***I recently asked a loyal reader who has done many years of “leading evangelical worship” to give me a few thoughts on where she is these days with this gloriously complex topic. So here are some scattered thoughts from our guest contributer Summer Lee Carlson!***
If the general bulk of today’s evangelical worship services were summarized in letter form they might read something like this, “Dear Lord, You are great. I’m really tired and worn down and need your touch. I know I’m terrible, please forgive me. Have I mentioned that you’re great? Please help me reach the nations! You are so great. I am waiting for you! P.S. You are really great!”
While I realize this is a silly representation of the “worship” attempts we make, perhaps it is even sillier to try and call it corporate worship. It is not that those thoughts or ideas are wrong, or even that it is wrong to place them in that order. But the above string of “themes” are a personal prayer to God, not a corporate attempt at worship.
I’d like to make the careful distinction that I believe the lack of actual “corporate” worship in an evangelical setting has little to do with placing blame on a single person, worship writer/leader or group. I simply think worship has fallen into the same dangerous “my faith is my own,” “the bible was written specifically for me,” element that seems to have pervaded the evangelical church service setting as a whole.
In the last two decades I’ve attended more than my fair share of worship seminars, retreats and conferences and “worship is more than music, it’s your life!” was the perpetual slogan. And I’ve recently come to realize that “worship” in the environment I grew up in, though commonly associated with group settings, was actually one of the most self-focused and individual practices we engaged in.
Which is odd, because while I realize worship can pertain to many things and varies dramatically in denomination, religious background and liturgical practice, I believe there is at least supposed to be one common strain within the “worship” attempted in a congregational setting. And that is simply the intent of “coming together” to express love, gratitude and awe to the Creator. I’d also like to state, purely from opinion, that there is an inexplicable bond created in the fellowship of a group of believers, when actual “corporate” worship takes place. With corporate worship comes the incredible knowledge that we are not practicing this faith alone but are connected to an entire body, whether extremely diverse or similar. In that respect I’d like to step away from figuring out which form of worship or liturgical practice is the best or most legitimate (especially as I’ve far too little knowledge of all the existing practices) and instead focus on what I’ve personally seen come out of the worship settings I’ve experienced.
I grew up attending an Assemblies of God church (which I happened to love) whose “worship” time consisted of at least 20-30 minutes of music before the preaching took place. The elements of supplication, repentance, praise and thanksgiving were very jumbled together. You might sing 5 songs that would deal with any of these themes in any particular order. Having been a part of numerous “worship” teams, the order of songs usually depended on how smoothly you could pull off a key change transition, rather than the actual theme of the song itself.
I’d often hear the following sentiments regarding the “worship/musical” portion of those mornings. “My favorite part of worship is that I’m supposed to be doing this for God and yet I seem to get more out of it than he does!” And when I started attending North Central University I’d hear the same thing, during chapel and especially during Praise Gatherings (weekly two hour nights devoted to worship). The emphasis on worship, despite being conducted in the setting of a crowd, was often very personal. While general practice was to close one’s eyes and raise one’s hands, the atmosphere, songs, leadership and general themes led to the idea that one was actually closing themselves off into their own little world with God.
This lack of structure combined with greater attention to details which make for a “personal” worship setting, tends to place less emphasis on a coming together (i.e. not with ourselves in mind, but with the intent of worshipping with “one heart” through one mind and focus) to acknowledge God, and takes one down a road of feeling based thoughts and ideas. While I do not always think feelings or personal “revelations” are wrong, I do think placing an emphasis on making these the foundational experience in worship can be dangerous. Too much emphasis on this, in general, can lead to a shallow, individualistic and unstable faith. And in these worship settings, where the next focus of the service often depends solely on our interpretation of what God or the Holy Spirit seem to be doing, the main goal of “attesting worth” to God (or even repenting or praying as a body, with one focus) can become lost in the attempt to find better ways to engage the audience.
And I find it interesting that in all of the celebrations or acknowledgements I’ve seen planned for anyone other than God, I have never seen those in attendance expect the person being celebrated to entertain them and make them feel good. It’s always the other way around. Which is why it’s strange that worship, at least in many of the evangelical environments I’ve experienced, is sometimes viewed as a form of “entertainment” or a time to “receive” and walk away carrying a new pocketful of warm, personal, spiritual revelations.
While this was probably not the original intent, it seems that sometimes our attempts to avoid all “structure” come out of the selfish desire to meet with God on our terms, in a way that makes us feel good about the service, rather than the desire to make Him the focus. Discipline, obedience and sacrifice are all important elements in faith, which support the constant call to “die” rather than live for ourselves. Taking these elements entirely out of the structure of a worship service may allow many personal “experiences” to take place, but is that what a corporate body should come together for?
At the same time, I don’t know if the answer to changing corporate worship from an “experience” to a practice lies in the structure of how we engage in worship. This may sound terribly fundamental, but I still do not think how one does something is as important as why one does something. I am not stating that we should ignorantly go along and stop questioning or learning, or that we shouldn’t wonder about the way we do things and study the various practices of it. I definitely believe certain liturgies and traditional forms of worship have greater appeal in the richness of their heritage and symbolism.
And I would personally like to see the western evangelical church adopt a more liturgical form of worship, as I do think this setting helps to keep the focus on corporately worshipping, or repenting or praying as one, rather than having an individual “experience” with God. Individual experiences with God are also necessary but, in my experience, we are sorely lacking the ability to worship God corporately, as one body. Which adds to the larger problem of egocentric faith. But in order for a liturgy or structure to actually help, the motive for coming together with a group of believers would have to change first. Structure itself does not change a motive or a heart, but adopting the discipline of structure does help combat the self-centered and fickle mindset that I, at least, tend to have.
Finally, pardon my tangent within a tangent, but all opinions aside, I wonder if God is more gracious about our attempts to worship him (the genuine attempts) than we are. Because if anyone had the right to be disgruntled about the way we do things, it would be Him.
Sometimes I think our fights and condescending attitudes about the right “way” to worship are reminiscent of little kids vying for their parents attention by trying to bring a better wilted flower than their siblings, hastily picked out of the garden, in hopes the parents will love them the most as a result. Yes, you may have a deeper theological foundation and yes your song or liturgical practice may carry deeper theological truths. That is wonderful. But until you love the less theologically correct person or denomination you are looking down your nose at, perhaps your “worship” or “liturgy” just might not be as sweet in the eyes of God as you think. But I could be wrong about that.