Nothing has more defined evangelical church divisions, at least since the 1970s, than the various wars that we have fought over worship in the church. Perhaps the only churches I personally know that have not been impacted by these wars are Orthodox Churches. If you think the Roman Catholic Church is not impacted by this struggle then think again. Anyone remember the "guitar Mass" phase of the 1970s? Or the trouble with the modern changes in the Mass after Vatican II and the significant push back that followed? The impact of these struggles is less obvious now than it is among Protestants but there has been some measure of the struggle in Catholic churches as well.
It seems obvious to me that the most basic problem here is defining worship itself. The source for worship must be the Bible. Scripture has quite a lot to say about worship. In fact, one could say the whole point of Scripture is to show us that we must worship the living and true God rightly. And all Christians agree that Jesus is the last and final Word of God. In his own words it was he who said, "God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24b).
When you think about worship what comes to your mind? Sunday morning services in a church? A form of expressing praise to God? A commitment to a specific liturgical form? Or a commitment to no form at all, which will become a form over time? Low church, high church, it matters not. What is worship? Jesus plainly said it was something that we offer to God "in spirit and in truth."
We argue about "contemporary" and "traditional" worship regularly. I have been in hundreds (maybe more than a thousand) of different churches over the past seventeen years of travel and ministry. I have worshiped where there were forms I liked and forms I disliked. I have to say that what I like or dislike has had little to do with whether or not I, or the people there, worshiped God or not.
Have you ever considered that the words "contemporary" and "traditional" are not only never used in the Bible but they have virtually nothing to do with real worship at all? I would suggest that "worship in spirit and in truth" is necessarily "contemporary" precisely because worship must be of this moment to be real. But real worship is also "traditional" since it is established and comes from somewhere, not simply out of thin air or human imagination. Frankly I despise these two words and would never use them to describe a Sunday service in a church.
The idea of "contemporary" worship suggests that something else is bad, or has passed its "sell by date" as one author recently expressed it. What makes worship "contemporary" is not a musical style or sound? "Contemporary" worship is also not connected to dress codes, high or low. What makes a worship gathering "contemporary" is the presence of the Lord among the people in the present moment. And what makes it "traditional" is that it follows a timeless form revealed in Holy Scripture. Much of what evangelicals call "traditional" worship is really the "contemporary" worship of another era, that of revivalism and gospel music.
So, as you can see, I care very little for these two words, at least as we currently use them in evangelical churches. I much prefer that we ask questions such as these:
1. How do we know if God is actually present in our worship?
2. What is appropriate to our own context in terms of bringing glory to God, not putting on a performance for a crowd?
3. What is the biblical pattern for corporate worship? Asked a different way, "What is our theology of worship?"
I once asked a friend, who pastors a mega-church, "What is your theology of worship?" He looked at me with a blank look and seem quite puzzled. Finally, after a pregnant pause, he said, "I guess I never thought about that question at all." When I visited his church, to preach for him sometime later, I could see the effect of this lack of a theology of worship in the services I preached at.
This very fine man went to schools where he was never taught to think about the theology of worship. More importantly he had already bought into the idea that what the people wanted should determine what the church offered. The answer to this question has far more to do with consumers and marketing than it does with real worship.
Am I saying that all contemporary forms of worship expression are bad? Not if you have read my words carefully. Am I saying that a precise and historical liturgy is right for every church? No, again I am not if you follow my argument at all. I am saying that worship requires that every leader and worshiper should ask this question: "How do we draw near to God?" Worship is not for spectators or even for seekers. It is for followers of the Lamb. It is for the church. You cannot measure the success of worship by the crowd or by the band. You cannot measure it by the organist or by the choir. Worship is for the One who alone is worthy of our worship.
True worship must begin with John 4:24 and from there it can at least ask the right questions and pursue answers that are theologically sound and sensitive for the particular context of a local congregation and its mission. Isn't this much fairly obvious?
I challenge you. If you are a leader in a church ask yourself and your fellow leaders this year: "What do we do in our worship and why do we do it?" Get serious about the theology of worship in 2009. If you are not a leader then try to encourage your leaders to do this in every proper and godly way that is possible. A good place to take the discussion would be the Psalms and then to the Revelation. These two parts of the Canon will give you the basic elements of a growing worship theology that will most likely lead you to solid and Christ-centered worship.