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Is It Well With Your Worship? Twelve symptoms of a church that is worshiping worship

The dearest idol I have known,  whate'er that idol be,
help me to tear it from thy throne
and worship only thee.

William Cawper, 1772

We all know starry-eyed couples who are more "in love with love" than anything else. They are, alarmingly, hardly focused on each other at all. Their energies are more consumed with the details of the wedding day than with the ongoing realities of the life-long marriage afterwards.

Perhaps in a somewhat similar way, it is possible for a congregation to become more concerned about its worship than about the God whom it serves. In a curious sort of twist, we can end up "worshiping worship." We can become obsessed about our own practices and rituals and act judgmental toward those who differ from us—forgetting the living, mighty God who has first called us to worship and who delights to dialogue with us throughout the worship service.

Certainly a worship service can become an obnoxious event in the eyes of our God. We recall the chilling words of the prophet Amos: "Thus says the Lord, 'I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies... Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream'" (Amos 5:21-24).

The psalmist reminds us of essentials: "You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise" (51:16-17).

How can a congregation determine if it is slowly forgetting the Lord and clinging instead to a false sense of liturgical intimacy with a God the members hope never to encounter? Are there some signs along the way that could warn us that we are dropping the core meaning of the entire business of worship?

The truth is that this is a very complex matter. One cannot simply point to a number of signs and declare, "Aha, there you have it—a church that worships worship!"

For example, once I preached in a congregation that insisted on always using precisely the same doxology. I found this rigidity a rather disturbing signal and questioned some of the leaders about this stubborn demand. To my surprise, they answered, "One of the young adults in our church is mentally challenged. He doesn't get anything out of most of the service. But he really knows and loves 'Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow'. He waits for it all service long."

Because there are many congregations like that one, who "break the rules" for good reasons, you need to take the following list with a big grain of salt. If your church has ail the symptoms, something is probably skewed somewhere. However, your church could exhibit some of the following "symptoms" without in any way being ill. A fever does not always indicate cancer; it could indicate great excitement!

Symptom 1: Imposing Arbitrary Rules

The following example will give you a good idea of what I mean by arbitrary rules: A congregation once decided it would be a good idea to learn a new hymn occasionally. This friendly idea somehow got distorted into the following system: On the first Sunday of January the congregation began with #1 in their church hymnal. On the second Sunday, #11. On the third Sunday, #21. They sang every tenth song until they got to the end of the hymnal. Then they started over with #2, 22, 32, 42, and so on. This pattern was rigidly implemented throughout the year, without any thought for liturgical seasons, special themes, or other worship considerations.

Symptom 2: A General Spirit of Great Inflexibility

Change will always be somewhat slow in healthy congregation, for changes need to be owned by the members. And that always takes time. A wise older pastor in a non-Reformed congregation once told me, "Always remember that a church can only stand two changes per year." My own experience has been that three, and possibly even four, changes are manageable per year. But how much a congregation can accept depends on factors such as the presence of gifted administrators within the body and the longer-term history of the congregation.

The fact that ecclesiastical change will usually be slow does not mean everything should become incredibly inflexible. Yet this sometimes happens. Change ceases altogether. The order of worship remains the same for generations. When something "extra" does somehow make its way into the service (perhaps the young people do a musical number) everything else remains the same: there is no adjustment in the broader liturgy.

We are dealing here with a slavish adherence to the elements of the service. For example, there has to be a half-hour sermon, even if there has already been an excellent dramatic presentation. Related to this liturgical inflexibility, as someone pointed out to me, is a general inflexibility in the use of worship space. The choir always has to be in the balcony. Overhead projectors are not allowed. There is a Bible on the lectern, but only the pastor can stand behind the pulpit. Through such rules congregations are protecting a certain idea of "sacred space," and in doing so they seem to be forgetting that the veil in the temple was torn almost two thousand years ago, making the Holy of Holies accessible to all. Perhaps we could generalize and declare that fixation with buildings often goes along with worshiping worship.

Symptom 3: Missionaries Can't Show Slides Till After the Benediction

Why do some congregations insist that missionary slides have to be shown after the benediction? What are we trying to protect? Are we suggesting that our act of worship is more important than the God of outreach, the very God who first included us in his covenant? Most of the readers of this journal are probably Gentiles, after all. Aren't we forgetting God if we relegate missionary reports to "the stuff that can happen afterwards for those who wish to stay"?

Symptom 4: Experimentation Is Only Allowed in the Second Service

This, again, can be a revealing attitude. A teenager once asked me, "Why are there never any youth services in the morning?" That's a good question—one that should remind us, again, that we might be trying to protect something. Perhaps some councils are afraid of certain changes but are willing to give these changes a trial run in a service fewer people attend, thereby minimizing the dangers of an explosive reaction. That's understandable. However, to routinely put every new venture into the second service suggests that we are hanging onto something we consider non-negotiable, even when it may be quite negotiable from God's point of view.

Symptom 5: The Existence of a Separate Language and Tone of Voice

Part of the unique nature of church, as Walter Brueggeman has said, is that we are willing to endlessly repeat the marvelous biblical stories that are heard less and less in our general culture. Consequently, church develops a somewhat separate language. Sometimes pastors, trained theologically, bring to the pulpit some of the jargon of their specialty. This is not all bad. Some of it is unavoidable. However, an excessive trend in this direction indicates a kind of communal neurosis. We preserve ourselves from reality by turning our worship activities into an idol that functions like a security blanket. We even talk differently. We separate our life into two spheres.

When we do that, our worship not only becomes irrelevant, but we like it that way. It feels good to have a second existence where we can ignore what goes on the rest of the week.

