Traditionalist critics of modern worship often point to the hyper-emotionalism associated with the movement as evidence of its imbalance toward expressiveness over and against theological depth, biblical accuracy, and historical connectivity. Sometimes, these critics will point to “how the church has historically worshipped” to advocate for more reserved, “reverential” forms of worship expression. They will admonish the church that, unless people reserved and somber in worship, they will be downplaying the fact that in worship we do indeed encounter a holy God who should inspire fear, silence, and meekness.
Many, many folks have pointed out that the Psalms give us a bigger picture. They don’t necessarily subtract from the above, but add to it. The Psalms give us a picture of reverence and jubilation, being reserved and being expressive, both physically and emotionally.
So what about those arguments about “historic Christian worship?” Perhaps when we look to post-Reformational Anglican, Lutheran, or Presbyterian worship we see a more stoic model of corporate worship expression. But if we go back earlier…much earlier…we see a different picture which may surprise us. If, in our minds, we picture the early church at worship in homes and church buildings engaging in liturgy in formal, reverential postures with solemn faces and expression-less bodies, our picture is wrong.
The above picture is taken from an early Christian fresco, painted in the late third century. It depicts a worshiper in prayer. Contrary to our postures of folded hands, closed eyes, and sitting or kneeling, this early Christian was standing, head covered, with eyes open and hands lifted toward heaven. (It’s interesting that modern worship hand-raising, especially when we realize that singing is a form of prayer, is actually a more ancient, historic worship-posture than the still-bodied, stoic-faced, hymnal holding that characterizes some of traditional worship today!)
If this reality of early church worship is as surprising to you as it was to me, perhaps you, too, should check out Walking Where Jesus Walked: Worship in Fourth-Century Jerusalem, by Lester Ruth, Carrie Steenwyk, and John Witvliet.1 Along with brief commentary on the above picture, here’s what they had to say as they observed the documents and art produced in and around fourth-century Jerusalem:
[Commenting on the picture:] Although this portrayal dates from the late third century and from a different place than Jerusalem, such portrayals can help one imagine what it would have been like forJerusalem’s buildings to have been filled with worshipers. Envision, for example, hundreds with hands upraised, gathered around the tomb of Christ.2
Early Christian nun Egeria, from her diary, wrote this in describing a portion of a worship service in fourth-century Jerusalem, as the people traveled from site to site surrounding the story of Jesus’ death:
When everyone arrives at Gethsemane, they have an appropriate prayer, hymn, and then a reading from the Gospel about the Lord’s arrest. By the time it has been read, everyone is groaning and lamenting and weeping so loud that people even across in the city can probably hear it all.3
Here’s the sidebar comment by the authors:
The loudness of the people’s reaction to the acount of Jesus’ arrest is another reminder of how demonstrative late patristic worship could be. Congregations were not quiet and passive at this time.4
The authors summarize Jerusalem worship in the fourth century in this way:
Jerusalem worshipers were moved emotionally by their worship, mirrored by how they moved outwardly in its rhythms of time and space. Egeria depicted how deeply people’s affections could be touched in worship, thereby dispelling any notion we might have that the early church’s worship was staid and stuffy because it involved a great deal of ceremony. Egeria drew a picture of worship in which people wept, shouted, called back to the preacher, and applauded with delight.5
And here we see that more formalized and ceremony-oriented worship doesn’t necessarily have to be “staid and stuffy.” Our doxological ancestors gave us a different picture. It seems, then, if we want to talk about getting back to the worship of the early church, we need to be careful about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. With traditionalists and formalists, we can prize “ceremony,” liturgy, and even high levels of structure and content in our worship. With modern worship, we can appreciate and incorporate the fullness of physical and emotional expressiveness. It doesn’t seem that, from a biblical and historical perspective, either needs to be encouraged to the exclusion of the other.
So we would do well to celebrate and incorporate the ideals of early Christian worship, even as we find new ways of expressing our ancient Christian doxology.
1 Lester Ruth, Carrie Steenwyk, and John Witvliet, Walking Where Jesus Walked: Worship in Fourth-Century Jerusalem (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).
2 Ibid., 31.
3 Ibid., 54.
5 Ibid., 28.