Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Reformation Project: the Necessity of Correct Worshiping

In my previous post, I pointed out that in many of the churches I visited that many of the biblical elements of worship have disappeared or suffered from neglect. Is that important?

In Ezekiel 8, the prophet in a vision is brought into the inner court of the temple. There he records, " the entrance of the temple of the LORD, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men, with their backs to the temple of the LORD, and their faces toward the east, worshiping the sun toward the east. Then he said to me, 'Have you seen this, O son of man? Is it too light a thing for the house of Judah to commit the abominations that they commit here....'"

The vision of people gathered at the temple in Jerusalem and worshiping a pagan deity is a vivid and disturbing one, and some would argue this couldn't happen among God's people in our day. However, this presents in clear terms the danger of worship that is disconnected from its biblical moorings. Can worship being conducted in a Christian church descend into mere idolatry? Anyone who thinks not should take heed lest he fall.

Worship will always be flavored with local cultural tastes, but it must be regulated by the Word of God. Unregulated worship carried on based on personal tastes and community desires poses a danger to the worship of the true God.

This post is a part of a year long project. The Table of Contents is here.

Monday, February 06, 2017

The Reformation Project: What is Worship?

Over the course of 20 posts going back to early November, I have written descriptions and analyses of my visits to the ten largest churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. For ease of locating this material, I have also provided a Table of Contents.

Having completed that portion of this project, I now want to spend some time thinking about what this work may indicate about the current state of the church. Certainly, the churches visited were not identical, and there were some outliers in terms of the overall trends. Nonetheless, the churches showed some remarkable areas of similarity that can be examined with a view of what they mean in terms of how modern Christians understand the purpose of the church and the nature of the Christian life.

In this post, I want to begin posting some thoughts regarding worship.

Beginning with the "Jesus movement" of the 1960's, and with greater fervor over the last couple of decades, American Christians -- particularly those who lean toward evangelical faith -- have engaged in what has been termed "worship wars." That phrase is arguably misleading, and even problematic, in that the "war" has actually been over only one aspect of worship -- music -- and has rarely engaged other elements of worship. In fact, for many younger Christians the word "worship," at least in a corporate context, is more or less synonymous with the word "music."

Thus, in many modern American churches, many elements of worship have been de-emphasized or have disappeared entirely with very little notice. While tremendous amounts of attention are given to musical production, matters such as the reading of Scripture (except, perhaps, the text of the sermon) and prayer have the appearance of being afterthoughts or have disappeared altogether. The sacrament of the Lord's Supper has become less frequent. While baptism continues to be practiced as a means of entering the church, its significance for the church community as community has been significantly degraded. A generation (or more) of evangelical Protestants have no experience of a worship service involving a confession of sin and a pronouncement of assurance of pardon by the minister (some might even think that a Roman Catholic concept). Do the majority of Protestant churchgoers any longer know the meaning or purpose of a call to worship or a benediction? For many, there is no point in asking about the recitation of a creed, as they recoil at the mere mention of the word.

A review of the accounts of the churches I visited will point to the fact that in the rapidly growing sectors of American Christianity, these types of elements have either disappeared or appear to be minimally important. It is a bit of an exaggeration, but not much of one, to suggest that these churches, and those that emulate them, view what happens on Sunday morning as involving 30 minutes of music and 30 minutes of a talk from the pastor. Of course, there are announcements.

While these trends are accelerating, it would be a mistake to regard them as new, as they find their roots in American revivalism, especially in the Second Great Awakening of the early and mid 1800's and its aftermath. As revivalists, and the churches longing for the results they offered, emphasized the use of extraordinary measures designed to produce those results, they downplayed -- or even ridiculed -- elements of ordinary worship that didn't seem geared toward building momentum toward the moment of decision. Thus, the understanding and nature of the worship gathering began to be fundamentally altered 200 years ago.

In the modern church, that has also meant a widespread change of terminology and outlook. What once was called the "worship service," is now referred to in most of the churches I visited as a "worship experience." This is not a merely semantic change. While most Christians would still likely say that they come to church to meet with God, the "worship experience" terminology suggests that the focus of worship is no longer a dialogical encounter with a God who exists outside of themselves and is more oriented toward the inward experience of engaging in worship activity. That being the case, churches must reorient themselves to make sure that they provide this experience to their congregants (customers?).

This means that much of the content of worship has been eliminated while the emotional uplift of the music has been accentuated, but this creates a long term problem for the church. Lacking a sufficient basis for getting excited, one wonders how long the energy of worship can be maintained. Sports fans often complain about fans that do "the wave" instead of watching the game, but churches that create largely content-free experiences would seem like a stadium where people gather to do the wave even though there is no actual game being played.

The elements I briefly described above have been practiced for centuries in churches because they were deemed to be required by Scripture. The question of scriptural fidelity has rarely been considered as changes in worship have been made to address the wishes of attendees. In addition to not asking whether practises are called for in Scripture, advocates of revised worship practises have rarely questioned whether anything is being lost by the truncation of worship into little more than music. I will mention just a few:

1. Inclusion of these worship elements provides a structure for re-orienting those in attendance toward a God centered and cross centered faith and away from a self-centered faith and performance oriented ministry.
2. In many Protestant church traditions, the various elements of the worship service provide a trinitarian structure that is important for Christian teaching. The struggles that many Christians have with understanding the triune God of Christian teaching would be helped by a return to proper worship that included prayer and the use of creedal and confessional material expressing trinitarian faith.
3. Incorporation of elements of worship such as confession of sin and assurance of pardon makes them key to the ongoing understanding of the church and the ordinary meaning of worship, which is where they should be. If these elements are not part of worship, then it becomes the job of the pastor to make sure that they are covered in the sermon. That is too much to do in a sermon on a weekly basis, and, as will note later in the posts on preaching, it does not happen.
4. All of this being the case, one should easily see that in providing for these elements of worship, the Spirit of God is active in worship teaching us, convicting us, forgiving us, and encouraging us. The elements may not drive an emotional response in the way that marketers would have us run the service, but they are central to Christian understanding.
5. The elements of worship require active involvement of congregants. Where they have disappeared, they have often been replaced by performance from the stage (I used to think that the term "stage" was an insult, but now I find church leaders using it routinely). Engaged participation is more healthy as a worship practice.

When I visited these 10 churches, my intent was to worship with them even as I studied them, but I all to frequently left with the sad thought that the God presented in worship was hardly worth bothering with. In a future post, I will deal with music and preaching, but I am writing about other aspects of worship first because the reformation of worship understanding is a foundational issue in our day.