In many ways, today was no different than many other Sundays. The so-called traditional worship service happened with little fanfare, passion, or involvement. As these Sunday Mornings pass, I often wish that the service could be the subject of an evaluation by a mystery worshiper from the well known website, Ship of Fools. The resulting commentary: biting, pithy and informative might shake up the protectors of the status quo, and generate the essential questions surrounding the fundamentals of traditional worship. There is supposed to be a consultant on the way to evaluate the worship service from a professional standpoint, however, there is no need to wait on him. Disorder is the rule of the day, and the total absence of focus and intention appears to be the process.
Matthew Lawrence has a great statement about the purpose of traditional worship. We can use this as a measurement for the effectiveness of today’s “celebration of the secular” that I attended. Lawrence has clearly put more thought and effort into his philosophical statement than many clergy charged with worship design.
“The traditional answer is to worship God: sing God’s praises, join in the chorus of angels and all of creation in giving praise to the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. In other words, it has little to do with finding a lot of meaning in your life, beyond the meaning of being a part of the singing chorus; it has more to do with honoring God for God’s own sake. Praise worship in the contemporary vein is a modern (and in my opinion rather artless) variation on this theme. When we start with the Gloria, it is to begin with the essential heart of worship, which is all about singing praises to God.”
“Another ancient version would involve participation in the being of God to the end of becoming transformed into a child of God. The Desert Fathers saw Eucharist as participation in God’s presence that led to our becoming divine ourselves. So transformation becomes one of the important goals. We include this element in worship when we eat the bread and drink the wine, as if we were literally ingesting the substance of God. You are what you eat.”
“More recent ideas include the Reformation idea that preaching is a sacrament — that as we deepen our understanding of Scripture and the meaning of our lives, God moves into us on a deep level, and thus we participate in the Life of God through an increase in a sense of meaningful Biblical encounter. In this model, it is important that worship speaks meaningfully to your life and to your intellectual side that makes meaning.”
“Traditionalists clash with modernists and post-modernists over this: the fear from the traditional side is that the worship service will become “all about me” instead of “all about God.” Many contemporary worship services that have minimal contact with Scripture, lots of pep talk about how to succeed in life, and little by way of participation in sacrament or mystery, are to most traditional worshipers something of an abomination, reducing everything to one’s own narcissistic reality. The point of worship is to draw us out of ourselves into the divine mystery, rather than to drive us further into ourselves, where we spiral into self-determined and ego-driven notions of what we think we need.”
Well stated, Mr. Lawrence. And let’s see where today’s service measures up to his standard.
• A significant portion of the worship service focused on the Penn State/Ohio State Football game, as if there were something written about football and football rivalries in the book of proverbs. Spotlighting the secular is nothing new in this worship service, but has no unity with the definition of traditional worship provided by Mr. Lawrence.
• A poorly delivered and ill-conceived verbal advertisement for a contrived and counterfeit missionary program consumed more than five minutes of the worship service. Endless commercials for secularized events thinly disguised as music ministry programs hardly fit the definition for traditional worship.
• Musical distractions including hymn texts that focus on “me” over the almighty appear to be a total departure from the Lawrence definition.
• According to Mr. Lawrence, we should musically “join in the company of angels” in our traditional worship. Music that is inadequately conceived and badly executed inhibits focus on the almighty.
• Rather than focus on the almighty as we are admonished to do, considerable time was spent on announcements related to giving in several special offerings. In addition focus was temporarily placed upon “fasting” for one meal in the next week. These items had nothing to do with anything else in the service.
• A prolonged sermon dwelt upon the 20th century concept of women in worship. Although the worship bulletin cites the liturgical year, the central purpose of the hour (and several minutes) worship service was totally unclear.
• Distracting announcements regarding the health status of missing musicians did nothing to place the Almighty as the central focus of worship.
With worship attendance dwindling, and much confusion dominating the world in which we live, the true sanctuary of traditional worship deserves at least an hour a week on Sunday morning. The singular focus on the Almighty is the essential component of successful traditional worship. The jarring applause, the secularized announcements, the jovial, rollicking spirit on weekly display in the chancel gives the worship service all the characteristics of a Rotary Club meeting at the local lodge. They pray there too.
One has to wonder if the church is ashamed of the gospel. One has to wonder if the church is trying to be politically correct and make everyone feel at home while risking the spiritual health of all those in attendance. It seems reasonable to ask the church to provide one hour of uninterrupted focus on the Trinity each week. Otherwise, we might as well stay home and worship to Charles Osgood’s trumpet every Sunday morning.