self-centered worship

Self-Centered Worship?

I’ve been thinking a LOT lately about worship services and I’m admittedly uneducated about the whole topic. In a way though, I’m sort of glad I’m uneducated about it. When I talk to other people who are perhaps more educated on the topic (pastors, church leaders, etc.), I get the impression that the education has tainted their impression of worship services. They’re so integrated with the services they’re a part of that they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a church visitor, looking for a church and a worship experience that is appealing.

Yeah, I said it. I used the word “appealing” in the context of worship.

I bet some people just stopped reading.

I typically get a lot of backlash when I use words like “appealing” to describe worship services. Usually the argument is something like this: “Looking for an ‘appealing’ worship service is a self-centered approach and worship is supposed to be God-centered.” My problem with this argument is that while a worship service may be created as a God-centric time, the choices made while designing the service are based on human appeal and preference.

Let me describe what I mean. Some churches I’ve been to have fancy (ostentatious?) lecterns or pulpits from which readings and preaching take place. Other churches have little to no supporting “props” to support such activities. One extremely large and very local church (it’s maybe a mile from where my wife and I live) typically has just a simple stool and a small table where the pastor is able to lay his Bible down while he’s preaching. Is either approach more “God-centric”? Is either more worshipful? What drove the decisions to choose such decor?

Another example is music. The church I mention above uses loud, energetic, contemporary worship songs complete with drums, electric guitars, huge projection screens, moving lights, etc. Other churches use pipe organs and choirs. Which is more “God-centric”?

Yet another example is language. Some churches employ flowery or archaic words when they craft (yes, craft) their prayers or select their opening call and response texts. Others use simpler or more modern (more straightforward?) language.

Is an organ holier than drums?

Is a robe more Godly than jeans and a t-shirt?

What role do personal preferences play in designing a worship service? How much do the personal preferences of church leadership and members influence a typical worship service? If personal preferences drive the choices we make when we design a service, does this make our services self-centered?

  • Justin

    Speaking from a pastor's perspective, it is a give and take with the congregation. I grew up with a high church- incense, processions, pulpit preaching only, Gospel processions, and lots of ritual. This type of worship speaks to me and brings me back to what I grew up with should I be able to visit and worship in another church with this style.
    I serve a low church though (these are technical terms, not insults or even my own words). Robes are fine, but so is not wearing them in the summer. No organ, but piano only. Besides the worship leader(s) of the service, the cantors and readers come from the congregation dressed how ever they are.
    When I arrived at the church, the first service with communion, I grabbed my chasuble and threw it over my head before serving communion. I got a lot of odd looks. Even though this was part of my tradition, it was not part of theirs.
    I introduced a sharing/testimony time which was neither of our comfort levels, but has since become a “staple” of the worship service. I added this because I felt the need to hear how God was working in the congregation's life and not just my own. It is my time, so to speak, to allow God to speak to me through that person's testimony and see how the congregation is viewing God in their lives.
    So, I think it can be a give and take depending on the pastor's leadership style.

  • Dawn_K

    I wonder whether “self-centered” vs. “God-centered” is the right way to look at it.

    I think the question should be worded more like “what does the way we worship convey about what we believe?” The assumption is that style is neutral and simply a matter of personal preference. I'm not convinced of this at all. Style conveys a message even apart from the content.

    For example, what would it convey to me if I walked into a church where the pastor is leading the worship service in jeans and a t-shirt and where the music sounds just like the music I hear on the radio? It would convey to me that no one believes that anything particularly out of the ordinary is happening here. It might as well be a rock concert or a college lecture rather than a place where the God of the Universe is coming down to give us His gifts.

    Which better conveys the idea that the pastor is acting in the stead of Christ, as His representative? Vestments or jeans and a t-shirt?

    There is a lot of symbolism conveyed and doctrine reinforced in the liturgical worship of the church. There is a different message conveyed with rock-concert style worship. It's not just a matter of personal preference.

