Evangelicalism’s World of Worship


I work at a modern music and ministry college – Visible Music College. We’re focused on training musicians, producers and managers in their musical field and faithful character to effectively impact the church and music industry. Because of this setting, I’m constantly thinking about worship, especially through the avenue of music within the collective church setting (yes, I’m happy that worship is bigger than music).

In this post, I wanted to offer some reflections on the evangelical world of worship.

What I notice day in and day out is that we are constantly focused on the internal, or what is happening on the inside of us. We see it as the most important aspect of worship. Of course, what is going on on the inside is important. Scripture makes that very clear.

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
    be pleasing in your sight,
    Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. (Ps 19:4, emphasis added)

But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. (Matt 15:18, emphasis added)

However, this focus on the internal also means we can easily disdain external practices.

This really comes to light when we get defensive about possible judgment for our response in worship, especially in the corporate setting. “Worship is about what’s going on in the heart, our motivations. It’s not about what you see on the outside. Don’t judge me!”

Again, I understand the point. However, we forget that, at least right across Scripture, the people’s response in worship did actually involve outward practices. Not occasionally or semi-regularly, but regularly.

My sense of why we hold this primary obsession with the internal is three-fold:

a) It was a massive pushback to “dead” ritualistic practices within more traditional settings of the church. We don’t want to become like those Catholics or Episcopalians.

b) We are products of modernist Enlightenment that channels everything through the internal thought process (“rationalism”).

c) There may also be some reaction against overly heightened expressions within a more Pentecostal or charismatic setting, perhaps because of a disdain for “emotionalism.” It’s interesting that the Pentecostal or charismatic settings were a movement and reaction against some of the overly-cerebral realities of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s where the church had begun to get entangled in Enlightenment perspectives.

I am constantly gripped by how actively involved the Hebrews were in worship. I’ve been reading through Leviticus this week and it involves a lot of active participation of bringing, doing, speaking, offering, etc. Not dead rituals, but rather expressions that were very important in the ancient setting that helped form the people. The Levitical measures are not important to us, but definitely to them. Of course, they can become dead rituals. But they don’t have to be.

Not only that, but the words used for praise in the Psalms have activity connected to them. Those are words such as shabach, tehillah, barak, halal, etc.

Because of our internal (and individualistic) focus in our western setting, we run to passages like John 4 – where we’re told that true worship is in spirit and truth – and we believe our primarily internal focus on worship is authenticated by Jesus himself. Worship is about the spirit, which is inside us, and it’s about truth, which is what we know (and we know in our heads and hearts). Thus, we see Jesus and the New Testament basically denouncing the old settings of worship and supporting a mainly internal focus on worship.

While true worship is in spirit and truth, this by no means throws out external and active practices. Again, go to the Psalms. We love the Psalms, right? The Psalms are ok. Leviticus, not so much.

But it’s the Psalms themselves – the “worship book” of the Scripture – that makes clear that activity and participatory practices are very important. Oh, and pretty much the full tenor of Scripture makes active and external expression a real part of our worship. Look at much of Paul’s letters where he touches on things, which is more than just 1 Corinthians 12-14. And don’t forget that the two passages I quoted above (from Ps 19 and Matt 15) speak of both external and internal realities.

A connected point that I’ve also become aware of is how non-sensory we are in our worship. Well, in today’s world, for some reason dimmed house lights with blue and purple stage lighting seems to be what creates the right “atmosphere” of worship (note the sarcasm). Still, we typically only involve the two senses of seeing and hearing in our worship. Yet the Hebrew setting involved all five senses, including touch, taste and smell. Read the Scripture and see how it is overflowing with touch, taste and smell in the gathered worship setting.

That’s a good question: How could we better engage all five senses in our worship gatherings today?

I believe that, as we engage in fully-orbed sensory expression, it will also help build active and outward expression in worship. Not that we create a setting by which folk are judged, but rather to open space for our whole selves to be involved in worship. Actually, by the mere fact of including something like The Lord’s Table in our worship we are calling people to actively express their faith and to do so in a very sensory experience. Have you ever thought about how all five senses are used in Communion? Perhaps we should celebrate it more than once a quarter or once a month.

In all, my evaluation is that we are not very holistic in the evangelical world of worship. We have lots of gadgets, gear, instrumentation, CD’s (or downloads), lighting, auditoriums, etc. We’ve got a lot of stuff in our world. But we are missing some real opportunities at engaging in an active, participatory worship that involves our whole response. This includes the internal and external; heart and body; sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. This is worship in spirit and truth.

4 thoughts on “Evangelicalism’s World of Worship

  1. This is very well said. As I was reading, I kept thinking about our engagement in the Eucharist, and it got me excited when you made that connection. My ‘internal’ gauge is so unpredictable that I find a great deal of comfort in the objective experience of Communion.

    • Thanks for the comment. I’m glad the article met you. But I’m not sure I would say the experience of Communion is objective. Doesn’t mean it isn’t good, right & true. Even by denoting it an “experience” it is acknowledging some of the subjectivity of it. 🙂

      • Well, what I mean by that is that the bread and wine are concrete realities. I can see them. I can touch them. I can taste them. The ‘experience’ of the Eucharist isn’t dependent on my internal process (or subjectivity). It’s something wholly external; completely independent of my feelings or emotions. Although it’s wonderful if the internal and external are moving together – and that may heighten the ‘experience’ – it’s not at all necessary.

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