Three Hymns and an Anthem?
It almost seems like a question that Jesus might have been asked by the Pharisees hoping to trap him. “Okay, Son of God, we know you as one who has all the right answers (said with great sarcasm). What does worship look like in the Kingdom of God?”
How would Jesus answer that question? What would he say?
The difficult thing about Christian worship is that the Bible is so frustratingly silent on the whole affair. I covet a passage from Leviticus like, “Thou shall endeavor to have three hymns and an anthem at every worship gathering!” Or even a vision in Revelation of a lead guitarist with a great Fender amp. But of course we don’t get that, do we?
In fact, we get surprisingly little from scripture about the way worship is supposed to be in structure and form. We know the Psalms were worship songs sung by King David and the gathered people in the Temple. The book of Isaiah has a wonderful image in Chapter 6 of angels circling the head of God singing praises. We see images of the Jesus community in the New Testament gathering in homes to share a common meal together.
There are clearly things we can see in scripture concerning worship. Worship has always been something the people of God have done. Even in the beginning, Moses descends form Mount Sinai with a mandate in the commandments to worship God and “have no other gods.” (Exodus 20) Jesus himself went to the Temple from the age of 12 to interpret the scriptures with the other leaders. (Luke 2:39-52) The Apostle Paul taught in the synagogue. (Acts 19:8)
It seems almost as if worship is taught in parables in the Bible. There are these images that communicate: “Worship in the Kingdom of God is like this...” Or maybe we can even hear Jesus say, “You have heard it said that you should worship like this, but I say to you...” But it’s mostly images and not specific things. Again, what is worship supposed to look like?
We should recognize that these are not new questions. In fact, they are ancient ones. Three seconds after the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost, the Spirit was already moving beyond that experience of worship and into something else. Paul and the others wrestled with questions about who was to be invited to worship and what requirements there were for faith in Christ in general.
In the early church, divisions were present in how the people gathered. The Eastern church split over the question of the very nature of God and how worship was to reflect that nature.. Later the Reformers wrestled with the same questions about how worship would reflect “right” preaching and “right” administration of the sacraments, both issues of worship. As late as the 1970’s a revival in Christian worship occurred, moving away from liturgy and sacraments and more in the direction of experiencing the presence of God. These are just a couple of examples from many more over the course of our history. This is not a new question.
The one consistency that seems to be present in the Biblical witness and the history of the church is that worship is the job of the community of God’s people. It’s always something that is supposed to unite believers around the work of the Spirit of God. Even when the Spirit is doing something nobody expected, it is done in the midst of the gathering of God’s people. Individuals might even have a vision or a private experience of God, but most of the time they are then called to profess that experience in the midst of God’s people. This becomes the job description of the prophets of the Old Testament and even the Apostles of the New.
That means to me that the style of worship or the format is always subservient to the gathering of the people. Said another way, the gathering comes first and then the style,- and not the other way around.
But is seems that just the opposite is true in most of Christian worship today. Most worship planning organizes the style of music, then the arrangement of the worship space, and even the type of prayers and liturgy that will be offered. This is logical and understandable. Those of us responsible for planning for and hosting events are required to pay attention to such things. That’s our job.
The question is when does that organization become the essence of worship rather than the gathering of God’s people together. If scripture is silent on the organization of worship, then why do we clear our throats and speak with such clarity on what is right, or good or appropriate when it comes to worship? When do we turn our preferences for worship into the very essence of worship itself?
The truth is Christian worship is the gathering of God’s people to demonstrate our ardent devotion and love for God. The gospel by its very nature is about the transformation of the world. So when we worship as those that believe in the Gospel, we open ourselves to the work of the Spirit in transforming the world and even ourselves in response to God. It’s the most important thing we do, because it communicates our highest values.
Someone once said that we should move all the chairs and elements in the church around every week to keep us from establishing habits and patterns that become the object of our worship rather than God. I’m not sure we have to go that far, but it’s a good point nonetheless.
One of the unique things about the church is the vast diversity of experiences when it comes to Christian worship. Some find meaning and expression in hymns and liturgy. Others express themselves by raising their hands with loud music and drums. All of that is genuine and real to those that worship that way. However, none of that is ever to take the place of the genuine and real worship of God.
So what does worship look like in the Kingdom of God? Well, as Yogi Berra might say, it looks like what it looks like. It is the reflection of the community of God’s people gathered together to demonstrate devotion and love of God.
If there are people who wish to raise their hands in praise, then that’s what it looks like. If there are those that love hymnody and liturgy, then there are parts of that too. Worship reflects all the parts of the community gathered.
But more than that, I believe worship must reflect a willingness to put my own preferences for worship in service to the gathered community. The most important value is not that I am comfortable and unchanged. The most important value is that I am open to the Spirit and open to my neighbor as my act of devotion to God.
Admittedly, this is not always a comfortable place. I say that as an observation, but also as personal testimony. But I would submit to you that this is what worship looks like in the Kingdom of God. It looks like me and it looks like you, but most importantly it looks like you and me together. Besides, if we cannot offer ourselves to one another in worship, then how would we expect to do that in all the other parts of the Body of Christ?
The truth is we have gotten away with avoiding the essence of Christian worship for way too long by staking our claims to personal style. But when we maintain our preferences over against any claim another might have on us, we don’t have to be open to the Spirit and to one another.
That might sting a bit for some. Others will stand in line to disagree with me. But I still wonder what worship will look like in the Kingdom of God? What do you think?