Dear Worship Critic,
For most of my life I have listened to you criticize the way people worship. I first heard it in my own home church. The chief criticism was against those who clapped occasionally after a particularly moving musical offering. The main concern seemed to be that if we clap to express how we feel about what just happened we might be encouraging others to believe that what just happened was a performance rather than a form of worship. To me clapping means two things: appreciation and/or encouragement. Two good things in my opinion. But the critics are right, in that, what happens during a worship service should not have the aim of entertaining people. And if you clap, then it must be evidence of being entertaining and THOU SHALT NOT BE ENTERTAINED. Right?
However, there are other reasons people clap. Clapping is an imperative in ancient worship. “Clap your hands all ye people” (Psalm 47:1 among many other Psalms). If you have ever experienced Pentecostal worship, you know that people clap all the time. When you believe the Spirit is urging you to clap, then you clap. It could be during a sermon, musical offering, or even during prayer. It may sound foreign to you, but that doesn’t make it wrong. It may mean you have something still to learn.
As I began being exposed to a broader portion of Christians and church traditions, I began to hear a second criticism. I heard it from more charismatic (Pentecostal) Christians after having experienced a traditional worship service: There is no Spirit here. The assumption was that because the worshippers were not vocal, did not clap, and did not jump up and down that the Holy Spirit must not be present (I know of a church that split because some worshipers began raising their hands). And I used to worry about this criticism because it seems like we should be excited about the Good News of God, the presence of Christ, and the movement of the Holy Spirit. But I have found that some of the most deeply spiritual people I have encountered take a very reverential and quiet approach to worship. Sometimes there is powerful current in deep waters.
For the past five years or so, I have read countless blogs criticizing contemporary worship, particularly in megachurches. The critique is a combination of the first two critiques. It essentially goes like this: The emotional reaction of attenders of contemporary megachurches is evidence that the worship of God has been replaced by the false idol of entertainment. The Holy Spirit is not present in this style of worship. The clapping, the crying, and the shouting for joy are all just entertainment fueled hysteria. Or something like that. And to some degree they are probably right. There are those who put the worship experience above the practice of following Christ.
Old testament prophets also criticize worship but it was very different from any of these critiques. Their critiques were always on what worshippers did or didn’t do outside of worship, which is usually where the evidence of whether the Holy Spirit is at work in a person or not.
Worship is what happens when we encounter the living God. There is no shoulds or oughts in worship. It can happen in quiet moments of solitude and it can happen in a room filled with a thousand people. And if it is an encounter with God, then we cannot manufacture it. However, God is always present. So, really it is about us becoming present to God.
At the beginning of our worship services the pastor usually says, “Let us prepare our hearts to worship God.” I usually take some deep breaths and pray for the Holy Spirit to open up my whole being to encounter God. And then hymns, scripture reading, preaching, and the sacraments open me up further to an encounter with God. I also find that it helps to be with other people who are seeking the same thing. It’s like I find a resonance in their spirits with my spirit. And when my whole soul starts to vibrate with expectation I experience worship. When I worship in a contemporary style it happens a little differently. They prepare for encountering God by singing several songs in a row. It can being very powerful. The key, no matter what style of worship or by whatever level of competence the worship leaders are leading, is to seek to encounter the living God.
Believe me, it doesn’t happen every week and perhaps that is because I am leading worship. Although, as a preacher I get to experience the presence of God in a very powerful way and that is as I am preaching God’s Words. It often feels like a river flowing through me.
I am not saying that worship services should go uncritiqued, but I simply hate when people critique other people’s worship. I can’t stop you from being a critic, but I want to challenge you to begin with your own worship. And if you feel the Spirit is leading you, help others to prepare their hearts to worship God with the knowledge that everyone prepares differently. Help people to find their way of encountering God.
Alright, now, bring it on ye critics.
Yours in Christ,
Rev. Paul Burns
Pastor of First Presbyterian Church