Renewing Our Worship: Uniformity

I’m an elder at a 700-member congregation. I fully realize that many of my suggestions are impractical for a small church. A congregation of 50 isn’t likely to need or want an 8-person praise team or to worry about its sound board operations. But I’m not trying to conjure a new, uniform pattern for our congregations to follow.

In fact, my aim is quite the opposite. I think our churches need to be filled with a rich variety of worship styles and experiences. And I think we need to share ideas, successes, and failures. We need to learn from one another and build on one another.

But not to one day achieve uniformity — which is simply not the goal. What works in Seattle isn’t likely to work in Lubbock. For matter, what works in west Tuscaloosa just might not work in north Tuscaloosa. What works in a predominantly urban professional church may not work in a rural, blue collar church. What works in a largely black congregation may not work in a predominantly white congregation.

Alexander Campbell is a hero of mine, but he was dead wrong in starting with the assumption that churches should all have the same worship practices. As described by John Mark Hicks,

Campbell assumed (1) “there is a divinely authorized order of Christian worship in Christian assemblies” and (2) “the acts of worship on the first day of the week in Christian assemblies is uniformly the same.” The “authorized order” is the “same acts of religious worship” that “are to be performed every first day in every assembly of disciples” (CB 3 [4 July 1825] 164-166).

Campbell was wrong, but he was incredibly effective. Until recently, every Church of Christ sang the same songs at the same slow tempo with the same placards showing the same hymn numbers right near the placard showing last week’s attendance and contribution, all near a baptistry with the same Jordan River scene.

But people and times have changed. Instead of three TV channels, we now have 100 to 1000 channels. Instead of a music store that sells either popular or classical music, we now have popular, rock, jazz, rap, hiphop, dance, emo, classical, international, salsa, and all kinds of other music for all kinds of people. Society is not as uniform as it once was, and worship has to reflect our hearts, not the hearts of dead 19th Century theologians.

On the other hand, worship is never about us, because Christianity is never about us. We became Christians to become servants, not to be served. Therefore, the variety in our worship should be driven by our love for others, especially those younger and weaker in the faith than us. The strong serve the weak. The old serve the young. The mature serve the immature. (My wife runs our church’s cradle roll program. Visit her class and see who the songs are designed for. It’s not the teachers!)

(Mat 18:1-6)  At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

2 He called a little child and had him stand among them. 3 And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

5 “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. 6 But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

And so my attitude, as an elder and teacher, is simply this: what will help our children and our young singles and young couples bring their friends? What will help bring the lost to Jesus? What will help meld our black, white, and Hispanic members into one body? What will meet the needs of most people, being the people who aren’t much like me (I’m not typical, I think)?

I therefore drive from my mind such questions as: What is my favorite style? What did I enjoy when I was young? What would happen if my church catered to me? Rather, because I’m mature (at least, I’m supposed to be), I subordinate my desires. I don’t ask for compromise or even a turn — no more than my wife gets to sometimes sing her favorite songs in cradle roll or the adult volunteers sometimes get to sing their favorite songs in the teen classes.

Now, a third party could argue that the younger, less mature members should grow up and let me have a turn. But this is wrong on two counts. First, this would require them to be mature, and they’re not. Second, this assumes that I care. And I don’t. I had my turn many long years ago. When I was in college and when my wife and I were one of the “young couples” we got to sing our stuff all we wanted. Now it’s time to give back, but to someone else.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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12 Responses to Renewing Our Worship: Uniformity

  1. Chr1sch says:

    Jay, you make it sound like "older people" could at no circumstance enjoy singing contemporary songs. I think that's not entirely true. When my 89-year-old grandma was at church with us, there are days, when she will hum the tune of "Here I Am To Worship" the whole rest of the day, because it's her favourite song….

  2. Todd says:

    Yeah, but he addresses what most of us have to face when we move towards the contemporary. It is seldom an 80 year old grandma bringing me a new song they want to sing and seldom a 20-something newly married couple complaining that we don't sing one of the older hymns enough. Every once in a while the situation is otherwise, but the pattern is usually consistent.

