A large number of churches in America have lost their way in worship. This is due to a regrettable level of biblical and theological ignorance concerning the history and patterns of Christian worship practices. We are without excuse regarding this lack of knowledge and it has resulted in obliviousness. The history of our worship is easy to discover if we look to the Scriptures and the faithful who have gone before us. The Old Testament establishes God’s pattern of dialogical worship characterized by revelation and response. The New Testament shows us how early Christian worship, founded in synagogue worship, transformed to become Christocentric. In addition, the writings of the apostles and early church fathers and mothers provide substantive examples and guidance if we care to know. The Bible and the testimony of the early Church are light for our path. Why, then, are we satisfied to remain in shadows, or potentially, the darkness?
Ignorance thrives in darkness. The institution of slavery in eighteenth and nineteenth-century America did its best to insure the illiteracy of its slaves. External forces of oppression will deny others access to light. But if we are honest, we know that each of us, of our own volition, look for shadowy places. Dishonesty loves the darkness. We tell ourselves we can hide there: hide from others and from God. Though we may manage some success at the former, Psalm 139:11-12 dispels the notion of the latter: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.” Sometimes we choose the darkness of ignorance as an excuse for our self-indulgence. We cling to it in order to fulfill our desires. As 18th-century British poet Thomas Gray states: “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘Tis folly to be wise.” Though a clever saying, it is foolishness to the Christian because “we have the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16) and “are wise in Christ” (I Corinthians 4:10).
So, in some Christian churches, we prefer not to know what the Bible and our forebears of the faith have to say about worship. Not knowing, we think, releases us from responsibility. Instead of asking what God would want in worship, we focus on what we want. In essence, we have replaced God as the object of our worship. As a Christian subculture, we have made the quality of our experience the priority. Our “take aways” have become the means by which we measure if worship was successful. “Did I like it?” and “Did I get anything out of it?” have become the only questions we know to ask. We have simply become lost in the liturgy of our desires. An alternative path of biblical and theological ignorance, one often taken by those who craft and lead worship, is to substitute creativity and relevance for knowledge. Although an engaged imagination and contextual concern are essential to authentic Christian worship, they cannot stand in place of a thorough biblical, theological and historical foundation of Christian worship. When detached from this footing, creativity and relevance can become idols.
Clearly, I am concerned about the condition of Church’s current biblical and theological foundation of worship. As implied earlier, some churches reveal a level of ignorance as expressed in their anthropocentric worship. This reality begs the question: “How and why did we veer so far?” Those who have pondered this before me point to the “radial individualism” (Cherry) and “privatism” (Webber) of faith, and by extension, Christian worship. This mentality, born out of Romanticism and expressed in revivalism and evangelicalism, has taken firm root in some American Christian minds of the late 20th and 21st centuries. It has, along with “narcissism, consumerism and pragmatism” (Webber), contributed to the disconnect many Christians have with the local church and its gathered worship. May God have mercy on His Church, restore her worship and help us to heed these words from Proverbs 12:15: “The way of the fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.”