“I have formed this people
for myself. They will show forth my praise” (Isaiah 43:21).
am an ordained minister in my own denomination, but I don’t
come from a strongly liturgical background. It was therefore with
mixed feelings that I stood behind the pulpit in All
Saints Anglican Church in
Beirut and led the congregation through the Order of Service for the
O Lord, open our lips
And our mouth shall proclaim your
Blessed are you, sovereign God, ruler
and judge of all, to you be praise and glory for ever! May we reflect
the light of your glory this day and so be made ready to come into
Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Blessed be God for ever!
God ever reigns on high.
O come, let us worship.
out over the assembled worshippers, mainly expatriates living and
working in Lebanon, I asked myself what this invitation meant in
practical terms. The Vicar was a man of God and he was determined
to proclaim the love and power of Christ in this land, riven as it
was by sectarian warfare for more than a quarter of a century. How
did his definition of worship compare with the dozen or so major
church groupings represented at All
Saints? I thought about my
church has its liturgy
church in which I grew up and that which I now called home were not
overtly liturgical. And yet they both were. Every church I knew
(without exception) reflected histories, beliefs and patterns
designed to make worship a relevant and dynamic experience, but
followed predictable routes. Like the minister whose form of
thanksgiving over a meal was both contemporary and anchored in his
“Bless the food upon these
As you blessed the loaves and fishes
Like the sugar in our tea
May we all be stirred by thee.”
was created as a worshipper. Fulfilment as Christians is
commensurate with our lives being expressions of worship. Having
said that, worship is not about us. It is about God (John 4:23, 24).
The Bible tells us hundreds of times that He is worthy of our
praise. Worship is an expression of love to the Father and thanks to
the Son. Whichever liturgy we use, formal or informal, ancient or
modern, if the language is understandable and the heart and theology
are right, the mind and body will follow and God will be pleased. We
can worship God corporately and privately, as long as Jesus is the
object. Everything else is false worship.
seen some relatively “weird” forms of worship over the
years, but I acknowledge that many forms I found “alien”
were perfectly acceptable to God. Before we become sententious about
form (rather than substance) we personally do not find appealing,
let’s never forget the words of Jesus about the woman who
poured out her fortune anointing him, “She did it for me”
(Mark 14:6-9). We may not want to ape forms we observe, but our
personal preference does not de-legitimize them in God’s eyes.
fast forward the tape and try to situate worship in a contemporary
setting. The church that is relevant in the new century will have
forms of worship that both exalt God and are fun and meaningful for
those involved. True worship will reflect the culture in which it is
expressed (subject to what is Biblically acceptable). Everything can
and does change. Christian worship is amenable to multifarious modes
anthropological view of Christian worship
I was at university I decided to conduct a study of a neighbourhood
church, from a cultural anthropological perspective. I tried to
imagine how a newcomer might interpret what was going on when they
first entered the sub-culture as a participant observer. What
“meanings” would they attach to the forms, symbols,
relationships and language used?
the moment I set foot inside the “sanctuary” (isn’t
that where rare birds are housed?) I discovered a vocabulary that
most people outside the “system” would consider esoteric.
Expressions such as, “We claim the blood of Jesus over the
meeting”, “Welcome to the Body of Christ”, “He
touched me”, “sanctification”, “justification”,
“redemption” and “the glory of God” did not
contain a sense of what they denoted for people outside of the clan.
order of service, with people closing their eyes and lifting up their
hands, saying “Thank you Jesus”, “Hallelujah”,
“Glory to God” in loud voices suggested a degree of
comfort with the proceedings, on the part of those involved; this was
to the exclusion of the uninitiated, like myself. What on earth were
they doing? Why did they all do it at the same time? The serving of
“communion” (or the “Eucharist”) was
described by the leader as the “symbols of the body and blood
of Christ”. They looked like wafers and cordial to me (weren’t
they supposed to use wine? I wondered what was in the chalice the
priest was using!), not flesh and blood.
