This Sunday is Pentecost. We hear the fascinating story from Acts 2 where, “each one was bewildered to hear these men speaking his own language.” It is generally accepted that most inhabitants of Jerusalem at the time would be able to speak and understand Greek. Even a diverse group of pilgrims would have knowledge of the Greek language and be able to understand it. So why did the Holy Spirit cause this translation to occur? I would suggest two reasons. One, Pentecost is a reversal/redemption of the curse of Babel. Two, God wants us to worship in our heart language. The pilgrims could have understood the disciples if they had proclaimed the marvels of God in Greek. But God wants to be intimately near us, as someone who speaks in the tongue of our homeland, our mother’s language.
- Worship is transcultural.Certain elements of Christian worship transcend all cultures, binding us together across time and place. By lifting up the transcultural elements of our worship, we can keep the holy things central in our assemblies. Here are some examples of things that transcend all cultures in worship:
- Scripture is read.
- The waters of Holy Baptism wash us.
- The meal of Holy Communion is shared.
- Worship is contextual.Certain elements of Christian worship adapt to the context they are in. The basic idea behind being contextual in worship is using what you’ve got where you are. In other words, the worship of a big cathedral church in a metropolitan area need not look the same as the worship of a small church in rural Montana. It is OK that they do not look, sound, or feel the same. Here are some examples of how worship can adapt to different contexts:
- There is no single or preferred sacred language. The language of the local people is always appropriate in worship.
- Music is reflective of the surrounding culture.
- Local customs can be adapted for use in worship (think “Go Texan” Sunday).
- Worship is countercultural.Praising God may be at odds with what the surrounding culture deems worthy of praise. Some parts of our worship will stand in defiance to the world. Here are some examples of how worship can meet opposition in the surrounding culture:
- Jesus welcomes all with open arms, where the surrounding culture may seek to reject those who don’t fit.
- God speaks in silence, where the surrounding culture prefers noise and hurry.
- Liturgical action teaches us self-denial and humility, where the surrounding culture may teach us to get ahead and have it our way.
- Worship is cross-cultural. The church is gathered into one from many times and places. Throughout scripture God is encountered in the “other.” Our worship should give us chances to experience the strange/stranger and find God’s presence in everyone. Here are some examples of how worship can cross over cultures:
- We can imagine more of God through the artistic offerings of cultures besides our own.
- We can hear the gospel in cultural stories besides our own.
- We can exercise humility and sacrifice by singing the songs of cultures besides our own.
Stay tuned for more as I continue to think about this…
It seems like such a simple, harmless question. But what does it mean? What are we really trying to get at by asking such a question? How do we judge whether worship is “good” or not? Are we even entitled to make such a judgment? If our worship is truly for God, then shouldn’t God alone be the one who passes judgment on whether worship is “good” or not? God sees our hearts and knows the motives behind our offerings of worship.
At the heart of this question, “How was worship today?” is the idea of evaluation. Worship is always being evaluated. Although it may be informal, everyone that leaves church on Sunday has evaluated that service in one way or another. The real question becomes what is driving our evaluations? Evaluations might be based on any number of things: the number of people in attendance, the length of the sermon, the pronunciation of the lector, or the number of flubbed notes by the musician.
Is it possible to move beyond these surface-level evaluations into the deeper substance of worship? The next time you’re leaving worship and you catch yourself evaluating how it went, try using these questions to consider the things that are essential to worship:
- Was our worship Trinitarian? Did we name the Trinity and include Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in our worship?
- Was God’s epic narrative of salvation, from beginning to end, the centerpiece of our worship?
- Were the primary symbols of baptismal font, communion table, and pulpit central to our space for worship?
- Was there enough scripture reading in our worship for a full, rich telling of God’s story?
- Was there time for prayer and reflection in our worship?
- Did our worship engage all people assembled and invite them to participate with all their senses?
- Were we connected to the death and resurrection of Jesus and pulled deeper into our baptismal journey through our worship?
- Did our worship send us out following Jesus in joyful, loving service of the world?
So, how was worship today? Perhaps a better question is, “Who was worshiped today?”
I was reminded of the story of Cain and Abel today.
3In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, 5but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. (Genesis 4:3-5)
The text suggests that Abel’s offering was accepted because of the sacrifice that accompanied it. The firstlings were the oldest, most developed, most favored of the flock. They were most costly. Cain’s offering appears to have been nothing special, just a portion of the crops he cultivated.
The text doesn’t suggest that the style of offering was what God found offense with. This story is a precursor to the sacrificial practices of Israel’s worship (perhaps a model for both grain and animal offerings). God was not pleased with the heart behind the offering that Cain brought. Abel offered his offering out of a place of grateful thanksgiving for what God had done. Cain offered his offering out of a place of manipulation of power.
