Christian Worship

The worship of God in the Christian Church has been formed and reformed, constructed and reconstructed by time and culture. Believers have shared foundational understandings of faith and practice. What is shared in belief, however, is expressed and articulated in a variety of manners. The result is a myriad of styles, customs and understandings surrounding the ideas and functions of worship in the life of members of the Church. Often, for many people, differences in these areas do not represent a diverse realm of worship experiences, but rather clear cut distinctions between us and them.

Two unfortunate repercussions occur when diversity in worship is not recognized, explored or cherished. First, the social context of a particular social group (African American, Hispanic, Anglo, etc) can be lost. The celebrations, struggles and faith forming events of a people are often expressed in worship. A single minded focus of worship neglects these aspects of the spiritual journey others have shared. Secondly, when diversity is not routine, those within the various worship traditions can lose sight of the many ways their practices are related.

To better appreciate the many expressions of faith within the Christian Church it is most appropriate to consider the image Michael Hawn describes in his book One Bread, One Body. There can never be a uniform expression of faith; that would sever specific cultural practices. Instead Hawn describes an experience of worship that considers varying traditions as part of the mosaic that is Christian worship (Hawn: p4). Each part contributes its own beauty to the overall masterpiece; no one piece can be seen alone.

Throughout the varied traditions there are common elements of worship weaved within the structures of congregational gathering, though outward demonstrations may seem different. This idea ties into Hawn’s considerations and is demonstrated in James White’s Introduction to Christian Worship. In reviewing the history of Christian worship it becomes apparent that all traditions have shared elements: public prayer, reading and preaching of scripture, community boundaries, observance of the Lord’s Supper and common “pastoral rites” (White: p24). These are core practices, though not an exhaustive listing, associated with worship that exist throughout Christianity despite what can seemingly be observed as dissimilar practices.

Both authors contribute to our understanding of a more “culturally conscious” sense of worship. One area in particular both works take time to consider is the role music plays into Christian worship. Music is given high priority by both authors. White asserts that music adds “a deeper dimension of involvement to worship” (White: p110). That is music, regardless of the type or style, allows for the gathered body of believers to move towards a more profound worship experience. A “liturgical chemistry” is created that spreads throughout the collection of rituals in a worship setting (Hawn: p115). Music allows participants the opportunity to more fully appreciate and understand their role in their liturgical setting.

Most likely many church goers do not recognize the collective practices that unite the body of Christ. Instead what is seen are overwhelming differences in practice that separate churches within Christianity. So, what they do is completely different from what we do. Or, their services are nothing like ours. This sentiment is especially true with regards to music. As unifying as music is, as both Hawn and White describe, in many ways it has been used to further divide congregations, cultures and generations.

A younger person might be inclined to consider a hymn as ancient or irrelevant. Older worship participants might view new musical styles as an attempt to entertain crowds or distort the message of the Christian faith. Conversations about church music can erupt accusations of hollow faith and artificial worship. Of course, both of these arguments could be true. One could find examples to support each opinion. What about more culturally related worship practices from outside the U.S.? It might be fair to suggest what separated the younger and older person(s) might now unite them as they consider what kind of influence, for example, an African spiritual might have in a worship setting today. These negative views are not helpful in the practice of worship.

Music does unify and bridge gaps in liturgical understandings. However, it would appear many people are content to only consider what is comfortable to their personal experience—that worship music is limited to something “I like.” This attitude stands against what Hawn describes as the mosaic of worship experience and what White views as a prominent piece of Christian worship. The result is an idolization of music. A worship experience of the living God becomes limited by the tastes and preferences of a particular group of people. If the music wasn’t “good” (either in performance or preferred style) then the time of worship wasn’t good—as if worship were a service or delicacy.

Stay blessed...john

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