Tuesday, January 6, 2009


THE CENTRAL ISSUE: Worship (lack thereof)
Part Two

My journey from evangelicalism to a more mainline congregation, at its heart, has been a search for a community of faith that understands and practices genuine worship. If my definition of worship (given in the last post) is accurate at all, then this has certain implications about the way a congregation and its pastoral leadership goes about planning and participating in worship services.
Let me say something right here at the outset, before we proceed. I think the "worship wars" of recent years have been fought about the wrong things most of the time by all sides. Battles about worship waged in churches have primarily focused on the question of style--traditional or contemporary--and this has been applied almost exclusively to music. In my view, music is only one element of worship and should not dominate the discussion as it has. There are certainly important things to say about music, but we must not let this one small part of the matter keep us from seeing the more central and significant issues that should be our concerns when it comes to the worship of God.
In the next few posts I will explore some of "the more central and significant issues," in my opinion, with regard to worship. The first is...

The rest of the story...

A primary attitude in non-liturgical churches is that worship should not conform to set forms, but should be free and spontaneous. In their eyes, liturgy is seen as set, scripted, vainly repetitive, dull and without spiritual vitality. On the other hand, non-liturgical worship is seen as free, lively, Spirit-led, from the heart, and open to possibility.

In my experience, this dichotomy bears no resemblance to reality.

First, in the free-style evangelical churches where I've worshiped, the worship was just as scripted as any liturgy.
  • The order basically remains the same week after week.
  • A limited number of songs are sung, thus creating a repetitive musical "tradition" within the congregation.
  • An annual calendar is followed, though not the Church Year calendar. It takes into account the major Christian holy days, but is based more upon the pastor's preaching schedule, secular holidays and schedules, and church events.
  • Prayers in worship, though "spontaneous," take on forms that become repetitive.
And so on. The argument is not, and never has been, between "form" and "freedom" (defined as "lack of forms"). The real difference is between one kind of form and another.

Second, those who advocate evangelical free-style worship often fail to grasp the significance of the kinds of forms we use.

I can't tell you how many times I have heard, "Pastor, it really doesn't matter what form we use, as long as we worship God from our hearts!" There is a sense in which this is true, of course. Paul and Silas were able to worship and praise God in a Philippian jail cell, without the assistance of a church building, Bibles, musical accompaniment, or comfortable seats. God has never been confined to a building or set pattern of worship, even when he gave Israel specific instructions about how to approach him.

However, I don't think that is what folks mean when they protest forms. Rather, they are suggesting that they are free to do whatever they enjoy and call it worship, and if a friend comes along and suggests there might be more to it than that, they resist as though someone were trying to deprive them of their liberty.

It is the responsibility of pastors to start, not with people's preferences, but with the God we worship, as revealed in creation, Scripture, and in Christ and his Gospel. The first question to ask is not, "What will attract people?" Rather, we begin by asking, "Who is God, and what has he done for us?" That question should be our main guide in choosing the forms we use.

That does not mean everyone has to use exactly the same forms in shaping worship. Nor does it mean we have to use only old forms or traditional forms. We need not sing only hymns and reject gospel songs or praise choruses. We need not have only certain forms for hearing Scripture or participating in prayer. We are free in the Spirit to creatively adapt our forms, as long as the forms we use maintain a sense of integrity with God's revelation.

