In recent years there has been a lot of discussion about the "worship wars." This refers to the conflicts among churches over the style and order of worship. Some congregations have gone to two or more worship services to allow for different styles of worship – styles that some people want and styles that other people do not want. There are many reasons given for the cause of the worship wars: generational conflict, the rise of contemporary Christian music, the breakup of denominational structures, the influence of mass media and an entertainment culture. All of these have some validity, but I want to lay my cards on the table and tell my view. This is just my view and I invite discussion of other viewpoints: I think that many of the reasons I stated describe some of the reason for the worship wars, but the core reason we are in the mess called the Worship Wars is that we have made too much distinction between private worship and public worship. Or another way to put it is this: We have pushed worship to the margins of human experience and allowed it to be judged ultimately as a private and personal experience rather than a collective, communal experience. The blame cannot go completely on the church – it is a symptom of our age and our American culture.

For instance, in the case of Terry Schiavo, much can be said about this situation in terms of medical science, ethics, sanctity of life and quality of life. But one significant development has been the distinction between public policy and private choice. What do we do when public policy and private choice are in conflict? I agree with the President that perhaps we should err on the side of life. I wish our public policy always did so in all cases and not just in terms of euthanasia rather than simply give in to partisan preference on media-driven hot topics. But consider how the conflict between public policy and private choice is often at the root of our legal and political debates. How should the needs or desires of the individual be weighed against the needs or desires of the community?

We have played this question out in church as well. How do you balance the needs and desires of the individual member against the needs and desires of the church? Biblically, we are taught to have the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5-11; see also Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 1-4). If each of us is seeking the good of the other, just as God seeks our good, then we are at peace. This has never been easy, not since the time of Paul when he pleaded with Euodia and Syntyche at the church in Philippi to agree with one another (Philippians 4). Even before that Jesus was often settling conflicts between his followers by showing them how to take on the role of a servant (John 13).

In some ways it is even harder for us to have the mind of Christ and seek the good of others because we live in a culture of individualism and consumerism. The spirit of consumerism teaches us that the "customer is always right." I have heard people twist the teaching of Jesus to be a servant by approaching church leaders and imploring them to give into their concerns because they are the weaker, offended member and elders and minister are supposed to be their servants (or in this case customer-service managers)! That attitude of "demanding my rights as an immature Christian" is completely foreign to the mind of Christ. Christ did not call us to be servants so we would capitulate to immaturity and consumerism. [Of course this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever go to our leaders with our problems, but let’s go to them to seek their help in managing ourselves rather than managing others. Paul urged the church leaders at Philippi to help their feuding factions to work out the differences – Philippians 4.]

The spirit of individualism has had an effect on church life and the worship in a much more subtle way. The spirit of individualism has taught us to view worship and discipleship as a personal and private matter. We cannot simply reject that. It is true that we must have a personal faith and there is an element of our worship and faith that is very private. What we must reject is the notion that worship is completely or totally personal and private. In fact, Jesus teaches us how to be persons who relate properly to others. However, there is a strong tendency in our culture to push matters of spirituality and faith completely into the realm of the private. In the private realm one avoids offended others with their own personal preferences and avoids intolerant conflicts or disagreements. (Stephen Carter calls this a "Culture of Disbelief.") So, any public expression of worship must be tame and bland. It should be safe for all and not disturbing. This is sort of the "social contract" we have developed so that "We can all just get along." The irony is that most of us are crying out for something to be passionate about, something to stake our lives on, something inspiring – even if have different opinions on how to get there. Such a "truth worth dying for" or a "God so awe-inspiring" cannot be limited to the private realm. In fact, many of the cultures in other places and other times who are not hindered by consumerism and extreme individualism realize that this is something that has to "go public." If you examine the history of worship (and not only Christian worship) we find that it is in fact a public act that calls the individual to something greater than himself or herself.