Cain believed in power and wanted to manipulate God to be on his side and offer him favor. Cain’s true motives come to the surface after he murders his brother. We see the kind of power Cain is driven by.
The warning is to not offer careless worship (careless=not giving sufficient attention or thought to avoiding harm). How does this story relate to modern worship in the church today? What reason do you come to worship? What is the motive behind your offering? Cain wanted something out of his worship. The error of his offering was that he wanted God to do something for him. How does our worship seek to get something out of God? How does our worship manipulate God? How does our worship fail to give something (everything?) back?
How does our worship become the pure offering that Abel offered? By being full of care in what we offer to God. The church should take care, too, in setting the table for worship that unleashes the good and humble offering of all gathered. Perhaps asking what I want out of worship is more akin to Cain than Abel.
(artwork is Jan van Eyck, The Offering of Cain and Abel, 1429)
Recently we had a discussion in our “Worship Matters” Learning Group about what our bodies do in worship. It might seem that, compared to some churches, not much is physically happening in the context of our Lutheran assemblies. But look again:
- We stand to sing praise and hear the words of the gospel.
- We sit to receive God’s message during the sermon.
- We are free to kneel at the altar rail for prayer after communion. The entire assembly kneels to receive communion on Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday.
- We make the sign of the cross on our bodies by touching our forehead to chest, then shoulder to shoulder. We make the sign of the cross on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday during the imposition of ashes. We can dip our fingers in the baptismal font and make the sign of the cross on our foreheads every Sunday as a reminder of our baptismal identity as children of God.
- If we loosely define the term dancing, (as a toe tap or slight sway) I can see dancing every Sunday at Faith! Especially from our children during particularly energetic songs.
- We clap our hands to express praise and joy.
- We lift our hands in adoration and surrender. An outstretched arm with open palm is a sign of openness and receptivity to God in our lives.
- You will also observe the assisting and presiding ministers use the orans posture during prayer. Orans is the Latin word for prayer and has been depicted by ancient art of the church. Usually those leading prayer on behalf of the assembly use this posture, especially during the prayer of the day, the prayers of intercession, and the thanksgiving at the table during communion.
One thing I often say is that any posture during worship is an outward symbol of an inward reality. In other words, if I physically kneel in worship, it is because my heart and will are utterly bowed in humility and surrender to God. If I dance in worship, it is because my heart and soul are filled with joy and praise to God. The physical posture is a reflection of my heart’s posture.
“Human response comes through the use of the body in worship. A principle at work in body language is that external order organizes internal experience. We can do nothing without our bodies. We greet people in our bodies, we go to work in our bodies, we express leisure in our bodies. The spirit within always tells the body what to do. In similar manner, we come to worship in our bodies, and the spirit within tells the body to be at worship. Consequently, when we stand, sit, kneel, raise our hands, or bow down, the body is at worship. Posture and movement in worship allows the whole person to be engaged in worship.” (Robert Webber, Planning Blended Worship, 1998, p. 46)
(Download: EVALUATING WORSHIP Questionnaire)
Worship is always being evaluated. Although it may be informal, everyone that is sent forth from an assembled worshiping body has evaluated that service in one way or another. Evaluations might be based on any number of things: the number of people in attendance, the length of the sermon, the pronunciation of the lector, or the number of flubbed notes by the musician.
These questions are designed to move beyond surface-level evaluations into the deeper substance of worship. These questions help us consider things that are essential for all Christian worship, things that are faithful to a Lutheran heritage, and things that are biblically rooted. As a means of evaluation these questions can be applied to all types of worship regardless of time, contextual location, leadership, demographics, or style.
After each statement, select the response that best applies to your church/service.