Tony Campolo once probed this tendency in all of us when he began a sermon by saying "**/!++!*&! Did you know that 40,000 people will starve to death while I am talking to you? And you know what is even worse! You are more upset about the fact that I said '**/!++!*&!' than you are about the fact that 40,000 people will be starving to death!"

Symptom 6: Ignoring the Church Calendar and Current Events

I have known pastors who even refuse to deal with Christmas on Christmas Day. Every service, they insist, should be the same: a call to repentance and reconciliation.

Personally, I think completely ignoring the church year is a dangerous signal. For our Christian faith has much to do with the passage of historical time, also in the life of the historical Jesus. If we simply drop all focus on that and pretend to be dealing directly with God the Father, then we are perhaps preempting that Father's method of self-revelation. We worship on Sunday because Jesus rose on Sunday. We remember Lent because Jesus suffered. We remember Pentecost because the Spirit really came. We celebrate Christmas because the Incarnation happened.

Ignoring current events is another aspect of this same general symptom—the tendency to isolate the worship experience from the broader realm of life. Most pastors have only a few sermons they would be willing to preach almost anywhere at almost any time. After all, each sermon is uniquely affected by the times in which it is first written. However, some denominational traditions almost seem to welcome an oblivious attitude toward current events, both in sermons and in congregational prayers. I have listened to tapes of old worship services in which there is not even the slightest clue as to the particular year {or even the decade) in which the sermon was preached.

Symptom 7: The Inordinate Application of Church Discipline to Matters Regarding Church Attendance

One person told me this story from many years ago: A certain couple immigrated from Europe to Canada. In Europe they had attended only one worship service per Sunday, and when they arrived in Canada, the husband could see no reason to break that pattern. However, he respected his wife's desire to attend both services. And because she didn't have a driver's license, he faithfully drove her to and from each second service—-even though he never attended himself.

After a number of years, a couple of elders showed up at this couple's door on a Saturday night and announced to the husband, "You are now under silent censure and will not be allowed to participate in the Lord's Supper tomorrow morning." The wife was enraged about this sudden treatment of her affectionate and loyal and God-fearing husband.

"What about couples A,B,C, D, and so on, who don't go to the second service at all, neither the husband nor the wife?" she asked. "Are they under silent censure too?" The elders eventually conceded that they were not. "Why, then, are you putting my husband under silent censure? Is it perhaps that you feel personally affronted and insulted by the fact that my husband actually shows up and drops me off and then doesn't enter the building?"

A few weeks later the elders returned and said, "Silent censure has been lifted." However, they never apologized or explained anything. To this very day, years later, the entire family, including the children, who have now grown up, have spiritual scars from this battle.

Do we really accept the fact that one is not saved by works, including the "works" of attending church? The need to maintain the institutional church and all of its activities should never be paralleled with God's promise to advance the kingdom of God. Church and kingdom are not identical. If we forget this, we are liable to start idolizing worship.

Symptom 8: Incredible Sophistication About How Everything Supposedly Ties Together

If the worship committee is excited about the fact that the second line of the seventh hymn somehow harks back to the eighth line of the responsive reading in the congregational "Confession of Sin" part of the liturgy, and all of this is beautifully recaptured in the offertory prayer that the deacons will be rendering later . . . well, we have a problem here. Someone is overdoing worship planning.

When worship planning is overdone, excellence becomes a goal in itself. In general, the congregation will catch the broad sweep of a theme throughout a service. It will also be alert to the occasional explanation of something the worship planners wish to make explicit. But the details of worship do not matter as much as the God being worshiped. For this reason, we should probably also avoid scripting absolutely everything. It's good occasionally to write out congregational prayers, as well as prayers of illumination, offertory prayers, and so on. But sometimes these matters can be left blank. Let the Spirit lead. Pentecostal traditions are wary of preachers who write out their sermons, and there are some good reasons for their suspicion.

Related to all this is an overactive worship program. I have known churches that have a worship committee, a music committee, and a liturgy committee. All three interact in a convoluted manner that provides fertile ground for engendering personality conflicts. Who is in charge? Such congregations are often obsessed with the idea that every Sunday has to be unique. All their energy is consumed in their effort to make each worship service totally special. Rather than being fed, the congregation is drained.

Again, such obsession suggests we have forgotten the God who first gathered us together and have focused instead on the mechanics of our togetherness.

Symptom 9: Visiting Pastors Do Not Feel Welcome

I once preached in a church that actually had the nerve to tell me what my text had to be. They were forgetting common courtesy. It's OK to alert the visiting pastor that you are currently in a series and that it would be wonderful if he or she could somehow indicate a harmonious attitude towards that series. But keep in mind that a visiting pastor does not have to come. He or she is offering to be helpful. That means the congregation also needs to make some adjustments and sort of "take what comes." You can't expect to automatically continue with all the details of the series you were working on.

Symptom 10: Pastoral Events Are Upsetting to the Worship Committee

If a member of the congregation dies on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter, for example, of course that throws a shadow over all the wonderful plans we had for Easter Sunday. However, we had better be very quick to remember that Jesus' resurrection can be celebrated every Sunday of the year. The church is a community. The pastoral events of the community are more important than a specific liturgical dream. If we must mourn on Easter Sunday, we shall mourn. To worship God means to worship him as we are. If we are mourning, it would be hypocritical to pretend otherwise. God doesn't care that much what day it is. He loves us as we are, whether we are mourning or rejoicing.

Symptom 11: Nobody in the Congregation Subscribes to Reformed Worship.
Symptom 12: Everybody in the Church Subscribes to Reformed Worship

(Although, naturally, I feel this is better than symptom 11)!