Congregations enter into worship through elements like music, prayer, Scripture reading, creeds, preaching, and the sacraments to encounter God and tell the Church’s story of salvation history. This old story always includes a fresh word about God’s activity in the here and now, which is an expression of God’s Spirit at work in the world. The Christian story (which entails, among other things: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation) shapes us and provides a lens to evaluate all other competing narratives (or world views) offered by society, culture, and other faiths. It is within this ethos that people experience God’s healing and reconciling presence and commit to sharing this grand story with a world in need. We call our worship a “service” because a service is something we do for others. As theologian Tyron Inbody says, “Worship includes our service to God’s justice, healing, and peace in the world.”
Describing or defining worship is difficult because of our diverse personal, cultural, theological, and historical contexts. Nazarenes worship in a variety of styles and liturgical patterns. Our worship is not, and never has been, one-size-fits-all. The camp meeting and revivalist traditions, which strongly shaped much of Nazarene worship, and the Church Growth Movement, which influenced more recent developments, have both waned, leaving many clergy looking for what follows. New social and cultural realities are prompting many Nazarenes to rethink worship and the goal of worship. While some Nazarenes are influenced by broader trends within evangelical worship, others are drinking deeply from their Wesleyan roots. While the Wesleyan tradition has always been a primary source for Nazarene worship, there is increasing interest in John Wesley’s unique and insightful ability to embrace both the worship of the Church of England (a fellowship he never abandoned), and the worship of the Methodist revival, which utilized creative innovations— like field preaching and class meetings— to reach the unchurched. Wesley had regard for the Church’s liturgical forms because he felt these kept the focus on God. Yet, he also sought new methods and new ways to relate the faith because he understood that worship had to be contextual to be effective. John's brother, Charles, greatly aided this effort by writing thousands of hymns (many set to familiar tunes) which made biblical and theological concepts accessible and inspiring to common people. Wesley’s worship style sought to combine the Church’s deep and time-proven liturgical witness, while allowing for contextual adaptation, so that the gospel could be extended into the world. This combination may be one of his greatest gifts to his spiritual descendants. Yet, even for Wesley, the true purpose of worship was not in the forms but in the application: love for God and neighbor.
As sociologist Gerardo Marti shares in an interview in this issue, people are not so much attracted by a church’s worship style as they are by the quality of the community. While worship forms and practices are essential in shaping God’s people, what validates those practices is the experience of a loving and supportive community that cares for those inside and outside the church’s walls. Conflicts and divisions over a church’s worship style may more likely point to our desire for worship that is self-gratifying rather than God-focused and inclusive (a peril for pastors as well as laity). In our early days, what attracted people to Nazarene fellowships was not simply a powerful worship experience and great preaching, but the fact that Nazarenes were committed to living out their worship as an ethic of love in the world. This witness of holy love is an act of worship just as much as is a Sunday morning experience.
In this issue, we look at some of the elements that make for transcendent and contextual worship.