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What Is Worship For?

Via Prufrock, the free daily e-mail digest, here is a Christian Century essay   by Steve Thorngate, raising a question about altering hymns. His concern is less theological than about the rights local congregations assert to change copyrighted work when appropriated for their own use. Excerpt: But even if McAfee personally redacts the offending line from every pew hymnal and […]

Via Prufrock, the free daily e-mail digest, here is a Christian Century essay   by Steve Thorngate, raising a question about altering hymns. His concern is less theological than about the rights local congregations assert to change copyrighted work when appropriated for their own use. Excerpt:

But even if McAfee personally redacts the offending line from every pew hymnal and PowerPoint in the land, churches may well keep singing it. In fact, while using an unauthorized alteration is an embarrassing oversight for a major hymnal publisher, it’s pretty routine in the local church.

It’s not hard to imagine why. The move toward eclectic, locally creative liturgy means doing less that’s by the already-rights-cleared book and more that draws from a variety of sources, some of which fit local purposes more neatly than others.

Meanwhile, music leaders are sharing music across theological lines. This is great, but it used to be simpler—say what you will about the content-light praise choruses of the 1980s and ’90s, but at least there wasn’t much to disagree with. Now that evangelicals are writing whole catechisms in four tuneful strophes, it’s not surprising to be drawn to the substantiveness yet take issue with some of the substance.

As a writer, I get Thorngate’s point, but to me, the far more important point is that local congregations take it upon themselves to change the theology of the received tradition that’s passed on through their hymns. Why does this not unnerve people?

In a related question, one of her readers, a pastor in Wales, asked Frederica Mathewes-Green what worship was for. Her answer was great, I thought, and a lesson to “seeker-friendly” folks. Excerpt:

This focus on God was the case until very recently; now our immersion in a consumer economy has led us to think of everything in terms of appealing to potential customers. We are so mentally saturated in advertising that we have come to think of ourselves and our faith as products that need to be persuasively sold.

That’s how worship gets redirected from the Lord to outsiders, who have no ability yet to understand or respect Him. The church becomes an organization that is primarily occupied with planning a billboard, because the most important goal is to capture non-believers’ attention. When someone responds to a billboard and becomes a member of the community, he discovers that he has joined an organization that — is planning a billboard. The main goal of members of a church is to attract more members to the church. It’s like Ponzi scheme.

In the Scriptures worship is directed to God, not to anyone on earth, not even to other worshippers. It is certainly not directed to people who don’t yet love and respect our Lord; in fact it should be expected that our worship will be unfamiliar, perplexing, and mysterious to them. In worship we focus on Him, and those who don’t yet see Him just won’t be able to grasp it. It’s appropriate that outsiders not understand what is going on. It’s appropriate that they don’t immediately get it. But they can see that the worshippers take it very seriously, and that they really believe God is present and hearing their prayers. That kind of worship is in itself powerfully compelling, and has its own magnetic pull.

This strikes a very different note than what we experience in our daily lives, which is so thoroughly devoted to attracting consumers, and desperately obsequious and silly in that pursuit. This seriousness of purpose strikes a very different note, and the fact that non-believers can’t immediately grasp what’s going on communicates a truth in itself.


If, instead, we focus on attracting outsiders, it will feel to them like every other advertising pitch they encounter. The church can never compete with the world when it comes to entertainment. The world can give them more enjoyable diversions than we can, and can do it without requiring them to leave the house on Sunday morning. If we are successful in attracting people to the church on the basis of fun and entertainment, we’re guilty of false advertising, for Christ promises us nothing in this life but a cross. But if we worship with whole-hearted focus on God, they will see something they encounter nowhere else in their lives. They may not at first see Christ, but they can see that we see something, and that gives them something to think about; that’s how faith begins.

And then, from a follow-up post, this FMG excerpt:

Liturgical churches simply have an advantage here, because they don’t have to generate the content of their worship. The ancient liturgies still exist, and some churches have never stopped using them for all 2000 years. The Orthodox Eucharistic service is like a rack railway, one that is designed to climb a mountain. I can get on the train on Sunday morning, and it will carry me all the way to the top. It doesn’t matter whether I have emotions about worship or not; the Liturgy itself does the work.

As I said, this is more complicated for churches with a tradition of assembling the worship service new each week, but that does give you the freedom to try out the ancient prayers and services. They’re can be found in books and on line. I think it is less successful to just stick in a few ancient prayers, because you’re not wise enough to be an editor of those ancient texts; but if that is all you can do, it’s still something.

Years ago I met a young woman who told me she attended “the Celtic service at the First Baptist Church.” When I did a double-take she said, “The Boomers want a contemporary service, with rock music and all, but the young people, of course, want something more traditional.” They had located ancient Celtic prayers via the internet and were worshipping with vestments, candles, and incense (until the smoke alarm gave them too much trouble).

One thing that surprised me after I became Eastern Orthodox was that there was far less emphasis on believers being united with each other in worship. Previously, the prayers and hymns about communion were all about community. Now, they’re about the power of Christ’s presence in the sacrament and my unworthiness and unpreparedness to receive it. Communion does unites me to other worshippers, of course, but the understanding that the bread and wine really become Christ’s Body and Blood push other thoughts to the side.

I should clarify that I’m not recommending that go back to worship styles and hymns of a few decades or a century ago. That’s still a part of the culture we inhabit today, and it’s probably not disruptive or challenging enough to make a difference. Worship from thousands of years ago, from entirely different languages and cultures, has more of a chance of shaking you up.

Finally I have to ask, to what extent is worship supposed to teach the faithful? The Orthodox liturgies and prayers are full of meaty content, apparently intending that worshippers will understand and remember it, and not designed solely to glorify God. If you imagine that you were an illiterate peasant 1500 years ago, about the only time you would hear the scriptures would be during worship. The icons on the walls would serve as a picture bible, presenting the important scenes of bible and church history. The worship experience—the embroidery, incense, vestments, jewels and so forth—would be the most beautiful thing you encountered all week. Since everything is set to music, you can take it with you, and bring it to mind during the week. Some of the more important prayers are sung three times. We learned our ABCs by singing them over and over, and we learn church history and theology the same way.

She’s just so great. When I first started attending an Orthodox church, I thought, OK, this is really beautiful, insanely beautiful, like no other Christian worship I’ve attended … but I don’t understand what’s going on. People were really friendly, but they didn’t try to dumb the worship down for my sake, or any seeker’s sake. They just did what they always do. The beauty and integrity of it drew me in.

Let me here from you, from different traditions. What do you think worship is for? How does your church, synagogue, mosque or temple do this well? How do you fail? Why? Talk about it.




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