I'll give one example. I think contemporary evangelicalism misses the mark and fails to recognize the impact of the forms our worship takes in the area of congregational participation.
  • Church buildings now being constructed have auditoriums that are more like concert halls than sanctuaries. These buildings mold us into stage-actors and audience. The form of our architecture tells us that a worship service is something that we attend and others perform.
  • In many church services, the only opportunity for congregational participation is through singing. However, even in churches that sing a lot, it is not uncommon for the band and singers on stage to be so dominant that the congregation does not have a sense of lifting their voices together in musical praise. The atmosphere is more like a concert where people show enthusiasm for the music without really being the choir that produces the music.
  • In these same services, often the only people who speak during the service are those who speak from the stage. The congregation learns that its main job is to sit and listen.
Now, contrast this with a typical service from the liturgical church we attend:
  • Welcome by pastor, with response by congregation
  • Gathering song, sung by the congregation (with no "worship leader"—we all sing together and follow the instruments—same with all hymns and songs)
  • Responsive greeting between pastor and congregation
  • Sung Kyrie ("Lord, have mercy"). One singer, standing at congregation level, leads us by singing the verses and congregation sings the refrain with him.
  • Hymn of praise (congregation)
  • OT reading, by reader who is member of congregation
  • Choral Anthem by adult choir
  • NT reading, by reader
  • Gospel song, sung by congregation
  • Gospel lesson, read by pastor
  • Children's message, children gather at altar and are taught by pastor
  • Sermon, by pastor
  • Hymn (congregation)
  • The Creed (said together by congregation)
  • Prayers of intercession (said responsively with reader and congregation)
  • Offering, followed by offertory sung by congregation
  • Responsive prayer before communion (pastor and congregation)
  • Communion, made up of many elements that are responsively read or sung by pastor and congregation, including the Lord's Prayer, said together in unison. Communion is taken at the altar, distributed by pastor and reader, and a couple from the congregation
  • Blessing, by pastor
  • Closing hymn
  • Announcements, given by pastor and other congregation members
Whatever you might think of the individual elements or how they are practiced in this particular church, you must admit that this service is overwhelmingly congregational. The only extended period of sitting and listening is during the sermon. In every other part of the service, the family of God is actively involved in giving worship to God. In this church, we don't attend worship, we worship!

Congregational participation is a Gospel value that is integral to genuine worship. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is creating a forever family, and he wants his whole family to be actively involved in worshiping him together. He wants to hear from each one of us, as well as speak to each one of us. He desires that we experience the unity of the Spirit as we lift our voices together to give him offerings of praise.

The word "liturgy" means, "the work of the people." No spectators allowed when it comes to worship! We should reconsider any forms of "worship" that diminish congregational participation.


Anonymous said...

I just wanted to tell you that I'm reading your blog with interest. My husband and I left our evangelical non-denom free-style church a couple of years ago to attend an Episcopal church. Love it, but we are still sorting through a lot of stuff. I am still grieving the loss of the experience of being with that lovely community of people at our old church from Sunday to Sunday--it was a very close-knit church and very hard to leave.

To respond to your post, one of the first things I noticed about liturgical worship was how engaging it is for a participant. In our old church setting, my mind was prone to wander. Rarely does that happen now.

But lately I've also noticed that in addition to the way liturgical worship keeps the congregation as a whole busy, a traditional liturgy also provides room for many participants -- it's not just the priest and the organist doing their things.

Our vicar is great at inviting people into the process, training them, and setting the tone for a balance of warmth and dignity.

Michael Mercer said...

Katiekind, Thanks for telling your story. I hope that it will be clear throughout these posts that I am not criticizing or looking down on our former evangelical church partners. Every church we've been in has been filled with dear people, and we still feel close to them. These posts are designed to describe MY journey and to give rationale for it. My cautions are also directed at the pacesetting churches that are leading the way for so many small congregations that think new is always better.

Anonymous said...

Mike, please keep these coming. I hope you're feeling well enough soon to write more.

Damaris said...

You're on to something important here, Mike. I expect you've read them all, but I recommend rereading the essays in The Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis. They are not primarily about worship, but Lewis extends my understanding of creation and God's relation to it, and that understanding is foundational to worship. If we really don't believe in God's immanence, for example, a concert and sermon are good enough for "worship." But if God is present at all times and in all things; if He can and does manifest Himself through things, like sacraments, that seem metaphorical to us but are actually more real than "literal" reality; then we won't be content with someone else's show but will praise Him ourselves, because He truly is with us. I recently read a definition of worship as an exchange: God gives us bread, for example, and we bless it, He changes it, we give it back to Him, He gives it back to us. This must be the pattern for everything in our lives and our practice for dealing with every aspect of creation. I'd be especially interested in your thoughts on worship after reading "Transposition." As I say, Lewis isn't talking directly about church worship, but if what he speculates about is true, our worship will have to change.

I'm reading and enjoying your blog, even if I don't always comment!