Let’s do a series of posts on reverent worship, shall we?
We will begin with sorting through some of the muddiness. So, the situation. Worship wars go in and out of intensity. They seemed to be particularly strong in the 80’s and 90’s. There seemed to be some kind of border that was passed at that point where so-called contemporary worship and contextualized ministry became the norm, rather than the marginal. However, there is definitely still an undercurrent of the debate going on right now, especially as the highly principled and theologically driven community, sometimes associated with The Gospel Coalition, wants to really get worship right.
So, what is reverence when it comes to worship (and by worship let’s use the narrower definition of gathered worship in a local church)? Reverence for a long time was defined as formality. For many, though they may not think of it in those terms, their definition of what reverence looks like is embodied in forms of worship that are formal by Western standards, and by the way this whole series will assume the issues involved in North America, but I think the principles are at work around the globe. So, the formality definition tends to assume that things like a highly structured service, limited in its connection with overt and physically demonstrated affections, a strong emphasis on hymns in their original arrangements, business attire, historical architecture, a rhetorically formal communication style at the pulpit, and so on, are what makes for reverence. Often their arguments refer to how we display reverence on other occasions or other contexts, like a wedding, funeral, the opera, a fine restaurant, etc. The argument goes, if we dress up and expect a certain orderliness at those events, should we not bring that same level of gravitas and distinction to something as important as worshipping God?
Let’s flip this. Irreverence is often associated with settings that are less formal, and certainly in situations that embrace the casual. My formality = reverence friends often suggest that a casual environment necessarily expresses a less reverent posture toward worship. By casual, we are talking about music styles, the way people communicate from the pulpit or in general from the mic, how people express their affections in physical displays, and of course in how people attire themselves. Jeans, t-shirts, and flip flops all seem very loose and sloppy and, well, not very reverent. Even things like clapping, or hollering, or the use of humor, are seen as devaluing the sense of grandeur we should have in our worship. In fact, some claim that casual setting are driven by man-centeredness, a desire to cater to men in order to please people inebriated by pop culture and to attract more and more people to church
Now, we can flip both of those, and we have people that think formal worship is irrelevant, non-missional, inward looking, almost like a fine piece of art – pretty, maybe inspiring, but an antiquity that does not really connect with practical, every day life. In fact, I guess you could make the case that formality is a means of expressing a Western sense of gravitas, that a small yet influential minority of people want to keep alive, often out of fear as they see it so marginalized, but if that gravitas is no longer the common vernacular of social expression, then it is in no way actually reverent, because no one is reverencing God, just a way of interacting with space, the mind, and other humans. Likewise, one can say that this is just a matter of the heart and, within reason, reverence can be displayed with a huge variety of liturgical styles and social symbols.
So, where do we go from here? We will try and get at some definition and practical import in our next posts. But, I hope we agree on one thing: reverence is good. In fact, reverence is essential in gathered worship and in all of life as believers. Reverence is Biblical.