  3. Alan says:

    I just don't understand what is so hard about having a mixture of styles in service. We do it and it works fine. We don't omit the traditional stuff to cater to the young, nor do we omit the contemporary to cater to the old.

    Music isn't all distributed along a two-dimensional line between old and new. There is Hispanic, and African, and Caribbean, and rap, and country, and jazz, and classical, and (yes) contemporary Christian, to name a few. Most of those categories have old and new, fast and slow… If we're only thinking about traditional hymns versus contemporary Christian music, we're excluding a lot of folks.

    If a congregation is all one demographic group (average white American) then maybe your whole issue is between old and new. That's not the world I live in, but it just seems to me that it would be much easier to deal with two musical styles than eight. But to me, dealing with eight doesn't seem so hard.

  4. "Either there is a divinely authorized order of Christian worship in Christian assemblies, or there is not. On the supposition that there is not, then the following absurdities are inevitable: There can be no disorder in the Christian assembly; there can be no error in the acts of social worship; there can be no innovation in the department of observances; there can be no transgression of the laws of the King. Far these reasons, viz. where there is no order established there can be no disorder, for disorder is acting contrary to established order; where there is no standard there can be no error, for error is a departure or a wandering from a standard; where there is nothing fixed there can be no innovation, for to innovate is to introduce new things amongst those already fixed and established; and where there is no law there can be no transgression, for a transgression is a leaping over or a violating of legal restraints. Those, then, who contend that there is no divinely authorized order of Christian worship in Christian assemblies, do at the same time, and must inevitably maintain, that there is no disorder, no error, no innovation, no transgression in the worship of the Christian church–no, nor ever can be."

  5. Jay Guin says:

    Todd and Chr!sch,

    The point isn't that I dislike contemporary music. The point is that my taste doesn't matter. As soon as I say that I like this new stuff, then my argument for it sounds like I'm trying to push what I like.

    But the music I like is beside the point, because I like for people to be brought to Jesus, and I like for young people to stay true to Jesus, and I hate selfishness. And these feelings are far stronger than my taste in music. After all, I have an iPod and can listen to what I like anytime (except at church where it's just not about me).

  6. Jay Guin says:

    Alan,

    I dont' greatly disagree. We actually have a blended service. Some of the old music is actually very good. My thinking is that you have the best music if you draw hymns from a variety of ages and styles. Toss out the bad music from all ages. Keep the good music from all ages. But I have unusually eclectic tastes. I even like Bob Dylan.

    Nonetheless, I think the older, more mature members need to surrender their preferences for the sake of the lost and the young. We are called to put others ahead of ourselves — to empty ourselves as Jesus did. My place is to serve, not to be served.

    Of course, there may be others at church who'd like to serve me. But I don't bargain or negotiate for it. Rather, if it's given, I graciously accept the gift. If not, I never asked for or expected the gift.

    And while it's especially important that elders be submissive in this way, I think Jesus expects that attitude of all who are mature in the faith — which means I'm really not keen on mediating disputes over who gets their way how often.

    I mean, what worship wars would their be if all sides started with the sacrificial attitude of Jesus? And since we in fact do have worship wars, we must not be as much like Jesus as we should be.

    The solution isn't negotiation or compromise. It's surrender.

  7. Jay Guin says:

    Scott,

    Thanks for posting the full text of Campbell's reasoning. His logic is simple but flawed. He argues that if "There can be no disorder in the Christian assembly; there can be no error in the acts of social worship." That is true enough, but it doesn't lead to the conclusion Campbell argues for. The fact that there must be order in the assembly hardly proves that there is a uniform, mandated five acts of worship. It only requires that there be order.

    A few years ago, I organized from scratch a parent organization to press for change in our public schools. Our new organization had no bylaws and no charter. I chaired the initial meeting. It was a very orderly meeting. I had met with other leaders of the group beforehand, and we worked up an agenda designed to accomplish the purposes of the organization. And we held an orderly meeting.

