Where Is The Room For The Spirit In Our Worship Wars?

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. – Romans 8:22-27

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That’s why we have to talk about the meaning behind what we do in corporate worship. That’s why we must ditch the false egalitarian notion that how we worship isn’t important. We can respect differences in belief, but we can’t deny that’s what’s at stake here aren’t just issues of taste or preference, but issues of meaning.

However we worship, whatever we call ourselves – traditional, contemporary, or anything else – we’re not just saying what kind of Jesusy entertainment we prefer.

No, we’re giving away much more about ourselves.

We’re giving away what we believe about something very important.

How we worship has meaning.

How we worship has consequences.

Maybe it’s time we were honest about it. Quickly. Before the meaning is lost. – Jonathan Aigner, “Worship Is About Meaning, Not Preference,” United Methodist Insight, January 21, 2015

I remember so well the words of one of my favorite Seminary professors, Dr. Larry Stookey. He taught Corporate Worship, the very first class I attended at Wesley Theological Seminary.  After going through a section on designing and setting up an order of worship, he said, “Once that Prelude begins, toss all the planning out the window.  Anything can happen, and so go with it.  Don’t let mistakes, things forgotten, distractions, bother you.  It’s all part of the worship service.”  I remember that so well after nearly a quarter century because it summarizes so much of what I’m not hearing or reading.  Regardless of which “side” one takes – High Church versus Low Church; “traditional” versus “contemporary” worship – there is no room left to speak about the place God’s grace has in our corporate worship.

St. Paul, however, understood that we didn’t even know how to pray.  No matter how “Christian” we think we are, no matter how in tune with our congregations, with our traditions, with the latest fad, with how we raise our hands or don’t, whether we take the eucharist by intinction or some other method – we are getting it wrong, because we are creatures who, qua Christians, who have no idea, not really, what we’re supposed to do, or how we’re supposed to do it.  Our greatest corporate liturgy, our most soaring choral and instrumental hymns are little more than grunts and groans, in need of the Spirit to make them meaningful for and to God.  To argue that some things are better suited to corporate worship than others is correct to an extent; those distinctions, however, should always be approached with humility, the faithful understanding that it will never be good enough.  That is why the grace present in our corporate body in the Person of the Spirit takes our best and our worst, our unspoken thoughts and confessions, our loudly proclaimed words of praise and our whispered “Hallelujah”‘s and makes them meaningful – not for us, but for God, who already knows our needs, if not necessarily our desires that sometimes overwhelm our prayer life, individually and collectively.

When I wrote, back on January 22, that preference is an expression of meaning, it was directed at only part of Aigner’s post.  Here, I would like to go beneath the text to the subtext – the very idea that our worship has to be “a certain way” in order to be true worship.  In the first place, I would repeat – preference is an expression of meaning, which undermines much of Aigner’s larger point.  That it is built upon a straw argument certainly doesn’t help.  All the same, our discussions about worship – traditional versus contemporary; what music suits our corporate worship “best” – if it does not include any words about the Spirit, about our own inability to bring to God our deepest desires and needs, our ignorance in the face of the call to prayer, and the grace that is the Living Spirit blowing across the face of the waters of chaos that are our gathered corporate bodies, then, I would suggest a need to return to Scripture first, to consider the possibility that our corporate worship is as steeped in both sin and grace as the rest of our lives.

Which, obviously, does not mean anything goes.  What it does mean is that we can expand our sense of what is proper, liturgically and musically, without necessarily causing offense to God.  The goal of all corporate worship – of the entire Christian life – is the glory of God.  When offered with both faith and hope, in the understanding that the Spirit will take our meaningless Babel and make of it a glorious new song to God, I believe we can move beyond the sterility of so much of our current “debates” and have actual constructive conversations on what is possible.  Currently, we are trapped in a cycle of denouncing what is not proper, or acceptable, or even possible, because we have neglected the presence of the Holy Spirit in our corporate worship life.  It would be far better, far more profitable for all if we began our discussions with what is possible, given two thousand years of corporate worship, and the sheer variety of worship styles, from the Orthodox, High Church Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran through the meetings of the Societies of Friends to our current, trendy “non-liturgical liturgy” we call “contemporary worship”, with its music using contemporary instrumentation, songs written by professional song writers that sometimes offer profound insights while sometimes offer facile, individualistic nonsense.  That much of our historic hymnody is no less compromised seems not to occur to so many in these discussions; that the organ, no less than the electric guitar, is still a controversial instrument (the Church of Christ, for example, has no instruments save the human voice), should humble at least a few voices who insist it is the only “fit” instrument for worship, when that whole question might well need to be considered again as to whether it is even the right question.

I included the song “Parabola” from Tool above on purpose.  While there is a lot of Gnosticism in Tool’s lyrics, and the musical style, known as post-rock, can be off-putting to many, the song itself is one of my favorites from the band because of its equivocal nature.  When I first heard it, I thought it was a beautiful song about sexual love.  Then I read it was actually about suicide.  I went back and listened again, and realized the song itself could be about both things, or neither.  In either case, it expresses one thing that we in our churches do not express well, if at all: the holiness of being with another person, whether in love or comforting us in our extremity of pain.  Surely this gives glory to God.  While the Gnosticism of “this body holding me; this pain is an illusion” is troubling, it is no less so than the Gnosticism of our older hymnody.  It also has the virtue of expressing something – a thankfulness for those others, with whom we share moments too intimate for words – with which we in our churches are uncomfortable, yet needs to be said.  And it does so in a contemporary idiom that can resonate with people who will recognize the song, yet also be surprised at the possibility that even Tool can offer a Word from God, on the graceful nature of life, of life with another, and the contingent nature of the pain with which we live.  To sing, “Choosing to be here, right now, hold on, stay inside this holy life, this holy experience” – this is praise to God for the holiness that is life, love, sexuality, and the sharing of life with another.

Perhaps it isn’t for everyone, or every congregation.  And that’s OK.  That’s part of the point.  Far too much of our discussion over liturgy and music insists upon a “one size fits all” theological and practical approach that ignores the diversity of worship styles, of congregations, of the needs of the people, and the ways we can and do express the glory of God, always with St. Paul’s words ringing in our ears, that it is the Spirit who intercedes for us, taking our unintelligible groaning and lifting them to God.  Without this, so much of our discussion of worship is Shakespeare’s description of life – a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.



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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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