Principles for Worship

Posted: October 5, 2009 by Scott Kistler in Worship

Multnomah University professors Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger discuss principles for worship, based on John D. Witvliet’s Worship Seeking Understanding.  The one that spoke most to me was their third principle:

Integrating liturgy and culture requires us to be critical of our own cultural context. Worship leaders need to critique the culturally generated worship forms they use, asking whether each form enhances or degrades authentic worship. Contemporary forms must be examined to see not only if they engage the church through commonly understandable symbols, but also if they are able to represent God and the gospel with integrity.

Few people, perhaps, would question that popular cultural worship forms can engage a broad spectrum of people. People who already identify with contemporary music and computer graphics will find themselves easily drawn into the worship experience when such forms are used. But thoughtful worship leaders and theologians have recognized that there can be a downside as well. As theologian Donald Bloesch has written,

“Worship is not a means to tap into the creative powers within us rather than an occasion to bring before God our sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. Hymns that retell the story of salvation as delineated in the Bible are being supplanted by praise choruses that are designed to transport the soul into a higher dimension of reality.”

Worship is not about a search for meaning or experience, but an acknowledgment that meaning and salvation are found in God’s incomparable act of redemption in Christ. Methodist pastor Craig Rice agrees: “As long as the church continues to confuse the hunger for God, extant in every human heart, with the same yearnings that drive a market culture and a consumerist society, its worship will remain irrelevant at best and an outright impediment at worst.”

There is no question that authentic worship will meet people’s needs. The problem occurs when worship forms are focused on meeting people’s felt needs. Each week, the church is filled with people whose felt needs have been defined for them by a consumer culture that generally urges them to focus on self-fulfillment. The role of the church in worship is not to meet felt needs but to show people that their real needs go deeper.

Can contemporary worship forms address people’s real needs? Certainly. But in choosing only forms that are comfortable and familiar, there is always the tendency to cater to what people want to hear and feel, rather than confronting them with God, whose presence is not always so comfortable. And a God made comfortable by market-driven worship is unlikely to confront sinners with their need for repentance or a gospel that is fundamentally about self-denial rather than self-fulfillment. Quoting Martin Marty, theologian Marva Dawn remarks that when worship is driven by the market, it “draws crowds, but it is so fully adapted to the not-yet-born-again ‘that worship becomes measured by the aesthetics and experience of those who don’t yet know why we should shudder.’”

I largely agree with the quote from Donald Bloesch about praise choruses, although I know that many people find them meaningful and that I have different preferences from many of my friends.  I don’t wish to denigrate the newer music without trying to understand more about its appeal.  But, to me, the real value of their discussion comes with their contrast between the common perception and the real meaning of worship: “Worship is not about a search for meaning or experience, but an acknowledgment that meaning and salvation are found in God’s incomparable act of redemption in Christ.”

I’d recommend checking out the whole thing.


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