Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Struggling with Our Theology of Worship

...from the InterLink, the newsletter of the Western PA Conference, 4/27/07:

"'Worship is about inspiration – finding and discerning the inspiration that God is sending,' said the Rev. Steve Morse, who chairs the Conference Sessions Worship Team."

Let me say first that I have met and conversed with Steve Morse, and find him to be an extremely gifted musician and a theologically sound pastor. It is not my intention to discern his complete theology of worship based on a single off-hand quote in a Conference propaganda mailing.

But the quote does point to a serious problem in the Church - we suffer from an inadequate (and unbiblical) theology of worship.

The English word "worship" means "paying reverence to a divine being". The OT Hebrew word we translate as "worship" means "to prostrate oneself before God"; the NT Greek word we translate as "worship" also means "to prostrate oneself", also having the meaning of kissing the ring of a superior in subservience.

At no point does the context of "finding inspiration" enter the Biblical meaning. As a matter of fact, the Christian moment of inspiration par excellence, found in Acts 2, doesn't happen during a worship time, nor does St. Paul's great inspirational moment on the Damascus road in Acts 9.

Worship, in the Biblical sense, is to be focused upon the greatness and goodness of God, not our own search for inspiration. The Eucharist is referred to, in part, as "The Great Thanksgiving", not "The Great Inspiration". While our experience of God is certainly important, elevating "experience" to the top of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral has always resulted in a sub-Christian understanding of the faith.

I do not want to discount inspiration. Worship should be both inspired and inspiring, but orchestrating worship to be inspirational first essentially means that it ceases to be actual, Biblical worship, instead becoming something else, which may be very nice, but isn't necessarily Christian worship.

It also isn't about traditional vs. Baby Boomer vs. Emergent, or hymns vs. choruses, or organs and pianos vs. guitars and drums. That's all important but peripheral.

If worship is primarily designed to please people or to fill the pews, it isn't worship; it's an evangelistic inspirational time. Far too many congregations "go contemporary", adopting a Baby Boomer "praise band" style, in the hopes of attracting a crowd. As a result, they may end up with all kinds of evangelism (which is a good thing) but very little worship. My question would be, at that point, is the congregation still a "church", or is it some sort of para-church ministry?

We need to structure our worship so as to maximize not the crowd, but our sense of thankfulness to, reverence for and awe of God. This can be done in any number of styles, with many different kinds of liturgies. I believe the Basic Order found in The United Methodist Book of Worship is an extremely Biblical and effective Order, faithful to our heritage and looking to the future, but it is not the only Order which can be effective. Faithful worship done well can utilize any number of styles; the trick is to not be so distracted by the prospect of pleasing people and drawing crowds that one doesn't forget what Biblical worship is all about. The Steelers draw 60,000 people each Sunday, but that doesn't make it "Church".

Something I'd written previously still holds true...

Does our worship reflect...reverence? Are we awed by the presence of God?

Are we overcome with unworthiness and inadequacy as we enter into the presence of the Holy One of Israel?

Do we remember that the God who is with us and is immanent is also far beyond and above us and is completely transcendent, entirely different from us, "wholly Other"?

Are we too comfortable with Almighty God?

Is he too much "our buddy" and not enough "the LORD God of hosts", whose very name is too holy to speak?

Too often, we enter worship as a routine...traditional worship gone stale.

Many enter worship gleefully, as if the Super Bowl party is about to begin...contemporary worship gone mad.

While joy and celebration are certainly proper Christian practices, we should never allow our worship to be so "Happy, happy, happy" that we forget "Holy, holy, holy".


Randy Roda said...

You better watch it Keith...I hear Steve Morse is looking to kick your butt.

But really...your comments are well taken. At Wesley UMC, music time is praise time, and the songs chosen reflect that.

What I'm most concerned about is how preaching is reflected in worship. Has being relevant replaced being faithful? Having stopped at a lot of churches before settling on Wesley, I've heard alot of questionable preaching. All the energy has gone into the manner in which things are communicated (storytelling, power point & popular culture)rather than what is actually being communicated. I heard too little exegesis and too much psychology.

My fear is that preaching is being reduced to a sort of life application moment for Christians to figure out how to fit faith into their already crowded lives. Thus, much of the modern preaching is about people rather than God.

As Andrew Purvis has always said, "The object of our faith is God, not us." We need to spend more time talking about God and less time being culturally and psychologically relevant.

Randy Roda said...

It also occurs to me that the same is true of our pastoral care. The object of pastoral care should be God. It is God's love, healing and grace that we are trying to share, not our own.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

I couldn't agree more. I've been to too many churches in which the pastor is preaching part three of a six-part series on "How to Cope with Divorce" or something...good stuff, usually nice advice. It's just not Christian worship in any Biblical sense. Why is it so prevalent?

Eric Park said...

Thanks for your good theology of worship, Keith.

Are you familiar with the Nichole Nordeman song "Tremble?"

