|ORSHIP DETOUR,” the orange-and-black sign announced in front of the Conway United Methodist Church. Among the jangling advertisements for Thai restaurants, psychic readings, and canoeing adventures in this tourist-driven New Hampshire town, the church sign lingered longest in my memory.
Days later, I parked on busy Route 16 and approached the classic wooden church building for a closer look. I had lived long enough with the sign’s odd message by then to make it seem strangely familiar. “I’ve been here before,” I mused to myself as my camera shutter clicked, “many, many times.”
And indeed, I have. As one whom irreverent friends sometimes call a “lifer” or a “born-and-bred,” I’ve attended nearly 2,500 worship services in a half century of Adventist experience. I’ve been blessed to meet the God of Scripture in sanctuaries large and small; in vibrant, soulful congregations and restrained Anglo fellowships; among Gen Xers and Millennials as well as with those whose gray hair is the cheerful norm. My heart has been stirred and humbled, broken and restored by hearing the Word, singing the hymns, praying in the Spirit’s gift of oneness.
But there have been many worship detours as well, and not only when I worshipped from the pew. Every honest pastor can tell you of at least one Sabbath when the message he or she prepared spoke more about the preacher than the Lord—when the Spirit was tasked to edify the hearers in spite of the “foolishness of preaching.” Thank God that He can find believers even when the preacher loses them.
More typically, however, I’ve been taken on a detour during worship by those who seemed to have forgotten the One on whom this experience is supposed to focus.
The aria chosen to display the soloist’s vocal technique is no less distracting from the true object of worship than the drum-driven and exuberant dancing of those expressing their liberty to do almost anything they wish in the name of worship.
Chopin mazurkas or baroque minuets may cause me to marvel at the pianist’s amazing dexterity, but they do not qualify as worship for those of us who know their origins as dance music. The intense and powerful emotion evoked by repeating a single praise-song phrase 15 times may deeply stir us, but it falls well short of Paul’s counsel that we pray and sing with both spirit and mind (1 Cor. 14:14-16).
Sentimental stories, told either to children or from the pulpit, may elicit sighs or tears, but almost never do they invite us to bow down before the God who lives in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16).
Preaching worthy of the name ought to end in “Hallelujah,” not just in greater admiration for the preacher’s eloquence or pop culture references.
The list of worship detours is as long and varied as the fallible men and women who both lead and let themselves be led in public worship. Though enormously satisfying to our pride, finger-pointing at others doesn’t actually show the way to reform and renewal in our worship. We ought to linger in our critique only long enough to rededicate ourselves to being agents of godly change and finer, deeper worship.
Only the biblically illiterate will insist that God must gladly accept whatever we offer up as worship. His unique, exalted character and His utter “otherness” demand that we approach this topic—and His presence—“on our knees,” whatever our actual posture in prayer. Each feature of a worship service ought itself to be an act of worship—an invocation of God’s presence, a rejoicing in His goodness, an offering of all that we are and have, a celebration of His revelation in the Word and in the Word made flesh.
So here’s a call for thoughtful, Word-based worship planning in our churches. Urge those who serve you to form—or re-form—just such a representative group from your body of believers. From such study, planning, and prayer will emerge the sparks that still can set a world on fire.
Bill Knott is editor of the Adventist Review.