What’s in a worship service? (Part 1)

Note: this first post is an introduction to the subject of different sorts of worship services. In the last nine days, I have attended three very different worship services – one at an Eastern Orthodox church, one at a house church, and one at the Presbyterian church where my husband is pastor.

There are a number of similarities, starting with the most important: at all three we worshiped the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There was singing at all three services, there were Scripture readings, there was prayer, and there was a sermon. But in other ways they were quite different. In subsequent posts, I will go into more detail about each one.

I don’t remember a time when going to church was not a part of my life. Or when I did not know that there were different ways to “do church.” From the time I was an infant, my father took me (and my older sister) to Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford, CT. But we also attended ecumenical services for h0lidays such as Thanksgiving, and while on vacation we attended other kinds of churches.

Whether because of this familiarity with different worship traditions, or because Immanuel is part of the United Church of Christ, I grew up taking for granted that there were many different – and presumably acceptable – ways to worship God. (When I went through confirmation class in 9th grade, we were given information on what Christians have believed over the years, but expected to decide for ourselves what to believe.)

It was not until I came to faith in Christ at age 14 at a fundamentalist church that I began to see some ways of “doing church” as right and others as wrong. I had never heard, at the church where I grew up, that I needed to admit I was a sinner (I had, on the contrary, been taught than people are by nature good), believe that Christ died for my sins, and accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior.

Naturally, everything else about that church I had previously attended became suspect in my eyes – not least because that was how the fundamentalist church viewed it and every other liberal church. At Emanuel Gospel Church (you can imagine the confusion in our home when talking about church, with my father going to Immanuel and my sister and me going to Emanuel), the lights in the “auditorium” (they never called it a sanctuary) were brighter, the music was brighter (and faster), and I was convinced that the smiles were brighter.

At Emanuel, we used only the King James Version of the Bible, and everyone carried a Bible to church. (Well, maybe a few people didn’t, but carrying a Bible, preferably a well-worn one, was a clear sign of greater spirituality.) At Immanuel, they used the Revised Standard Version (derided as the “Reversed Standard Version” by the pastor at Emanuel), and if people in the congregation opened a Bible at all during the service, it was a pew Bible.

At Emanuel, there were no responsive readings or unison prayers. The idea of using a prayer that had been written down previously was seen as quenching the Spirit, or worse, “having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof” (2 Tim. 3:5).

There was certainly no unison prayer of confession – confession was supposed to be about specific sins, and how could a unison prayer possibly cover the different sins that everyone committed? There could hardly be an Assurance of Pardon either – it was assumed that within every congregation were a number of unbelievers, whether because they were visitors who had not yet come to faith, or nominal Christians who professed faith but had not truly turned to Christ. One would never want to give them the impression that they were accepted by God.

There were all sorts of other differences, from the way baptism and Communion were celebrated, the sermons that were extemporaneous rather than read from a manuscript, and the inclusion of “testimonies” from people in the congregation, to the all-important altar call at the end of every service. I was assured that we were following the New Testament model for the church, while mainline Protestant churches such as Immanuel, along with the Roman Catholic Church, had departed from it and become apostate.

It’s not that the people of Emanuel thought there were no true Christians in those churches, just that there were very few, and that those few were immature Christians who needed to go to a good Bible-believing church to grow in their faith. There were also churches that were presumed to be full of true Christians who were nonetheless mistaken in some significant ways – the pentecostal churches where people claimed to speak in tongues.

I visited an African-American church one evening with my mother. She was attracted by the exuberant friendliness of the people there, but turned off by their emphasis on being saved “by the blood of the lamb.” (My mother, whose preferred church was the Unity Church, considered the doctrine that Jesus died to pay for our sins to be “one of the worst ideas ever invented by man.”)

I was intimidated by the exuberance that my mother appreciated, but felt that unlike her, I belonged there in the presence of true Christians, and stayed on after she left. (The service lasted well over two hours. I don’t remember at what point my mother left.) I was getting somewhat tired of singing the songs over and over so many times, but surely at some point they would get to the sermon … wouldn’t they?

I don’t remember if there was a sermon. What I remember is that one woman suddenly began to act very strangely. I was told later that it was the Holy Spirit that came upon her, but all I knew was that she was flailing around and seemed very likely to hit me (I was sitting at the front), and that she looked more angry than enraptured. People around me saw how scared I was, and tried to reassure me, but whatever kinship I had felt with them had vanished. I was very glad when it was over and someone took me home, and I never went back.

