There is something that drives me nuts, especially as a seminarian who hopes to be a pastor someday when the seminary finally says I’m done taking classes and I have raked up enough debt to pay for it all.
The thing that probably drives me a bit crazy is the perpetual focus on the worship wars – especially in stories and posts on the Internet. It’s not one of those top of mind focuses, but rather one of those below the surface, consistently there things that will just never die. If I had the magic wooden stake that could kill it once and for all, I would not hesitate to use it. But I don’t, so alas, you get some venting from me and a few thoughts on worship.
For those of you not familiar with the idea of worship wars, I’ll take a stab at trying to describe it. There are people who will argue that their form of worship is the “right” and true form of Christian worship. Some will say it’s a “high church” liturgy with all the bells and smells. Some will claim it is a simpler form. And there is a huge range of this.
I think what drives me crazy about this topic is that it has been going on since the earliest days of Christianity. I say this because early on, and I mean early on, when the church was being persecuted by the Roman empire, there were churches in various regions around the Mediterranean. Each of these regions had their own preferences and styles in worship. When the church became the church of the empire, things started to change. A shift happened – the people in charge had the brilliant idea that all worship should look the same, lest someone inadvertently do or say something deemed unorthodox – oh the horror! It also meant that everything started to be scripted – no extemporaneous prayers or singing, or worship styles. You wouldn’t want to fall into heresy now, would you?
You know what happens when such conformity takes place? Fights break out over who is “right.” That’s what. And we’ve been fighting ever since.
And here’s the thing – it’s ridiculous. I swear we (Christians) have wasted more energy, time, money, lives and relationships fighting over who is “right” when it comes to worship than almost anything else. Can we just call a truce and be done with it.
Rant over, here’s my (hopefully) positive contribution to the whole mess. This isn’t something new either, I’m just repeating something I agree with. Can we agree that “right” worship will look different and unique for each community and context in which it is practiced? It’s like the early church in a way. Each worshiping community had their own preferences and styles because, well, that was how they could offer authentic worship to God. It was authentic because it came from the community gathered and represented them in an honest and open way. It was the community’s offer to God – a show of gratitude for what God had done for them.
I think this idea has merit today. When I see all the varieties of worship out there, there is quite a range – high church, low church, contemporary, liturgical, charismatic, praise, long preaching focused, etc.
Here’s what I think – the variety showcases that each worshiping community is unique. And here’s another thought – if a worship service is thriving or dying tells us something important. What it’s not telling us is the worship, on its own, is “right” or “wrong” but rather, if the worship actually represents the people worshiping. If you have a mismatch, then the worship is just a program that people will go through. There will be no joy. There will be no gratitude to God. There will be a focus on who is right. There will be a focus on other stuff that frankly doesn’t matter. There will be a focus on the “stuff” instead of on God and the community.
When a worship is thriving, well, you can tell. It doesn’t have to have a ton of people either. Thriving doesn’t have to mean mega-church. Thriving means being alive in the presence of God.
And the amazing thing is that thriving worship can happen in all of these variety of worship styles. I have seen a thriving worshiping community that practices praise and celebration and I have seen a thriving worshiping community in the highest of high churches.
When it comes down to it, it’s not the stuff or the style that matters, it’s the people and God that matter. But then again, that’s true not just for worship, but for most things in life. When we focus on stuff, people slip to the background, trudge through and wait to feel alive again. When God and the people are the focus, things become alive again.