How the “Worship Wars” Often Miss the Real Issue
Where going to church was for most Americans the default setting, today it’s a conscious choice. Many churches tried wooing Boomers back with softness and smiles, affirming images of a God who is helpful for our life projects, and myriad activities for the kids. Many of their children and grandchildren are burned out on it all. Some head for the exit, toward Rome, the East, or the “spiritual but not religious” category. Others are calling the church to be less consumer-driven and to make God the focus.
For too long the “worship wars” have coalesced around style. These are not unimportant questions; how we worship says a lot about the object and significance of the event. However, all the sides (simplistically drawn between “traditionalists” and “contemporary-worship” advocates) in the debates share more in common than any do with the rationale of Reformation Christianity.
The most important divide is over this question: Do we come to church primarily to receive or primarily to do something? In other words, is God not only the object but the primary actor in the service, or are we?
I’ve heard some conservatives critique contemporary models for being “human-centered.” God isn’t there to make us happy or give us things; we’re there to bring him pleasure, to praise, worship, and serve him. I don’t actually think that most evangelicals disagree over that premise. It’s hard to make the case that people craving more congregational participation—longer “worship times” (“worship” now being equivalent to singing along with a praise band)—are merely consumers. Indeed, the sermons in many of these churches are pep talks filled with exhortations. They may be friendlier, but the goal is to get people to do something.
Actually, what has now come to be identified as “traditional” worship has more in common with “contemporary” worship than either has with historic practice. There are many examples, but the most important is their shared emphasis on the public service as something in which we (rather than God) are the primary actors. We are the subject of most of the action verbs. We come to church to praise, to worship, to express, to rededicate ourselves, to serve, and so forth. Even when we mention receiving something, it’s often merely so that we can do something: we learn our marching orders for the week. The Bible is our road map for life. Based on it to some extent, the sermon motivates us to follow the map. Baptism illustrates our commitment to following Jesus and Communion provides an object lesson to help us reflect more deeply on how much we owe Jesus because of what he did for us on the cross. Then the songs reinforce the idea: we’re here to do something for God and perhaps also for each other. We are the subject of the action. At most, the sermons, the liturgy and sacraments can be an occasion for us to think, reflect, feel, and act; they are very rarely treated as actual means of God’s action here and now.
Of course, we are the subject of action in the public service at appropriate points. We do confess our sins and our faith in Christ; we pray, give financial support to his work, and present our laments, petitions, and praise to the one who has given us every spiritual blessing in Christ. But that’s just the point. When do we actually receive these spiritual blessings? Is there room in the service for God to give us anything when we’re doing all the talking, blessing, expressing and acting?
Far deeper than instruments and music styles, this divide is the real one. Historically at least, Reformed and Lutheran churches believed that the Triune God is the primary actor in the public service. That’s one reason it was called “divine service”: the Father, in Christ, by the Spirit, serving his people with his good gifts. We find it referred to as “the divine service” routinely in churches of the Reformation over much of their history.
Drawing on the biblical view of the public service as a covenantal event, Reformed churches have understood the Triune God as the primary actor. If the covenant of grace is based on God’s unchangeable promise, with Christ as its mediator, then the public service is where this covenant is established and extended. Here the risen Lord of the covenant assembles his people to bless, convict, absolve, instruct, guide, and send them out into the world as “a kingdom of priests to our God” (Rev 5:9). The key moments in this covenantal event are God’s speech, baptism, and Communion—in each case, God being the actor. The very media themselves indicate that we are recipients of the action.
In every covenant, there are two parties. In the covenant of works, God delivers the commands, with attending threats for disobedience and promises for obedience. The spotlight is on the people who swear the covenant, “All this we will do!” In the covenant of grace, however, the spotlight is on the Triune God. He is the oath-maker, assuming the ultimate responsibility for realizing its goal. There are also commands; however, they are not conditions for inheriting the family estate, but the “reasonable response” of God’s people “in view of his mercies” (Rom 12:1). In the covenant of grace, God has allowed himself to be put on trial—even to be convicted by his own just law, fulfilling its conditions, bearing its sentence for our transgressions, and being raised as the beginning of the new creation.
