How Certain Worship Decisions Are Relative

Zac HicksWorship and Pastoral Ministry3 Comments

This post isn’t from or for the ivory tower.  It’s from and for worship pastors who have their boots on the ground. 

In a message given by Tim Keller at the Advance the Church Conference, he pointed out that one of the results of the gospel taking root in a person’s life was “a general unpredictability of thought.”   I believe this is also what is at play for us worship pastors who have to make certain calls about our worship practices in the local body.  In one context, I would make one decision, and in another context, I would make the completely opposite decision. This “relativity” is where theology’s tires actually hit the road of practice.  A pure theologian probably doesn’t have categories for such praxis, but a pastor-theologian should.  (I sometimes wonder whether debates that exist in my own [Reformed] tradition over the Regulative Principle don’t often get bogged down precisely because the Principle resides in that gray area where biblical and pastoral theology meet.) Let me illustrate with an example from my own context. 

Over my time at Cherry Creek, I had several encounters with folks who were concerned over the level of talking going on during the prelude of our traditional service.  While our organist would be playing a masterful piece, it was often barely heard, especially if it were quiet and meditative, over the jibber-jabber of the several hundred folks gathering for worship.  The concerned parties would point out to me that the prelude was a time for people to quiet their hearts and prepare to encounter the living God in worship.  They expressed dismay over the fact that people were taking the entry into worship flippantly, even disrespectfully, by talking to one another instead of quieting their hearts.  They would speak powerfully about how worship was to be reverent, and the talking in the prelude was quite irreverent.

Nothing was necessarily wrong in either what they said or the grounding they gave.  I often proffer similar ideas when encouraging the correction of modern worship’s leanings.  The Scripture calls for reverence and awe in worship (e.g. Psalm 95:6; Habakkuk 2:20).  The greatness of our God demands a humble posture, and silence certainly is extra-golden in our day and age.  The raw theology speaks plainly enough, and in this instance it would seem that I should aquiesce to the complaints and concerns.  But, as a pastor, I was called to think as a big-picture theologian in philosophy and as a shepherd in application.  Both of these led me to actually deny these requests.

You see, our church’s traditional worship service majored on reverence.  From our architecture (dark, tall, ominous brick walls, bright towering stained glass), to our liturgy, to our music, to our formality, the joy-to-reverence pendulum was swung far to the right.  (Some people would challenge my polarization of joy and reverence as a false dichotomy, but that debate is for another time.)  Everything was well-contained and structured.  As a big-picture doxological theologian, I know that reverence is only one part of the worship picture.  In such instances, other Psalm-snippets, like, “enter His gates with thanksgiving” (Psalm 100:4), and “clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy” (Psalm 47:1), start flooding my mind as ballast to the reverence-tipped conversation.  As a pastor, I also know that when people converse at appropriate times before, during, and after worship, great good occurs in fostering a joyful spirit of worship in the assembly.  It also serves to encourage what we often call the “horizontal,” people-to-people elements of worship (Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:18-20).  (As a little aside: The irony of some who desire quiet reverence as a service begins is that they end up looking more like the “individualistic charismatics” they often criticize, seeking a solitary experience of God that just happens to be in the same room as other believers–having one’s private devotions in a public space.)  So, I’m thinking through the fact that these folks could stand to grow in what it means both to worship with joy and to worship with others in that exuberance.  I’m thinking through a service that already heavily leans away from that, and I can’t imagine giving up some of the few elements of worship that actually foster the appropriate counterbalance.

Now, I’d rather not debate issues of reverence and whether or not one should talk during preludes.  That’s not my point here.  My aim is to show how many worship decisions are often situational, context-specific, and people-oriented, and a good worship pastor knows well how not to fire theological shotgun shells from the hip.  There is a relativity in the application of a theology of worship when that theology hits the ground in a local church. Sometimes, seminaries and other communities of learning fail in giving adequate credence to this difficult reality. 

In a recent text-exchange with my new partner in ministry, Tullian Tchividjian, he said, “It’s harder to comprehend high and communicate low than it is to comprehend high and communicate high. That’s a piece of cake. It takes more brilliance (and a lot more love for people) to speak in common language.”  Tullian was speaking of the art of distilling “high theology” for ordinary folks.  The same is true in worship pastoring when you are committed to being a tenacious doxological theologian.  It takes so much more love, work, and grace to rigorously pursue the Scripture’s teaching on worship and then rather painfully live in the tension of its application in a specific local church.  It’s so much more easy to sit back and pontificate from on high.  I confess that in my early years of worship leading I did much of this, turning my nose up at the naivete of the “dumb sheep.”  Let’s just say God slapped me around a time or two before I realized that the naivete was mine and that I lacked a pastor’s heart.

So while Truth is unchanging and absolute, its application is relative and contextual.  Between these two realms is where a good worship pastor resides.  The grace of God teaches us such things.

3 Comments on “How Certain Worship Decisions Are Relative”

  1. Introverts and extroverts alike must do some 'growing' in worship. As an extrovert, the worship can be all about the community in that you can't worship from your true self, or others are fueling your worship (e.g. someone else is raising their hand and that is the only way you will feel comfortable raising yours) On the other side, introverts must be aware that the church is a body and they are members of it-forcing themselves to engage in it. Both are tough scenarios that many of us have been through or seen.

    Certainly, different decisions must be made depending on the congregation. As an introverted church, you may have a part of the service that fosters conversation (like at CCPC). If there is too much talking initially and not as much focus on self, it may be good to model silence at the beginning of the service. Of course, this can only be discovered from getting to know your congregation and getting to know what is fueling their worship and reason for coming to church-others(social aspect) or their love for our Triune God alone.

  2. Hi Zac,
    Thank you for your thoughts on this. As a former introvert worshiper turned extrovert worshipper by God, I have been thinking and praying through this. The more passion I have, the harder it has been. A wise, dear friend said to me once when I was struggling said, "Do it for LOVE". Still chewing on that one. What does love look like in every situation? What does it look like and not lose the essence of who I am? Love what Tullian said, too. Been chewing on that like a sheep, all week. (Tee! Hee!) Sometimes I can go so high in the Spirit, but what does love look like??? I love your heart on this. 🙂

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