A Reflection On Worship

I.  Worship and Spirituality

The Sunday worship reflects the spirituality of the church.  Before I go on, I must define what I mean by “spirituality”.  Alister McGrath says this:

For Christianity, spirituality concerns the living out of the encounter with Jesus Christ.  The term “Christian spirituality” refers to the way in which the Christian life is understood and the explicitly devotional practices which have been developed to foster and sustain that relationship with Christ.  Christian spirituality may be thus understood as the way in which Christian individuals or groups aim to deepen their experience of God, or to “practice the presence of God,” to use a phrase especially associated with Brother Lawrence.

Going by this definition, the Sunday worship reflects how that church understands Christian life and how they should foster their relationship with Jesus Christ or experience with God.  An emphasis must be made here that there is no universal Christian spirituality.  What one church focuses might differ from what another does.  But the common thread is that the Sunday worship tells how that church identifies itself as followers of Christ and what things it holds important.  Everything that happens on Sunday morning is the culmination of the Christian life that church aspires – whether it is the study of the Word, mission, service, filled by the Spirit, liturgy, liberation, or social justice.  In fact, different traditions bring different insights.  Take Catholicism for an example.  Their liturgical worship carries deep theological symbolism that represents the Catholic beliefs.  Also, the repetition of the same cultic ceremonies serves an important purpose of inheriting the tradition that runs deep in the veins of the church.  While the weekly replay of the mass might lack the livelihood of that of a pentecostal worship, the age old consistency brings forth the power of connection with the historical church that stood hundreds of years ago.  This sense of preservation of the ancient church is not likely to be found in Protestantism.

Greek Orthodox provides us with a different kind of perspective in worship.  Perhaps the most well known element is their use of icons.  With full knowledge of the biblical instructions on forbidding the creation of any images of God, the eastern church argued that Jesus is the image of God.  What more is that icons are not the object of worshipping.  Instead, they are windows that allow the worshipper to “peek” into the supernatural from his natural world.  In other words, the artwork serves as a media that helps the believer to worship whom the icon points toward.  Icons are considered to be written rather than painted.  Unlike an ordinary artist who seeks to express himself through his artwork, the artist who writes the icon seeks to copy closely to the tradition so that he does not deviate from conveying the biblical truth in his work.  And, this is the mysticism that is unique to the Greek Orthodox worship.

II.  American Evangelicalism

Jonathan Edwards

After briefly seeing the correlation between worship and spirituality of some Christian traditions, it is time to examine our own.  The apparent question is “What does American Evangelicalism represent?”  The quick answer is that it is a movement that is historically associated with biblical inerrancy and conversion revivalism.  Christian historian, Mark Noll, points towards as far back as The First Awakening in the 18th century where the movement first found momentum.  Prominent figures like George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards were not only leaders of the movement but history also recognized them as intellectuals who deeply influenced America as a nation, including its gaining independence from Britain in 1774.  Theologically speaking, the First Awakening drew its resource from Calvinism.  John Calvin, and other reformers (like Luther and Zwingli) in the 16th century gave rise to Protestantism through their study of the scriptures.  While Calvin was known as a well established theologian and for writing the Institutes, Luther became a legendary hero from the well-told story of how he discovered salvation by grace when he studied the Book of Romans.

With these historical backgrounds in mind, one should not be surprised that the evangelical worship is mostly featured by its preaching.  Accordingly, when the great American intellect Benjamin Franklin went to listen to George Whitefield’s sermon, he would first leave his wallet at home before going.  This is because Franklin would end up emptying every last penny he had into the offering bag after Whitefield’s preaching.  The same enthusiasm was true for Edwards.  It was recorded that when Jonathan Edwards finished preaching and looked up, he would see people gripping the back of the pew in front of them so hard that their knuckles turned white.  Church history continued to record great preachers like Spurgeon and Moody.  These people not only directed the spirituality of American Evangelicalism, they also set the tone for what worship looked like and for what worshippers expected in a service.  It was not about the music.  It was about the Word.

III. A Deviation from Our Tradition

Loss of the luster

Coming back to our reality from history, I must point out that this is not what most of us experienced in our local churches.  Before the 80s, Sunday worship was nothing close to “pew-gripping” or “leaving the wallet behind before going to church”.  It was more like waking up in the middle of dozing off and finding that the service was still not over.  (This made it easy to distinguish the good Christians from the bad.  The good ones were those who stayed awake.)  So, what happened to that evangelical tradition that gripped the heart of men that pushed them to sitting on the edge of their pew?  The first and obvious answer is that not all pastors are powerful preachers.  The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit gives different gifts to different people.  While some pastors are good at caring, counseling, or administrating, others are good at preaching.  But I would like to contend that this is not the major problem.  When you listen to the same powerful preacher for over a month, that ‘power’ will started to fade and he will have even a harder time to get your attention six months later if his preaching has only ‘power’ but not enough substance.  As a preacher, I would like to argue from personal experience that a sermon which captures the audience attention consists nothing less than substance and the preacher’s passion of that message.  And, the deviation from our evangelical tradition results from the loss of both.