That didn’t stop me from visiting other churches, however. After I learned to speak Spanish, I was thrilled to discover that there was an evangelical Spanish-speaking church in Hartford, and I visited one evening. It didn’t bother me that I didn’t understand everything that was said – as long as it was in Spanish. When a large number of people started talking in some other strange language, however, I realized that they were “speaking in tongues.” It wasn’t scary, but it was rather boring, as I had no idea how long it was going to last. I never went back there again either.

While in college, I usually attended a Baptist church, but for a few weeks I joined a group of students who went to an Orthodox Presbyterian Church. I found it appealing in many ways, though all I remember clearly now is the hymn selection that leaned more toward majestic hymns of praise rather than gushing over how wonderful life is after being saved.

I also once visited a much more liberal Presbyterian church, part of the PC(USA). My best friend, who went with me, had never attended a service at a liberal church before and was shocked that one could get through Sunday School class without talking about Jesus. I told her that it was very much like the church I had grown up in. We both considered it a learning experience, and gladly went back to the Baptist church the following week.

As I was a Bible major, I gave a good deal of thought, within the context of academic classes as well as in my personal life, to what constituted a good worship service. In one class (Christian Education of Youth), we learned how to put together the elements of a worship service (prayer, Bible readings, songs, testimonies, preaching) to reinforce a common theme. We talked about the meaning of worship – not simply a description of the activities one did in church, but the attitude of the heart, awed by the greatness and goodness of God.

I came to question some of the attitudes and practices at Emanuel Gospel. (Not that I had never questioned any of them before. I had never agreed with their frowning on females wearing pants or Christians going to movie theaters, and I had been dismayed at their low view of academic disciplines that did not have a practical application, preferably one oriented toward evangelism.)

Now I reconsidered some of the things said and done in worship services. There was that altar call, for instance. How many times had the song leader made us sing the invitation hymn over and over and over, apparently because someone needed to come forward but was resisting the leading of the Spirit. I had felt that we were being emotionally manipulated, and I was relieved to find out that it wasn’t just me who felt that way.

The Spirit may use the emotional pull of music sometimes, but He doesn’t need umpteen repetitions to do it. And if He really is working in someone, He can continue to do it after the service is over, even if the person didn’t go forward at the invitation. People at Emanuel apparently worried about things like “What if the person were in a car accident the next day and died without accepting Christ?” To which the answer was, I learned, “If the Spirit is working in that person He can stop them from being in the accident.”

It was that issue about the sovereignty of God that really seemed to show an inconsistency in how people at that church thought of God. On the one hand, they firmly stated a belief in God’s sovereignty. But then they said things like, “God wants to reach these people for Christ. But He can’t unless you ______ (pray/give money/witness).” He can’t? Isn’t this the God who could make the stones cry out?

When I studied in Spain, I had further opportunities to observe different kinds of churches. The evangelical churches there had the same basic theology as those I had attended in the States, but they had different concerns regarding culture. Women wearing pants was acceptable – as was going to a neighborhood bar to fellowship between Sunday School and the worship service! At one young adult Bible study, the leader drew the application from the Scripture passage that it was important to oppose American interference in the affairs of Latin America.

The worship services were not all that different from what I was used to, except for the hymns – I was always glad when we sang hymns that were not translations of hymns written in English. I visited one church, however, while traveling during Holy Week, that was so different that I found it difficult to worship at all.

I had planned on being a missionary, and had read a number of books on cross-cultural communication. I knew that it was better for a church to express its faith and worship using the cultural forms of expression natural to the people, rather than those of foreign missionaries. It’s one thing to accept that as a principle, however, and another to try to worship in a church where the expression is very different.

The churches I had attended in Valencia and Madrid used music that felt familiar and “right” to me, even if the songs themselves were new. The church in Sevilla, however, used music that sounded like nothing I had ever heard in church before. It reminded me of flamenco music, which I not only didn’t personally care for, but it was not something that I associated with worship of God. I told myself I was glad that the church could worship God in a style that felt natural to them. But I was also glad that the following week, I could return to a church that worshiped in a style that felt much more natural to me.

What feels natural, of course, is not necessarily going to be the same as what is pleasing to God. There are churches where the only music is unaccompanied singing of the Psalms, because those people believe that the Scriptures do not authorize any other kind of music as part of church worship. There are churches that use rock music because they consider it an appropriate cultural expression that their people respond to, and others that believe that rock music is Satanic.

As a visitor in another church, I try to focus on worship to God as an attitude of my heart. But I inevitably find myself perusing the hymnal, looking for favorite hymns and comparing its content to those of other hymnals I am familiar with. I notice how the content and form of the prayers compare, and any traditions associated with the reading of Scripture. (At some churches, everyone stands for the reading of the Gospels, or for all of the Scripture readings.)

In the next few posts, I will review my impressions of the churches I visited recently.

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