Traditional Faithfulness or Contemporary Relevance. Which is better for the church?
This is an interesting question. It is also a false dichotomy. It assumes that worship cannot be both. I argue that it in fact should be both. I argue this because we are in danger of the sin of self-righteous elitism if we pit one over against the other.
Worship that is pleasing to God is worship that is rooted and growing out of the church’s historic and catholic roots, yet situated in its present contemporary context and sensible in the culture the church finds herself. Below I highlight eight presuppositions – eight principles – that provide a foundation for the process of designing a liturgical worship service in a 21st century expression of the church.
1. Liturgical does not mean Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, or any other formal denominationally set form of corporate worship. Its broader than any of these individually.
2. Liturgical does not mean “Traditional”. It incorporates traditional elements, but cannot be defined or explained simply by referring to traditional aspects of corporate worship. Every element was at some point contemporary – so to stick too closely to any one tradition is it succumb to traditionalism, not biblical faithfulness in a cultural context.
3. Liturgical does not mean any one certain “style” of music and lyrics. This can actually be sin on either side of the spectrum. If we opt for only “old words” to “old tunes”, or the converse, “new words” to “new tunes”, we practice idolatry in the form of cultural elitism. There is much validity to critique of much contemporary music – especially that which passes for contemporary worship songs of praise; but the answer is not to go to “old lyrics/tunes” exclusively, but to labor to find, perhaps even write, new songs that convey the same ancient truth the church has historically sung.
4. Liturgical means, “work of the people” (literal translation). This means that liturgical worship is best explained and described as God’s people responding to God’s initiation. For some there is close connection to “covenant renewal” occurring every week within corporate worship. At the least, liturgical worship is a corporate re-enactment and engagement with the drama of redemption, incorporating the dual movements of God’s initiation and provision and His people’s response and praise.
5. Liturgical worship is rooted in history and connected in catholicity. When we say “history”, we need to include the history conveyed in the Bible as well as church history. The church stands in a line that extends all the way back to Adam in the garden. The people of God have existed since this time and have carried on through to today. So we look across this spectrum, not just at any one distinct point. It also branches out to include all the saints – those who profess and live under Christ’s lordship – spread out over the world and across time. There may be particular expressions, but the church is a universal body, which incorporates with in it all the biblically based, God-honoring, Christ-centered, Spirit-empowered churches of the world.
6. Liturgical worship includes the 21st century church. This links back to the premise that it is more than “traditionalism”, but it needs to be emphasized more clearly. To say that the church is rooted in history is not the same thing as saying that the church only looks backwards in history for its credible expressions. The church exists along a continuum of history of which its current setting and cultural context is a part. We therefore need to labor to learn from the historical applications of worship and incorporate them into our current setting.
7. Liturgical worship does not mean “technology free”. To say that one prefers worship that is void of technological impediments is to assume that the church has preferred to avoid technological advances. If that were the case, what’s the point in forgoing an overhead projector screen for the use of paper bulletins, pamphlets or even hymnals – all of which are products of the technological advances of the 16th century printing press? By making hard claims that we don’t need certain technologies, yet adopting others, is a misnomer, and needs to be carefully articulated as to what it is we are aiming to accomplish and why. The church has always used technology, and therefore, we shouldn’t be hesitant to use the technology available to us, as long as it best serves the purposes of our corporate worship together.
8. Liturgical worship is corporate worship that takes the shape of gospel re-enactment. This means that the basic structure of the corporate worship service is one of God’s call to worship, man’s dilemma of sin and God’s assurance of deliverance and pardon, God speaks to man through the grace of His word, and man’s response to God’s gracious initiation. To say it another way, corporate worship should follow the drama of redemption – Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation.