How to end the worship wars for good — part 2

We’ve already noted the need to move from a focus on experience in worship to an encounter with God. Experiences are great, but when we make them the goal and/or measure of worship, we become akin to Baal worshipers, turning worship itself into an idol. (To read more on this, see The purpose of worship — from experience to encounter.) There is no worship war if worship is about encountering God instead of having a pleasing experience.

We’ve also noted that the biblical call is to humility, to considering others before ourselves. In Philippians 2:1-11, we hear that call and then see how Jesus himself lived it out by choosing the cross for our sake, setting aside the prerogatives of divinity out of love for us and obedience to the Father. There is no worship war if we follow the humble way of Jesus and consider others above ourselves. (To read more on this, see How to end the worship wars for good — part 1.)

Now, we consider the need to remember that the church is the living people of the present who carry all the wealth of the past as we move toward God’s great future. When we worship this way, our worship is rooted in the past and reaching toward the future while engaging with the present.

Present-tense worship

We are immersed in a live-in-the-moment culture that reduces life to what’s going on in the present. On one hand, we’ve got the thoughtless antics of the YOLO locos whose daredevil, you-only-live-once approach to life has them doing dangerous and/or illegal things for the thrill of it. On the other hand, we’ve got people wracking up debt on trips and meals and possessions they can’t afford because their focus on the desires of the present has obscured any preparing for the future.

This fairly recent focus on the now (rejecting the past and neglecting the future) is seen in the revolution that has taken place in the way we do church and especially in how we do worship. In too many of our congregations, a song sung in gathered worship is considered old if it was written more than five years ago. Everything about music, decor, language, and dress is new and now. Nothing but the Bible gives us any connection with the past.

Part of this is good, reflecting the amazing flexibility of the gospel to speak to each and every culture right where they are. But part of this is bad, reflecting our culture’s willingness to wipe the slate clean of not just the practices of the past, but of the wisdom of the past as well. (See Ignoring the wisdom of the past at the expense of our future for more on this.)

Still, we live in the present. We want the new and the now. The psalmists declared, “Sing to the Lord a new song!” (Psalm 33:3; 96:1; 98:1; 149:1 and Isaiah 42:10). The psalmists says that God himself “put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God” (Psalm 40:3). And the Revelation looks toward a future filled with new songs (Rev. 5:9; 14:3). There needs to be a constant newness to our expression of worship coming out of new and fresh encounters with the living God.

Past-tense worship

But what’s so great about those passages calling for new expressions of worship in song is that they themselves are ancient. The most recently written parts of the Bible are more than 1900 years old. It’s an ancient book. And we have an ancient faith. It’s not just old like last year’s top 40 pop songs, it’s truly ancient.

The mistake we too easily make is to skip all the wisdom and experience of the generations between the completion of the Bible and today. And we impoverish our worship and discipleship when we do so. I’ve written elsewhere about the need to have a breadth and depth to our worship that goes beyond our experience. And the best place to start is the book of Psalms. As we use psalms — whole psalms, not just our favorite parts — we begin to learn how to use the concerns and language of the past to shape our worship in the present. It can be uncomfortable, but that’s actually a good thing.

From there, we’ve got 1900 years of Christian history to draw from. Probably the best place to start is with your own Christian tradition. I’m located within a Reformed/Presbyterian order called ECO. Where some Presbyterian groups require them to subscribe to the Westminster Confession, ECO draws on a book of confessions, starting with the Apostles Creed and including other statements of faith like the Karl Barth-penned Barmen Declaration, which noticed that the kind of patriotism the Nazis required prior to World War II was actually a form or idolatry. My point here is that there are riches within each Christian tradition that inform our worship and discipleship which are low-hanging fruit for us to pick from.

What we want to avoid is traditionalism, which values all things old at the expense of all things new. I believe the truism “tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” We also want to avoid sentimentalism, which tries to escape the difficulties of the present into an idealized past. Being stuck in the past is no admirable quality, but drawing from the treasure house of the past is just plain smart.

And there’s so much out there to draw from! From Celtic spirituality to Franciscan spirituality. From the Anglican Book of Common Prayer to Plymouth Brethren Lord’s Supper services. And on and on. There’s a lot of junk out there, but there is wisdom aplenty.

So, we want to be rooted in the past while embedded in the present, but we also want our worship to be reaching toward the future.

Future-tense worship

The goal of our worship isn’t in the past or the present. We worship the one who was and is and is to come (Rev. 1:8). We worship with faith handed down from the past, with love lived in the present, and with hope for the coming of our Lord. Biblical worship is always hopeful, not stuck in the past or the present, but reaching toward God’s glorious future.

Think of time like a river descending a mountain to an ocean. The mountain above is the past and the ocean below is the future, while the boat we float on is the present. In once sense, the weight of the past pushes us downstream. But the even greater reality is that it’s gravity which pulls us into the ocean.

God’s future is pulling us into it. This is why we have such a sure hope. And this is why our worship is always aware of and moving toward God’s future. It doesn’t dismiss the past or neglect the present, but it always reaches forward to the day when our work is done, heaven and earth have become one, and all creation is healed and freed to join in unbroken communion with the King of kings.

An Orthodox monk told me his tradition believes that when they are in worship, they step out of time and into eternity where past, present, and future are one. It is in this wide gathering of eternity that all saints and angels are together in worship. Every tongue, every tribe, every worship style.

I don’t know that it’s true, but it’s a beautiful image. All the riches of the past. All the particularity of the present. All the hope of the future. All of it bringing us together in our worship instead of tearing us apart in worship wars that would pit them against each other.