The following has been adapted from a talk given at Community's 3C University in June, 2016.
A Worship Formula
As worship leaders, church leaders, and culture creators, three concepts require our immediate and ongoing consideration - theology, worship, and liturgy. Super exciting stuff, right? Stick with me, though, because this is critical stuff in defining the KIND of culture we’re creating. These three concepts are profoundly interconnected. Here’s something like a formula for explaining these concepts and how they connect: our Theology - how we imagine God - dictates our Worship - how we relate to God, which results in Liturgy - the patterns, practices, and language we devote ourselves to as a faith community. Theology dictates our Worship, which results in Liturgy.
But what are worship and liturgy anyways? For a while now, worship has been popularly defined as “worth-ship,” or ascribing great worth to something. This comes from the etymology of our english word “worship," but the problem with this is that it only gets you back into Old English roots, not into biblical ones. The fact is that in the OT Hebrew and NT Greek, there are many different words translated as "worship," almost all of which are active - dancing, singing, bowing, laboring, seeking, fearing, acts of service. Worship as “worth-ship” has no movement to it - it’s stagnant. It’s a passive state of being, like “friend-ship,” whereas biblical ideas about worship are always active. So, I’d prefer to avoid this “worth-ship” definition, and focus on something more inherently active.
And what about liturgy? In our tradition at Community, liturgy is not a word we’re used to. It may conjure images of priestly robes, genuflecting, and reciting certain numbers of Hail Marys. It may make us think of mindless rituals, empty traditions, maybe some vague sense of history and old bearded men from a long time ago telling us what to do. I want to pull back from this sense of liturgy. Liturgy is basically just a shorthand for the particular worship practices that the church devotes itself to. Every church has liturgy. For some traditions (like ours) the liturgy is very fluid and malleable, whereas in other traditions, the liturgy has sort of crystallized and solidified. Other traditions’ liturgies might be more distinctive and defined than our own, but we absolutely have a liturgy, which is rooted in our worship practices, which is (or at least should be) derived from our theology. Let me give you a couple examples.
If our theology imagines God primarily as a wrathful, angry, disapproving deity, certain worship practices will get primacy - impersonal songs of abstractions about God, prayers of deference, acts of penance, etc. These forms of worship may lend themselves to liturgies of confession and formalized prayers emphasizing unworthiness and subservience. Beat ourselves over the head with the sin we think God is all-too-aware of.
On the other hand, if our theology imagines God primarily as a soft, tender, almost coddling daddy, certain worship practices will come out of that - intimate songs, prayers where we relate to God with utter familiarity and casualness. These forms of worship will lead to liturgy that emphasizes our easy access to God, and probably de-emphasizes sin, condemnation, and so on.
These are, of course, vast oversimplifications, but hopefully they serve to illustrate how Theology dictates our Worship, which results in Liturgy. I want to start here, because only once we have these three concepts in mind can we begin to relate how we do what we do to what we find elsewhere - in the Bible, in church history, and in churches around the world.
Theology Sneaking in the Backdoor
Let’s pull back for a second and look at our (relatively) recent history. In the 60’s and 70’s, churches from what we might call a “charismatic” tradition started gaining a place of prominence in broader church culture. This charismatic tradition is one that had a well-wrought theology about the Holy Spirit, and approached corporate worship as a sacramental encounter with God. The Jesus Movement, and churches like the Vineyard became influential, primarily because their songs got broad adoption throughout the American Church. Hillsong soon followed, then Bethel, Jesus Culture, Kari Jobe, and others. Encoded in many of these songs was a certain conception, a particular theology, about Jesus and the Holy Spirit - they emphasized a personal connection with Jesus, they were primarily songs to God, (not about God), using the pronoun “I” A LOT, and practices like hand-raising and clapping rode piggyback. Any of you who remember the worship wars in the 90s and oughts know about the influx of so-called “contemporary worship,” which, in many many cases, was really “charismatic worship,” whether we realized it or not. Churches adopted these “contemporary” or “praise and worship” songs, sounds and sights, but many didn’t bring along with them the undergirding theology and sacramental approach to worship. The result, I think, is that there’s been a certain dissonance between our “contemporary” worship modes, and our underlying theology. The songs themselves, or the style itself became the focus, particularly in churches heavily influenced by Church Growth Practices, like Community. To put it another way, our worship and liturgy got out ahead of our theology, and our theology has been slowly playing catch-up.
I point all of this out, because it introduces us to a school of thought, and more particularly, a “model” of worship that is woven throughout the Bible, that kind of snuck in the backdoor through these charismatically-infused songs. I, for one, am super grateful that this Holy Spirit-emphasizing, Jesus-centric, worship-as-sacrament theology has snuck in, because it ties us to a biblical model for worship that we might otherwise have remained blind or closed off to. So, in Part 2, we'll look at this dominant theological model that drives this mode of worship - the tabernacle/Temple. Stay tuned...