    I think it's sad that instead of teaching people the reasons behind liturgical worship, many decide that this is too hard and want to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator instead. In our efforts to make people feel comfortable, we undermine our message.

    When I go to church I am not looking for “ordinary.” What happens in the Divine Service is not ordinary.

  • New Lutheran

    Thanks for the comment Justin!

    I've definitely experienced this “give and take” in congregations I've been a part of. You mention that the style of worship depends on the pastor's leadership style. Do you feel that there are deeper spiritual implications to worship style, “high” vs. “low” church, or personal preferences as they apply to worship experiences? Do the trappings and trimmings of our worship services affect how our worship is received by God?

  • theinnkeeper

    God doesn't care a whit about 'what we do' during worship – it's not for “His” benefit, but ours – Word and Sacrament aren't “for God”, but “for us”. (This was Luther's interpretation of the Mass – turn the altar around to see that the Sacrament and the Mass isn't a sacrifice to God, but instead an expression of His gifts to us.)

    In my opinion it doesn't matter how you “do” worship, but rather what the worship service teaches. (This is where the 'God Centered' vs. 'Self Centered' comes into play – for example, is the sermon some kind of self-help seminar giving instruction in leading a 'godly life' or is it an expression of absolution? Is the service 'Christian'? I've been to a few evangelical worship services where you could go through the text of the songs and sermons do a “Find and Replace” the words “God” and “Jesus” with “Zeus” or “Odin” and the meaning of the service would have been exactly the same.)

  • New Lutheran

    Thanks so much for your contribution to the conversation Dawn… much appreciated!

    “Which better conveys the idea that the pastor is acting in the stead of Christ, as His representative? Vestments or jeans and a t-shirt?”

    The way you ask this sounds like you intended it to be rhetorical, with “vestments” as the easily implied answer. If that's the case, I have to respectfully disagree. Moreover, the irony is that when I see that question, I find the “jeans and a t-shirt” to be the easy answer for me.

    I believe Christ was approachable and accessible to the people of His day. I can't speak for other young adults, but from my own personal perspective, a pastor who dresses like I might dress seems more like a real person to me than a pastor wearing vestments. They seem like a human being with fears, doubts, sins, and struggles. They seem approachable in all the ways Christ was and is. By putting on vestments, a pastor is immediately distancing him or herself from me by intentionally looking different. While you see theological symbolism in the practice, others might see it symbolic of separation and inaccessibility.

    Obviously this is not the intended message of the vestments. I recognize that there was and is much thought and prayer behind things like vestments within the high(ish) church. There is intended symbolism and doctrine reinforcement. But how does the church body know this? Is it evident through Bible study? Can it be discerned through the Holy Spirit? Or… does it require church teaching to “get it”? Does it require “growing up in the church”? What of those who have not had access to these teachings? Are we making God less accessible to the masses by adding “churchy” things to worship?

    In my humble opinion, we absolutely *should* be reducing everything to the “lowest common denominator”. Strip everything away save the message of our sin, our need for a Savior, and God's free gift of life through Christ. Relaxing “church teaching” doesn't undermine the real message of Good News that God brought to the world through His Son. To me, relaxing “church teaching” can actually bolster this message by placing the focus where it needs to be.

    I've noticed one thing by reading your comments and now writing my own response: we both keep saying things like “to me” and “I think”. This only reinforces the idea that it is only through our own perceptions (preferences?) that symbolism within a worship service has any value. If two people perceive things differently, one can find value in a certain set of symbols while the value of that symbolism is lost entirely on the other.

  • New Lutheran

    “I've been to a few evangelical worship services where you could go through the text of the songs and sermons do a “Find and Replace” the words “God” and “Jesus” with “Zeus” or “Odin” and the meaning of the service would have been exactly the same.”

    I completely agree with you here. One of my complaints about the “emergent church” (yes, I have complaints about the movement) is that it's easy for people to get caught up in the emotion, feeling, vibe, etc. of the service. I think this is especially true of my generation. We're so desperate for community and a sense of belonging that we'll go anywhere we can find it, often to the detriment of theology.