Just by its nature such worship is very public. For example, ancient worship, in Israel and elsewhere, often involved sacrifice. Can you imagine a pagan worshipper describing the sacrifice of an animal as "a very intimate and personal experience?" The festivals and events that mark ancient worship are very communal and they shape the identity of a people. They are not separate and apart from politics but intimately wed to politics – to war and government. In many cultures, the ruler was a sort of deity! They are not separate and apart from the private lives of families but they are intertwined with family issues as intimate as fertility! Pagan worship can be criticized and condemned on many levels but there is one thing that they did not do that we do: they did not compartmentalize human experience into artificial categories called religious and secular. Instead, they understand how "the religious" and the "everyday" are intertwined and interconnected. I think we would be better off if we understood that life cannot and should not be compartmentalized into boxes labeled "spiritual" and "material," or "church" and "business," or "private faith" and "public work." It doesn’t fit with what we believe about God. [Observe that in the Terry Schiavo case it is not an issue that one can easily separate from faith. Some will try, but this issue goes to the core of what is of ultimate worth and isn’t our worship the focus on what is worthy?]

Scripture will not allow such a distinction between our worship and our life. (Amos 5:21-26) Adapting this OT text for our age, we should agree that God is speaking through Amos to make it clear that our worship on Sunday cannot be separated from our life on Monday through Saturday. Worship of God turns us inside out. The test of worship is not "Did we follow the book with decency and order?" The test of worship is not "Do I feel better and happier?" The test of worship is "Have we allowed God to shape us into a people who are happy to live by his word and are better at bringing decency and order to our world?" Worship, according to Amos, is the source of a mighty flooding river that brings justice and righteousness to a parched land.

In the Old Testament, the faith of the Hebrews was public. It had to be! This was what shaped them as a people. [Exodus 8:1] When they were slaves in Egypt, Moses went to Pharaoh and said "Let my people go!" God had a purpose for their release – "So that they may worship me!" That is public and it is the mission of God connected with worship. The Almighty God is confronting the lesser god known as Pharaoh. This is a fight and it is public. The result is the plagues. Not private, personal plagues. The result of the plagues is not a bland secular statement that tolerates religious freedom. This is a conflict! Think about the worship of the Hebrews when they ate the Passover lamb dressed in their traveling clothes and eating bread baked quickly. They painted their door posts with blood. This is all very public and "in the open." Not to be spectacular! Not to be showy! But because it is real and the power of God and the mission of God involve shaping a people and saving the world. Now if the mission of God is so universally public, why do we think worship is somehow private and hidden?

I don’t want to suggest that the public worship of the people of God is always at odds with the culture. I only suggest that it ENGAGES the culture and that engagement can happen in many ways. In the book of Acts we have a brief description of worship that shows how the public worship of the church is attractive to the larger community. (Acts 2:42) The early church is worshipping daily in the temple and in their homes and their public worship invites those in their context to worship with them. The worship in Acts often transforms culture.

Review the Layers of Participating in Worship ... Engaging the Culture: The inner layers are unchanging and fairly set (especially the inside). The outer layer is the most variable but not "anything goes." In order to engage the culture we have to pay attention to the way the content and structure of our worship engage our cultural context

The engagement with culture in worship is complex: There are aspects of the culture we will embrace, but some we must reject. There are aspects we might transform and change and some we might adapt. (For more discussion see Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People, p. 176.) This is an on-going process because our context is fluid; the culture changes even though the gospel does not. (For instance, Paul told believers in Rome that the ruler was God’s agent, but John in the Revelation describes the ruler as enemy. Did the truth change or did context change?) Christianity is able to move into many different cultures and languages and thus it is viable in all contexts (unlike some belief systems). But the engagement with culture is always public as well as personal.

Our cultural context is going to play a part in determining the styles with which we worship. Not absolutely, but there’s no way to avoid it. Let me tell you some of the ways our cultural context is involved in our worship: We use English, I am not wearing special garments, our auditorium is arranged with the pulpit at the front center, we are used to the auditorium, we sing mostly songs that harmonize different parts, we serve the Lord’s Supper from the front and not sitting around tables, we worship on Sunday morning rather than only Sunday evening or afternoon, we feel it is important to dress well for worship as a sign of respect (you may say that is not just cultural) perhaps, but the clothes we determine as those that show respect are culturally based. [How many of our women are wearing gloves and hats? How many of our men are wearing tuxedos?]

