Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The "worship issue": a clarification (I hope).

I just got around to reading a blog article that linked unfavorably to a post of mine from several weeks back. The blog that linked back here is one I’ve read a time or two since it was launched. The writers there are all pastors (I think) and they have, from time to time, some great insight on some matters, although they are certainly part of a more “hyper” strand of Fundamentalism as far as I can tell. That said, I want to readdress something I’ve hit on several times here over …worship style. I’m not sure that I have managed to make my point effectively....as a matter of fact - judging from comments both here and elsewhere - I'm certain that I've absolutely failed at making my point!

I’ve often been critical of the worship style that typifies Fundamentalism. Actually, at times I’ve been fairly critical of the entire liturgical style that typifies the movement, but that’s not the point here. In a couple of my recent posts I mentioned the lack of emotion and “realness” in the typical fundy worship service. I mentioned this as a major issue in my criticisms of the movement and one of the chief issues that are serving to drive many of us away. Now, I’ve had difficulty articulating my thoughts on this one, so I’m going to attempt to be a tad more thorough in my explanation this time around. I’ll start with a story about the very first contemporary worship service I ever attended.

Nine or ten years ago I was given tickets to go hear a very well-known preacher speak at a large non-denominational church in Wichita, KS. If I mentioned the name of the man most of you would know who he is. He can be heard on most conservative Christian radio stations and I’m guessing that most of the folks who might come in contact with my blog would have a favorable opinion of him (as do I). I arrived at this service in eager anticipation to hear the Word of God opened and exposited….but first I had to “endure” a very painful “worship” service.

This church had a huge platform and they had a rather large band and 8 or 10 worship leaders. I was not familiar with most of the songs that were being sang but I was invited to sing along as the lyrics appeared on the several large screens scattered throughout the gargantuan auditorium. I found most of the lyrics to be “fluffy” with a song here and there that actually contained some deeper theology. About 20 minutes into the song service the mood suddenly changed. The guy sitting at the drum set put his sticks down and walked off the stage. The grand piano began playing some very soft music. The lights in the auditorium were dimmed slightly and, in unison, about 70% of those in attendance raised their hands (I would estimate that there were approximately 3,500 people there). The words came up on the screen and I realized that we were exiting the “praise” portion of the music service and entering the “worship” portion.

The whole thing was so contrived and rehearsed that it instantly set me in an extremely bad mood. The emotional manipulation was as bad as anything I’ve ever seen from the most “Finneyesque” evangelist that Fundamentalism can offer up. It ticked me off! I walked away thinking that I’d rather be around the rote, regimented, emotionless services found in Fundamentalism than to be seen as one who embraces this brand of emotional “trickery”.

Now I share that story because I want any who read this to understand that I don’t view “emotions” as the end all in worship. Nor do I believe that open displays of emotion are the only real signs of true worship. That type of thinking would be ludicrous and it’s certainly nothing to which I subscribe.

So, you might be asking, what’s the big criticism of the typical worship service in Fundamentalism? My big criticism is that we have typically done all we can to eliminate any emotional engagement whatsoever (until invitation time). We do this in several ways. First of all, we insure that there is no music that might get one to “tapping the toe”. Secondly we break things up with announcements, offering, greetings, a “stand-up routine” from the pastor, and very few comments from the music director (except those designed to get a laugh). The closest thing to continuity that the typical fundy music service has is that there might be a central theme to the chosen songs. But oft-times there is so little thought given to the songs being sang that anybody could get up and lead the music – just pick three or four songs that are in 4/4 time and everything’s OK.

Frankly, I have little use for both styles that I’ve mentioned above.

Now let me be clear on something here…I don’t wish to remove personal responsibility from the parishioner in regards to an engagement of the heart in worship. Those who know me best know that I take these matters seriously. For years I’ve practiced a careful and prayerful preparation of my heart prior to entering the worship service. I attempt to focus on the words of the songs being sung and will often sing them as my hearts prayer (should the lyrics lend themselves to that). Often I will leave off singing with the congregation in order to meditate a bit on the words we are offering up. I personally get “choked up” regularly when attempting to sing songs like “Alas, and did my Savior die?” or “Amazing Love”, or “Amazing Grace” or the like. However, just as the attempted manipulation at the service I first described upset me, so too does the constant interruption in the typical Fundamentalist service. Unfortunately we aren’t typically led in worship….we are just led in singing.

Four years ago I was sitting in a church service at a Fundamentalist church. The regular song leader was not there and neither was the backup. The pastor asked another man if he would take care of the music and he indicated that he would. Now this man wasn’t a particularly good singer and he didn’t know how to “wave his arms” correctly, so he just got up and did what he knew how to do. He spoke to us of the great love of our Savior and how amazing His grace really is. He spoke of forgiveness and how incomprehensible it all is. As he led us in songs about these truths he paused often to read the lyrics to us and to reference supporting scripture. In other words, he did all he could to engage us in worship…he helped us to focus our minds on our God. No drums, no hand raising, no emotional plea, no 45 minute invitation….just worship. This brother – without saying the words – urged us to engage our intellect as well as our emotions in corporate worship. It was a wonderful time with God’s people!

I called for a balance in this area in one of my recent articles. I suggest that, perhaps, we need to rethink our approach to worship. We need to rethink our roles as parishioners as well as leaders. Find the balance! While there is a danger in falling into a rehearsed and “forced” worship, there is an equally egregious danger in falling into a regimented, emotionless, dead “worship”.

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