STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF THE SAINTS
When I was a kid I used to go and spend time with my grandma in the summer. Every Sunday she’d haul me to church with her. And because I never wanted to join Sunday school with a bunch of kids I didn’t know, she’d let me sit through “big people church” beside her.
The first church I remember her taking me to was an old traditional Methodist church. With all the stained glass and the built-in pipe organ and the semi-gothic architecture, I remember feeling like I was in a castle. But that was where my excitement ended. The rest of the time I was confused by when I should be standing or sitting, and why the guy up front was wearing robes, and why everyone was reciting Scriptures together like a chorus of elderly monotone robots.
After a few years, my grandma moved churches out to an old country church that seemed about as big as her backyard shed. There were seven or eight rows on either side of the chapel and a piano that looked like it came secondhand from an old cowboy saloon. The preacher had a mustache and a big grin and he pumped his fist against the pulpit a lot as he talked about how much God loved us and how important the Bible was.
Later on in life, my grandma moved to a “Holiness” church where everybody wore suits and everything seemed to be that 70’s shade of sepia tone yellow. They sang all those old gospel tunes in beautiful three- and four-part harmonies. The men always wore suits and ties, and the ladies wore long skirts with their hair in buns and no makeup. The preacher was big and jolly and used words like “backsliding” and “tarrying.”
Over time, like my grandmother before me, I’ve learned to embrace the beauty of various worship traditions. I love the poetic liturgies of the Catholic and traditional churches. I love the passion and joy of the charismatics. I love the art and music of the Eastern Orthodox Church. And I love the simplicity and gentleness of the Quakers. They all represent these beautiful little pockets of the Body of Christ, each with their own special idiosyncrasies.
The deeper I dive into the world of Christian worship history, the more I want to go. Most people hear the word “history” and want to fall asleep in about seventeen seconds. But I’m convinced that we can learn much about ourselves and our spiritual ancestry by becoming students of worship history. Understanding worship history gives worship leaders a well-rounded knowledge of where we come from. As the famous saying goes, “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Here are a few themes I’ve seen in worship history, along with some practical suggestions in incorporating them into our worship services:
Worship as a daily practice. The earliest Christians inherited the “Tefillah” from their Jewish roots, a list of eighteen prayers to be said three times daily. Worship remained a daily ritual for most
Christians up until the Middle Ages.
Many of us shudder when we hear “worship” and “discipline” mentioned in the same sentence. Many Christians today scratch their heads as to how worship works itself into our daily lives, outside of Christian radio and maybe a morning Scripture or two.
Even for professional worship leaders, it is easy to get so wrapped up in the logistics of leading a worship ministry that we neglect the daily art of worshiping God. Incorporating worship into our daily routine is more about intentionality than anything. Whether it’s reciting the Lord’s Prayer, a lunch time prayer walk, or bedtime confessions, our daily worship routines shape who we become.
Worship in public. The earliest Christians worshiped in the Temple and the synagogues alongside the very hostile Jews. (Acts 3.) The first manifestation of the Holy Spirit culminated with a rousing public sermon from St. Peter, and resulted in thousands of people being saved (Acts 2.) For the early Christians, worship was not a hidden affair.
While these stories may frighten us, imagine the testimony that public worship would be if we were bold in taking Jesus to the streets. The reputation of the soap-box street-preacher has caused many of us to shrink away from the idea of public worship. But what if we “let our light shine” a bit by holding a worship concert at a rented theater or music venue? What if we moved a bible study to the park where the homeless congregate? What would happen if we begged God for courage and let the world listen in?
Silence. Throughout the Scriptures, we often see God speaking to people in quiet moments (ie. 1 Kings 19, Mark 1:35.) From the “Desert Fathers” of the early church to the more recent practices of the Quaker tradition, silence has been a powerful tool used by God in worship.
A modern practice of silence can be quite profound considering the media-driven, noise-saturated culture we live in. While we might observe a “moment of silence” at civil and sporting events, this is often overlooked in mainstream church services. The media has programmed our minds to believe that silent time is wasted time.
Silence for the sake of silence can seem like a kitschy novelty. But silence, even in small portions, can leave us with a deep impression of God. It can allow us to meditate on the words we’ve finished singing. It can show our reverence and respect to God. Or it can allow us to be emptied of ourselves, and filled with the thoughts of the Holy Spirit.
Baptizing culture. It may surprise many to know that many of the early Roman “basilicas” were not used for religious purposes at all. They were actually government buildings used for civil purposes, until the reign of the Christian emperor Constantine. By 400 A.D., basilicas had become a popular place for Christian worshipers to congregate, in some ways becoming the first “mega-churches.”
We’ve seen similar trends in recent years, as many growing churches purchase dilapidated malls or schools and reclaim them for the purpose of worshiping God. And for half a century now, Christian musicians have been employing the music of our secular counterparts to sing the gospel in genres that are relevant to the culture.
Any time we take something broken or unholy and reclaim it for God’s Kingdom, we’re communicating the gospel through our actions. Baptizing our culture is less about creating a sanitized Christian subculture, and more about influencing and leading within our cultural context.
Use of space. A cursory review of the history of worship reveals that worship space has been used in a variety of interesting ways. From the cathedrals of the Catholic church to the forced outdoor meetings of the Chinese church, the history of worship “space” is vast and varied.
We’ve never had better opportunities for variances in worship space. Our technology allows for a wide variety of possibilities. I’ve seen people lead from the back or the side of the room effectively. Leading worship completely “unplugged,” even in large spaces, can help create a hauntingly powerful experience. In recent years, “visual worship” via lights and projectors has aided in creating a mood and space for worship.
I’m reminded of the time when my church was moving into our new building. Because the sound and lighting system had already been moved, the final service in our old building was held “unplugged.” Instead of our typical concert-like worship times, the worship band set up on a wing of the stage and led a low-lit, mellow worship set. Several people mentioned that it was their favorite worship time our church had ever done.
Sometimes necessity really is the mother of invention, even within church services. When you find yourself with space constraints, look at it as an opportunity to employ creative worship techniques.
I’m convinced that we’ve got a lot to teach one another. If we’ll allow ourselves to learn from the various traditions of worship-both past and present- we’ll grow our craft of worship leading by leaps and bounds.
Sometimes its easy to visit other churches and poke fun at the goofy traditions, forgetting that we have goofy traditions of our own. We may shake our heads at the medieval corruption of the Catholics, the rebellion of the Protestants, or the inflexibility of the Eastern Orthodox churches. We may shudders at the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition or the Crusades, wondering how the church ever got so far off track.
But there’s no escaping it. As we go to create our worship services, we’re standing on the shoulders of the saints. For better or for worse, we owe more to our Christian ancestors than we usually admit. And studying the history of our Christian ancestors will help us rediscover the mysteries and beauty of the gospel.