If you think that my message is that these things are unimportant and to say that they are just culturally means that they are trivial then you misunderstand me. That is not what I am saying. I am saying that we should be thoughtful and intentional about the content and structure of our faith and how it should interact with our context. This will allow us to avoid the worship wars and focus on God and even call the public to focus on God because we are worshipping publicly in a way that engages our culture effectively and appropriately. I am not saying this is trivial. Certainly there are some things that venture on the edge of minutia and it is unfortunate that churches have split and disgruntled members have left congregations because someone used Good Value brand grape juice instead of Welch’s in the communion. Those are things we can talk about and the rule of love should guide us. But there are issues that have to do with our context that demand we are very thoughtful about the way we engage our culture in worship – especially if we are going to be true to the content of our worship

Case in point: In the summer of 1907 in Bellwood, Tennessee, the church of Christ there experienced a sort of "Worship War." The matter was quite public and it had to do with the way the people of faith engaged their cultural context. S.E. Harris, a member of this church, wrote to E. A. Elam, another member and an editor of the Gospel Advocate, to protest about an African-American girl who attended worship with Mr. and Mrs. Elam. The girl was essentially a member of the Elam and family and they raised her from infancy. Harris indicated to Elam that the girl’s presence was disturbing to some of the members of the congregation and asked Elam to see that the girl should worship with the "colored church" in town for the sake of peace.

The correspondence between Elam and Harris on this issue continued in the pages of the Gospel Advocate. It was public. Harris pointed out that the members who were sensitive to the girl’s presence had to take responsibility for their feelings and sensibilities and that Scripture obligated them to work for the sake of peace also.

Finally, David Lipscomb, the long-time editor of the Gospel Advocate and the most respected leader in the churches of the time, weighed in on the matter. Siding with Elam, Lipscomb stated that: "No one as a Christian or in service of God has the right to say to another "Thou Shalt Not" because he is of a different family, race, social or political station. While these distinctions exist here (in the culture), God favors or condemns none on account of them ... To object to any child of God participating in the service on account of his social or civil state, his race or color is to object to Jesus Christ and to cast [Christ] from our association. It is a fearful thing to do."

The downside of what could have been an even more heroic and Christ-like engagement with the culture of that time is that Lipscomb and other church leaders of the time conceded that Scriptures did not teach very much on social conditions and that segregated congregations were inevitable and unavoidable. This concession to the culture permitted Harris to reply to Lipscomb: "If it was right to build a house for the Negroes to worship in, then is it wrong to ask a Negro to go to that house after it has been prepared for them?" [Ultimately, Lipscomb declared his position that churches built upon racial lines of discrimination were contrary to the New Testament teaching. – Narrative Source: David Lipscomb & E. A. Elam, Gospel Advocate 49 (1907): 424-425, 488, 521.]

Perhaps this story illustrates why it is important that we intentionally, seriously, and publicly engage the cultural context in which we live in a way that is formed and shaped by the content and structure of our worship with God. God is engaging all cultures and we, the church, are those who have responded to his engagement with us.

Discussion Guide
  1. What sort of issues have you observed as part of the "Worship Wars"? Why do these issues create conflict?
  2. What other issues besides the Terry Schiavo case involve the tension between private choice and public policy?
  3. Do you think that Christian faith has been marginalized in our culture? Do you think that our culture wants to reduce faith to a private matter with no impact on culture, politics, or society? If so, name some ways you have observed this. If you disagree, show how faith is intertwined with our culture and politics.
  4. Read Philippians 2:5-14 and Philippians 4. When we find ourselves in the middle of a "worship war" (or any conflict) how should we manage it? How should we manage ourselves?
  5. Do you agree that consumerism and individualism have influenced the way we associate with one another? Comment on these common phrases: "Worship at the church of your choice," "Church-shopping," "Needs-based evangelism," "Jesus is my personal savior," "User-friendly church," "Seeker-sensitive church." How are these phrases shaped by consumer ideas and individualism.
  6. Consider the texts used in worship today (Amos 5:21-27, Exodus 8:1, Acts 2:42-47): How do these texts help us erase the overdrawn distinction between public and private faith? Can you think of some ways we can be personal and public in our faith?
  7. What aspects of our culture do we need to engage with the gospel (the content of our worship)? Which ones should we embrace? Reject? Transform? Redefine?
  8. Faith and spirituality are growing in interest in our culture. The death of Pope John Paul II has placed public faith at the center of our attention worldwide. What does this mean for the practice of our faith? For the mission of God? For our worship?

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 3 April 2005

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