The Work of the People
Worshipping God, or Ourselves?
Worshipping God, or Ourselves?; or, How Tradition Keeps Us Faithful
by Rev. Brannon Hancock, PhD
I am in charge of the worship in a church whose worship "style" is decisively "contemporary." Congregational singing is accompanied by a guitar-driven "praise band" (drums, bass, guitars, piano/keyboard) and augmented by a choir and praise team (3-4 vocalists on individual mics; 25-30 in the choir). At the front of the sanctuary hang two large screens onto which we digitally project lyrics, scripture readings, videos (for announcements and illustrations), images and graphics intended to reinforce the sermon theme or other elements of the service. The majority of the songs we sing have been published within the past decade, and we add new songs regularly (about one per month).
Although many in the congregation may not realize it, our services also incorporate aspects of traditional or historic Christian worship. We have identified some "essential elements" of worship which appear in every service: call to worship, welcome (including a few key announcements) and invocation, passing the peace ("greet one another"), congregational singing (the so-called "worship set"), a time of prayer and communion (every Sunday) led by the pastor, the sermon (including scripture reading), some type of response (often the offering, sometimes communion), the benediction and dismissal.
This formula works well in our context. We are able to "mix up" the order from time to time, (supposedly) to keep things from feeling "stale" or overly formalistic (a big “no-no,” of course), but when we gather, the basic elements outlined in Acts 2 are always present: the apostles' teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer.
I love my church. I feel very fulfilled nearly all of the time with the ministry to which God as called me for this time and place. I enjoy leading my congregation and working with the musicians, technicians and other creative folks that have been entrusted to my leadership. And yet, often I am left with a nagging feeling that something's not quite right.
It's not that the service wasn't good enough. To the contrary, it's almost like, by putting on such a great show, by "performing" with such excellence, we may well have worshiped our great God with every bit of the quality and passion and fervor He deserves (why thank you very much). Like...you know...God's pretty awesome, and, well, frankly, we're pretty awesome at worshiping Him. Like maybe the focus is more on ourselves - our skill, ingenuity, creativity - than on our Creator...
The responsibility to plan worship every week - to choose every word that my congregation will corporately say or sing in the service - can be overwhelming. Of course many churches don't create or write their service each week - they have a fairly scripted service or "liturgy." My wife and I got to experience this while living in Scotland during my graduate studies. We joined the choir at the Scottish Episcopal cathedral in Glasgow and spent an extended time worshipping with this church family. It was a totally new experience for us both to be in a “high church” or liturgical setting. We are both pastor's kids from Wesleyan and Nazarene families, so extemporaneous worship is all we've ever known, but in the Episcopal church, we encountered services where nearly every word was written out in advance. The communication style was not “conversational” but rather, “poetic.” Very little was left to chance. Yet we noticed some variations: hymns and readings and prayers that changed from week to week, and of course, different biblical texts from the lectionary and a new sermon (which they called a “homily” - a new word to us!) based on those texts. They had a structure, but a certain amount of freedom too.
Something began to occur to me as we worshiped in that setting. This church is not left to its own devices to create worship every week, as if from scratch. Their worship has been handed down through generations; words carefully crafted and passed along as a gift. It is not something they are entirely in charge of but something of which they are "stewards."
“You and I were made to worship,” the song says. But the Fall has left us in a condition where it is unnatural for us to to offer God our praise and thanks. We're more likely to direct our attention and thus our worship to ourselves. Perhaps by the very use of liturgical texts in worship, the Church acknowledges her incompetence to worship God rightly on her own. Which leaves me wondering: is it possible that we think we don't need a liturgy because we have so much confidence in ourselves? Do we "sanctified folk" in fact think we are perfectly capable of worshiping God rightly on our own?
Now, before you write me off for pronouncing that we Nazarenes need a prescribed liturgy, STOP: let me clarify. The Church of the Nazarene has been my home and my family for all of my 34 years. I am well aware that scripted liturgies do not play a significant role in our Nazarene traditions - although the "Rituals" section of our Manual demonstrates that they are not altogether foreign to our tradition either. But worship "by the book" is a part of our heritage down through Methodism, John Wesley and his Anglican identity.
In fact, take a look at our Nazarene hymnals of old (before we started singing "off the wall") and you will see creeds, prayers and responsive readings as well as hymns. With the shift in technologies, from book to screen, perhaps something that was once considered valuable has been lost. Perhaps, without thwarting our freedom of expression in worship, we could glimpse, not a "better" "style" of worship, but the witness of a people who looked beyond themselves for a test of what it means to worship God faithfully. A people who believed that forms and rituals they didn't come up with, and words that had stood the test of time, had a value worth preserving. I'm suggesting that looking beyond ourselves and the fleeting winds and whims of our culture may be one way to ensure that our worship is worthy of the awesome, timeless God we worship. Perhaps a little "tradition" may keep us not only faithful, but humble as well.
-Rev. Brannon Hancock, Ph.D.
Worship Pastor, Xenia Church of the Nazarene