In the public service, this is not just a story we talk about; it is actually happening here and now. The kingdom of grace is landing in the middle of us, turning a barren desert into a lush garden. As the keys of the kingdom are exercised, God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven; prison doors are being unlocked, releasing captives. God himself is walking through the animal pieces cut to seal his oath (see Gen 15). It is the new covenant, which is not like the Sinai covenant that Israel swore and transgressed (Hos 6:7; Jer 31:32-35). It is the new covenant in Christ’s blood, which he shed at Calvary and now gives to us as the source of forgiveness. Our Lord’s words and actions in the Upper Room are re-enacted in the regular preaching and celebration of the Supper.
In this public service, we are always passive in relation to God—receiving everything as a gift. God addresses us, here and now, with his commands and promises. He doesn’t just tell us about forgiveness, but forgives us through the ministry of fellow sinners who themselves need forgiveness. He does not take away our speaking parts in the script, but gives us a new script with himself as the central actor—and by his Spirit loosens our tongues to speak his praises. We do have a role in this covenantal event. It is not only the role of hearing and receiving, but also of praising and pledging. However, the latter are our reasonable response to God’s saving work, not conditions for it. In other words, the benefit of this Lord’s Day assembly is based on God’s work for us, not on our work for God. When we say, “This was a really great day at church,” we don’t mean that the choir or praise band was especially good, or even that the preacher was especially motivational. Rather, we mean—or should mean, “Our God did it again today—the holy Father aquitted us by his grace, clothed in his Son, giving us every spiritual blessing in Christ by the Spirit, through his Word and sacraments.”
It is significant that faith is attributed in Scripture to the Spirit through proclamation of the Word (specifically, the gospel); that baptism is effectual not because it is our pledge, but because it is God’s—we don’t baptize ourselves, but are baptized by Christ through his minister; that Communion is effectual not because of our imagination and intensity of commitment, but because through it believers actually receive Christ with all his gifts. These are means of grace.
However, where the sermon is primarily a “to-do” list and baptism and the Supper are primarily our means of commitment and re-commitment, respectively; where the “worship time” (i.e., music) encourages us to focus on our love, our praise, our promises, our sacrifices, the covenant being ratified takes place closer to Mount Sinai than to Mount Zion. It is more like a kingdom that we are building than one that we are receiving (see Hebrews 12:25-29). For this covenant and the public service it ratifies, Christ becomes more of a facilitator than a mediator.
Consider the argument of Dan Kimball in Emerging Worship: Creating Worship Gatherings for New Generations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004). Kimball urges, “…we need to recognize that going to a worship service is not about us, the worshipers. It is not about God’s service to us. It is purely our offering of service and worship to God—offering our lives, offering our prayers, offering our praise, offering our confessions, offering our finances, offering our service to others in the church body” (3).
What Kimball is reacting against especially is a consumer-driven model, where we come to church to “get something out of it.” However, where his answer seems to be to make the service more about what we give than what we receive, I’m convinced that more scriptural way to talk about it is to say that we come to have God tell us what we really need (regardless of our “felt needs”) and to give us what we need most. The problem that properly concerns him—namely, consumerism—is not solved by making it all about what we do! How does saying it’s all about what we do counter the problem he identifies correctly of making us rather than God the center? (Elsewhere, Kimball has criticized the Reformation for identifying the “marks of the church” with preaching and sacraments, precisely because it defines the church as a place where God is doing certain things rather than a people who do certain things.)
How can one say that the worship service “is not about us” and then categorically deny that it’s “about God’s service to us” and instead say that “It is purely our offering” to God?
