The beauty of diverse styles of Christian worship

This spring I’ve been giving a series of lectures on World Religions. A week ago, I spoke about Christianity. This morning before class a woman took me aside to share her experiences within the Christian faith. She had been Lutheran, but a few years ago she switched to an Anglican congregation, which she says is very similar. (I agree.) She also attends a non-denominational church once a month with a friend (and she goes to that congregation’s weekly Bible class as well). She commented that she had attended the Easter Saturday service at the non-denominational church, but it hadn’t felt right. She then began to list for me the things missing from the service, such as a reading from one of the Gospels, and the Lord’s Prayer. But, she said, the preacher’s homily was good and quoted a lot of Bible verses.

The main thing for her, she said, was looking around and seeing lots of young adults at the non-denominational service. She figured that if the church was drawing them in and they were learning about Jesus, she wasn’t going to complain about the music (unfamiliar to her) or the parts of the service that were missing. I agreed with her that it’s good that Christian worship is diverse, that there are different ways of worshiping that appeal to different people. (I think that was the point that she was making, reflecting my discussion last week about enormous diversity within Christian thought and practice.) But I also mentioned that not all young people are drawn to the sort of worship offered in the non-denominational churches. Some young people enjoy the historic liturgy. They crave the traditions that grew in the Church over the centuries, the forms of worship that have united rather than dividing the saints of the Church across lines of age and economic status and culture. When those traditions are followed without being explained, they can be dry and boring, and therefore distracting. Where the meaning of the traditions is taught and shared, many Christians find great meaning and joy in the divine service as it has been followed for many generations.

Twenty years ago I might have said more to this woman about the richness of Christian traditional liturgy. In this case, I was quick to say that diversity is good, that the Church as a whole is blessed when Christians in a city can choose among different forms of worship, whether traditional, contemporary, or blended. I sincerely hope that the traditional liturgy never disappears; but I am glad that Christians who do not find liturgy meaningful can worship in a style that suits their personality and draws them closer to the Lord.

When I was in school, we students often discussed the different levels of formality in worship styles. One of my friends referred to those levels as “very formal, somewhat more casual, and massive casualty.” In a formal setting, worshipers sit on pews; in a somewhat more casual setting, they sit on folding chairs; and in massive casualty they sit in bean bag chairs. In a formal setting, the pastor wears a long white robe (called an alb) or perhaps a long black robe under a shorter white robe (called, respectively, a cassock and a surplice); in a somewhat more casual setting, the pastor wears a business suit; and in massive casualty the pastor wears a Hawaiian shirt. In a formal setting, the singing of the congregation is accompanied by a pipe organ; in a more casual setting, the singing is accompanied by a small rock band; in massive casualty, singing is accompanied by either a mariachi band or an accordion—and, of course, in some congregations the singing is accompanied by no instruments at all.

So long as the message of Jesus is taught and his forgiveness is shared, the style of worship is less important than the content of the message in the preaching, the singing, and the other elements of the service. New styles that help draw attention to Christ’s message are good; new styles that distract people from his message are bad. Traditions that help draw attention to Christ’s message are good; traditions that distract people from his message are bad. The Church exists for Christ, to be both his Body and his Bride. Distractions of any kind should give way to those things that serve his purpose. And, in different gatherings of Christians, those things that serve is purpose may be different indeed. J.

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Why Christians worship

Every Sunday Christians get out of bed and get themselves ready for church. A few walk to church or take mass transit; most drive. Some Christians wear their finest clothing—a suit and tie, or a fancy dress and perhaps a hat—while others dress more casually—everyday shirts and slacks, or perhaps jeans, or sometimes even shorts. Most have breakfast before church; a few fast. They gather, and they worship. Some of them attend a class before or after the service. And, of course, not all Christians who worship gather on Sunday morning. Some gather on Saturdays, others on Wednesday nights, and still others at other times of the week. Some have very formal services: traditional and liturgical, following patterns that were set early in the history of the Church. Others are far more relaxed—they sing a few songs, they hear Bible readings and a message, and they pray together. Christian worship practices are very diverse, conducted in a great many languages in a great many styles, sometimes with more than a thousand in one place and other times with fewer than ten people in the building.

