Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Some Thoughts (just a few) on Worship Styles and Content

Recently a friend read aloud to the worship team at her church part of an article about worship styles and content. The first part of the article (which is what I heard) went to some length to point out that the New Testament doesn't say a lot about what the early church did in their worship services. Below are several of the verses to which the author alluded.

And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47, ESV)

What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. ... But all things should be done decently and in order. (1 Corinthians 14:26, 40, ESV)

(A)ddressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart (Ephesians 5:19, ESV)

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16, ESV)

Beyond a few sketchy basic details – teaching, singing, communion, common meals, usage of various spiritual gifts to encourage each other and to meet needs – that's about it. Pretty sparse! No mention of liturgies, detailed rituals or ceremonies, orders of services, song lists or mention of holidays observed. Just general citations – not even lists – of things the early church did. My conclusion – an opinion I've long held – is that of the author of the article that was read to that worship team. God didn't fail to give details, He chose not to so that the church would not become bound to any particular culture or obsoleted by future social developments.

Looking at worship from another, personal, direction, my experience with worship in Christian churches is pretty varied. I was raised in a Lutheran church which had been using the same liturgy for services for at least 40 years, and, with minor revisions (maybe) before translation into English, possibly for several centuries. The hymnal used also had no hymns written after 1900. In no particular chronological order, I've also been in churches that used: “Gospel” hymns of the late 19 and 20 Centuries; brief praise choruses; somewhat longer songs from sources such as Calvary Chapel, Vineyard Fellowships and Integrity Music; rock-style, even longer (similar in length to traditional hymns), songs from sources such as Hillsong United. These latter churches used fairly simple orders of service (some informal, not written).

What is the point I'm vaguely trying to make? Well, two or three, one mildly controversial, the other two possibly more so. First, drawing from Scripture and personal experience, God has given us freedom as to the manner in which we address our praise and worship to Him. Thus all the forms and music styles described above are as valid as the hearts of those worshiping. If those forms and music styles enable and are means for believers to praise and worship God, that's all that matters. Believers' hearts are the bottom line!

Second – this is a place it might get a little messy – worship is corporate. In other words, when it's more than between just one person and God, a church needs to work with and within the spiritual maturities and personalities and tastes of the congregation's various members. Worship is personal, and the boundaries of personal maturity and taste are not sharp. Where does immature prejudice end and genuine distraction begin? Now multiply that question by the number of people in the congregation! I wish there were simple formulaic answers, but every congregation's leadership needs to learn where its members are at, what will work for the entire congregation, and encourage growth in its members. Simple, right?

Third, related to (and complicating?) the latter but more hypothetical, God intends for believers to grow spiritually. Even the apostle Paul stated that he knew he had room for spiritual growth, so there's no shame in admitting a need for greater personal spiritual maturity (as if those around us don't already know it!). Spiritual growth isn't just one aspect of life, but covers the full scope of one's life, including worship. I do not believe that God intended for church worship of the 20th and 21st Centuries to remain what it was – in content and in music – in the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries! This would limit the spiritual growth both of believers generally and of persons God uses to lead His people in worship. It is, then, appropriate for a congregation's spiritual leadership – in its teaching and in what is done – to challenge and encourage congregation members to grow, including in the content and how they worship. I would go so far as to say that it is the duty of church leaders to so challenge and encourage spiritual growth, generally and in worship of God. That is no trivial thing! Growth takes people beyond where they are comfortable, and can be more than a bit scary on a personal level. And growth is what God desires of His children.

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