Worship Essays #1
by Jack Reese

Note: made available here in reprint from "Christian Chronicle," (August, 2000).

August, 2000 | September, 2000--Part 1 | September, 2000--Part 2 | October, 2000--Part 1 | October, 2000--Part 2

Do I have to be upset every Sunday?" The question hung in the air, not spoken with anger but frustration. The woman had kept quiet for at least two years about the changes in the Sunday worship, but she would remain silent no longer. Why were things always being changed? Couldn't the church just stop for a while and not keep upsetting so many of its members? The young man sat on the edge of his chair, his arms gesturing emphatically. "Must I continue to sit through services that seem to have been planned in 1950? I dread coming to church and I'm embarrassed to invite my friends." He had had about all he could take. The hymns seemed irrelevant, the services stale and stuffy. He was already looking for another place to attend. Both of these complaints were voiced to the elders. The same elders. The two were members of the same congregation! This dilemma can be multiplied by hundreds. It's a scene played out in church after church. How can we sort all this out, do what's best for the whole church?

A lot of people are describing this situation within many of our churches as "worship wars"-an unfortunate label, I think. But, clearly, many Christians disagree with one another on a variety of issues about what should be done in worship. Should we encourage - or should we forbid - clapping, raising hands, testimonials, lament services, choruses, PowerPoint presentations on overhead screens, and on and on and on? Christians argue about what kinds of hymns are best for worship: Are contemporary hymns irreverent or shallow? Are older hymns, well, too old? The feelings run strong. One sincere brother recently said that clapping hands in church is a far greater issue than the worldwide AIDS epidemic. Wow! But, of course, in many places this is not an issue at all. Some churches produce children's musicals, encourage women to play a more public role in worship, use fermented wine for the communion, conduct praise services with instrumental worship, meet in homes rather than in buildings, allow solos and choruses, or participate in joint worship services with non-church of Christ congregations. And others oppose these practices, often strongly. But worship wars? I'm not convinced. I'm not sure these issues are more substantial or more heated, say, than discussions 70 years ago over the "new music" sweeping our churches (those rambunctious Stamps-Baxter songs with alto and bass leads). Or whether we should use one cup or several in our Lord's Supper services, Or whether fasting is required of all Christians. Or, as Alexander Campbell argued, that hymns must not be accompanied by musical notations, a view that met stiff opposition in some quarters and took decades to overturn. I don't believe our concerns compare to 16th-century debates over the nature and purpose of the Supper (arguments which, in some cases, actually led to bloodshed). Now those were worship wars! Or medieval discussions on the meaning of eucharistic sacrifice. Or, certainly, the strong differences among Jewish and Gentile Christians at first-century Ephesus or Rome. Never in the history of Christianity has there been a period in which significant disagreements did not occur. Our current situation is in no way unique. And in many respects it is, in fact, quite tame. While these discussions are important and certainly should be engaged, they pale in comparison to the more fundamental issues. And it is these more substantial issues which should occupy our conversations, our elderships and our pulpits. In numerous ways, I fear, we are fighting over the wrong issues and are being distracted by circumstances of secondary importance. The current debates, whatever arguments are made or Scriptures cited, are often quite selfish. They relate to what I want, the kind of worship I like, what I am used to or desire. And while the how of worship should be addressed, it really can't be dealt with appropriately until we come face to face with the why. And it is the why of worship that few churches seem to be addressing.

Here are several critical ideas churches should consider before they are absorbed in a discussion about worship styles and practices: The why of worship begins with God, not us. Worship is not about our preferences. It is about the God who has acted in history on our behalf-and who is active still. It is about his saving Israel from bondage, telling her his will, and giving her his heart. It is about his holiness and his grace. Worship begins with God's loving kindness and culminates in Christ's sacrifice. Scripture is filled with this story and these exhortations. The song book of ancient Israel as well as the early church - the book of Psalms - is filled with exclamations of praise and thanksgiving for who God is and what he has done. Virtually every New Testament epistle begins with praise to God before any words of correction are offered. God is the beginning of Christian worship and its renewal, which is why Paul begged Timothy not to neglect the public reading of Scripture (1 Tim. 4:13). What made Israelite worship unique was not what they did or how they did it. Other nations offered sacrifices, celebrated Sabbath, and had festivals corresponding to Israel's. What made Israel's worship unique was her God! And what was true for Israel was certainly true for the church. This is why, as Paul urged his readers in Corinth to build one another up, he provides a window to the heart of their worship. The outsiders - the non-Christian visitors - should witness what was happening and perhaps even join it, "falling down on their faces worshipping him saying, 'God is really in our midst.'"(1 Cor. 14:25). The beginning and end of worship is God, not us. But viewed from the human side, we are clearly at the heart of the problem. God is holy and we are not. We are weak and pathetic. We have nothing to offer. He acts; we respond. He gives; we receive. The primary work of worship is God's. We are the beneficiaries. Worship, then, should drive us to keen self-awareness. We are not capable of making it on our own. We are neither wise enough nor good enough. On our own we are weak, ungodly, sinners, enemies (the familiar language of Romans 5.) For this reason, at the heart of genuine worship is confession - of our sins, of his Lordship over us. At its core, worship is an encounter between a holy God and an unholy people. Which means, the essence of worship is surrender. This is the true worship war - not our disagreements over how to worship, but whether we will surrender our will to his. The countless arguments over worship preferences in so many of our churches are only symptoms of the greater issue. They mark our selfishness. They underscore how easily we miss the point about worship. Whether we are pushing for substantial changes or resisting every one of them, the problem is often the same. We find it difficult to surrender - either to Christ or to Christians with whom we disagree. I fear that the most critical battle, the war for our wills, is often being lost. And the sad thing is, in the midst of our often petty disagreements, we don't even recognize where the key battle is being waged. Finally, the primary test for the effectiveness of worship is not whether it was done "correctly," as important as this may be, but whether it leads to changed behavior in the world. This is the message of virtually all the Old Testament prophets. God's people are often condemned not because of their wrong acts of worship but their wrong acts of living, because they neglected issues of justice and mercy; because they abandoned the poor and the powerless. (See Isaiah 1, Amos 5.)

We are not served well when our worship leads to division, petty arguments, and isolation from others. Rather, true worship should call us beyond ourselves to the inner cities, to the side of abused wives and children, to those perched on the edge of financial collapse or emotional distress. It should force us out of our buildings and into the streets. It should drive us to the cities of Africa or the jungles of Central America or the homeless shelters in our own community. But mostly, worship should force us to stop caring so much about ourselves. It should push us to our knees in a posture of submission. And it should lift our eyes toward others whose needs and desires, not our own, should be the compelling motivation for our thoughts and actions. When this begins to occur in our churches, the greatest battle will have been won, and our more petty issues will find their appropriate place. Then we can get on about the business of being God's people in a world that needs him so!

Jack Reese, dean of the College of Biblical Studies at Abilene Christian University, serves as a professor of preaching and ministry. He works with churches in preaching, teaching and serving as a consultant concerning congregational worship.

Return to Young Home Page
Last updated February 16, 2001.