Why do Christians worship? The best beginning to the answer might be the negative way—offering a few suggestions that are not the reasons Christians worship.

  • Christians do not worship as a good work to earn God’s approval and obtain his blessings. Christians are saved by grace; not by works. Their works (including worship) are a response to being forgiven, redeemed and rescued. Their works (including worship) do not cause them to be forgiven, redeemed, and rescued.
  • Christians do not worship because God needs their attention. God is complete within himself; God does not need anything from anyone. Some creative writers have written fantasy novels in which gods require worship and fade to nothing when they are forgotten. The true God would exist without worship; he exists outside of space and time and is fully self-sustaining.
  • Christians do not worship to flatter God. They do not expect special favors from God because they attended a service. They do not think that God owes them anything because they came to church, sang his praises, heard the sermon, prayed the prayers, and put money in the offering plate.
  • Christians do not worship for purely selfish reasons. They do not gather for worship only for their own individual benefit. They do not come to church to be entertained or amused. A church service cannot compete for excitement, action, and suspense with a sporting contest or a good Hollywood movie. Nor should it try to compete with those events.
  • Christians do not worship to impress anyone else. They do not come to church to exhibit their piety, their faithfulness, or their wardrobe. They do not want to be admired for their singing. They do not gather to try to make a good impression upon anyone.

Of course, any gathering of Christians may include some people who think they are there for one of these reasons. There may be some who think they are earning rewards from God and others who want to impress their fellow Christians. There may be some who come to be enlightened or entertained and others who expect special blessings from God because they came to church. In fact, the real reasons for Christian worship are similar to some of the misperceptions listed above. Someone who has been told why Christians worship may have misunderstood the lesson they were taught. Others may be part of the crowd merely out of habit, not stopping to ask why they are there and what they expect from the service.

Why do Christians worship? First, we worship because God wants us to worship him. In the Bible he commands our worship. He says, “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy” (Exodus 20:8).  “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).  “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). “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 19:20).

Yet if worship is commanded, it still is not a good work that earns God’s approval. Obedience to God’s commands does not cause his love and mercy and his forgiveness. Rather, God’s love and mercy and forgiveness cause a Christian to do good works, including worship. A tree is recognized by its fruit (Matthew 7:20), but sound apples do not cause the apple tree to be healthy. Instead, when the apple tree is healthy, it will bear sound apples.

God wants us to worship him, not because he needs us, but because we need him. We need to remember his goodness; therefore, we praise him. We need to remember the things he has done for us; therefore, we thank him. We need to remember that we are sinners desperately needing rescue; therefore, we confess our sins to him. We could do any of these things alone, and most Christians probably do. But God also wants us to gather as a group to do these things so we can strengthen one another, support one another, and encourage one another as members of the same family.

After all, God loves us. He wants what is best for us. These gatherings are beneficial to Christians. And, because he loves us, God wants to hear from us. He does not need us to honor and praise him, but he knows that such activity is good for us. Our finest works—even our finest worship—is worth no more than the crayon drawing of a Kindergartener. Yet the love of God accepts these gifts and, in a sense, proudly displays them on the door of his heavenly refrigerator.

That is the second reason we worship. We need fellowship with God. When we gather with fellow Christians in the name of Christ, he is with us. That is true whether the gathering is in a church building, a private living room, or under a tree. Gathering in his name means more than gathering because we are Christians. Four Christians playing golf together are not the Church—not even if each of them whispers prayers of supplication or of thanksgiving on the putting green. Church happens when Christians examine the Word of God together, especially when they are seeking God’s promises of forgiveness to share with one another. Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are part of the reason Christians gather; neither of these Sacraments is a private act, but they happen when Christians gather in Christ’s name.