1 – Strongest agreement
2 – More agreement than disagreement
3 – Neutral, no response, don’t know
4 – More disagreement than agreement
5 – Strongest disagreement
- Our worship is richly Trinitarian (names the Trinity and all three Persons). 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
- God’s story of salvation is central to our worship. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
- The ministry of word and sacrament is at the core of our worship. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
- The primary symbols of communion table, baptismal font, and ambo/pulpit are present in our environment for worship. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
- There is enough Scripture and scriptural content in our worship to tell a full, broad, deep, rich story of God’s salvation. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
- Our worship is reflective of the ongoing ministry of Jesus Christ, risen and active today. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
- The content of our prayers is true to Christ’s character and the breadth of his Lordship. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
- Our worship seeks the full, conscious, and active participation of all people assembled. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
- Our people are filled with the Holy Spirit in worship (they talk about what the Spirit tends to talk about and are filled with love). 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
- Our worship is sensitive to the needs of visitors and guests and takes their participation in worship seriously. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
- The leaders of our assembly are reflective of the Body of Christ that transcends class, age, ethnicity, and gender. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
- The language of our worship includes a balance of addressing God and addressing people. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
- Our worship helps the congregation experience its relationship with God. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
- Our worship is contextually relevant to the culture and setting of our people and community. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
- Our worship is a feast for the senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell). 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
- Our worship is filled with life, vitality, and joy. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
- Our worship offers opportunities for reflection, confession, and lament. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
- Our worship welcomes and calls people into the baptismal life (united with the death and resurrection of Jesus). 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
- The word of God, read, preached, and sung by the assembly, is essential to our order of service. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
- Our worship regularly experiences Christ’s presence at the table with bread and wine. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
- Our worship sends us out as disciples of Jesus, following his mission of serving, blessing, and loving the world. 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5
There are as many styles of worship as there are tastes of music. Since we are the church [in a catholic sense – the universal church] we should use as many styles of music/art that we can. Of course this is all relative to the demographic of each congregation. If a congregation is contextually made up of X people [X = African, Korean, Native American, gangstas, cowboys, etc.] and serves a community that is primarily made up of X people, then X style of music/art should be used. Context is key.
But we are still a universal body of Believers. And something/sometime in worship should speak to and prepare the worshiper for that day when all tongues will be united in one song. What will the style of the song be? What language will it be in? We don’t really know [and perhaps it doesn’t matter], but we should be preparing ourselves for just about anything as we approach that day.
The church is not only made up of our brothers and sisters across the globe, but also across time. We need to be historically connected with our brothers and sisters who served God to insure that the message of Christ made it to us. We can do this by singing the songs they wrote and preserving the art they produced in service to God.
In my opinion this is one of the reasons why the church is in such sad shape today [from a modern/American perspective]. Good chunks of the church have failed to recognize and celebrate their past. Sacred liturgies, prayers, songs, rituals, calendars/seasons, creeds, etc. have been abandoned. We have dissected ourselves from the root from which we grew. We can learn something from those who walked before us. They worshiped the same God we do, they confessed the same faith, and they struggled the same struggles we do. And their songs/art are expressions of what they felt walking on the same path we find ourselves walking on.
God is diverse in taste. God loves spicy Latin worship. God loves chicken fried Southern worship. God loves fancy-shmancy upper class worship. And the diversity represented in the world also represents the diversity of worship styles and forms. Biblical case for God’s love of a diversity of styles of worship:
The majority of participants in the Pentecost experience could have communicated in and understood Greek. But, God wanted them to hear the words in their own language. God wants to speak and communicate with us in our most native and heart-felt tongues. God wants us not only to hear and understand, but to feel and know. And I think just as God spoke through them in a variety of languages, God desires to be spoken to and worshiped through a variety of languages both verbally and musically/stylisticly.
Don’t forget though that worship is not dependent on style. We should be able to reach a place of authentic worship despite the style of music/form being used. If you say that you can’t worship without a certain style/form, then you’re really confessing to the weakest type of spirituality…one that is completely limited to our own desires.
A diversity of styles should be encouraged in worship in order to teach people to adapt in worship. What if we were all forced to worship in a culture other than our own? Would you be lost spiritually, not able to find a way to connect with God? Or would you be able to adapt?
Worship that glorifies us sounds like this:
- The worship was ok today, but I wasn’t really into that one song.
- What was up with that guitar today, it was way too much.
- The message was good, but the pastor’s shirt wasn’t really workin for him.
- The style of the music just wasn’t what I like, I wish they did more _______ [your prefered style].
Worship that seeks to glorify God gets past all the trappings of our human nature. Instead of centering on what the worship does for us, we think about what we offer to God. When the main concern of services/gatherings of worship is “what did I get out of it?” or “what did I like about it?” we become the focus of our worship. The point of the service is to please ME.
Worship that seeks to glorify God, seeks to please God. God’s pleasure is the primary focus of the worshiper. God’s story is the primary place of attention. The point of the worship experience isn’t for me to get fed/hyped/filled/pleased. The point of the worship experience is for God to receive a sacrifice that is pleasing. What pleases God?
- humility – see Psalm 51:17
- love – see Luke 10:27
- justice – see Amos 5:21-24
- caring for the least of these – see Matthew 25:44-46
Some practical steps toward seeking to glorify God in your worship:
- spend time in prayer before entering any worship experience…pray for the eyes of your heart only to be set upon God
- don’t sing the words to every song in corporate worship…read/reflect/pray through what you’re actually saying to/about God
- frequently worship God in styles of music/liturgy that you’re not familiar with…the less one-dimensional we are, the better