This even affects the horizontal aspect of the service. There’s a big difference between saying God meets with us and saying that we meet with God. Who called the meeting? Whose agenda? Is God being included in our fellowship or is our fellowship constituted by God’s including us in his great plan for the ages in Christ? According to Kimball, leaders should ask, “Is this environment and what we do allowing us to become more intense worshippers of God?” (115). Similarly, Sally Morganthaler suggests that this approach means that “worship experience emerge from the people themselves,” rather than “the generic wrapper” (I think she means liturgy.) 
Again, the cure seems worse than the disease. How can the solution to human-centeredness be found in my determining with other sinners means of more intense worship and more “worship experience” emerging from the very people, like me, who need to be saved from ourselves and our experience? Does God even have a role to play in any of this? Is God nothing more than a passive spectator and recipients of our works? At least in traditional liturgies, there is usually a covenantal conversation: God’s speech-acts provoke a response. But if God is merely a passive recipient of our action, what can our own role be other than self-expression, drawing on our fund of personal experience rather than on the objective Word?
If I enter church regularly with the default setting of narcissism, consumerism, and so forth, then I don’t need better techniques, rules, or motivation for becoming a more intense worshiper of God; I need to be killed and made alive in Christ! “Emerging generations are hungering to experience God in worship,” Kimball says (116). That’s great! But isn’t that precisely why we need God to be the main actor?
If church services are merely places where we get our marching orders for the week, have a little fellowship, and offer our praises, money, and prayers, then why do we all need to actually show up every week to do this? What can be done here that cannot be done in all sorts of informal ways throughout the week? In fact, Kimball adds, “We adore the Lord all week, not just at ‘worship gatherings.’ Our minds, our hearts, our bodies, our marriages, our families, our jobs—everything should be offered to him in worship. This includes what we think about, what we do, what we say, what we eat, and what we spend time doing—they are all acts of worship.” “It is offering our love, our adoration, and our praise to him through all of our lives,” so it’s “extremely sad that we have trained people to think that worship primarily happens when they come to church and sing” (4-5). Our speaking parts (means of commitment), not God’s (means of grace), are the reason for going to church, in this view.
There are certainly many passages that affirm with Kimball that our worship is to be an expression of our daily lives—whether eating or drinking, working at the office, living with neighbors and family members, all to the glory of God. However, that’s exactly why we need to be on the receiving end Lord’s Day. Before we can be active in good works, we must be recipients of grace. On the Lord’s Day, we have a foretaste of that everlasting rest that is already ours objectively in Christ. We are served by God, and then God serves our neighbors through us in the world throughout the week. We come to church because the Creator and Redeemer has called us to assemble. He has something to tell us that will rock our world. It’s bad news and good news. Through all of these words, he is performing miraculous wonders for, in and among us. Christ is present in our midst, in the power of his Spirit. Preaching and sacraments aren’t just more occasions for us to act, but means of the Father’s action, in his Son, by his Spirit. Even our own singing has as its chief purpose not mere self-expression, but making the word of Christ dwell in us richly, with thanksgiving in our hearts (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19).
In short, the problem in many of our churches today is not only that we aren’t God-centered enough. It’s that even in our attempt to be God-centered, the focus is on what we bring the table rather than actually being on God and that remarkable work that he is doing in delivering Christ to us with all of his benefits. Only when we recover the biblical emphasis on God’s ministry to us—where he has appointed, when he has appointed, and through the means that he has appointed, will the priority of God’s grace in his covenant mercies be central. And only when this is central is our desperate need for regular participation in this feast evident as well. We come to church regularly not primarily to do something again, but to receive something again—and, yes, also to respond in gratitude. True enough: it isn’t about us, but it is for us. And a funny thing happens when we surrender to this divine charity: we actually become active again in faith and its fruit of love and service to others.
1. Sally Morganthaler, “Emerging Worship,” in Exploring the Worship Spectrum: Six Views, ed. Paul E. Engle and Paul A. Basden (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 229.[Back]