Therefore, God speaks to his people through his people. He communicates with us through one another. First, he spoke to the world through apostles and prophets. Now, he speaks to the world as his people repeat the message of the apostles and prophets. Some are called to preach the Word, to administer the Sacraments, and to lead the worship. But all those who participate in the service are sharing the Word of God with one another. However they contribute to the service, even if only in silent prayers, they are strengthening the body of Christ by their presence. They are encouraging their fellow saints. They are doing the work that God gave to his Church to accomplish.

All this is closely attached to the third reason Christians worship. God does bless us as we worship. We are not gathering selfishly to demand his blessings. We do not arrogantly tell God how and when to bless us. But he loves us so much that, when we gather as the Church, God gives us good things. Through the promises of his Word he gives us the forgiveness of our sins. He gives us the guarantee of eternal life in a perfect new creation. He gives us victory over the devil, over our sins, over the sinful world, and even over death itself. He gives us the strength to continue living as his people in this world as we look forward to the world to come.

For this reason, Christian worship is often called the Divine Service. When we enter God’s house, we are his guests. He serves us. In a sense, every Christian service is like Christmas, with gifts to be opened and celebrated. Those who miss the service for no good reason are depriving themselves. They are skipping Christmas, leaving gifts meant for them sitting under the tree. We come to church for fellowship with God. We leave bearing gifts that he lavishes on us because he cares so much about us.

As these gifts are given in the service, one Christian might be entertained. Another might be uplifted. A third might learn something new. Even for the Christian who does not feel entertained or uplifted or educated, the service still has benefits. It might strike some Christians as tradition-bound or repetitive or boring. Especially the traditional, liturgical service has been blamed for boring believers and visitors alike. But the very pattern of the traditional Christian service is family-friendly. The child who has not learned how to read still learns the liturgy and takes part in it and receives benefits from it. The young mother holding a baby can follow along because she knows what to expect. The elderly grandmother with failing eyesight and failing hearing also gains the benefit of repeating the same liturgy she has known since childhood. And all of them—the young child, the mother, the grandmother—are receiving from God Himself the forgiveness of their sins, the guarantee of everlasting life, and a share in the victory won by Christ for all his people.

The problem with traditions is not that they never change or that people find them boring. In fact, traditions do alter over time. The problem with traditions is that they require explanation. Simply doing them does not give them meaning. Learning what the tradition represents, why it has been preserved in the Church for so long, and what it communicates about God and his love—that makes traditions both meaningful and valuable.

A girl watched her mother prepare the pot roast for the oven. Before she put the roast in the pan, the mother sliced off the end of the roast and put it sidewise next to the larger piece of meat. “Why did you do that, Mommy?” the little girl asked. “I’m not sure,” her mother answered. “My mother always did that. We’ll have to phone Grandma and see why we’ve always done that.” Grandma, when she answered the phone, was just as puzzled about the question. “I’ve always done that,” she told her granddaughter. “I think my mother must have done that too. You know, her mind is still pretty sharp. Why don’t you call her at the retirement village and ask her the same question?

The elderly lady laughed when she heard the question. “When your grandfather and I first were married,” she explained, “the only roasting pan I had was very small. I had to cut the roast that way to make it fit in the pan. I guess I just kept doing it, and it was handed down from generation to generation.”

Traditions that are not explained become useless, even harmful. Consult Psalm 50 and Isaiah 1:10-15 to see how angry God became with his chosen people when they went through the motions of worship and sacrifice without thinking about what they were doing and without putting their faith in the Lord.

But the enemies of tradition—who hate no sentence more greatly than “We’ve never done it that way before—make a mistake when they toss out all traditions, the beneficial along with those that have lost their meaning. Different is not always better. Before making a change to a long-standing tradition, those in charge need to ask, “How will this make the service better? How will this help people see the promises of God more clearly? What will be lost to all of us if we make this change?”

Traditions hold people together. They tie generations together. They preserve the past and help people to learn their history. Every group of people has a set of traditions, and often those who mutter against tradition have ingrained habits that have become as traditional to them as the old ways they despise.

