I celebrated a very particular sort of anniversary this summer. Twenty years ago this past June I experienced a significant period of spiritual awakening and a deepening sense of God’s grace in my life. It was an Aldersgate-type experience; one I still hold to as an anchor point in my walk with the Lord. Throughout that summer my friends and I witnessed powerful manifestations of the presence of God. Our lives were filled with an insatiable hunger for more of Jesus. And we learned how to worship with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength.
In thinking back on that summer, one of the dominant memories I have is of times of singing and prayer where I was afraid to open my eyes because I was certain I would see angels joining in worship. We didn’t follow a bulletin. Our prayers were spontaneous. Nearly all the songs we sang were less than two or three years old. We cared nothing for the furnishings of the buildings we met in—most of the time our eyes were closed anyway! What we did bring to each gathering was a childlike expectation that we would encounter the risen Lord—primarily through prayer, singing, and testimony—every time we gathered for worship.
Fast forward twenty years and at first glance it may appear that I’ve made an about-face in what I value in worship. I no longer view music as the primary way in which the Holy Spirit is made manifest in a service. I find deep substance in following time-tested patterns and prayers in worship. I come unglued (in a good way) at the singing of a Charles Wesley hymn. And I try to take Communion at least every Sunday.
Where some might see dissonance between these two ways of worship, I find beautiful harmony. Here are five reasons why:
Forms Carry Us in Worship When We Grow Weary
Those of us who have encountered the Lord during times of spontaneity and the unpredictable in worship understand that these experiences are seldom sustained by themselves. Over the last twenty years, I’ve come to see the use of forms in worship as an ally for sustaining renewal rather than a barrier to it. Rather than a lifeless, dry formalism, I’ve found the use of time-tested patterns and prayers to be a platform for the affections in worship—something that both anchors emotions while also giving expression to the affections. When embraced with “heart, mind, soul and strength,” forms allow for reverent spontaneity and holy emotion.
Music Isn’t a Sacrament, but Has a High Calling
How many times have you been guilty of expecting the Lord to speak more through some Hillsong United song versus the public reading of Scripture in worship? Rather than viewing music as the thing that facilitates encounter between God and His people, I’ve come to envision music as a servant of everything that goes on in the service. The Lord never said “where two or three are gathered in my name singing contemporary songs to me there I am in their midst.” Music is integral to Christian worship, but the Lord meets us through the Word and Sacraments as we gather together in His name.
The Lord Will ALWAYS Meet Us at the Table
United Methodist liturgist, James White, referred to sacraments as “God’s self-giving.” I find this a helpful way to envision what the Lord does through the gifts of bread and wine. Many of the longest lasting revivals in the history of the Church emphasized the Lord’s Supper as part of renewal. Rather than a mere tool to assist us in remembering what God has done for us in Christ, the Lord’s Supper is a vessel through which we encounter the risen Christ. Even on our toughest Sunday; even when our faith is lagging and our own experience of the presence of God is muted, Jesus always meets us at the Table.
Jesus is the Source of Our Desires
What is the point of listening to multiple readings from the lectionary, following the Christian calendar, or celebrating weekly Communion? It’s simply this: to know, love, and follow Jesus. At the core of our desire for renewal is a longing for the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. At its best, the use of time-tested patterns for worship leads us to the One who is the source of all our desires by immersing us in His love Story of redemption. We hear Him speak to us through the public reading of the Word in community. We rehearse over and over His mighty acts in history. We “walk through the wardrobe” and meet Him as He offers His very body to us in the bread and wine. And as we align our hearts to this rhythm of gathering with the Body of Christ in worship, we find we are becoming more like the One we long for.
Forms Must Be Drenched in Spirit and Truth or They Become Pretty, but Petty Nothings.
Over the past twenty years I’ve watched many gravitate toward time-tested forms of worship for some of the reasons highlighted above. Sadly, I’ve also witnessed others who embrace “traditional” or “high church” forms for a variety of other reasons: some simply because they find it beautiful or because they like the ceremony of the “smells and bells.” Still others, because it’s not how their parents worshipped. Among the many things that I cling to from that time of renewal is the fact that our worship must be “in Spirit and in truth.” Regardless of style, if we forget this our worship quickly becomes empty. Divorced from the Spirit of God and the truth, forms become, as Bishop Nolan Harmon once put it, “pretty, but petty nothings.”