The visitor was uncomfortable. In his home church, things were fairly predictable. The sanctuary always looked the same—off-white walls, plain baptismal font and communion table, and unadorned pulpit. The only change that took place in that sanctuary had to do with the flowers. Each week the janitor made sure a new pot of flowers was placed in the front near the pulpit. And each Sunday worshipers knew just what to expect: the order of worship had remained the same for the past five years and would probably not be altered during the next five. The congregation liked it that way.
That's why the visitor felt so uneasy in this other church. Bright banners hung behind the pulpit, bordered on both sides by long purple streamers. The bulletin explained that the color of the streamers tied in with the church year. In front, below the pulpit and on one side of the communion table and the baptismal font, stood a Christmas tree laden with ornaments made by Sunday school children—stars and sheep and mangers and lamps. On the other side an Advent wreath rested on a wooden pedestal. A child had come up to light two candles as the service began. Then, during the offering, another group of giggling and whispering children had gone forward, carrying ornaments for the tree and food for the holiday baskets the deacons delivered to the poor. The whole service seemed noisier, brighter, and less orderly than what the visitor was used to…
Anyone who has visited another church has had some of the same feelings this vistor had. We become accustomed to a certain style of worship and feel uncomfortable with anything different. In the following article Eugene and Helen Westra look at some of the reasons for our different styles of worship. They also challenge us to look critically at our own style of worship and to be willing to change and modify it where necessary.
As God's creatures, we all have an innate need to worship. Without worship we are somehow not complete as human beings. But although we all need to worship, we have been unable to agree what worship should be like. As a result, our forms of worship have varied greatly from culture to culture, age to age, place to place, and person to person. Some have even claimed that styles of worship are as numerous as people who worship God.
The Bible commands us to worship God and God alone.Again and again, the Scripture's emphasis on single-mindedness in worshiping God warns of the dangers of distorted focus, misdirected attention, and spiritual pride in worship. In a sin-flawed world, the tendency toward idolatry is always with us.
Little wonder that our forbears in the Reformed faith questioned all attempts to ornament their worship patterns. They seemed to believe that the risk of idolatry is greatly diminished if the church bans everything that could distract members. Let the pattern of worship be plain: assemble to hear a minister read the Bible, preach, and pray; have the congregation respond with a sung psalm and an offering; and avoid distractions of color and motion. Sameness means faithfulness. Uniformity of worship symbolizes a constancy in obedience to God.
For many years these customs and attitudes remained unchanged. It all seemed easier that way. Everyone knew the pattern. There were no surprises. The worship symbols were reduced to the sacraments, the vertical steeple, and the open Bible on the pulpit. In such a simple, unchanging environment worshipers felt safe from the temptation of idolatry.
Our orthodox Calvinist predecessors felt that worshiping in a plain, unadorned environment also fit the harsh realities of life this side of heaven. Earth is not our abiding place. God's people are pilgrims who look for their true rest and worship in the new Jerusalem. They must strive to "wean the affections," the Puritan's term for directing the heart's desires away from the world and toward God. Self-denial and single-minded worship were considered marks of genuine saintliness.
As we explore the Bible's teachings on worship and carefully examine the forms and practices reflected there, however, we find additional perspectives we need to hear—perspectives our predecessors placed little emphasis on. We do indeed find frequent warnings against idolatry. But we also find urgings to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. And we hear joyful calls to full-orbed worship in creation.
In Old Testament worship the altar was central. But in New Testament worship the focus shifts to the living, redeeming Word of God—to the presence of Christ's power and Spirit in the gospel and in the prayers, offerings, songs, and fellowship of Christ's people. Both remembering and celebrating become prominent in worship that calls the congregation to see God's creative and providential power, his work at Calvary, his open tomb, and his covenant love and grace.
Revelation 4:9-11 and 1 Corinthians 14:26 vigorously assert several important characteristics of worship. On the one hand, worship must give pleasure to God; as the whole creation is intended for God's glory, our worship also is to be as a sweet, pleasant fragrance to him. On the other hand, all of worship must edify, strengthen, and instruct the people of the Lord, helping them serve him more fully. Whatever we bring to our worship must be tested by these standards: does it please God, and does it encourage and build up God's people?
God urges us to joyously and vibrantly sing "Glory" in his temple, to make our worship as rich, ringing, and colorful as creation. So how can our worship be drab? David's psalms of praise encompass all creatures, mountains, hills, trees, cattle, birds; all are called to glorify God in a way that foreshadows the worship of the Lord on the holy mountain in New Jerusalem. The whole earth is called to sing to the Lord(Ps.66:1-2).
The Worship Environment
Since God is the Creator of all beauty, we should gladly adorn our churches with creation's colors and textures. In Isaiah 60:13 God declares that the cedars of Lebanon, the pine, the fir, and the cypress will grace his sanctuary; the trees will reflect his might and power. Psalm 52:8 describes the olive tree flourishing in the house of God as a symbol of God's goodness to his people. And in Revelation 11:4 two trees stand as witnesses to God's grace. In the same way, plants in our churches should be more than mere greenery to hide bare plaster walls.
The symbols, vessels, banners, colors, lights, and sounds that we bring into God's house— all these can praise God. Gold and silver, fine linen, embroidered cloth, robes, flowers, and vegetation—each one can reflect honor to the Creator of beauty. A sheaf of wheat, a bouquet of lilies, a mound of apples, baskets of dusky grapes, branches of evergreen, flaming autumn leaves— all of these, when brought into the worship place, can sing wordlessly that the earth and its fullness belong to the Creator. In the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, we give beauty "back to God, beauty's Self and beauty's Giver."
In many of our churches the human voice is oftenjoined by no more than organ or piano. Perhaps we should begin following the biblical examples of praising God with trumpets, cymbals, strings, pipes, harps; all these instruments, if they are dedicated to God, offer glory to him.
Full-orbed worship is the entire creation praising God. This means that we see the water used in baptism, see the bread broken at the Lord's table, smell the fragrance of flowers at Easter, rejoice in the sparkle and colors of sunlit windows and in the gleam of organ pipes, feel the warm patina on the communion table and pews finely crafted from forest trees. In worship we experience the beauty of God's holiness and creative power as this beauty glorifies him.
As Reformed Christians we believe that all nature sings God's glory. It is fitting that we, as the crown of creation, encourage each other to praise God with our whole being, worshiping him in the beauty, the richness, the fullness of holiness. This happens in worship when we bring the entire creation along with us like a Noah's ark, for the strengthening of the Lord's people and the pleasure of the Lord our God.