“There is a right way and a wrong way of worshiping God.”
Statements like that have always seemed wrong to me. If it’s true, then between people who have a formal liturgy (like the Catholic churches do) and an informal contemporary style (as many non-denominational churches do) and sing traditional hymns (as many different kinds of churches do) and sing bluegrass style (as some churches do) – all of them could be worshiping God the wrong way. But at least one group of them might be worshiping God the right way. The thing is, nobody ever thinks that they’re worshiping the wrong way. But somebody has to make the call about what the right kind of worship is like.
Worship is important, but it shouldn’t be a test of fellowship. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet figured out how worship God together and yet keep all of our various interpretations. Sometimes they seem mutually exclusive – you can sing, but instruments aren’t allowed. Instruments are necessary! Fine, yes to the instruments – if they’re listed in the Bible. Hymns. Contemporary! Bluegrass. Gospel! Let’s have a choir – in robes. Cancel the choir. Keep the choir, but let them wear whatever. Prayer. Lord’s Prayer. Call and Response. Let’s read together the Bible verses on that page of the hymnal. Communion. Real bread. A wafer or cracker will do. Real wine. Nope – go with grape juice instead. Everyone has an idea of the elements that are must have, the elements that are negotiable, and the elements they can live without and most people can’t agree which is which.
The more I think about it, the less I think there is just one right way of worshiping God. Which is what really worries me when the people who think their way is the way decide to make some changes. One woman in our church left her former church because she felt that the changes going in worship were taking away her favorite parts and replacing them with something new and unfamiliar. She decided that there wasn’t a place for her in her old church and found a church that was a lot like the way they used to be – the way she liked it. Now me, I’d have been thrilled to see our church make the same changes – contemporary music, for example. But then she would soon feel like she was being chased out of church. As much as I enjoy contemporary music, I know that she has her right to enjoy hymns. I just wish that they weren’t mutually exclusive – that our church could handle having a blended service that was the best of both worlds. Uniting us by celebrating our differences, not denying some differences in order to affirm others as ‘more right’ than the other.
I’m not sure if worship is a formula that can be improved, made more holy, more biblical, more sacred; but it certain seems to be one that can be tinkered and tweaked. It’s only right, isn’t it, that it changes to suit the culture it represents. I remember being told by missionaries that worship in South Africa was a far livelier and louder thing compared to America’s quietly sit and listen approach. It’s only right, isn’t it, that it changes to suit the times in which it occurs. We don’t worship like we did a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago – change is slow and incremental, but the passage of time cannot be halted. There’s only so many steps the church can be out of step with the world before the church ceases to exist.
I’m afraid that the more we fight, the more out of step we become and the closer we get to irrelevance and non-existence. My friend once told me that in his country, the churches hadn’t changed a thing in four hundred years. They did the same services in the same order pretty much the same way. He said that there were always the faithful few, but for the most part the pews were mostly empty. The youth that were there were like him, they didn’t have much of a choice but as soon as they did, they stopped attending. Sometimes when they grew older, got married, and had kids they’d wander back to church but it never seemed like there was a massive number of families doing just that.
If there’s such a thing as a right way of worshiping God, I’m not sure if we’ve figured that out. But perhaps we’ve found a great many wrong ways to worship God, ones that involve bitter arguments and running our opponents out of church and plain old fashioned division. I don’t think I’d be able to worship God when I’m so hurt by what happened at my last church. I don’t think others would be able to, either. Worship is funny like that – which is why few things worry me more than statements like ‘there’s a right way and a wrong way to worship God’ because most of the time we focus more on our own preference than preventing division.