    You see, order comes not from presumed rules found in the interstitial silences of scripture. Order comes from purpose. God has not commanded that many things regarding our worship. But he has plainly given us the purposes of the assembly. And he's gifted us to know how to order an assembly to accomplish his desired purposes.

    God certainly could have given us his own order of worship. The Law of Moses demonstrates that God is quite capable of giving us rules in exquisite detail. But there is nothing in the New Testament comparable to the laws found in the Torah. Rather, we are told very little — but quite enough. We know from Heb 10:24-25 that we are to encourage one another to love and good works in the assembly. We know from 1 Cor 14 that the assembly is designed to encourage, edify, comfort, and strengthen the saints and show unbelieving visitors the glory of God who is among us. We know from many passages God's will regarding communion.

    And so, are the services to be uniform? Well, they should all be uniform in the sense of accomplishing uniform purposes. Beyond that, it's left to the discretion of those members God has gifted with leadership.

    In fact, this approach to our worship is far healthier and beneficial than our traditional rule-based thinking. In the traditional view, if we did all 5 acts decently and in order, we felt we'd done God's will — even if no one was encouraged and no one spurred to love and good works. In the more scriptural approach, regardless of the "acts of worship" we do, if we've not encouraged one another to love and good works and comforted and strengthened each other, we didn't honor God's will.

  8. Just for the record, I see no evidence that Paul gave anyone regulations on anything. To say he gave regulations is a matter of interpretation and cannot be established concretely in any way.

  9. Jay Guin says:

    It really is astonishing how much we read into what Paul says. As Scot McKnight observes in the Blue Parakeet, sometimes we judge the Bible by our own story rather than letting God's story in the Bible judge us.

  10. Terri says:

    Jay
    Do you have any study materials regarding corporate worship vs non-corporate worship?

    Some in my family insist that true worship can only happen corporately. They contend that we may "praise" God outside of corporate gatherings, but that "worship" only happens corporately.

    How would one characterize the difference between praise and worship?

    The luxury of their belief is that if allows them to believe that there are activities that they can participate in "outside" of corporate worship that are prohibited "inside" of corporate worship. For example, they feel free to listen to instrumental music outside of corporate worship, but are convinced that instrumental worship is not allowed inside of corporate worship. Their view is that they “are not really worshipping unless they are not corporately gathered."

    My response to this has been to remind my loved ones of scripture about being "living sacrifices" and doing "all things in the name of the Lord." It is my belief that if something is allowable on Mondays from 9 am to 11am, you'd be hard pressed to say is sinful on Sundays from 9am to 11am. My brethren feel that private listening/singing is not worship. I’ve suggested that if it's not worship, then it is tantamount to taking the Lord's name in vain.

    Perhaps there are multiple words that get translated as "worship" in the scriptures. Maybe there is one word that only refers to "corporate worship." Is there a word for private worship? Might the Lord want different things at different times? I don't find this in the scriptures, but I’m open to correction.

    How would one best respond to brothers who believe that true worship can only take place on Sunday when we are all gathered together?

  11. Alan says:

    Terri,

    I think your family would be hard pressed to show from the scriptures that "worship" is particularly associated with the assembly, much less that it is limited to there. The only place I am aware of where major English translations use the word "worship" in the context of the assembly is in the discussion of tongue-speaking in 1 Cor 14 — and it is used to identify what a non-Christian would do in that setting. More often, the term is used to describe what individuals did when they ran up to Jesus outside of any assembly context. Those who hold the position you describe are using non-biblical definitions and rules to make the supposed distinction.

  12. Jay Guin says:

    Terri,

    I think Alan has hit the nail on the head. The scriptures make no distinction between worship and praise in the way they're arguing.

    It's easy enough to get on BibleGateway or a similar site and search for the words "praise" and "worship" in several translations. And neither is particularly associated with the assembly or being outside the assembly.

    The key text, I think, is —

    (Rom 12:1 NIV) Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship.

    (ESV) 1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

    Paul pretty clearly sees Godly daily living as the essence of our worship. I don't doubt that we also worship when assembled. But that's hardly the only time we do so.

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