Worshipping God, or Ourselves?; or, Why Tradition Keeps Us Faithful (Brannon Hancock)

For 7 years prior to joining the faculty of Wesley Seminary, I gave oversight to music and technology in a church whose worship “style” is decisively “contemporary.” Congregational singing is accompanied by a guitar-driven “praise band” (drums, bass, guitars, piano/keyboard) and augmented by a choir and praise team (3-4 vocalists on individual mics; 25-30 in the choir). At the front of the sanctuary hang two large screens onto which are projected lyrics, scripture readings, videos (for announcements and illustrations), images and graphics intended to reinforce the sermon theme or other elements of the service. The majority of the congregational songs have been published within the past decade, and we add new songs regularly (about one per month).

Although many in the congregation may not realize it, our services also incorporated many aspects of traditional or historic Christian worship. As a staff, we identified some “essential elements” of worship that we felt were important enough that they should be included in every service: call to worship, welcome (including a few key announcements) and invocation, passing the peace (“take a minute to greet one another”), congregational singing (the so-called “worship set”), the sermon (including scripture reading) leading into a time of response that includes prayer a communion (every week), the benediction and dismissal. We would “mix up” the order from time to time, purportedly to keep things from feeling “stale” or becoming too rote and “ritualistic” (a big “no-no” in contemporary churches, of course), but the basic elements outlined in Acts 2 were always present: the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer.

I love this church. As their worship pastor, I felt very fulfilled nearly all of the time in the ministry to which God had called me for that time and place. It was a joy to lead my congregation and work with the musicians, technicians and other creative folks that were entrusted to my leadership. And yet if I’m honest, I would confess that I was often left with a nagging feeling that something was not quite right.

It’s not that the service wasn’t good enough – we usually hit pretty close to the mark we set for ourselves. To the contrary, it’s almost like, by putting on such a great show, by “performing” so well, perhaps we implied that maybe, when we were really “on,” we did get it right. Like we may well have worshiped our great God with every bit of the quality and passion and fervor He deserves (why thank you very much). Like…you know…God’s pretty awesome, and, well, frankly, we’re pretty awesome at worshiping Him. Like maybe the focus was more on ourselves – our skill, ingenuity, creativity – than on our Creator…

The responsibility to plan worship every week can be overwhelming – to choose every word that a congregation will corporately say or sing in the service. Of course many churches don’t create or write their service each week – they have a fairly scripted service or “liturgy.” While there are variations in hymns and readings and prayers, these churches are not required to create their worship from scratch every week. Their worship has been handed down through generations; it is a gift, not something they are entirely in charge of but something of which they are “stewards.”

Perhaps by the very use of liturgical texts in worship, the Church acknowledges her inability or even incompetence to worship God rightly if left to her own devices. In his monumental book Symbol and Sacrament, Catholic theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet writes:

The fact that there is a [liturgical] text signifies that at the outset we are not competent to carry out such an action. In sum, it is not natural for us to render thanks to God in a Christian manner. To carry out the Eucharist requires that the Church first gain this competence. It is precisely the text that allows the ecclesial subject to gain this competence. This text thus makes the assembly follow an itinerary which, by means of certain “transformations,” has for its goal the assembly’s conversion: it is not God but we ourselves who are changed by the Eucharistic prayer. (Symbol and Sacrament, p. 269)

It might take reading that quote a few times before its truth begins to detonate. It leaves me wondering: is it possible that we think we don’t need a liturgy because we have so much confidence in ourselves? Do we fall into the trap of thinking we are capable of worshiping God rightly on our own?

Now, before you write me off for pronouncing that all evangelicals need a prescribed liturgy, let me clarify. I am well aware that scripted liturgies seem foreign to many Protestant evangelical traditions today (my own Church of the Nazarene included). But worship “by the book” is certainly a part of the Protestant heritage of Luther, Calvin and Wesley. Perhaps this is part of our birthright that could be reclaimed and repurposed for the renewal of worship today. In fact, take a look at most old hymnals (before we started singing “off the wall” with projectors and screens) and often you will find creeds, prayers and responsive readings in addition to hymns. With the shift in technologies, from book to screen, perhaps something that was once considered valuable has been lost.

Perhaps, without thwarting our freedom of expression in worship, we could glimpse, not a “better” “style” of worship, but the witness of a people who looked beyond themselves for a test of what it means to worship God faithfully. A people who believed that forms and rituals they didn’t come up with on their own, and words that had stood the test of time, had a value worth preserving. I’m suggesting that looking beyond ourselves and the fleeting winds and whims of our culture may be one way to ensure that our worship is worthy of the awesome, timeless God we worship. Perhaps a little “tradition” may keep us not only faithful, but humble as well.