“You can always tell when they’re gonna lift their hands,” he snickered, looking around the evangelical church. “It’s right when the song modulates. Seems like the Holy Spirit always works at the key change!”
The implication was clear.
They aren’t really feeling the Holy Spirit.
They aren’t really experiencing God.
It’s just smoke and mirrors, signifying nothing.
Praise the LORD!
I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright,
in the congregation!
Week 20 of Ordinary Time
The Worship Wars are fought in pews and classrooms and on social media. Evangelicals trash talk liturgical worship for being “cold” and “mechanical,” and high church folks throw back “emotionalism” and “sensational.” We lobb Scriptural, historical, and psychological arguments like grenades into the enemy’s camp.
But another argument won’t save us from the worship wars.
Only our stories can save us.
1. Nine Years Old
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me!
All the days, all the days of my life!
John W. Peterson and Alfred B. Smith, 1958
The scene: a non-denominational church in rural New England. My family is lined up in the wooden pews, hymans stuffed in the backs of the pews and “praise chorus” inserts sliding out of the bulletins. Our pianist, Shirley, was such an integral part of Sunday mornings that I thought that Surely Goodness and Mercy was about her. When I was nine, worship meant predictability and routine. But today, worship changes. The stage has an electric guitar and a drum set. The beat starts, and I start to cry. My sympathetic mom takes me downstairs to the “fellowship hall” in the church basement, and I tell her that I will never love drums in worship, because “what worship means” is hymns and a piano and the first and last first verse. Change is hard.
2. Thirteen Years Old
over the mountains to the sea
your river runs with love for me
and I will open up my heart
and let the healer set me free.
The scene: Pentecostal youth group. The gangly teenage boys are fiddling with the dials on their amps. The youth pastors, Mr. and Mrs. C, lean into each other comfortably – Mr. C in his rocker wearing slippers, Mrs. C perched on the arm. Every Saturday night, our parents drove us to youth group down winding back roads to this little house in the woods. There were no 90’s youth games involving whipped cream and gendered ice breakers – we were the Saturday night youth group kids, and we took Jesus seriously. During worship, I always stood in the back. I liked closing my eyes and putting my arms up, and I didn’t want to be watched. I had an ache that I didn’t understand, but I had named God. I wanted to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Every week in the living room, worship was messy and jumbled up, and sometimes the emotions were real and sometimes they were fake – and when I was thirteen, I loved it that way, because I also felt messy and jumbled up and real and fake. When I was thirteen, “what worship meant” was that God didn’t just want my brainy, thinking self – God wanted my messy, feeling self, too.
3. Fifteen Years Old.
Show me the secret of being content
of taking hold of that for which you’ve taken hold of me.
Camp Cherith theme song, 2002
The scene: a dying campfire at dusk at a Christian summer camp in Maine. There are loons on the lake and pine needles under our bare feet. The embers toast our faces while we sing around the circle. We are ten teenage girls who love Jesus and wear flannel and shoot bows and arrows. There were no instruments and no beat. There were just cracking voices, sometimes trying to sing in harmony, sometimes dropping an octave because none of us were sopranos at camp. The whole world is touched with the glory of God – our teenage awkwardness, the loons, the smoke that rose up like incense from our campfire liturgy. “What worship meant” was that everything, everything was sacred, and that God was already closer than our breath.
4. Nineteen Years Old
But if I can’t swim after 40 days
And my mind is crushed
By the crashing waves
Lift me up so high
That I cannot fall
Lift me up
Jars of Clay, 1995
The scene: T-hall worship. Me and my college roommate trek across campus every Wednesday night, where Eric and Erik led worship outside with a djembe and acoustic guitar. The drum carries across campus in the bitter cold New Hampshire winter and we bundle up with hats and scarves. We sing Michael W. Smith and Jars of Clay and Switchfoot with lyrics printed in the huge black binders, our homemade CCM encyclopedias. We sing from 9-11PM, chatting and laughing in between. We don’t light candles or read meditations – we aren’t trying to “make a sacred space” or “invite the Spirit into this place” because we were just there to sing and be together. Turns out when you just show up to sing and be together, the space gets consecrated anyway. “What worship meant” was family.
5. Twenty-four Years Old
You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day.
The Book of Psalms, compiled ca. 500 B.C.E.
The scene: a monastery in the south of England. I’m sitting in the back of the chapel chanting the Psalms with the monks. My retreatant print-out has the Psalms annotated with tiny dots and dashes over the words like musical morse code – a dash means sing high, a dot means sing low. The monks pray the Psalms seven times a day, and I try to join for most of them but haven’t made it to the pre-sunrise liturgy yet. I stay for four weeks during Lent. I’ll go back to the monks once I come home to the States – the Gethsemani monks in Kentucky, and then to the Georgia monastery. The weird, fantastical monastic rituals are so strange and so old and so holy. Monotone voices in a dark room. Wafer melting on my tongue. Incense filling the chapel. Soft, old hands in a circle. Light through red stained glass. The drumbeat of the Psalms under and over everything. Instead of saying holy, my pastor said once, try substituting Other. The “otheriness” of God is where the mystery lives. In the monasteries, “what worship meant” was finding where the mystery lived, and pitching a tent there.
Praise the Lord.
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power;
praise him for his surpassing greatness.
Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
praise him with the harp and lyre,
praise him with timbrel and dancing,
praise him with the strings and pipe,
praise him with the clash of cymbals,
praise him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord.
Worship is gratitude, holiness, emotion, lament, community, tradition, transformation, thankfulness, need, emptiness, fullness, “otheriness.” In some seasons of life, “what worship means” is a comforting routine, and in others, it is mystical strangeness. As we grow and change in our faith, the way we worship changes, too. Something that used to be life-giving becomes a burden. Something that used to help us love each other turns into a stumbling block. There are as many ways to worship as there are reasons to worship, and each path has gifts and lessons.
Wait, are you saying that all worship styles are created equal?
Absolutely I am.
And equally flawed.
When we batten the hatches and lob argument grenades, we miss out on being opened to new ways of being faithful in worship.
Stop assuming that all Pentecostalism is emotionalism. Stop assuming that all high church is by rote.
And start asking for each other’s stories.
When we listen to why our sisters and brothers worship – how their families and ethnicities and seminary education and sexual orientation and spiritual journeys and personalities have shaped their community – our own worship will be broadened and changed.
It’s the stories that will save us.
What is your worship story, friend?