I have been to worship services that gave me goose-bumps and chills down my spine; a real sense of connection with
the Spirit of the Divine; God-moments. And I’ve been to worship that left me bored, sleepy, or even angry. And I’ve experienced a lot that fit in some vague in-between psychic space. So now I know about the “right way” to do worship. There isn’t one.
I’ve worshipped in other countries, Mexico, Hungary, Romania, Croatia, Kenya, Senegal – not that I’m some big religious tourist; I was a missionary for many years, so I got around some. I’ve concluded that a Mexican Mariachi band is just not going to make me swoon no matter how good it is. I can’t get off on metal music (no offense people – I get it that this is just about me; I’m an acoustic music boy in my soul). There are far more hymns I never want to hear again than those I love – but yet there are some that I love. A great choir can make me swoon – but not often. I gravitate towards unpretentious acoustic singer-songwriter type music.
But I don’t think my preferences constitute a “right way” for anybody else. I get it that the country you are raised in is going to make a big difference for you in what you are moved by. So is your age and your own unique musical history.
The same goes for styles of the rest of the service, besides the music. Written vs. free-form prayers, creeds vs.
statements of faith, one-way vs. interactive communication, how you take communion, when you sit or stand, how you dress, all of it is deeply subjective. There is no “right way” unless you add “…for me, at this moment on my journey.” And that could change too. It has for me.
“So,” you may ask, “anything goes?” No. There are wrong things. I have witnessed some of these personally. It’s completely wrong to guilt-manipulate people. It’s wrong to coerce people to do things that make them feel uncomfortable. It’s wrong to condemn people or exclude them for who they are. It’s wrong to mock other people’s styles of worship or spirituality. It’s wrong to assert that one group has an exclusive claim on the “right way” to worship or live or believe.
But here is a piece of theology that makes some of this diversity make some sense. In Christian theology, according to
all but the most radical fringe types, there are two characteristics of God which are both completely true, and yet nearly opposite. God is Transcendent (God with a capital G) “wholly other,” mysterious, beyond our finite grasp, infinite, “whom no one has seen nor can see” who must be approached with reverence and awe. AND God is
immanent: close to us at all times, a heavenly father, a nurturing mother, a friend who sticks closer than a brother, the good shepherd, the one who knows our secrets, our histories, our deepest thoughts, and who loves and accepts us in spite of it all. Both of these are true of God: awesome and familiar, at the same time.
What is the “right way” to worship this God? Here’s what I have observed. Worship usually focuses on one or the other characteristics of God: either on God’s regal magnificent splendor, or God’s personal, intimate loving-kindness. Traditional and liturgical churches tend to worship God as transcendent, while contemporary and non-liturgical churches tend to worship God as immanent. Which is “right”? That’s like asking if you are a person or a citizen. We are both. God is both transcendent and immanent. In fact a person whose spiritual life did not make room for both aspects of God would be missing something essential. But it’s hard to keep both concepts together at the same time.
A friend compared this situation to royal family. If daddy is king, you need to know when you can go bounding up onto his lap and give him a big kiss, and when you have to observe dignified protocol. Some things that are suited to the living room are not suited for the throne room, even for the crown princess. Even though the King is also Daddy.
So, I don’t believe in a “right way.” I try to be authentic (given lots of human failure) and I try to be open to other people’s tastes and preferences that differ from mine. In the end, I understand that some folks will want to worship with me and some will not. That’s fine. In fact it’s good. We are diverse; there should be diverse options. Everyone is welcome, but not everyone will feel like joining.
I get a lot out of the “ancient/modern” mix of worship: some contemporary elements, like new music, video, a come-as-you are atmosphere, combined with some very ancient elements like the presence of candles, icons, ancient liturgical pieces like the doxology and the Lord’s prayer, times of silence as well as physical movement. It’s not for everyone, and it’s certainly not the “right way” but it somehow does seem to have moments of transcendence and moments of intimate immanence. This is what we are attempting at the “Transitions” service in Gulf Shores, AL. Come “taste and see” if you are in the area. As they say on the Darkwood Brew web-cast “You may not like it.” But maybe you would.