What is worship? I’m not sure I know anymore. It started with a conversation about music, turned into a talk about communion, a fierce debate on emotion ensued, followed by something about the plan of salvation and by the time it was all said and done, I was lost.
Everyone seems to have a different opinion about what constitutes worship. Some people believe that the Bible shows us whatever has been appointed by command or scripture is permissible in worship and whatever is not commanded is prohibited; This is called the Regulative Principle of Worship. It’s fans might limit the praise music to the Psalms, singing to a Capella, or use only the instruments mentioned in Scripture. Others are beholden to tradition – doing the way things have always been done. Liturgy seems to have it’s devotees as being the most traditional in that regard. Some churches allow for cultural expressions that vary from church to church, but follow a general order of events for the service. This is the one I’m most familiar with, start out singing, then the meet and greet, sing a little more, pray, hand in offering and/or take up Communion, listen to a sermon, sing one last time and pray some more. My favorite ‘style’ was simple: sing three or four songs and then listen to the sermon then pray.
I guess the best description of worship is the intangible actions by which a person honors God. For some, music is a big part of that. I’ve seen how it acts as something of a prayer language for the musician who has spent years practicing their skill so they could offer up their talent as an offering of love. For the churches that forbid instruments, someone might feel like they’re being silenced because of it. It’s their loss, I think, to tell their instrumentalists that they have ‘no place’ for worshiping God, especially when the Old Testament God demanded that instrumentalists be employed at The Temple.
There is a big tradition of singing that spans centuries – but that was supported by a cultural tradition of singing as well. Schools these days have tight budgets and singing isn’t at the top of the list of untouchable items. Because of the prevalence of other forms of entertainment, singing has fallen by the wayside. A recent NPR interview with a poet mentioned that she remembered the congregation singing four-part harmony that were so tight and beautiful they amazed her, but that was when she was little. Churches don’t do that anymore but they sing the same songs. It’s odd how some churches recognize that God inspires new songs to have been written – some set the date at ‘Psalms’ (but no later), some set the date at ‘our hymnal’ (but nothing newer), and some set the date as ‘here and now’. The tradition of teaching singing has taken a big hit and the church hasn’t begun to pick up the slack. Hymns have lots of old words, they’re not the easiest to sing, especially if you have no idea how to read music, they seem to get slower and slower. It’s no wonder they’ve fallen out of favor with a generation that has grown up singing contemporary music – after years of not singing hymns, people are not going to be expert hymn-singers. It’s just that you don’t hear people singing hymns as they go about their day the same way the sing contemporary music.
But worship is the whole service – including the meet-and-greet also called passing-the-peace. Extroverts thrive on it, and Introverts barely tolerate it. I really wish it had established limits but all to often it doesn’t. I’ve seen the meet and greet just keep on going beyond the point where it was supposed to stop. I’ve seen it switch from handshakes to hugs. I don’t like hugs. I don’t think that it works all that well if you can attend a church for a whole year and some people still not know who you are.
There are also the rituals – offering and communion among them. I tend not to think much about them, to be honest. With so much focus on music and preaching, these are sort of thrown in there as things you do because you are supposed to. But in my conversation, I got the feeling that for quite a few people out there music and preaching are secondary to Communion. For some people, you give them the best music and the most sound teaching, but it’s the treatment of Communion, the Lords Supper, the Eucharist, that serves as the centerpiece of worship. For others, it’s just a part of worship -and an infrequent one at that.
Preaching is usually the other big part of worship. It’s saving the best for last, in many cases. Or at least, in the traditions I’m used to. Given the emphasis on Biblical inerancy and well as literal teaching in recent years, the Word seems to be the most important part of worship. It’s never been seen as optional or something that can be skipped for the sake of the rest of worship.
But worship is just as much cultural as it is spiritual – someone from another country might have a ritual that I don’t. Some of the things I do might seem superfluous to them. We also have an extremely divided Christianity where nobody has managed to create a formula for God-pleasing worship to the exclusion of all the rest. There isn’t just one Liturgy, but many to choose from. There isn’t just one Hymnal, but many to choose from. There isn’t just one style of preaching, but many to choose from. We’re so fractured that we’ve created a fractured worship – each of us having the pieces that we feel are the best shape, but never the whole of what worship is. But all of us also have our opinions about what makes worship better – how we can improve it.
The thing about worship is that in many cases, churches are following rules set down ages ago about the order of things. They don’t change just because I want them to or I don’t like the fact that a part of it has turned into a hugging free-for-all. That’s why I said worship was intangible – a lot like catching air in many ways. You can always try to trap it in a balloon and change the shape of the balloon to control the path the air can go, but that’s pretty much the limit that worship can be manipulated. I think I’d much rather that it was set free, that people decided that it was best to let everybody find what works for them and stop trying to control how other people worship. It’s something you have to let happen. To do that, you have to let go of your preconceived ideas about what worship really is. That’s easier said than done.