sat in rows facing a raised platform. Speakers raised their voices
in a form that was redolent of political oratory. The separation
between the majority of the people (the spectators) and those in
charge suggested functional differences and levels. There was no
indication for newcomers as to how long this convocation would last
and what program was being followed. There were no clocks, as far as
I could see. Great! There was little explanation as to exactly what
was going on – the assumption seemed to be that participants
knew what was expected of them. In between the songs (some of which
were repeated five or six times) someone came around collecting
donations. (“Can I have a receipt please?”)
the conclusion of the service the preacher invited strangers to “give
their lives to Christ”. Had a visitor been so inclined, this
would have meant walking out in front of all these strangers, falling
on the ground when touched on the head by one of the church members
and speaking a strange language, with everyone else looking on.
There is nothing more disconcerting to some enquirers than a whole
congregation gawking at their discomfort.
left with unanswered questions. What, I wondered (as a nascent
anthropologist), did people get out of the meeting? What did the
different outfits denote? A news sheet handed to me when I first
arrived provided details of activities, but some of the technical
terms (“Home group”, “baptismal service”,
“Power group”) were culture-specific.
Jesus called, he called publicly. I had no problem with public
nature of the appeal per se.
But I suspect they understood a bit more about what was actually
going on than many visitors to institutional churches do today.
Church can be alien to newcomers. How relevant was this group to my
experiences? How much was I expected to know before participating
meaningfully? No one seemed to want to explain the event. A casual
visitor could be excused for not knowing what was going on.
be fair, it was clear to me, as a researcher, that the people whose
service I had observed had real faith in God; their worship was
meaningful; their faces shone with unmistakable joy. They had what
many other people needed. If they could break down what they had and
impart it in simple terms, many outsiders would be attracted to share
Christian life with them.
relevant, interesting, understandable and fulfilling worship services
are a key element in presenting the Gospel in the modern world. Over
recent years in the West, churches that have had high percentages of
newcomers have invariably had contemporary styles of music and
worship. Where people feel they can “connect” with
styles used, identify with the words and be part of the atmosphere,
they are more likely to remain (subject to other key indicators, such
as making new friends).
readers will counter with claims that church life is about how people
grow in faith, not just the content and form of the music that
characterises their congregations, that Biblical faith is not based
on feelings. To a certain extent, I agree. Faith comes from God’s
word, from revelation, not a musical instrument or the charisma of a
song-leader. However, however just as plants grow best where there
is plenty of rain, sunshine and nutrients in good soil, so the
environment and vitality of church are important contributors to
personal spiritual development. If people feel they can get close to
God when they meet with other Christians (ok, I know they are
technically not distant from God when they are not at “church”),
they are likely to keep coming.
have encountered a myriad of styles of worship in churches around the
world. What “works” in some places does not work in
others. Usually, the drivers are cultural, not theological. If we
can deal with the cultural nuances we find much progress is possible.
Miss the point culturally and we might as well be on a different
planet. Few people are prepared to forsake what they are familiar
with in favour of external forms that are extraneous, hard to
understand and irrelevant to their lives – no matter how urgent
and compelling the message may appear to the presenter.
from non-church backgrounds have stereotypes that are either
confirmed or changed when they walk into a church for the first time.
The way they react to styles of worship is also influenced by
generational issues. Older people are less likely to be attracted to
contemporary Christian music, not because of doctrine but personal
step back and examine for a minute the “why” of worship.