Ironically, soon after the First Awakening came a way of thinking that I would call “anti-intellectualism”.  The Pietistic Movement started in the seventeenth century advocates that Christianity does not belong to the elite.  Spiritual fervor is not about theology but piety.  Clergies do not monopolize serving God but laities have as large a role.  As with all other movements, the good always comes with the other side.  While Pietism ignited the flames of zealous Christians across Europe and North America, it also undermined intellectual disciplines.  The 20th century Evangelicals in the United States was one of the legacies of the Pietistic Movement.  And its features can be observed directly from the pulpit.  Expository preaching was not common in the eighties.  Preachers did not give topical preaching either.  What they preached was piety.  Have faithSave the soul Love your God!  The problem is:  You can only preach piety for so long.  You can only pound the podium so many times.  Or, you can only raise and lower your tone so often before people realize that you are only preaching piety and not message.   Chinese churches in North America were even worse sometimes.  Allegorical preaching was prominent, although nobody would admit they preached allegorically.  Not only preachers did not exegete the scriptures, they did not exegete the culture or their members’ social context.  Therefore Christians were accustomed to listening to irrelevant preachings of slogans week after week.  Then came the third wave of the Charismatic Movement.

Influence of the charismatic movement

For our purpose here, I will not discuss the theology of the third wave.  I just want to talk about the worship style they brought in.  Evangelicalism totally bought it.  Charismaticism changed our worship style completely.  In fact, they changed our fundamental understanding of worship – they changed its definition!  To the young people, worship no longer means the preaching.  It is the praising, the lifting of hands, the total immersion of oneself in the music and praying and dancing that lead that person to the experience of spiritual ‘high’ in the close encounter of the “god” kind.  In the spiritual sense, I would call it musical contemplation.

We were amazed.  No, we were revived – from emotional death, or rigidity.  People saw tears, joy, and reverence during worship.  In a sense, people saw life in the worship for the first time.  They have truly worshipped.  All these were attributed to the work of the Holy Spirit.  But the very strength of charismatic worship style is also its weakness.  The influx of charismaticism has now limited the presence of the Spirit to emotion and spontaneity.  That alone should not be a problem, for everything comes with at least two sides – like a fast person would lack patience and the one who plans is not usually spontaneous.  What concerns me is that many pastors have since given up their responsibility in leading worship.  They contended that they “didn’t know” worship, so they gave the job to musicians.  The fact was some pastors felt intimidated while others were plainly impressed by what musicians could do.  Judging from the “performance” from the last generation, we could safely conclude that not too many evangelical seminaries emphasized on worship training.  My own seminary training provided me with a 2-unit class (out of the 90-unit M. Div. program) led by a professor who held a Master of Divinity.  With an honest critique, my professor was innovative.  He brought many creative ideas to the class.  With all that said, my worship training had the width but seriously lacked the depth.  I am not suggesting the class should be taught by a PhD or evening blaming my professor for lack of knowledge.  In fact, a PhD led class would likely turn it into an academic exercise which would lack the desperately needed aesthetics.  But what I am saying is that not much could be done with only 2 units!  More importantly, that class did not lead me into thinking what worship was about, therefore it did not give me the stimulus to further explore the subject on my own.  And I suspect the same was true for many pastors who hold an M. Div.  But if the pastors “don’t know” worship, the musicians know even less.

IV. Some Reflection Points

The third wave of the charismatic movement brought emotions and feelings back to the worship.  Being in touch with our emotions and feeling the presence of God are not bad things.  They are actually very good things.  But the point is this:  They are not the ultimate desired ends of worship.  The desired end is to worship God.  With that being said, what exactly does that mean?  How do we do that?  The answer to the what question involves the depth of the worship and the how the width.  I have already mentioned the charismatic worship style addresses the emotional and experiential element.  There are at least the following elements that we also need to consider:

  • Scripture
  • Theology
  • Tradition
  • Liturgy
  • Aesthetics
  • Symbolism
  • Spatial arrangement/architecture
  • Meditation/contemplation
  • Culture – ethnic and generational

With all these being said, it would be totally unfair to expect the musicians or even the music pastor to come up with a worship that addresses all the above areas in a balanced fashion.  Realistically, we find different factions or denominations of Christianity emphasize on different areas.  Some areas of worship may stand out more at a certain period because of the contextual demand.  An example would be the recent yearn for liturgy from the post-seekers generation.  They feel that the “contemporary” worship is similar to their concerts experience but liturgical services actually fulfill their spiritual expectations.

When I look at how churchgoers seriously look for spiritual experience and how pastors are unequipped in their worship training, I feel this is the time for evangelical seminaries to invest in this academic study.

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