find that when this is connected to the communion service, it takes on a completely different meaning. We have peace with God and with each other at the foot of the cross.
We give thanks for what Christ has done in the bread and cup which "proclaim the Lord's death" (1 Cor 11:26). One critical point here: In contrast to the implications of medieval practice and dogma, communion is not about obtaining forgiveness, it is a thankful remembrance that Christ purchased salvation once for all and sat down at the right hand of God having finished His work. So while we solemnly remember Christ’s death, communion is ultimately an act of thanksgiving.
In some sense, Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 10:16 that we “participate” in the sacrifice of Christ. In some sense, by faith, we are united with Christ in His death and resurrection. Communion is somehow larger than a mere remembrance, but nothing need be asserted beyond the concept that the outward symbol of bread and cup represent a spiritual reality – Christ became sin for us, we become righteous through union with him. (2 Cor 5:21)
In addition, as Paul taught, “we who are many become one loaf”. (1 Cor 10:17) Communion is an activity that symbolizes the unity of the church. I personally dislike the crackers and wafers used in many communion services, not out of preference but because the image of a single loaf from which we all partake is lost. Communion becomes individualized – “me and Jesus” rather than “Jesus and the church”. I believe there is an important symbol in the act of taking a bit of bread broken from a common loaf and dipping it in a common cup. This, perhaps, is the original “altar call”. It enables us to fully connect, mind, spirit and body, with all of the New Testament imagery surrounding our being united with Christ in his death, and being united as his body – the church. In doing so, we act and participate and cease to be spectators.
Prayer is a natural response of faith. Corporate prayer can take many forms. There is nothing un-Evangelical about reciting the Lord's Prayer together in the overall context of Biblical worship. But in the context of our atonement being secure and final, as we near the end of our service, it should strike us that we can approach the throne of grace with boldness. (Heb 4:16) What better time for intercession for the specific needs of the church than after a meaningful connection with his once-for-all sacrifice that opened the curtain into the holiest place?
We also present ourselves as living sacrifices (Rom 12:1,2) in gratitude, offering the fruit of our lips (Heb 13:5), as well as gifts to support the church and the less fortunate. Again, our “worship” presenting our bodies and our gifts, is a response to what God has done, “in view of God’s mercies”. I wonder if giving would increase in churches if giving were connected to grace and thanksgiving.
Finally, we are sent out as ambassadors, charged with living the faith we have professed. Interestingly, the word that is the basis of the Catholic term “mass”, is “missa”, which means to send. The culmination of worship is “mission”. At this point, the connection between worship and living is made.
A Cease Fire in the Worship Wars
Here are the two key points to conclude this brief study. This pattern of worship, though there are many variations and a few missteps in certain eras and circles, has remained largely intact through 2000 years of church history, even within many branches of the Protestant reformation. There is nothing about this broad pattern that is less than fully protestant or evangelical, nothing that would conflict with the basic statements of faith of most churches. Nothing in the New Testament commands this structure, but there are clear reasons why this pattern emerged very early in church history. I wonder - if more Free Church evangelicals were to adopt this structure out of a theological reflection on the purpose for corporate worship, would we not be solidly in line with truth that any Christian from any culture and any denominational setting should fully recognize and be able to embrace? Would Christian unity be enhanced?
Second, this pattern of worship, (as an outline as opposed to a straitjacket), is not bound to any cultural setting, period in history or musical style. A church can incorporate African folk songs, 13th century English melodies or 21st century choruses into this structure, just as easily as 16th century Hymns or revival songs, (provided the lyrical content is appropriate for the placement in the service). Nothing about this structure demands pews over chairs, bright lights over dim, carpets over marble floors, suits and ties over blue jeans. The pastor need not wear any particular attire, though some signification of his office is common in some traditions. Prayer can be spontaneous and congregational. Nothing prohibits participation by the laity in the form of song or word of wisdom or prayer. This structure of worship is nothing more than a purposeful outline that mirrors the gospel. What matters is not the cultural setting, but the eternal truths. Worship is not about the style, it is about the biblical, gospel content that drives the practices of the church gathered in the presence of the Triune God.
What about the Unchurched?
Some will ask, “Will seekers find this attractive?” That, I would argue, depends only on us and how we present ourselves in our communities. If worship is primarily a reverent response to the mercies of God that the church offers in thanksgiving, nothing prevents outreach from being the focus of many events and activities at any other time during the week or even later in the day. But by the same token, nothing prevents us from removing cultural obstacles from our Sunday services that might seem confusing or archaic to a visitor from the community. If we are sensitive, real, communicative - nothing in this structure should be off-putting to an honest seeker in a worship service precisely because this form of worship is driven by the gospel story and is not limited by culture.
In fact, I would argue if we fail to somehow account for our culture we are failing to be all things to all people (1 Cor 9:22). Recall that the Roman church originally held its services in Latin when Latin was the language of the culture. It took until Vatican II in my lifetime to allow for Catholic services to be held in English in the United States. Is there a parallel in how Evangelicals present ancient truths? The truths are eternal, but cultures change.
Imagine if we were missionaries to a far off tribe in a distant land and held our services in English. Would such a ministry have any value to that culture? Closer to home, imagine if everyone in our congregation dressed as if we still lived in th 1950s, with bee-hive hairdos for women and greased back dos for men, knee length skirts, horned-rimmed glasses.
I stated that the tension in our services was between reverence and relevance. I do not think relevance should be our purpose in our corporate worship setting, but that does not imply that we should make irrelevance a virtue from cultural tone-deafness or laziness either. There is a difference between being attractional, where the purpose of the service is to meet the needs of the seeker, and being attractive, where the purpose of the service is true worship according to the Word/Table format, but our manner accounts for the culture in which we serve, choosing not to put up cultural barriers that obscure the gospel. I believe we have a responsibility to be intelligible to our communities. We must not confuse reverence with mere formality, nor should we confuse familiar style with theological substance.
If our community is working class, we can implement this pattern of worship in a way that welcomes blue collars and blue jeans. If our community is professional, we can come to the Word and Table in well-cut jackets and well shined shoes. If our community is full of the young and searching, we can welcome t-shirts, tatoos and flip-flops, sing with guitars and still focus on the apostle’s teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer in a manner that is true to scripture and evangelical doctrines of grace and faith. And if any cross-cultural encounters should occur, if our community is mixed, the common purpose and structure of worship cans still be a recognizable, comforting and unifying force even though cultures may be different.
The point of tension in the worship wars is between reverence and relevance. If our purpose is relevance, reverence will take a back seat. If our purpose is reverence, not everything we do will seem relevant to a secular culture. But, in the end, worship that is patterned after the Gospel should have a relevance of its own in any culture. The gospel story is this: Come, hear, believe, recieve, go. Worship that follows this pattern proclaims the gospel in its unfolding. And as such it should be a unifying event, not an event to fight about. How can we not be reverent in the presence of God in his Living Word and in the due consideration of his once-for-all sacrifice? And if we begin there, can anything be more relevant to mortal men?
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