Worship Contexts – One Size Often Doesn’t Fit All

Americans. We think we have everything figured out, or at least the intelligence and the know-how to do it best or better than anyone else. We’re admittedly such a proud group of people who are quick to speak in defense of our positions on anything and everything, while simultaneously slow to listen to what others say. We draw lines in the sand; close our ears to any opposition, and are quick to bemoan when others don’t agree with us or do things “our way”. And we do it all with a smile on our face and a twinkle in our eyes.

And from my experience, I’ve found the culturally-American Church is often no different!

We bicker over nearly everything, from the way the different church buildings are designed to how we’re supposed to dress in the gathered worship services. We debate over things like musical stylings, the aesthetics of our worship spaces, evangelism programs, study materials, and even the various types of coffee that we’re serving at events. Many of us oftentimes think we ‘know best” when it comes to nearly every aspect of the Christian life and seek to homogenize Christianity to look, sound, feel and even smell like our church. Our words are often piercingly written and perceived by others as saying: “Our way is better which means your way is wrong”…and this often reeks of arrogance and pride.

And frankly speaking, THIS IS NOT HEALTHY.

Now, don’t hear me wrong or read too far into my writing, as there are many things that I am NOT saying by making the statements above. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have convictions. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t contend for the truths of God’s Word, or that we shouldn’t try to help others see scripture more clearly when it comes to how we worship God. I’m not saying we should let heresy or the twisting of scripture go unchecked. I’m not saying that everyone is right about everything or that everyone is wrong about everything.

What I AM saying is this: Due to the numerous differences/contexts of each individual church, we shouldn’t automatically assume that we’re “right” on everything we practice; that “our way is ultimately better”, and that every church should follow our “better” model.

I say this because every church is different. Each and every local church (Bride of Christ) is made up of people who are in different stages of life; who are at different levels of understanding and who come from different cultural, economic and social backgrounds. They may learn differently than you learn and it may take different means in which to minister to them. They may have an entirely different experience in coming to know Christ than you, and may not yet have been discipled to the degree that you have been. There are a number of contextually-different aspects that will ultimately make each church’s DNA entirely different than another, and we should come to realize this and speak carefully when discussing “open-handed” issues and aspects of worship.

This week, for example, I’ve noticed many different people on social media sharing two different articles which discussed and promoted the sole use of a Hymnal in the local church. One such article argued that churches should rip out every projector from their ceilings and “go back” to using hymnals alone for corporate worship music. The impression I took away upon reading it – based upon the author’s choice of words and the chosen title – was that he fully believes that ‘Hymns are the most God-glorifying style of music; Hymnals are the best method in which to access such music, and thereby every other method should be avoided’.

While the author(s) of these articles provided some points in which to contemplate, they also made some HUGE overarching assumptions (as well as some false statements/false dichotomies). This was especially noticeable as one author began comparing different forms of musical style. His argument basically went as follows: “Hymns have theologically-rich lyrics, and modern/contemporary music doesn’t” – to which we all know is NOT a true statement. The truth is that there are many poorly written hymns, as well as some masterfully written and theologically-rich modern songs. There are also poorly written modern songs and excellently written hymns. It’s clearly not a dichotomy, and thereby what the author was writing was a false statement that was derived from and based upon his personal preference.

When we look into scripture for wisdom on this subject, we see the Apostle Paul encouraging the church in Ephesus (in Ephesians chapter 5 verse 19) to “address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart”. Hymns were not the primary means of musical worship upon Paul’s penning of his letter, so why would we listen to these authors and throw out the Spiritual Songs today?

Again, frankly speaking, I would love to take both of these authors to a few villages in the mountains of Haiti or to the peaks of Puru and let them push their Hymnody agendas in the villages there (and stand back to see the reaction). Or better yet, I’d love for them to take the time and energy to visit a Deaf church here in the US and try to implement a hymnal-only policy when it comes to congregational music. Seeing as how most Deaf people read at a third-grade level (since written communication is often phonetical and built on sounds that they cannot hear), this may not work well. Deaf people also don’t often communicate in or understand ‘idioms’ and word-pictures (in which many hymns/songs are written), and would thereby be absolutely LOST in nearly every song in a modern hymnal. Finally, they would be holding the hymnal with the hands they use to sing, and would then not be able to participate. Clearly, this would not be a good move in this particular context. Our Deaf brothers and sisters LOVE worshipping God, especially in song…so is their non-hymnal way of doing so “wrong”? No…I would think not.

This is just one example that shows us that many of our methods of worship within the context of a local church are not necessarily “wrong” or “right”, but oftentimes just “different”…and we shouldn’t be so quick to speak out about “our” way, especially where scripture gives us liberty. Hymns alone may work for one specific church but not for another. Modern music may be better suited for one church, while Hymns may cause confusion. Some churches will enjoy a mix of both if their context allows. Bright overhead lighting may help people focus in one church while another finds that slightly reducing the atmospheric lighting helps people pay attention to the preached Word of God. Ornate aesthetic details and craftsmanship may display the glory of God to members of one church while distracting members of another. It’s all dependant upon the context of that local church.

When it comes to secondary things, my hope and prayer for the American Church is this: that we will “get over ourselves” in thinking that we have it all worked out. I pray that we will be slow to downplay or condemn the way one church decides to worship, and instead unite on the primary things which bond us together as fellow heirs of the Kingdom.  I pray that we will listen more to those who do things differently than us; that we will gracefully ask questions instead of make assumptions, and that we will learn how to move forward together in proclaiming the excellencies of Christ Jesus to the unreached in every language, tribe and nation.



Photo by elizabeth lies on Unsplash

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