Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Services of the Church, the Worship of the World, and the Diversity of Style and Structure

This week's article for the newspapers describes what makes the services of the Church different from the worship of the world and touches on the reason behind the differences in style from church to church:

Q:  What makes Christian worship distinctive, and why is there so much diversity in the structure and style of services from church to church?

If one surveys the world’s major religions, a common pattern emerges with regard to their beliefs.  They begin by observing that the complexity and the beauty of the world indicate the activity of one or more personal creators or creative a force.  Sometimes the personal spiritual experience of a founder is also set forward as evidence for this belief. 

Typically this creator is also understood to influence events in present life and make judgments concerning whatever sort of afterlife or next life they perceive.  In response to this conclusion, they formulate a set of moral rules and/or ritual practices which are to be performed in order to satisfy this creator, influence events in spiritual realms, or compensate for the moral failures of the worshipper.  

This pattern holds true throughout the world for all of the major religious groups, as well as many of the minor ones, with one exception—historic Christianity.  The thing which set Christian faith apart from the beginning is that it set this pattern in reverse.  They acknowledged the existence of the Lord as creator, revealed to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and other prophets throughout the Old Testament, as well as their sin—that is their failure to live up to the demands of His law. 

But they taught that the Lord took action to solve the problem of their sin and the division it caused between creator and creation.  Rather than specifying a course of actions that humans must take to bridge the divide, Christians believe that God took on humanity in Jesus and lived a perfect life according to the Law to satisfy God in our place, then was abandoned by God the Father in our place while He died by crucifixion—doing all of this in order to exchange places with us so that He suffered the penalty for human sin and humans who rely on His sacrifice receive God’s blessings of forgiveness and eternal life as a pure gift. 

For this reason, historic Christian worship has taken on a certain form.  Since the Bible teaches that God delivers His grace by connecting His Holy Spirit to the reading and preaching of Scripture, to Baptism, and to the Lord’s Supper, Christians have traditionally ordered their service in such a way that emphasizes these things. 

This can be seen even by the words they use.  Rather than speaking of “worship,” (a more recent English term emphasizing what is given to God by the worshipper) Christians in other parts of the world used terms such as Divine Service – emphasizing that in the service God serves man rather than man serving God (as occurs in the rest of the religious world).

In the late 20th Century, American culture became extremely consumer-oriented – a trend that did not spare the Church – and the attempt began to use the service for the purpose of attracting visitors and gaining membership rather than delivering God’s gracious gifts to humanity.  As a result, styles and structures developed that took attention away from God’s gifts and placed more emphasis on what man offers to God. 

As part of this effort, church music began to shift from telling about God and his actions to talking to God, and instead of receiving forgiveness, life, and salvation from God, emphasis shifted toward offering something (like the worshipper’s heart, praise, or adoration) up to God. 

Even the preaching became more about what those in attendance were to go out and do rather than what God had already done for them in Christ.  As a result, the distinctiveness of the Christian faith became hidden, and its worship and its purpose were redefined to look more like the rest of the world’s religion rather than a unique contrast to them. 

The diversity that is seen is not so much about traditions or preferences, but about what that church believes.  It was said in ancient times, “lex orandi, lex credendi,” which means that the Christian’s worship and their doctrine are intricately tied.  Congregations and denominations whose belief centers on what we have to offer God will worship in a way that emphasizes the things directed from earth up toward heaven, and those whose belief emphasizes God’s grace and gifts to us will conduct their services in a way that emphasizes the things given from heaven down to us on earth. 

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