How to end the worship wars for good — part 1

I’ve written elsewhere about the need to move the focus of worship from experience to encounter. If we gather to meet Our Triune God as a community, rather than to have a transcendent experience as individuals, we have taken a huge step in defusing the worship wars.

But there’s another ingredient in worship (and in the life of following Jesus in general) that is essential to pulling the plug on the worship wars: humility.

Bear with me for a bit as we look at Philippians for how humility works.

Most of St. Paul’s letters in the New Testament were written to fractured communities of Christians. Philippians is a rare exception, being a letter of thanksgiving for their generosity. But even so, there are hints of dischord and Paul gives us some of the best wisdom on how to get along when we differ in his letter to them.

Euodia and Synteche were both godly women (see Phil. 4:2-3). They both had strong reputations because of their labor for the gospel. But for some unnamed reason, they were struggling with each other. So, Paul asks them to have the “same mind” as each other. Think together.

This is the same language Paul had used earlier in Phil. 2:2, where twice he encourages the community to be of one mind with each other. Now, the thing that they are to think the same about isn’t about whatever issue it is they’re facing. There are always issues, whether it’s worship or leadership styles or the hot cultural issues of the day, and it’s impossible to require everyone to be of the same mind on all of these things. Paul doesn’t want them to have a hive mind, a single collective mind like Star Trek’s Borg. He wants the Philippians (and us) to be of one mind about one thing. And this one thing is absolutely essential to be of one mind about as we deal with hurt feelings and disagreements that continually come up.

The thing we need to be of one mind about is how we treat one another. After telling the Philippians to maintain the unity of love, Paul writes, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Phil. 2:3-4).

What we must be of one mind about is considering others ahead of ourselves. We must move the center from our feelings and wants and needs and put others and their interests in the middle.

To drive this point home, Paul uses that same term one more time in Phil. 2:5, where he writes that we are all to have this other-focused “same mind” because this is the way of Jesus. And then he shows what that way looks like.

It’s possible that Phil. 2:6-11 is an early Christian hymn which the Philippians would have known and which Paul quotes to advance his argument. It’s also possible that Paul wrote it on the spot. What is obvious is that what is written is one of our most beautiful pieces of theology. The first half is like a stairway going down, down, down and the second half is like an elevator going up.

It starts with Jesus at the highest point, being equal with God. Each phrase after that is a step downward in humility until he gets to the ultimate form of humiliation and scorn: death on a cross. From there, he returns to the highest point, being exalted to the point that every knee bows before him and every tongue honors him.

But the thing to notice is who is initiating the action. In the first half, Jesus initiates the action. He takes every humble step himself. But in the second half, Jesus is passive and it’s his Father who initiates the action. James 4:10 puts this concisely: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

(By the way, humbling ourselves is tough, especially when others who should be doing the same are being selfish instead. But we’re not to worry if they’re not considering us first. They should. This only really works well when we are all of one mind. But we need to make sure we don’t neglect what God has called us to because others are neglecting that same call to them. If we humble ourselves, God will lift us up in due time.)

Here’s how this applies to our ridiculous worship wars. As long as we consider our wants, needs, and feelings first, we will always be at war with one another. We will be acting our of our two-year-old selves, with a me-first attitude. And sadly, there are so many who take the my-way-or-the-highway approach and leave wonderful church communities because they don’t like this or that about worship styles.

But then there are my parents. My mom is 85 and in a wheelchair and my dad is 89. They’re just plain old. But they worship each week with church that plays its music loud. And my parents who complained about our music when we were kids tolerate the music on Sundays out of love for the people around them. My mom says she reads the words to the songs on the screen and talks with God about them. What more would any pastor ask?

And then there’s Eugene Peterson’s words to his faux penpal Gunnar in The Wisdom of Each Other as Gunnar struggles with the worship at the little liturgical Lutheran church he’s been attending. He writes this terse letter: “Dear Gunnar, No, you do not have to like the hymns. And yes, you do need to sing them. Hopefully in approximate rhythm and tune with the rest. It’s an excellent exercise in humility. The peace of the Lord, Eugene.”

In that brief letter, Eugene captures what Paul was writing to the Philippians and applies it to the worship wars.

So, learn humility. Consider others first. This is about worship, not about getting my way. Worship, by definition, is giving God his way, not me getting mine. So, give God his way by following the way of Jesus down, down, down to the cross. God will meet you there. And meeting God is the goal of worship, right?

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