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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Is the same message in all the world’s religions?

My seven “Conspiracy Theories about Christianity” posts provided an opportunity for an interesting conversation which included the question above. Are all the religions of the world essentially saying the same thing, or is there a difference among them?

I suppose to answer that question, one must first define religion. Is religion worship of a God or gods? Is religion a collection of moral guidelines? Is religion an attempt to understand the surrounding world and its history? Is religion a way of life?

If the core of religion is morality, then most of the world’s religions have almost the same message. Indeed, many secular philosophies agree on a moral code. Nearly every religion has some version of the Golden Rule (“Do unto others the way you would have them do unto you”). With the exception of Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand, people all over the world believe that kindness to others is essential for a moral life. This includes respecting the lives, families, property, and reputations of others. Caring for the world in general is often a religious principle. Not being obsessed with worldly things such as wealth and political power is generally recommended by religions and by philosophies. Most religions would also add reverence toward holy things, including God or the gods.

How do people explain a common moral code throughout humanity? A secular thinker might claim that this moral sense evolved to protect the survival of the human species. A religious thinker might respond that the Creator embedded these morals in all people, giving us a conscience to guide us, to condemn us when we do wrong, and to defend us when we do right and are accused of doing wrong.

Religious practices are very diverse, but they can be diverse within religions as well as between religions. The four services of an Eastern Orthodox congregation, a high-church Anglican congregation, a rural Baptist congregation, and an inner-city Pentecostal congregation might each seem foreign to visitors from the other three congregations, even as they honor the same God and proclaim the same faith in Jesus Christ while reading from the same Bible. One truth can be stated and celebrated in a variety of ways.

For Christians, however, the core truth of their religion is neither moral codes nor worship practices. The core truth is Jesus Christ, crucified to atone for sin and risen to proclaim victory over evil. The core truth is salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. True, some Christian groups veer from the core truth into distractions: works righteousness, political activity (whether right-wing or left-wing), help for the poor and afflicted, or making the worship experience just right. These distractions—some from bad things and others from good things—may make people inside the Church and people outside the Church confused about the purpose of the Church. The Church does one thing that no one else in the world can do. That one thing is not to teach morality or to help the poor or to provide an inspiring and uplifting experience. The one thing that happens only among Christians is forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ.

Other religions offer ways to become connected to God or to the gods. These ways generally include various human acts: prayers, incantations, sacrifices, self-harm, and others. Christianity teaches that reconciliation with God is accomplished by God as he enters the world as Jesus of Nazareth, keeping God’s promise of a Savior, living a sinless life in the place of every sinful life, paying a ransom on the cross—giving his own life to purchase sinners for the kingdom of God, and defeating every form of evil—including death—by his death and resurrection.

Imagine a group of people gathered from the various religions of the world. Imagine each of them being asked to list what is wrong in the world. Compare the lists. They would probably be very similar. They would include such problems as war, crimes, violence, hatred, disrespect for authority, pollution of the environment, loss of awe toward the holy, and the like. Now ask them what should be done to improve the world. One Hindu might say, “Accept it and learn from it—it’s karma.” Another Hindu might say, “But my karma is to be a good person and make the world better.” A Buddhist might say, “Do the right things—the Eight-Fold Path—without becoming attached to the things of the world.” A Daoist might say, “Just go with the flow.” A Confucianist might say, “Learn the rules and do what is right.” A Shintoist might say, “Be in harmony with all the spirits and living things that surround you.” A Jew might say, “Obey the commandments and honor the Holy One.” A Muslim might say, “Praise Allah and live according to his instruction.” But a Christian would say, “All those things are well and good, but we cannot fix the world. Evil is too big for us to fight it alone. Jesus has already come to fix what is broken. He has forgiven sinners. He has rescued victims. He will make the world new. He is waiting now for more to learn what he has done and come to faith in him before he reappears to make everything new.”

That Christian is not going to despise obedience to the moral code. That Christian is going to try his or her best to honor God, help his or her neighbors, improve the world, and fight evil. But that Christian does not count his or her works as the real answer to evil. The real answer is that the good and holy God has already defeated evil, not as a warrior, but as a victim. His love and his forgiveness are for all people. God does not want to punish any sinners; he wants the entire world to be reconciled to him.

When evil first entered the world, God promised our ancestors a rescue mission. The serpent’s head would be crushed. God would prevail over evil. This promise was for all people. C.S. Lewis has proposed that the theme of a hero who dies and returns to life, found in so many cultures all over the world, is a dim memory of that promise. I suggested last week that the same theme might come from the natural cycle of planting and harvesting, but that God placed that cycle into our world as a picture of the death and resurrection of Jesus, who said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

Again, God does not want to judge and condemn sinners. He wants to rescue sinners. He promises that the citizens of his kingdom will come from all the nations and tribes and languages of the world. But they cannot come from all the religions of the world. All those in the new creation will be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. Those who say, “There is no God” or “there are many gods” cannot be reconciled until they learn the truth. Those who say “God has no Son” or “I am my own savior” cannot be reconciled until they learn the truth. Jesus wants all people to know the truth. He sent his apostles to preach the Gospel to the entire world. The Church continues today to reach out to the entire world. We do not say “only Christians will be saved” because we want to close heaven to others. We say “only Christians will be saved” because we want others to come to know Jesus and to trust in him. We look forward to the beautiful harmonious diversity of the new creation, in which people from every culture gather together, united by our Savior, Jesus Christ. J.

Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs

“Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth” (Psalm 96:1).

“…singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16).

The Old Testament and the New Testament both tell God’s people to sing. God created us, and he knows all about us. He knows that music shapes our thinking in a way that words alone cannot do. Children learn the alphabet to the tune of “Twinkle, twinkle little star.” Dementia victims whose memory is so badly damaged that they cannot carry on a conversation can still remember the songs they learned in their youth. Because music aids in memory and even in comprehension, God has told us to sing when we worship.

From the very beginning of the Church, Christians sang. Often they sang words from the Bible. Over time other Christian hymns were composed, such as the classic Te Deum laudumus (We praise you, O God). Historians cannot reproduce the tunes that early Christians used. We know something about how the music sounded because Greek mathematicians wrote about musical intervals and modes. Our major and minor keys would sound strange and foreign to people of the Roman Empire, and their music would sound strange and foreign to us.

During Roman times, a series of songs—mostly from the Bible—coalesced into what is known as the Divine Service or the Mass. Great composers of later times often wrote new tunes to accompany the Mass. The Mass consists of five songs, the Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy—Mark 10:47), the Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God on high—Luke 2:14), the Credo (I believe), the Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy—Isaiah 6:3, combined with Matthew 21:9) and the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God—John 1:29). Further comments about each of these will be made in the appropriate places.

Some of the earliest Christian music that can be reproduced today consists of chants arranged by Gregory the Great. These Gregorian chants are sung in the modes of the earlier Greek mathematicians and may approach the sound of the earliest Christians.

Over time Christian singing shifted from the congregation to choirs of professional singers, and most people in the church simply listened to the music. As part of the Reformation, Martin Luther restored congregational singing. He used the style of music that has become known as the German chorale. This music was called bar music, not because it came from the tavern, but because vertical lines (bars) separated the phrases of the singing. The flow of long notes and short notes is almost conversational in the chorales. They avoid an even rhythm, leading some historians to speculate that hymn writers in the sixteenth century did not want people to be able to sway to the music or do anything else that suggested dancing.

Johann Sebastian Bach was a Lutheran organist and choir director (as well as a professional composer and musician often hired by government officials). Along with his contemporaries, he refined church music, preferring only four beats to the bar over the longer phrases of the chorale (hence, “four-four time”). Bach and others of his generation also popularized the major keys which are familiar to Christians today. Bach’s tunes have a mathematical precision, even if they differed from the music theories of the ancient Greeks. The Methodist movement introduced another variation, making church music more emotional and more personal. Of course the twentieth century introduced many new things to Christian singing, such as guitars, drums, microphones and amplifiers, and projection screens to display the words of the hymns.

No doubt every innovation in worship has disappointed some Christians. Gregory’s chants and Luther’s chorales may have been as controversial and upsetting as rock music in the church can be controversial and upsetting for some people. God accepts and encourages diversity among his people. He is worshiped in many languages and many cultures, none of them being wrong and none of them being better than another. This does not mean, however, that in Christian worship, anything goes. Songs, hymns, and spiritual songs belong to the worship service; therefore, they should enhance worship and not inhibit worship.

A congregation’s collection of hymns should resemble the book of Psalms. Not all the Psalms are praise Psalms. Some Psalms cry out to God for help. Other Psalms confess sins and seek forgiveness. Some Psalms teach the history of God’s people. Like every other book of the Bible, the Psalms are about Jesus. They recognize him not only as the One by whom and for whom all things were made; they recognize him also as the righteous man who never sinned, as the atoning sacrifice for sinners, and as the victor over sin, evil, and death. So also the hymns and songs of the Church today should encompass all these themes. Not every hymn should have every theme, of course, but the collection of hymns—and even the choice of hymns for a single service—should in some way contain all these themes.

A service consisting of nothing but praise songs is like a meal consisting of nothing but ice cream and cake. The thought may seem attractive at first, but the problems with that diet become obvious over time. To eat no meat, no vegetables, and no grain would be to deprive oneself of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. To sing only praise would not enable the members of the congregation to deal with the problems in their lives, the enemies they face, the danger of their own sins, and the work Jesus has accomplished to rescue them from sin and evil.

Every service has a theme, set by the Bible readings chosen for the service and the sermon which explains one or more of those readings. The hymns chosen for the service should match the theme of the readings and sermon. Moreover, the traditional Church has several seasons, and different hymns are fit for different seasons. Hymns for Christmas and Easter are more joyful; hymns for Advent and Lent are more somber. Clearly, the hymns for each service cannot be chosen by asking all the members which songs they like the best. Hymns should be chosen by someone sensitive to the moods of the Church year and aware of what the preacher intends to emphasize. If the preacher is not in charge of selecting hymns, the preacher and music director need to communicate and cooperate for the best possible service each week.

Choirs, praise teams, and other music leaders should help the congregation to sing. When they become performers and the congregation becomes an audience, the worship is crippled. Talented and trained musicians can help the congregation to sing. They can introduce new hymns and teach them to the congregation. They can add more difficult music to the service to support the hymn-singing of the congregation and to honor God. Like preachers, church musicians face the temptation of placing themselves at the center of the worship. They need frequently to remind themselves that Christ is being worshiped, that they are honoring him with their talents and abilities, and that the congregation gathered in his name, not in their names.

This chapter has taken longer than expected to write. I appreciate any thoughtful and helpful responses. J.

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.