This blog post is part of my year-long series of posts on the New Testament. My church is on a year-long journey called Project 3:45, where we are reading the New Testament together this year. To join in, click here.
For several years there’s been debate on styles of worship with people in churches all over the place. Our church has been no exception, and it’s been a hot issue at times in our church over the past few years. Many people have strong preferences and personal opinions and share them openly. (Sometimes those opinions aren’t shared in a healthy way, but that’s another topic for another day.)
I thought of these “worship wars,” both in my own church and in other churches, as I read Acts 18 today. In Acts 18, a group of people get upset with Paul (I’ve noticed this theme in almost every chapter about Paul in the book of Acts.) They bring him to court, and in Acts 18:13 they say, “This man is persuading others to worship God unlawfully.”
This is so interesting to me. Their complaint isn’t that Paul is convincing people to stop worshiping God. It’s not that Paul is convincing people to worship a different God or a false God. It’s that he’s persuading people to worship God in a way that they think is wrong. It’s different from the way they worship God. Nevermind the fact that he’s convincing new people to worship God. Nevermind the fact that the number of people and the types of people who are worshiping God are growing daily. No, they’re choosing to focus on the fact that the way Paul is asking them to worship God is different or unlawful. And they are really upset about it.
Here’s a question this brings up for me: since when is the way we worship based on what I like? Who’s the audience of our worship, anyway? Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher/theologian in the 19th century (who had wickedly awesome hair), wrote quite a bit on this topic. He developed an analogy to describe the model of worship used by many churches that looked like this: God is kind of like the script or the playbook, the ministers and worship leaders are the primary actors or players, and the people in the congregation are the audience. In this model, worship is primarily a performance by the worship leaders for the congregation.
He thought this was the wrong way to approach worship, and he suggested an alternate model that looked like this: The worship leaders/ministers are kind of like the script, playbook, or prompters, the people in the congregation are the primary players or actors, and God is the audience. In this model, worship is primarily something the congregation and worship leaders do together for God.
Now, if worship is all about me and aimed at me and if I’m the audience for worship, then I have every right to get upset about what happens or doesn’t happen in worship. But if the audience is God, and not me, then my job is to actively worship God, give my all to God, praise God and stop spending so much of my time in worship worrying about the “lawfulness” of how it’s being done.
If God is the audience, and if our job as worshipers is to give glory to God, then I have to wonder how much God is glorified by all the bickering people do about worship. I have to wonder if God is glorified when we spend so much time nitpicking all the things we don’t like about worship. The truth is, if we made a list of all the things a congregation didn’t like about any one worship service, nothing about the worship service would be missing from the list. Collectively, we dislike everything from the music to the instruments to the liturgy to the sermon to what’s projected on the screen. But again, if God is the audience of worship, then the point isn’t what I like or dislike about worship because worship isn’t about me, it’s about God. And I have to think that what God loves is when people love him back.
God loves it when people earnestly try to connect with him. Which means that God loves the organ AND God loves electric guitars if the organist and guitarist are playing to honor God. God loves liturgy and God loves free form worship if they’re done to honor God. God loves movie clips and God loves verbal stories if the intent of showing them or telling them is to connect people to God.
Forget judgments of “lawfulness” and “unlawfulness.” The more important question is, “Are people worshiping God?” For my friends who despise traditional worship and organs and choirs and think services that include those things are silly, you need to ask the question, “Are people worshiping God there?” For my friends who think instruments and screens are an abomination and that contemporary worship isn’t valid, you need to ask the question, “Are people worshiping God there?” If I focus on that question, and if I wholeheartedly attempt to worship God regardless of the circumstances, then my own personal opinion and preferences begin to matter much, much less.
Imagine the transformation that could happen in worship if we all spent as much energy evaluating our own performance in worship as we do evaluating everyone and everything else?
God, may I seek to worship more than critique, and as I do, may I be drawn closer to you. Amen.