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Winning the Worship Wars

Date: 
Sunday, 25 April 2004

Recent years have seen what many call the 'Worship Wars'. Churches have been divided over issues related to worship styles, especially with regard to music (lyrics and instrumentation), prayer styles, degrees of informality and such like. New churches have been formed in which the defining feature, power of attraction, is just in worship style. One sad outcome of this has been to fracture the Christian community around an issue that is not central to the Christian faith.

The Bible gives us little about the specifics of formal worship. That silence is significant - It is up to each generation of Christian believers to develop worship styles that are right for their place, their people and their times.

However, the Bible does have some things to say about worship. It is very interested in our inner attitudes: are we worshipping 'in spirit and in truth' (Jn 4:24) or are we focused on external forms? Again, is there a match between our acts of formal worship and the rest of our lives (Rom 12:1)? The last point is a particular theme of Old Testament prophets such as Amos who use savage language to criticise the gap between Israel's lovely church services and her everyday disobedience to God (e.g. Amos 5)

When it comes to worship style, the Bible says little. We do know that Old testament worship involved elaborate instrumentation (e.g. Ps. 150) and was often an occasion of great exuberance. It is almost impossible to recover what worship styles were used in the early Christian churches - although there is a fascinating letter written by a Roman civil servant in about 112AD, which makes reference to early morning meetings for prayer, hymn singing and simple Communion service.

Our Presbyterian ancestors identified four Biblical principles that can be used to guide us in matters where the Bible is unclear: do all for God's glory and to edify others, do nothing that causes others to stumble and do all in decency and good order (1 Co 10:31, 14: 26, 10: 32, 14:40). Within these principles, there is wide scope for different worship styles that are sensitive to particular contexts. A key issue is to use this scope to honour God and server others, rather than to insists on our personal desires.

But, let's keep our eye on the basics: God has made us to worship him by acknowledging his worthiness and his preeminence in all we do. Let us worship him form the inside out - with our heart, mind, lips and limbs.