Therefore, this fall and winter I will be writing from time to time about the traditional worship of the Church. Some readers will find these lessons very familiar; others might be learning about some Christian traditions for the very first time, even though they have been Christians for a long time. I will be presenting these traditions in three sets. First I will write about the parts of Christian worship from beginning to end, explaining why the traditional liturgy contains various elements. Then I will cover traditions of the Christian calendar, from Christmas and Easter to the less known holidays, as well as the seasons of the Church Year. Last I will speak about various other traditions associated with Christian worship—traditions about the architecture of the church building, traditions about the way that worship leaders dress, and traditions about the items used to serve Holy Communion, among others. May our understanding and appreciation of traditional Christian worship grow through these explanations. J.

Children’s sermons

I do not like children’s sermons. I find them distracting, annoying, meaningless, and insulting to children and to the congregation in general.

The service is flowing in its usual way until the preacher interrupts the flow to invite all the children to come to the front of the church for a children’s sermon. Children leave their families, walk down the aisles of the church, and gather around the speaker. Sometimes the preacher speaks to the children; sometimes another member of the congregation gives the talk. Often the lesson ends with a prayer. Sometimes the children are invited to put their money into a special offering plate. Then they are dismissed to return to their families—or, worse, they are ushered out of the church to a special play space where they will stay for the rest of the service, or at least during the preacher’s regular sermon.

My first objection to this practice is that it informs the children that the rest of the service is not for them. Rather than learning the hymns and traditional prayers of the church as they mature, children are encouraged to think of the service as an hour of pointless noise with just five or ten minutes focused on them. No wonder that a lot of children stop going to church as soon as they are college students or have a place of their own. They never felt invited to take part in the entire service.

Along with this, I am troubled by the interruption for all the worshipers who are not children. Some adults enjoy children’s sermons. I’ve even heard some say that they get more out of the children’s sermon than they get out of the rest of the service. They should be embarrassed even to say such things out loud. The entire service with its hymns and prayers, its Bible readings and sermon, communicates to the minds and also to the hearts of everyone who is present. Even when the preacher has had a bad week and the sermon is below par, the rest of the service still conveys the chief message of the Church: God’s love and mercy and forgiveness for sinners. A good children’s sermon (if there is such a thing) will reinforce the same message, but as such it is unnecessary, since the message is already present throughout the service.

Imagine this trend carried to its logical conclusion. After the children, up to age twelve, have come forward for a five-minute message targeted at them, the teens are then invited to come forward for a teen sermon. Then, decade by decade, the congregation travels to the front of the church to hear a message meant especially for them. By the time the worshipers aged seventy and above have held their golden-age sermon, every member of the congregation has endured seven five-minute messages that they knew were not meant for their ears to hear.

Children’s sermons are cute, which is part of their problem. Entering the presence of God should be awe-inspiring, not cute. Moreover, the typical children’s sermon is an analogy based on one of the Bible readings for the day. In human development, the mind does not understand or accept such analogies readily until approximately the age of ten to twelve—the very age at which children stop coming forward to hear the children’s sermon.

Many adults will disagree with me on this topic, which does not bother me at all. I would like to survey the children of the congregation to learn how many of them really like coming forward in the middle of the service for a talk directed only at them. I would also like to ask some leaders of the congregation: how many children were members of the congregation when we started this practice of children’s sermons? How many children are members of the congregation today? How many of the children who were in church every week when we started the practice of children’s sermons are faithful members today? I think we will find that children’s sermons have failed in their goal to make children feel that they are part of the Church, the body of Christ. The time has come to reverse direction and to teach children that they are part of the Church from the beginning of the service to its conclusion. J.

 

The joy of liturgy

A few hours after I created a post about classical music, I came across this post by Truth and Tolerance, by way of InsanityBytes. The topic is also music, although it is focused more on music in the Christian Church and especially in worship. The topic is, in fact, the most classical of all music, the traditional music of the Christian liturgy.

