“What you heart clings to and trusts in, that is really your god.” – Martin Luther
Over the course of the past fifteen years, I have been a part of many gatherings that called themselves “worship services.” I have played electric guitar in ways that would sound more at home in an arena rock concert and mandolin that would fit in a bluegrass band. I have led people in ancient liturgy and modern declarations of faith. I have led choirs whose music felt uplifting and others whose musical preferences made me cringe. In short, I’ve seen and heard a lot that people have labeled worship through the years.
I find it interesting how many times I have heard people use phrases like “traditional”, “old fashion worship”, or “old time worship” as though those are the preferred styles. I have also had people insist that new forms like Ancient-Modern, Taize, and contemporary are the truer forms of worship closer to the way Jesus did it. Most people who make these statements are looking for affirmation that they are “doing it right”, that God will hear their words and know their hearts and find them faithful as followers of Jesus. They want to know that God is happy with what they see as their spiritual offering.
A couple of things I would say about worship. First, the New Testament uses two words for worship. The first of these words means “to fall down” as in fall down before God (an act of reverence) and the second means “to serve”. So, true New Testament worship is a matter of reverence and service. The first is a matter of having the right heart attitude or perspective and the second is a matter of acting on the attitude. In other words, the combination of these two ideas of worship requires us to both talk the talk of faith and walk the walk of faith. They are inseparable, two sides of the same coin.
Second, worship services are a matter of local preference and culture. There is no right way to do a worship service. There is simply the preference of the people gathered. This has been the way of worship for something like the last sixteen centuries. For instance, in the second and third centuries (100-299 CE), some of the earliest examples of gatherings we have, there were two prominent liturgies. The shorter liturgy had a series of readings from the Jewish scriptures, the locally accepted writings of the New Testament (which did not exist in its current form yet), a sermon of varied length, a litany (call and response with a deacon and members of the congregation), and a dismissal. The second, longer liturgy, revolved completely around the celebration of Eucharist or Communion. The odds are good that neither gathering was limited to an hour. Both gatherings happened in times of persecution so were practiced in house churches or places that were hidden and out of the way.
As the church was adopted by Constantine and the Roman Empire as the official religion, churches became larger, ornate structures. Liturgies in some areas, especially in the eastern empire and the rural west focused on artistry in expressing worship while others followed more pragmatic, simple expressions. And by the time we finished with the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s and 1600s, all bets were off as to what might be worship. People began to develop denominations with small groups and alter their worship to their cultural ideas.
Finally, I would say that since we know these things, we should be willing to understand and accept the fact that as long as reverence and service to God are central, it is worship. It may not be what you like (you might be surprised at what I enjoy as worship, ask me sometime) but if it fits the bill, it is worship.