The Smaller Three

Given that this video below has been viewed 28 million times as of writing, there is a good chance you have seen it already. But if not, give it a click now. It’s well worth the 4:57.

Wasn’t that fun? From a sociological perspective, it’s a fascinating look into an unexpected public experience. As a proclamation of the Gospel, a beautiful surprise visit of truth and peace amidst the clamor of holiday activities. But that’s not where I am going with this post. It simply reminded me of a conversation I had over lunch a few years back.

A member of our congregation took me up on my open invitation to get together and chat about issues around worship at our church. Over the course of our meal, he shared with me his thoughts—quite respectfully and clearly. It was one of those conversations where you know you are learning quite a bit in the process. As a point of comparison and emphasis, he mentioned that his previous church had done portions of the Messiah yearly around Christmastime. The contrast and message was clear: the beauty, form, complexity and longevity of pieces like the Messiah far outshine any current offerings we may have in modern worship music. The unspoken but understood implication also being that music like the Messiah, representing a larger body of elements, environment and service order that might find itself more on the traditional side of the worship continuum, was just simply better.

Just for the record here, the Messiah—and by extension, many sacred musical compositions from our Western European cultural treasure chest, are genuinely…masterpieces. They embody and typify the very highest achievements of a cultural and spiritual heritage that we all benefit from. But here’s the question that I think we have to ask boldly: Does this make them also the very best efforts at encouraging and facilitating corporate worship? For everyone? Forevermore? Let’s extend that question out one more level as well: what about worship that is contemporary, blended, modern or whatever other label you’d like to identify? Are they the best—for all time, for everyone?

So that’s the conversation we had. My chicken sandwich wasn’t very good and I wasn’t so sure that I had been helpful to this gentleman. I left knowing I had given it my best at listening, with the attempt of a few comments every now and then–but still a bit depressed over the obvious tension between us created by differences in worship; differences created and magnified by the issues of culture, style and preference.

Lunches like this over the years have made me think that when our worship language and experience stands primarily on these three components of smaller worship, that the Church is in a very dangerous place indeed. In particular, I see three pitfalls here.

Where Do You Want to Land?

The first question begged is simply at what time and place do you want to settle on as “best” in all of the vast cultural and historic landscape of human experience? And is best always tied to increasing levels of complexity and artistry? In order to establish a winner, you have to make some choices. While we could have some great discussions here about the relative alignment of various cultural and historic expressions in worship to Scripture[i], we need to remember how completely devoid of the “how” of worship the New Testament is. John Piper says this is due to the fact that there is a shift from the OT faith of “come and see” to the NT faith of “go and tell”. It seems to me that the Spirit of God was trying pretty hard to keep us from exactly what we have fallen into.

It is Mission-Crippling

The second danger here is directly related to Piper’s observation. Can you imagine what would have happened if the NT had instead prescribed worship in the forms of Near Eastern, First Century AD culture? Most likely, the Gospel would have found much more difficulty in transversing and impacting the diverse cultures and peoples of this world. So I wonder out-loud, “If the Spirit of God wasn’t interested in insisting on the specifics here, why are we?”

The World is Watching

Lastly, those yet to come to faith are viewing the Church and making steps towards Christ or away from Him, oftentimes as a reaction to how we treat one another. It’s simple human nature, but it’s also what Jesus said would happen (Jn 13:34, 35). I was saddened to see the argument over worship styles erupt onto the pages of the television and print news in the Fall of 2009 and Spring of 2010 when Coral Ridge Presbyterian walked through a church split[ii]. Without declaring either side righteous in this scenario you can be sure of this: there were plenty of folks sitting in their breakfast nooks across Florida, reinforcing their distance from God because of the actions of His people. We can do better.

Steps Forward

Worship that exists solely in the footprints of culture, style and preference is a small worship of a very big God. Let me suggest to you that we can make some steps forward into a bigger worship. One that hopefully is more honoring of the One to whom we direct our worship, is better for us–and one that might speak to a world desperately looking for something that rises above it all.

One click and a few minutes of your time will get you started.

Chapter 6—The Big Three: An Introduction to the 3 environments of bigger worship—words, thoughts and actions.

No Small Matter blog—4 week conversation on growing a bigger worship.

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