“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.”
-Isaiah 29:13, via Jesus in Matthew 15:8-9 (NIV)
I still remember the Sunday night worship service when I was a teenager in which the preacher talked about sexual immorality. But I don’t remember it for the reasons I should. I remember it because of the invitation song that night, where people were invited to respond to the lesson.
It was “Why Not Tonight?” No kidding. Someone should have given that more thought, if the pew of guffawing teenagers I was sitting with were any indication.
At my church, we’ve recently changed up the order of worship.
The changes we’ve made haven’t been all that earth-shaking, honestly. The main thing we’ve done is to change up the order of the sermon and Communion. The old sequence is Communion, then sermon. The new sequence is sermon, then Communion. We shifted a prayer around in there too, but that’s the main difference between the “old” order of worship (which is about twenty years old) and the “new” order of worship (which is now the way it was before we changed it twenty years ago).
If you’re not a regular church attender, then you probably have two questions. One is What’s the order of worship? Good question, and the answer is that it’s the order in which we do things in our worship services. In our church, as in most, it’s written out in advance in the church newsletter that’s available when folks arrive on Sunday mornings.
Your second question, if you’re not a regular church attender and hear that we’ve changed up the order of worship at our church, might very well be So what?
So what? Well, for starters, people get very comfortable with the order of worship on a Sunday morning. They get very accustomed to things happening at about the same time, in about the same order. There’s a reassurance in familiarity, a sense that all’s well with the world, that things are as they should be. In case you haven’t noticed, churches thrive on tradition — even if it’s not all that old. So one So what? is that people are pretty comfortable with the old order. As someone said (jokingly, I think) on the Sunday when we made the change, “Now I don’t know when to go to sleep!”
Really, though, our church has handled the change very well. We’ve gone back to the “old” order a time or two since we made the change, and at least some of us seem to like the “new” order better, for various reasons.
It’s those various reasons that frame my second answer to the So what? question. The what — the reason that the change is significant — is that it has people thinking and talking about the way we do things, and the reasons we do them in the way we do. And, when it comes to the community of faith gathered for worship, talking and thinking about what we do and why we do it is inherently very important.
One of our worship leaders likes the “new” order, he says, because it keeps us from having to change our focus to Communion, then back. On the other hand, another doesn't care for the “new” order because he’s accustomed to having the time around Communion to get himself ready to hear the sermon. Two differing opinions, both well-thought-out and well-expressed. Neither opinion is right or wrong. Both express some assumptions, some values, and some priorities. And, hopefully, the change is sparking others to think through what they expect to happen on Sunday, and why, creating other conversations that bristle with theology and ecclesiology.
It’s always a good thing when the church thinks and talks about what goes on in worship, and why it goes on.
I say this because I grew up hearing that we did what we did in worship because the Bible says so. That is, we sang, we prayed, we gave, we shared Communion, and we listened to a sermon because the Bible has examples of those five acts of worship. We don’t see incense or candles in the New Testament church at worship, so we didn’t have incense or candles. There was no band when the New Testament church got together for worship, so we didn’t have a band. We do what we do, the teaching ran, because the Bible says we should do those things.
“The Bible says so” is, at first glance, a pretty good reason to do something. But it’s felt to me since that “the Bible says so” was sometimes used an excuse for giving little thought to what we do when we get together for worship, and why we do it. It made us comfortable with the illusion that we didn’t need to give our orders of worship much consideration at all beyond getting those five acts in each week.
Jesus, like the prophets before him, warned of “vain” or “purposeless” worship made up of merely human rules. It angered him to see traditions that carried the stink of death wrapped up in religious garb and trotted out as worship. One order of worship or the other probably won’t prevent that, but what does it suggest if there’s only one order that is acceptable for your church? Churches like mine, that don’t have a liturgy handed down to them from on high, are by nature open to the possibility of change and variation. But we aren’t immune to the petrifying nature of empty, thoughtless tradition — however “biblical” that tradition may seem.
Change things up, and people start to think. They think about what, and why. And thinking about worship is good, usually. It opens hearts and minds, it drags assumptions and prejudices out into the light, and it wakes us up from sleepwalking through songs, prayers, preaching, and table. It allows us to hear the Word anew and attend to the movements of the Holy Spirit.
Give some thought to what your church does, and why. Choose songs carefully, with an eye to theme and movement. Make sure public prayers have real content, and ask yourself what you expect worshippers to do. Think through the way Communion is done: What does it say, for example, if the church literally gathers around tables, versus having the symbols brought to them? How do your worship times engage children, or the physically or mentally challenged? How does your building’s architecture affect worship, and what can you do about it?
We may not be used to thinking about worship in these ways. But we can all individually think about why we do what we do. And those who lead churches can and should consider how to help worshippers do so “in Spirit and in truth.”
Maybe it will even help keep laughing adolescents quiet.