Many congregations all over the world are experiencing a dramatic change in their worship. Projection screens and shining sets of drums in a sanctuary signal that at least one of the weekly services will be shaped by what is broadly termed contemporary worship. The new music has a liturgical freedom that invites thousands of newcomers to a spiritual encounter with God they do not find in traditional worship.
Mixed Reactions and Wesleyan Parallels
As might be expected, this contemporary worship draws some very mixed reactions. And frankly, my own feelings probably expose me as a good old middle-Tennessee stick-in-the-mud, pondering when and how the word Amen ever got replaced by the word Repeat.
There were similar reactions to the hymns of the early Methodists, especially those written by Charles Wesley and his brother John. It was objected in their day that to sing religious words to tunes that were popular in the local taverns was both spiritually disrespectful and emotionally suspect. Yet the Wesleys’ hymns gave the Methodists one of their most important means of grace, and out of the thousands that Charles wrote, dozens have become standard classics in our hymnody.
The word to a stick-in-the-mud like myself must therefore be: “Wait and see what happens.” Point well taken. Meanwhile countless new worshipers are coming through our open doors to meet Jesus Christ and to be welcomed with open hearts and minds.
A Place for the Old and the New
Even so, there continues to be a need for traditional forms of worship. Many congregations acknowledge this by offering a range of services each weekend and frequently mid-week as well. For example, there are those who wish to come into a sanctuary that has been consecrated as a sacred place, and be assured they can find the silence and the space to be in the presence of God along with others of like mind and purpose. “Be still and know that I am God” said the psalmist (46:10), and Elijah heard God, not in the wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in the “sound of sheer silence” (I Kings 19:11-12). This kind of worship is no less important for our people, not merely as the quiet contrast that is often included in contemporary services, but as the very disposition of how we tread on holy ground.
An Early Lesson
I learned the importance of this as a young teacher in the north of England. Driving to and from school, I would often pass an Anglican priest doing his pastoral visits on foot. One day I offered him a ride, and we got to know each other to the point where he and his wife invited me and my wife to supper. Their rectory was just across from the parish church, which was four hundred years old. Before we sat down to eat, he asked if I would like to join him in the church for evensong, and I readily agreed. He rang the church bell for a minute or so, and the two of us went in to the deep silence of the sanctuary. No one else joined us, so we went through the litany together. I was curious as we walked back to the rectory.
“How often do you have evensong?” I asked.
“Every day except Saturday.”
“And is this your average attendance?”
“No,” he replied, “it’s double.”
“You say evensong to yourself every night?”
“By no means. First, I am not saying it to myself;
God is being worshiped. Second, people in the village hear the bell and know that the church is being faithful, even if they are not. And third, it’s in the Discipline.”
Four hundred years of faithful worship, witness, and church discipline. Point also well taken.