I have been attending worship services since I was about two weeks old. Most, but not all, of these have been services in a Baptist tradition (an American Baptist tradition). But this does not mean that this worship has been similar. I have worshipped, and led worship, that might be considered “traditional” – with hymns, responsive readings, pastoral prayers, and sermons preached from the pulpit. I have worshipped, and led worship, that might be considered “liturgical” or high church/high steeple – with printed and spoken liturgy, pipe organ, written prayers, robed clergy and choir. I have worshiped, and led worship, that might be considered “contemporary” – with praise bands, choruses, video projection and clips, a preacher standing among the people, extemporaneous prayers and a few “amens” from the congregation. I have worshiped, and led worship, that might be considered “contemplative” – with Taize music and chants, long periods of silence and prayer, warm visuals, candlelight and quiet background music.
These services have occurred in the humble country Baptist church of my upbringing, suburban and urban sanctuaries, modern worship space, a new church start that met in an exercise facility, outdoors under the stars and in a cave, in old rustic chapels at camp and in state parks, and in the beautiful sacred space at 3300 Fairlawn Drive in Columbus, Indiana. The places contributed to the worship experience, of that there is no doubt; but not more so than the people. I’ve worshipped in small groups, medium size groups, and large groups; with family and loved ones, covenant members of the same congregation, and complete strangers. I learned to worship sitting next to my Grandmother and my parents, my attention being directed to the hymnal, the sermon, or the prayer. I have been blessed to collaborate on worship with some truly gifted servants of Christ.
I’ve taught classes on worship, led workshops on worship planning, mediated conflict sessions around the topic of worship. I’ve listened for over thirty years of ministry to what persons feel and think about worship. And, come Sunday, I will arise and go to worship; prepared to give my very best to the Lord in hopes that it helps others have an encounter with the Holy One.
But, despite all of this, I am still learning (like all of the rest of us) about worship. I am still learning what worship is. I am still learning how to worship. I am still learning. Are you?
In John 4 Jesus has an encounter with a Samaritan woman at the village well. It’s a conversation, among other things, about worship. Their differences are prominent when it comes to this topic, and she feels compelled to point them out. Jew verses Samaritan, male verses female, and one who worships at Mt. Gerizim verses one who worships at Jerusalem. They have every reason to draw lines in the sand that day and agree to disagree (or be disagreeable) about what worship is, where it’s to happen, and how it’s to happen. It’s an emotive topic, close to the heart, reinforced by personal experience, tradition and even preference. But Jesus doesn’t allow the conversation to go there. Instead he speaks about “true worship” or “true worshipers”. These are those, according to Jesus, who worship “in spirit and in truth”. “There will come a day,” Jesus says, when the location of our worship – and let me suggest – the style of our worship, the music of our worship, the accessories of our worship, will not matter. For, on that day, we will be in the presence of the Father and worship in spirit and in truth. We will be lost in worship, and we will be home in worship. The work of heaven will be worship!
How are we to hear and understand Jesus’ words in John 4? Perhaps in this way: worship is never about us. It’s not about one style, one tradition, one worship space over and against another – or all others. Worship isn’t about the right prayer, the correct instrument, where the preacher stands, or what she wears. Worship can happen, in fact does happen, in all kinds of places, languages, and traditions; with all tempos and styles of music and preaching and praying when it lifts up and honors God and our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Do we have personal preferences? Sure. Are we acclimated to certain styles and traditions? Of course. Do these fall along generational lines, or according to congregational tenure? Sometimes. But this does not mean we should always impose our preference, or our style or tradition on others. To do so, is to take steps away from what is true worship, or truly worshiping, into the morass of consumerism and selfishness.
As I write this blog, it is with a people whom I love and care for, and worship with, in mind. This group of people will be meeting again soon to talk about worship, and how best to engage together with others in it; in hopes that it offers to any, to all, the opportunity for a holy encounter. In today’s world, where so many have not been in worship since they were two weeks old – and even for those of us who have – this is something of a complex topic. But, perhaps no more complex than it was for Jesus and the woman at the village well. She was looking for that holy encounter in her life, and Jesus reminded her (reminds us) that it wasn’t about the place or the tradition, it was her spirit connecting in truth with God’s Spirit.
This passage of scripture always makes me realize that we must come into dialogue about worship with humility, love and respect for the other, and most especially with our eyes on God.