(Image is of Christ Church United Methodist )
After graduating seminary at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, I felt called to minister at Saint Andrew By-The-Sea United Methodist Church. The search committee was welcoming but discerning, the pastor was warm and incredibly intelligent, the congregants warm and welcoming, and the families were engaged. I knew that when I received the call, and was asked, “Would you come to Saint Andrew,” my answer was “Yes, I will.” God has greatly blessed me at this church the last three years, but I did have a bit of acclimation, particularly in the realm of Worship Style.
Very quickly, I discovered that SABTS worshipped by singing hymns, they said The Apostles Creed and prayed “Our Father” nearly every Sunday. A vigorous choir accompanies a talented organist – so the style is what some would call “Traditional” or “Liturgical”.
My background in the Pentecostal, Baptist and Non-Denominational churches would definitely be considered a “Contemporary” experience. Contemporary merely meaning that guitars, drums, bass and microphones are the main tools of worship. The songs have been written (mainly from the Psalms) by Contemporary Christian Musicians in the last 30 years or so. Hymns were more the exception, but were still sung from time to time. I had been used to the bright colors of lighting rigs, textured displays and projectors displaying the outlines of the talks. Pastor’s generally did not wear their suit jackets, and I had never been in a church where the pastor wore robes or a stole (a word I had never heard).
I had to ask myself if I was capable or worship in the new setting, so I began to write in my mind a list of priorities (values) that would guide me in this decision. In other words, what was most important to me about a worship service?
First, I had grown up in a tradition of good preaching. Pentecostal preachers are known for their passionate sermons, and Biblical Study is important to me. If I am inspired, I also need to learn something. Also, if I am not stretched as a person as a result of the preaching, I feel that there was no point. The application is as key as the main idea. And has the Gospel been faithfully represented? Is the preacher being faithful to God’s word. I checked SABTS’s website and listened to sermon audio recordings to get a feel for the head pastor’s preaching. I listened to three recent sermons and determined that this church had an excellent preacher who met all my expectations. Would I have come had the preaching not been so excellent? Perhaps. But it helps that our lead faithfully speaks the Gospel to us, and we are challenged each and every week.
Second, I asked myself about music style, “If things are going to change, what are the non-negotiables?” In other words, could I worship if I never heard a guitar again? I thought about this a lot, not just for myself, but my wife Amanda also prefers the more contemporary sound. I discussed this with her, and I communicated that I felt that so long as we were glorifying God in music, that I would be able to step into the context of my church (like a missionary would on another continent) and respect the styles of worship honored in the community where I would serve. I made a conscious decision to respect the community and allow myself to be transformed by their valued music. In the last three years, I have come to love certain hymns for their messages and their tunes. I don’t pretend to understand the notes in the hymnal (though I do try to look to see whether to go up or down in voice), but this congregation sings these hymns with vigor and reverence. They sing about God’s love, Repentance, Hope, Christ’s Sacrifice, Challenge and Tribulation, Happiness in Spirit and it all points towards the work of Jesus Christ. I cannot argue that we should never worship like this, in fact, those who refuse to worship this way are missing out on a way of communicating God’s love that is deep, rich, and full of passion. Americans are in love with what is “New” but we easily forget that hymns were once the “New” music as well. Concerning music, perhaps one day I’ll worship with guitars again (I am learning to play myself), but I am content to sing this way for the rest of my life. It is a good thing, regardless of my preferences.
Lastly, concerning prayer, I had been used to an extemporaneous style of praying in past churches. Pastors full of the Holy Spirit would call out to God, and the people of the congregation would pray out loud together. It was sometimes cacophonous, and I think it would scare some folks who are more used to order. I had seen at a non-denominational church where I had served, people praying from written notes during services, and it had fascinated me, but some were from notes and others weren’t. Here at SABTS, each portion of the service was carefully prepared, pulled from liturgy, and steeped in tradition pulled from the Church Fathers, Liturgies of the church carefully written, and from John Wesley’s (the founder of Methodism) hands himself at times. I discovered the Methodist “Book of Worship” and amazing prayers for every occasion, and found a deep wellspring of spirituality in the faith of saints long gone. They had written their lives with God down on paper, and their communities of saints spoke to us today. It was deep, and as spirit filled as the extemporaneous prayers of my upbringing. God opened my eyes, though I felt at home, considering how much I love to write and read. This became a new avenue I had never considered. The liturgy was also freeing to me, because in those times when I did not know how to pray, there were words that could express my spirit even when I could not. I saw the hand of the Holy Spirit across the millennia recorded for the future. I am likely to have a prayer book the rest of my life regardless of where I minister, and I am thankful for this liturgical experience. If simply to have the “Doxology” memorized and to sing it when I am thankful is such a treasure. Again, my eyes have been open.
The apostle Paul, walking on a line between the traditional Jewish faith, and the new and developing traditions of the Gentile believers in the Roman Empire, always held onto the roots of his Jewish heritage, while simultaneously celebrating the new work among the new people who were coming to faith in Christ. He said in a trial that, “I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man” (The Book of Acts). He is part of the Way, which is a new thing in Christ, as many Jews believed in Jesus as the culmination of their messianic heritage, yet he held to the Law and its teachings simultaneously.
I feel like I am walking a line as well, between the music of my peers (which has its own pros and cons) and the worship of Christian tradition, which has been proved in the past to encourage believers in faith. I honestly find myself comfortable in both settings, and can see services where both are used wisely for the edification of believers and for promoting God’s glory. The fact is, God is amazing, and there are not enough styles of worship that can completely capture that glory for us. We have to continue to innovate while preserving the past for future believers. If we only worship in the style in which we are comfortable, we are becoming less Christian, because these values – diversity, unity, and even perseverance through discomfort for the “other”, must be lived out if we are to believe that Jesus calls us to be “one” in His body.
We are a diverse people across a globe with many people, with various liturgies and forms of worship, but if a church preaches Christ, challenges us to action in our faith, and stretches us beyond our comfort and leads us to love others, we have found a good place. I encourage you, if you have a qualm with the style of worship (either way), to try to re-engage in a spirit of unity, putting Christ and the promotion of His Good News and His Good Kingdom above our own personal preferences. I believe that this is something all Christians can and one day will have to do. The world is getting smaller, and our divisions blur the vision for the future of the church. Let’s put on the heart of the optimist. Christ has already won. Let’s live out the values of the Kingdom today.