Does worship’s relevance trump reverence?

My earliest experiences of church worship, as a child, impressed upon me that something special was happening. People sat quietly, mostly without talking, awaiting the start of the service. Out of sight, the elders, in a circle, prayed God would bless this worship. An organ softly played hymns to prepare the congregation for worship.

Finally, the strains of “Holy, Holy, Holy” were rendered by the choir, while the congregation bowed heads in prayer and the elders quietly took their places on the podium, kneeling in reverence with a brief invocation for God to unite with our service of worship. My family, and most other members of that church, dressed in our best clothing in honor of our God and king.

Recently, while worshiping with members of Orthodox churches in Anchorage, I was similarly struck by their reverence for their church, each other and the act of worshiping God. Orthodox services are long and consist primarily of choral and chanted liturgies. For those who are able, standing is the norm, except during the homily. Order, decorum, and reverence are evident throughout the service. It’s respectfully quiet. Children are with their parents, and behave respectfully and quietly. I don’t know how their parents do it, but infants rarely interrupt the services I’ve attended. (Parents will take young children out if necessary so they will not interrupt the flow of the service.)

While I’m not Orthodox, as a Christian I also believe in many of the same things Orthodox adherents do and respect them for their beliefs. Reverence, daily worship, spiritual songs, and prayers in the home are part of the life they live in the Orthodox faith, and these extend into their worship services.

During the past decade or two, I’ve noticed a trend away from reverence in many churches, houses of worship, even in some of the Protestant churches I thought would never accept this type of change.

In many evangelical and Protestant churches, as I enter the worship sanctuary, a din of noisy talking, laughing and people bouncing from one to another prevails; this may last 10-15 minutes before services. As services begin in many contemporary churches, they often do so with a wall of music where people are, for the most part, told (not asked), to stand. The music often is a show or display of raw musical talent with sound levels from 95-120 decibels. This can continue for half an hour or more until one or more persons from the ministerial team make their appearance, often to warm up the crowd with announcements, offerings and more music. Finally, a sermon is delivered, replete with altar call in many evangelical churches.

Only once, in my many years of visiting churches here, have I heard a church address the issue of congregational behavior, particularly that of maintaining reverence. Otherwise, I’ve never heard a single pastor talk about the purpose of worship, with the exception of an exceptional experience of “slow Mass” taught by the Rev. Leo Walsh, formerly of St. Benedict’s Parish.

During a two-and-a-half-hour midweek service last fall, Walsh described what happens in a church from the moment the narthex (entryway) is entered. While not a regular service, he underscored the Catholic practice of the Eucharistic Mass being the focus of their belief. Walsh’s talk gave the 35 or so attendees a historical perspective on every aspect of a Catholic Mass. It’s too bad other churches, regardless of denomination, don’t follow this practice; I found it most educational.

A major discussion among church leaders today centers around reverence versus cultural relevance. In a piercing commentary on this subject, “Worship: Relevancy vs. Reverence,” writer Adelina Ghilea says, “It is not our responsibility to make God relevant to our societies and cultures. The church exists because Christ is to be worshipped. I cannot accept with any sympathy the idea that we go to church to soothe ourselves and calm our spirits; that we go to church to feel better. Worship has become too much about us, and is so many times far from being focused on God’s holiness. Somehow, now that we have direct access to God through Jesus Christ, we no longer perceive His holiness the same way. We almost think God is less holy (or at least we act like it).”

The purpose of worship is to glorify God. Over the two millennia since the founding of Christianity this has been done by communion or Eucharist (Acts 20:7), prayers to God (1 Corinthians 14:15–16), singing songs to God’s glory (Ephesians 5:19), collecting offerings (1 Corinthians 16:2), reading Scripture (Colossians 4:16), and proclaiming the word of God (Acts 20:7).

Most denominations have manuals and statements about reverence, especially in church. For example, the Assemblies of God statement reads, “Behavior in the sanctuary should always be respectful and reverent towards God. Those who have not been taught such reverence sometimes treat it as a place to play, run, shout, and socialize. Not only during worship services and altar prayer time, but also when the sanctuary is nearly empty, all should respect and reverence the place where God meets with His church community.”

Many of my visits to Assembly churches have shown me this standard is not always upheld. Despite similar statements from many denominations, their adherents rarely seem to have been taught its significance.

Christ cleansed the temple twice before he was crucified. He clearly said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer.” I’m afraid many Christian faith bodies have succumbed to giving their constituents what they want instead of what God commands. The account of Moses and the burning bush tells of God instructing Moses to remove his shoes because the ground on which he stood was “holy ground.” This was a lesson by God to Moses of reverence.

Despite the casual way in which worship is often practiced today, all Christians might reconsider, in every way, what reverence in worship really means. Are we dressed to meet God? Are our songs really praising God? Are our prayers from the heart? Do our offerings represent our truest gifts to God? Have we taken the message (or sermon or homily) to heart? Do we understand and apply the partaking of communion or Eucharist? The heart of these practices could well bear fruit in enhanced reverence.

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