Some of the lyrics are these:

Have I come too casually?
Because it seems to me
There's something I've neglected
How does one approach a Deity
with imformality
And still protect the Sacred?

You came and chose to wear the skin of all of us
And it's easy to forget You left a throne

And the line gets blurry all the time
Between daily and Divine
And it's hard to know the difference

Oh, let me not forget to tremble
Oh, let me not forget to tremble
Face down on the ground do I dare
To take the liberty to stare at you
Oh, let me not,
Oh, let me not forget to tremble

What a shame to think that I'd appear
Even slightly cavalier
In the matter of salvation

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Sounds solid. Wes King has a similar song called "Do You Tremble"...

Have you counted the stars in the heavens
Have you walked the circumference of the earth
Have you measured the boundaries of the universe
Do you tremble at the Word of God

Have you uncovered the source of the thunder
Have you tamed the crashing mighty sea
Have you defied the force of gravity
Do you tremble at the Wod of God

The wise will hear Him and obey His word
Long and blessed will be their days upon the earth
The fool will perish in the folly of his ways
Do you tremble at the Word of God

Have you considered the scope of eternity
In the light of unwavering truth
Have you regarded the works of a strong and mighty hand
Do you tremble at the Word of God

Oh, the LORD loves those who fear Him
Oh, the LORD loves those who fear Him

Brett Probert said...

I can't believe I am saying this publically, but Keith, I agree with you.

And Steve Morse just called me wondering if I were in a situation to sue someone for slander if I would use Edgar Snyder or Dallas Hartman...

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Hey, Steve Morse is a solid guy. But one quote can be taken way out of context, which is basically what I did.

Chris Whitehead said...


I do agree with much of what you wrote. But I think you make too broad of an assumption as to why churches move away from "traditional" worship. Not every church that makes this change is doing it for the purpose of getting more people.

I do believe intent is very important, especially in this regard. Why can't a church make the move away from "traditional" worship because it is a more authentic expression of their worship of God?

Don't confuse large crowds with a lack of commitment to biblical worship. Don't believe that a six part series on how to recover from divorce can't be very Christ-centered and biblically based.

I, for one, do believe that we are "too comfortable with Almighty God." I prefer a style of worship that challenges me to "play to an audience of One" and style of worship has absolutely no bearing on that, it's about God, not style. One week it may be in following Word and Table IV. Another week it may be no music, not liturgy, only God at the center and me on my knees.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

I think we agree on much, Chris.

Again, it isn't about style. If a church does "contemporary worship" (a bad, imprecise term) because they have those musicians and those gifts, and that's their most faithful expression, then I'm all for that. But far too many churches make the transition for the purpose of EVANGELISM rather than WORSHIP. That may be good evangelism (though I could argue), but it shows a bad worship theology.

There are many churches with large crowds who still do faithful, Biblical worship, whether traditional, Baby Boomer, Emergent, or whatever. That's wonderful! But to do a style primarily to draw the crowd rather than worship is inadequate theology, and many churches do that.

Also, a series on divorce (or whatever) can make for a wonderful study...but is it still preaching and worship? Is the focus on the glory of God or therapy, helping people to cope with stress and materialism? Both things are useful and can be quite Christian, but both aren't equally faithful in terms of Biblical worship, which is concerned with God more than us. There's a theological difference.

I agree with your last paragraph completely. I'm not opposed to any one worship style. I cut my teeth on charismatic, Baby Boomer-style, "praise band" worship...it's a part of my heritage and my journey. I'm more comfortable now with high church "smells and bells". I'm very attracted now to more "emergent" styles, a la Hot Metal Bridge (and soon, I hope, other faith communities as well). Each can be effective in praising God, done well and done properly.

Unknown said...

Hi Keith, I appreciate the tone and content of your blog.

Jeff Vanderhoff said...

"You better watch it Keith...I hear Steve Morse is looking to kick your butt." He'll need to take a number! On a serious note (which is WAY out of the norm, for me:) I see your point, but I think we need to strive for a balance. I've been wrestling lately with my image of God, which is of a very loving, but authoritative God whom we should approach with much fear and reverence. On the other side of that, however, I recall verses like Hebrews 4:16
"Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need."
and Hebrews 10:22ff
Hebrews 10:22-25
"...let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. [23] Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. [24] And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. [25] Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching."
This speaks of approaching God confidently through Christ, and in vs. 25, mentions 'meeting together.' This may or may not refer to meeting together to worship, but I see approaching God in worship and spurring one another on/encouraging one another (perhaps with a 6 part series on some relevant life issue) as an important part of our Christian life, and as a part of what church is supposed to be and do. Balance is key for me, and I strive for the concept of 'both/and' rather than 'either/or.' As in, "Keith McIlwain is BOTH a great pastor AND a future bishop," NOT "Keith McIlwain is EITHER a raving lunatic OR a prophetic voice."

Randy Roda said...

Hey Keith...Steve Morse called..he wants to know where you live! You better get buff and fast. Maybe Robyn will protect you.