“Worship” is common to most of the world’s faiths
(although Christians tend to sing more than any others). Hindus,
Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Satanists and all the rest have
the Lord your God and worship only him” (Matthew 4:10). That’s
what the Book says. We are not to worship worship. It is not to
become an end in itself. Worship is not intended to make our church
look more attractive (even if we author it), but to make Christ more
appealing to a searching world. The Bible says He will not give his
praise to graven images.
worship God because of who He is, for his majesty, greatness,
holiness and truth. We also worship for what he has done for us,
revealing his mercy, forgiveness, grace, deliverance, protection and
faithfulness. God has been good to us. There is no greater love
that that expressed when Jesus died for us. He has forgiven our
sins, answered our many prayers, provided for us in times of lack,
been with us when we felt alone, given us wisdom in difficult
situations, guided us when we were lost, healed us when we were sick
(unless he had another purpose in allowing a sickness to remain),
consoled us in times of grief and given us victory in times of
personal struggle “Oh that men would praise the Lord for his
goodness and for his wonderful works to the children of men” is
the constant refrain of the Psalmist (Psalm 107:8).
is often tension between being Biblical in our rationale for worship
and correct as to content. Some religions are syncretistic, adopting
content and styles they see in other faiths. The expression of
Christianity in some parts of the world is syncretistic. I have
witnessed people in Bolivia faithfully attending mass then going to
the shaman to sacrifice a chicken to appease a local spirit.
Sometimes the local spirit has a Christian name. Icons feature local
deities with “Christian” associations, including the
Virgin Mary. There is a temptation to copy what we see in the world
and make it our own, to attract people or to get out of
denominational ghettos. However, it is simplistic to assert that
Christian worship should not sound like the world. Many of the
church’s most famous hymns adapted tunes that were contemporary
in their day.
life is not just about people ‘coming in’, but about
individuals growing in faith within the congregation, and living
their faith through external activities. Informality in worship
styles has a definite relationship to numerical growth and vitality.
Satisfaction with musical styles relates to a sense of belonging and
to growth in faith, numbers of newcomers in a congregation, retention
of young adults and growth in other areas.
as a way of life
recently attended a wedding in a denomination I normally consider
ultra-conservative. The priest surprised me by praying that we would
all go out to “radiate the joy of Christ”. I got to
thinking about what he said. Christian witness is
about radiating the joy the Holy Spirit places in our hearts (Romans
5:5). If it has a Biblical basis and is linked to relevant teaching,
creative styles and empowered living it is bound to touch the lives
is liberating, because it changes our outlook. Instead of thinking
about ourselves and our circumstances, worship concentrates on the
greatness of God. It enables us to rise above negativity and develop
thankful hearts. It expands our vision, from our narrow limits to
the limitless creator and sustainer of our lives.
of the things I noticed living in the Middle East was that Arabic is
peppered with references to God. Routine daily conversations in the
Arabic-speaking world are filled with words of praise. When people
meet another, they do not start out by swapping stories, but use
standard greetings which in English mean “Thank God”,
“Praise be to God” and “God is the greatest”.
If they do this in ignorance, how much more should we, who have
experienced the life, joy and forgiveness of God make worship a way
my experience, people will not attend church if it is dull, boring,
non-inclusive and unstimulating. Even the best songs, performed with
technical expertise, can be “done to death”. Spurgeon
once recalled sitting through a lengthy series of expositions about
the Epistle to the Hebrews, lamenting that the Hebrews had not kept
it to themselves because the series “sadly bored one Gentile
lad”. People in a busy society think twice before committing
their time to something they do not believe in. If church attendance
is voluntary, it is important that the time people set aside to turn
up regularly be well invested. It should never be our purpose to
slavishly follow patterns that, frankly, bore the congregation. The
life of Jesus and the experience of the early church contain no hints
that those who left all to follow Jesus found the whole affair
boring. Dangerous, yes. Controversial, yes. Boring, no.
is one of the reasons people go, or stop going, to church. The style
affects whether or not they are prepared to invite their friends to
church. Worship that is appropriate to their culture, age group and
socio-economic background will have a positive and satisfying affect
on their lives.
we are called to take the Gospel to the nations and disciple whole
peoples, our efforts will be hamstrung to the extent they do not
understand what church culture is all about. Given the number of
people who have never heard the Gospel explained in terms they could
understand, the challenge for the Christianity community is to hit
the target the first time. Worship is a useful way of incarnating
everything that has breath praise the Lord (Psalm 150:6).