In thinking through what a theology of worship ought to look like, I do so from with varied images in my mind. There is the image of the church in which I was raised, now comprised of an increasingly aging congregation struggling with changes in society and changes in the church. There is also the image of my current stateside home church—a large, fairly wealthy congregation with creative “worship environments” that run with clocklike precision and professionalism. Finally, there is “J”, a young chuch planter in Asia who meets weekly with one new Muslim-background-believer (MBB) and his friend, who is not yet a believer, to read Scripture, discuss it, pray together, and encourage one another. What is worship and what should it look like?
I often tell people when I am stateside that the rapidly changing U.S. context is increasingly similar to my rapidly changing Asian context. In fact, the principles of ministry in each setting are virtually identical, even as the way they are carried out certainly vary a good deal. As we begin to think through what a healthy theology of worship ought to look like, it seems, there are some basic principles found in all three of the above images I have shared as well as around the globe (even as a snapshot of worship in each location will certainly reveal many variations).
Debates over what worship is and what it ought to look like often reflect any number or theological (both practical and theoretical) misunderstandings and shortcomings because the way we approach “worship” in the local church setting flow directly from our understanding of the church—its purpose, place, and identity. Three important aspects of such a poor theology of worship center around three important ideas of what worship is not.
Worship is NOT performance and music
Why is it…that the church’s worship and liturgical life is not more Refrigerator Door and less Rembrandt? Hillsong’s Darlene Zschech is a Picasso of praise music. Matt Redman is a Rembrandt of praise music. But why does every praise song have to be a Hillsong, Integrity, or Maranatha production? Why can’t we feature creativity that looks and feels more like a refrigerator door than a copycat “classic”? Why can’t we embrace more kitsch and schtick and less slick?
—Leonard Sweet (Kindle, 4299)
There is an important difference between pursuing excellence in worship and pursuing excellence in performance. The aging congregation mentioned above sings with gusto and enthusiasm, although the song leader had a mediocre voice at best and most of the congregants are off tune. It’s not a great musical performance but it’s excellent worship. The large, wealthy congregation, by contrast, enjoys concert-level-quality musical performances on a weekly basis; so good, in fact, that many enjoy the music silently rather than join in. When J meets with his MBB friends on Tuesday morning, they sometimes don’t sing at all!
It is important to note from the beginning that worship cannot be reduced to a level of performance excellence while at the same time refusing to acknowledge the dangers of being either too concerned or too unconcerned with the actual carrying-out of the worship experience. To go a step further, is it easy to notice that often times in the local church, the definition of “worship” often centers around music. Music is one means by which we can worship, but music is not, itself, the definition of worship.
Worship is NOT marketing and evangelism
…being missional is not a matter of taking overseas short-term mission trips, of having a program of missions, or of changing the style of a worship service.
—Schwanz and Coleson, Kindle 374
Being missional—embracing Missio Dei and living it out in our world—is one of three core values in the Church of the Nazarene, the church in which I was raised and still call home. For many local churches in the recent past, one of the key questions asked with regard to worship planning was “What can we do to get more people in the seats?” (Or something of that sort). Getting new people in the doors of the church and providing them a “worship experience” that would keep them coming became a priority and was thought to be part of the way in which the Great Commission was being fulfilled, according to Brent Peterson in Created to Worship. Worship, however, “becomes less than it ought to be anytime our focus shifts from love and honor for the Almighty to an event designed to attract the masses” (Peterson, 20).
The worship time and space of the local church is not the primary (or ideal) space in which the people of God ought to engage the “unreached” or “unchurched” world around them. Sure, some people may be attracted to the authentic and meaningful worship in which the church engages, but this is not the primary purpose of worship. If we plan our worship for the purpose of meaningful and authentic worship of God these things may well happen. We might even pray that such things would happen. But if we plan our worship with the “outsider” as our primary target, we will likely miss the mark of meaningful and authentic worship of God.
Worship is NOT outcomes-based
Worship is not about our feelings. Jesus, in his ministry, often confronted religious leaders and those who held religious authority and power. Of primary concern, according to Robert Fringer and Jeff Lane, in Theology of Luck, was that “Israel’s religious rituals have become actions meant to appease God so God will overlook their sin…they are not actually worshiping God, because their motivation is not love or relationship but selfish gain (Fringer and Lane, 655) In short, whenever worship turns from God to me—what I want or what I get out of it—then it ceases to be worship. If I only worship when I feel good, or as a means to help myself feel good, then I have strayed far from its true meaning and purpose.