I completely agree with everything T&T wrote (although I might have used gentler language). The central point of her post (and hence of this post) is that the Divine Service is not meant to be edited so that it appeals to younger people. The traditions of the Church have developed over time, not because of negotiations with the lowest common denominator or with the next generation, but because the power of those traditions communicates the message of Christ and his Church in a way that is tried, tested, and proven. Making changes because of the felt needs of the worshipers does not work for two reasons. First, the needs they feel are not their deepest needs. Christ knows their deepest needs, and his Church is designed to meet those needs. Second, once the elements of worship become negotiable, worship itself becomes negotiable for the worshipers. Worship attendance in the United States has dropped over the last fifty years, not because churches have not tried hard enough to give people what they want, but because churches have tried too hard to give people what they want.

Children instinctively distinguish between what is important and what is fun. Tell a child, “This is going to be fun,” and the child hears, “This is just to entertain you; it doesn’t really matter.” Sunday School has gradually changed from “bring up these children in the faith so that when they are older they will not depart from it” to “entertain these children and make church seem fun so they will want to keep coming when they are older.” As a result, the children learn nearly nothing about their faith in Sunday School; if their parents are not teaching them the faith at home, no one is telling them what it means to be a Christian.

A few years ago I was in a meeting of church workers. Running the meeting was a progressive church planter, the kind of minister who says that the last words of a congregation are, “We’ve never done it that way before.” Several quotes were stenciled on the walls of the meeting room, and he noticed one that said, “Tradition is the democracy of the dead.” The church planter pointed to that saying and told us to take it to heart, that if we cling to our traditions, we are clinging to death instead of life. I responded, “I rather like the idea of democracy that includes the dead. It’s nice to know that, when we worship, we are joining with all the saints who have gone before us.” I reminded him of one of the phrase in our traditional liturgy: “that with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we laud and praise thy glorious name…” “All the company of heaven” includes every believer who has died and is in Paradise with Jesus. Ancient heroes of the faith are there. My grandparents and other Christians I have loved are there. When I partake in the traditional divine service, the Lord hears my voice mingled with their voices in one vast Christian choir.

New music can enter the old traditions, provided that the new music does not refocus those traditions away from the Lord. Great hymns (no matter what century they were written) lead people to know Jesus, not only as the awesome God worshiped by all creation, but particularly as the Savior who has claimed his people, rescued them from their sins, and reconciled them to himself. I’m fine with Contemporary Christian Music on the radio and in my music collection. Very little of it is suitable for the divine service, because its focus is not the same as that of the traditional liturgy.

The liturgy is not culturally bound. It is not merely a European way of worshiping God; it developed from the Jewish worship of the synagogue, and its development happened largely in western Asia and northern Africa. The liturgy is not bound by time. It unites Christians of three or four generations during each service, and it unites Christians of dozens of generations spreading over two thousand years. The liturgy is not bound by the age of the worshipers. Children who have not yet begun to read can learn the liturgy by hearing it every week. Mothers of young children can speak and sing the liturgy without needing to balance a hymnal and a worship folder and a baby in the same two hands. Elderly people whose eyesight is not as good as it used to be can speak and sing the liturgy; it is engrained in their memories so thoroughly that it often survives intact even when those elderly people no longer recognize their own children.

When the preacher’s sermon is poor—and every preacher has a bad Sunday now and then—the liturgy still proclaims the message of the Church. When a worshiper’s mind is wandering, the liturgy brings him or her back again to the message of the Church. When a visitor is sitting in church for the first time, the liturgy tells that visitor what the congregation is doing. No, the liturgy will not be familiar to the visitor during the first visit, or even the tenth time he or she returns. But that unfamiliar liturgy will speak to the visitor more eloquently than any cheerful greeting, telling the visitor what the Church is doing in the service. (One of the most beautiful things I have seen happen in a church happened when a man in his seventies changed pews to share hymnals with a first-time visitor in her twenties.)

If a child is brought to church every Sunday for his or her first five years, that child will have heard the liturgy two hundred fifty times. The familiar pattern of worship will be more comforting to that child than the most entertaining praise song or film clip or (shudder!) puppet show. Families that worship together grow spiritually together. May this weekend’s services be, for each of us, a delight to join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven to worship our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. J.