Thursday, January 28, 2010

Form, Function, and Corporate Worship

Two things: Recently, I’ve had an interesting FaceBook conversation with a long-time friend about the worship entries she read on this blog. Last night, a new feature debuted on the weekly update we get in my church choir; the music director at our church wrote an inaugural column about the origins of worship.

So for those of you who've assumed I’ve moved on from this topic of corporate worship, I’m sorry, but it appears this subject is going to keep popping up in the blog. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, since corporate worship exists as a vital part in the life of an evangelical. Or, at least it should.

By now, some people would also be tempted to think I’m simply fixated on a mission to eradicate rock music and banish contemporary casualness from church, and replace it with stuffy organ music and boring liturgy nobody understands. In other words, you think I simply want to switch one increasingly prevalent worship style for another one from a different age.

If all I wanted to do was make everybody follow the same style I like, I’d be no different or better than the folks who dragged their drum traps and electric keyboards into churches to begin with. I am convinced, however, that most churchgoers today haven’t so much thought about function as they’ve thought about form.

When I was in architecture school, our professors were constantly preaching that form follows function. In other words, the design and execution of a building should accommodate and facilitate its purpose, the reason it’s being built in the first place. If the form of the building interferes with or discourages its intended function, then its form is a failure. It may be a pretty building, with great detail and impressive, soaring spaces, but it’s still a failure.

Maybe if the architects had their hearts in the right place, and they honestly thought that their design would suit the purpose, the client would say, "OK, I see your intentions were good". But if the architects swaggered into the project, saying that everything that had been designed before was no longer suitable or effective for modern construction, and proceeded to build a trendy bauble that flew in the face of the building's purpose, then how should the client respond?

What is the Function?

Let’s do this: toss out of your mind everything you know, assume, and practice about corporate worship.

I don’t care if you prefer rock music and a casual atmosphere, or classical music and an order of worship. I don’t care if you don’t have a preference about music style. It doesn’t matter whether or not liturgy is involved, how long the sermon should be, or whether there should be an offering or a box at the back. Choir or praise team, I don’t care. Pastors in suits, jeans, business casual, or robes – I don’t care. Throw it out of your mind.

Forget for a moment about the type of building in which your fellowship meets for corporate worship, whether it’s a school, a grand cathedral, a seeker-style box or pseudo-factory, a New England-style traditional, or a sprawling suburban-style complex. Worship in a private home? Don’t worry about it. Share worship space with another congregation? I don’t care. Put all of it aside.

Think Fresh

Now, you’ve got a clean slate in your mind, right? We’ve got no preconceived notions about corporate worship, we’re got no cultural baggage with which to contend. We are completely without preference to style or form of worship. It’s all scraped clean. You’re dangerously close to not having any thought of anything at all (kind of like a politician).

It is within this unadulterated, uncorrupted, unbiased plane of consciousness before us that I’d like to ask some simple questions. Think about them, and their answers, without jumping ahead and drawing conclusions or assumptions.

  • Worship existed long before the world began, right?
  • The angels in Heaven constantly, incessantly adore their Creator God, correct?
  • So, worship is not our idea, it is God’s, and He’s been worshipped by His creation since infinity, correct?
  • You and I have been both commanded and invited to worship God, right?
  • Worship – not just corporate worship, but the very way we live our lives - is of Him, for Him, to Him, with us as the unworthy beneficiaries of His invitation. Right?

Now, with this historical imperative for worship – which I hope you’ve agreed with! – in place, please hear me out on this:

  • Is it possible that we mere mortals have co-opted the sacred act of worship and turned it inwards upon ourselves?
  • Should we assume that our culture possesses the high arts and worthy instruments of praise that can project the glorious adoration of the saints in gratitude for the incomprehensible work of salvation, justification, propitiation, and sacrifice?
  • Does the culture in which we live exist to serve Christ?
  • Isn’t our culture an increasingly hedonistic, pleasure-driven vortex of impulses, self-centeredness, gratuitousness, and callous ambition?
  • How do we determine what we use to craft righteous worship in the midst of our hedonistic culture?
Holiness Is More

Now, hold on – I’m not talking about rock or classical, suits or jeans or robes, liturgical or casual… we haven’t gotten there yet. I’m just asking questions about how we approach the Throne of Grace, the Mercy Seat upon which the Holy Trinity receives our offerings.

Shouldn’t we think long and hard about the attitude with which we corporately enter the presence of our supremely holy, Creator, God? He’s not just our daddy, although He is that. He’s not just our friend, although He is that. Don’t you see that He’s so much more?

  • God's holiness is more than just a term of endearment, isn't it?
  • Doesn’t holiness mean being “set apart”?
  • Do we really understand what holiness is anymore?
  • Can we find anything in our western culture that reveres holiness, which helps to define it for us?
OK, I am guessing that because of the incredibly short attention spans we all have, your mind is quickly slipping out of the “free to think” state and into an impatient “where’s he going with this?!” state. So I might as well fire with both barrels now:

  • As we consider God’s holiness, how do we prioritize corporate worship in our lives?
  • Do we manage to fit corporate worship into our schedules like just another trip to the mall or business meeting?
  • As we consider God’s holiness, can we bank on the notion that our emotions can guide us properly through a worship service?
  • As we consider God’s holiness, should we set aside corporate worship as something that is our wonderful obligation, our offering of genuine adoration, our refutation of everything in our culture that tries to pull our affections and focus off of Jesus Christ?
  • Are our lives so full that all we can manage is quick handfuls of religious candy instead of a full, sit-down four-course meal?
  • How often do you arrive before your church worship service starts? Even in my church’s wonderful, classic worship service, so many congregants arrive after the services have started – and they start at the same time every week, yet people seem caught by surprise that 11:00 has snuck up on them again. They didn’t plan ahead to arrive early to get a seat and prepare their hearts; they let the kids sleep in and then got everybody mad by pushing them out the door. Shouldn’t our corporate times with God be less incidental and peripheral than that?
Now, guess what – I’m not going to say anything about the form of worship that an evangelical church should pursue. If you’ve taken this little exercise seriously, you will be like me, and will have some heady ideas to think through, reconsider, and pray over.

My long-time friend commented that sometimes churchgoers make idols of their preferred worship style – whether it’s classical or contemporary. She is right – I used to do that myself, and even today, I have to fight against it. It is so easy to take our preferences and objectify them.

Ascendancy and Ascription

Shhh... we're still not talking style, though; we're talking substance. Can we agree that ours is a God of awe, wonder, and reverence. Even excitement, joy, and gratitude. Glory, majesty, dominion, power, authority... just to name a few of God's attributes.

From the beginning of infinity to the ending of eternity, the Heavenly Hosts proclaim God's majesty.

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!" The four living creatures said, "Amen," and the elders fell down and worshiped. - Revelation 5:13-14

God is high, and we ascend towards Him, ascribing to Him the glory due His name. That, in essence, is the function of corporate worship.

Does the form follow?

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