Wineskins Archive

February 4, 2014

From Tension to Understanding: Dealing with Changes in Worship Style (Sep 1992)

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by Randall Harris
September, 1994

Since I have not yet reached my mid-thirties and have always considered byself open-minded and forward-looking, it is somewhat painful to admit I am an old fogy. But the plain fact of the matter is that I often prefer the style of my generation over contemporary expression in almost every area. This “generation gap” is more often a source of amusement rather than real friction, but when the area of conflict is style of worship, everyone suddenly gets serious. Since churches are made of people of various ages, cultures, and backgrounds, it is inevitable that there will never be a unanimous opinion about what style of service is most conducive to the experience of worship. So how should we handle this potential source of conflict in our churches?

First, we must make a distinction between the content of worship, which is not subject to change, and the style which changes constantly. Whether worship will center on the person and work of God who redeems us through Christ ought not be the subject of debate. He is always the one to whom our worship is directed and dedicated. But how that worship is offered is quite a different matter. Furthermore, I am not interested, in this article, in questions of doctrinal innovation. I am convinced of the appropriateness of the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper and a cappella music and male leadership in prayer and preaching in the assembly. While these are matters which need continuing examination in the light of Scripture, I am here concerned with other issues.

Even if we come to agreement on the content and doctrinal parameters of worship assemblies, we still must decide if the worship will be formal or informal, quiet or boisterous; whether the songs will be contemporary, classical, or depression era; whether prayers will be familiar and folksy or reverent and liturgical; whether the service will be marked by applause and enthusiasm or solemnity and the “amen.”

To restate the obvious, in all these matters, it will be difficult and often impossible to come to consensus. Are we destined then to bite and devour each other over our tastes in public worship? Surely not! I want to suggest three levels of development which will ease the strain in churches dealing with changing styles in the assemblies.

The first level of development is tolerance. No one ought to demand to have their way all the time with regard to worship style. As a member of a committee whose task is to plan assemblies, it is part of my responsibility to put together programs, some of which I like better than others. At the very least we ought to be able to tolerate those occasions when worship style is not to our taste. Congregations ought to be able to abide a variety of worship styles from week to week without one faction or another threatening to take their marbles and go home when a particular service doesn’t suit their fancy. To demand that every service must correspond in every way to my particular preferences is simply un-Christian. The great diversity in make-up which sould characterize the Lord’s church demands of us a certain level of tolerance.

The second level of development is mutual consideration. I was attending a worship assembly recently in which we were singing a children’s song that I particularly disliked. As I was mumbling through the song, I heard a little voice coming from the seat behind me. Pure and strong, the voice of this little grade-school girl rang out for the entirety of the song. I did not hear that little voice again for the remainder of the song service while we sang those great classic hymns that speak to my heart so well.

When we reach this level of development we move beyond gritting our teeth and putting up with things which are unappealing to us. We are now able to give thanks to God for what these “unappealing” items mean to a brother or sister. I long for the day when members will come to elders after a service that was not “their style” and thank them for planning a service that obviously meant so much to others. “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (1 Corinthians 10:24).

Older Christians should not just tolerate, but insist on, services geared to the youngest Christians. Baby-boomer Christians should not just tolerate, but insist on, worship assemblies especially meaningful to their elder brothers and sisters. Only where such care for one another is present is there any hope for a church which functions as God intended.

The third level of development is appreciation. I am more and more impressed with the infinite variety of ways that men and women can express their love and devotion to God. Wouldn’t we be a healthier fellowship if each of us could deepen our appreciation for each of these ways? This is not to say that we will develop an equally deep regard for every style and taste of worship but that we will set as our goal to deepen our appreciation for each one. Younger Christians should learn to appreciate the great old hymns which for so long have nurtured the Church’s faith. Older Christians should learn to appreciate new contemporary Christian music, which is the expression of a rich spiritual life. White Christians should learn to appreciate the rich heritage of the worship traditions of the black churches. Those from “high church” backgrounds must come to appreciate the warmth and passion of “low church” worship as those from “low church” traditions come to appreciate the depth and solemnity of “high church” worship.

It is remarkable how much of the tension in churches is generated over questions of style. To be obstinate and overbearing in such matters is not a sign of faithfulness, but immaturity. What is needed is tolerance, mutual consideration, and appreciation.

For those who have developed the greatest level of spiritual maturity, worship style becomes a matter of indifference. In an assembly where arm waving, clapping, and shouting for joy are the norms, they worship God. When the dominating motif is utter silence and awe before the Holy One, they worship God. And when the songs are those of contemporary artists, they worship God. When the assembly is meticulously planned and highly liturgical, they worship God. When spontaneity is the order of the day, they worship God.

All of us differ in our ability to adapt to changing style, and all seek a sense of security in the face of rampaging world transformation. But the answer to such a quest is not hanging on to some transient cultural form as if it were the very truth of God, but rather by anchoring faith beond the transitions of this age.

The key to the worship experience is not, ultimately, the outward style but the inward heart. For those who come to the assembly with full hearts, ready to offer their praise and adoration to God, worship always happens. For those not so inclined, no amount of tinkering with the forms is likely to help. Once we are thoroughly united in focusing our eyes on the cross, and once the Christ becomes the real center of assemblies, problems of style will be relatively easy to handle. As in every other matter, the real key here may be personal spiritual renewal, for it is ever true that we speak out of the abundance of the heart.

So God, give us the hearts to will one thing: to praise your holy name.Wineskins Magazine

Randall Harris

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