Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Rethinking Worship

Last Monday I took my students to a nearby Greek Orthodox Church. I do this nearly every year. We assemble in the parking lot and then proceed to the outer narthex where we meet up with Father Deacon David (It’s a nice name. I’m thinking of going with Dr. Rev. John). Over time, he and I have developed a warm relationship. It is another world for me, having grown up in a bland Baptist church with all the musty smells of church creep. I always find it fascinating to step into an Orthodox realm of incense and candles and icons and Greek chants. Worship is intended to impact every sense. Worship, in this case, is not a lecture hall.

It has not always been warm and receptive. In some of my travels overseas, stepping into an Orthodox Church feels cold and alienating. A number of important sites, including Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem and John’s exile on Patmos, are guarded by the Orthodox Church, and in all of my visits, there is a clear impression they are convinced they are the one, true church. Catholics, Protestants, not to mention those wild evangelicals, have lapsed from the true faith and are heretics to be tolerated when they visit.

To be fair, we in the evangelical tradition tend to return the favor. We can be suspicious of those with a more formal, liturgical faith, who are not as definitive about their salvation experience as we are. While the Orthodox emphasize sanctification to the exclusion of justification, we can sometimes emphasize justification and deemphasize the progressive transformation of the soul. Hence, worship is not near as intentional to bring one further into the journey of faith. We tend to offer a worship experience that does not honor sacred space nor remind people they are on a spiritual trek.

The Orthodox hold dearly to tradition, while we hold firmly to sola Scripture. We may not value tradition (councils, writings, icons, etc.) as they do, but I have learned that this is not such a badge of honor. Too many evangelicals ignore history, believing that the very best worship is contemporary, free flowing, and state of the art. Much of it is, in reality, reductionist and superficial. Most evangelicals do not realize that most of our current worship practices (e.g. seeker services, altar calls) are rooted in the frontier revivals of the 1800’s. Even our traditional worship services find their roots no deeper than the 17th century, using hymns that are largely Eurocentric.

Still, I am encouraged by the shift that is going on in much evangelical worship. We once prided ourselves on our artless worship, fearful of any association with icons and statues. The building is simply a utilitarian means—the church is the people. But we are realizing that God is a God of beauty. He speaks through His creation, and His beauty should be celebrated in a worship gathering. At Village, artistic expression is beginning to be unleashed. We are gradually getting in step with a church calendar. Our Selah services, celebrating such days as Ash Wednesday, are becoming some of our most important services. Scripture readings on Sundays are linking us with the world wide church. We are getting over our generational arrogance that once believed our contemporary practices are the first and necessary ones.

I am not so sure how Father Deacon David views my testimony. Though he respects me, he may be unsure of my salvation. I know this—he would not be so impressed with much of what we in the evangelical world refer to as worship. There is no sense of a journey from narthex to nave to altar. The informal style, the coffee cups in the “nave”, the Dockers shorts, the entertaining banter between worship leader and preacher, the absence of tradition and history and continuity, bare walls, etc. would leave him wanting. Equally so, I might find worship in an Orthodox Church to be bureaucratically driven, stifling creativity and freedom. The focus on unchanged symbol and ritual might leave me spiritually dry rather than spiritually renewed. It’s a safe guess. I have ministered to a number of people who have left their Catholic and Orthodox worlds for something fresh. Worshippers hunger for an authentic, spiritual experience.

My international church in Europe was a blend of Anglican, Pentecostal, Baptist, Presbyterian, and everything between. Formal/liturgical sitting next to “let the Spirit lead.” Being in one community, we had to learn to lay aside our worship preferences and our pride, and do this thing called corporate worship. I am guessing worship in heaven will be something like this—only a lot better. Whatever our traditions, I’m pretty sure we will all realize we were like kids borrowing dad’s keys and driving for the first time

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