Monday, January 19, 2009


THE CENTRAL ISSUE: Worship (lack thereof) Part Three

Today, we resume our discussion on worship by looking at some areas that evangelicals have traditionally devalued or disregarded.

Let me start by saying that, in general, liturgical worship is poetic while evangelical worship tends to be prosaic. The liturgical tradition values an aesthetic approach, while evangelicals are much more straightforward, plain and pragmatic. This has led to the stereotype that portrays "high church" worship as elitist, pretentious, and snobbish, while "low church" style is the domain of the common man—honest, direct, speaking straight to the heart.

The rest of the story...

The following quote from A.W. Tozer (fifty years ago!) represents a voice from within the nonliturgical community that shows the damage done to evangelical worship when we cling to that stereotype and promote the merely pragmatic:
We of the nonliturgical churches tend to look with some disdain upon those churches that follow a carefully prescribed form of service, and certainly there must be a good deal in such services that has little or no meaning for the average participant—this not because it is carefully prescribed but because the average participant is what he is. But I have observed that our familiar impromptu service, planned by the leader twenty minutes before, often tends to follow a ragged and tired order almost as standardized as the Mass. The liturgical service is at least beautiful; ours is often ugly. Theirs has been carefully worked out through the centuries to capture as much beauty as possible and to preserve a spirit of reverence among the worshipers.

...In the majority of our meetings there is scarcely a trace of reverent thought, no recognition of the unity of the body, little sense of the divine Presence, no moment of stillness, no solemnity, no wonder, no holy fear. But so often there is a dull or a breezy song leader full of awkward jokes, as well as a chairman announcing each "number" with the old radio continuity patter in an effort to make everything hang together.

A. W. Tozer, God Tells the Man Who Cares, p. 11f
An important element in my journey from evangelicalism to a liturgical tradition was a growing desire for less prose and more poetry in worship. I was looking for...
  • A church with a worship space that puts God front and center, focusing attention on him. To put it bluntly, an altar not a stage.
  • A worship space that communicates both God's transcendence and immanence, lifting our faces and hearts upward and gathering us as one family together around the God to whom we look.
  • A worship space that is intentionally designed and decorated with elements of beauty that stimulate the imagination and delight the heart and mind.
  • A worship service that is personal, hospitable, and authentic, but not "chatty" or "casual."
  • A worship service that encourages the active participation of all worshipers, not one that reduces the congregation to an audience of spectators and listeners.
  • A worship service in which the leaders understand the power of words, and use them to lift us into a higher realm of thinking, imagining, and relating to others.
  • A worship service that is not just all about analysis and answers, but one that invites us into the mysteries of realities that transcend what our minds can comprehend.
  • A worship service that is filled with Scripture, along with time and space to meditate on what God is saying.
  • A worship service that honors the sacraments as well as the Scriptures.
  • A worship service that allows for holy silence.
  • A worship service that both reflects what the Holy Spirit has taught the church over the ages (history and tradition) and what the Spirit is saying to the church today (creativity, spontaneity, freshness).
  • A worship service that respects and includes people of all ages and backgrounds.
Transcendence. Mystery. Beauty. Imagination. Silence. Participation. Hospitality. Reverence. Careful and thoughtful preparation, especially with regard to words and atmosphere. These are characteristic of a transforming worship that looks up to the Father through the Son in the Spirit.

Such worship lifts us out of the prosaic and becomes a poetic window to the heavenly, spiritual realm, a foretaste of eternal newness.


Damaris said...

My favorite line in the Orthodox liturgy is "Sanctify those who love the beauty of your house." It implies that the beauty that attracts us is at least the doorway to sanctification.

Anonymous said...

Yes, that hunger for some beauty in worship...I certainly experienced that hunger at our former church. What we discovered was that the traditional liturgy in a beautiful worship space has filled that hunger, and has been worth the pain of leaving.

Susanne Barrett said...

Absolutely agree with you, Mike. I've posted about this post on my own blog, if you'd like to see what I've written. I attend both an EV Free Church on Sundays with my family and an Anglican (Reformed Episcopal) Church on Fridays for Mass. Thanks for your thoughts about worship. :)

Michael Mercer said...

Susanne, thanks for your kind words and inclusion on your blog. I went to Trinity in Deerfield for seminary, and it was there that I began to really experience a hunger for understanding and practicing worship. I owe a great debt to the Ev Free Church and the teachers I have had from that denomination.

Daniel said...


First, I want to thank you for taking the time to publish your thoughts on these posts. I know that good writing takes real work, and I will show my appreciation to you by re-evaluating how I help plan the worship services in light of your words.

Secondly, I have often wondered why you and I are not in the same place in this regard. This creates some cognitive dissidence, since I feel you have a better handle on these things, yet I (with my Baptist background) could not really identify with your concerns, nor fully understand them. I think the last line of your post here not only is the most meaningful and beautiful sentence I have read in some time, but helps me to have the "aha" moment.

Thanks again.


Tozer Custodian said...

Thanks for posting this - I tend to agree with your distinction between the prose of evangelicalism, and the poetry of the liturgical traditions, at least as it pertains to worship. And your thoughts (and Tozer's) bring to mind another Tozer quote (from 'The Purpose of Man'):

"John Keats wrote of a tongueless nightingale (The Eve of St. Agnes). 'As though a tongueless nightingale should swell Her throat in vain, and die, heart-stifled, in her dell.' I have often thought that this great figure of speech was a beautiful thing. The tongueless nightingale died of suffocation because it had so much song in it that it could not get it out. We are the other way around. We have such a tremendous tongue and such little use for it. We have a harp such as no other creature in God's universe, but we play it so infrequently and so poorly."

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