What I have to say reflects my own personal viewpoint and bias and is designed more to stimulate your thought and, I would hope, encourage you to reflect afresh upon your role as a worship leader, rather than to be understood as an ex cathedra pronouncement.
My credentials are 50 years of Nazarene ministry and an understanding of Christian worship. For my entire ministry, from my first home mission pastorate to the present hour, it has been my deep concern that Nazarenes learn better how to worship. I am persuaded that nothing we do as Christ’s ministers is more important than our own personal worship and our conduct of public worship, in which we have the high privilege of leading God’s people into a living encounter with him in his holiness and his grace.
My personal history will perhaps explain my acknowledged bias. I was born, baptized, and nourished in Methodism. My earliest memories are of kneeling with my parents to receive Holy Communion and of singing with the congregation the great hymns of the Church, which celebrate his majesty, glory, and saving mercy. The worship of Almighty God was a powerful molding influence upon my mind and heart long before I was aware of what was happening. For all this I praise God.
It was through the Church of the Nazarene, however, that I encountered Christ as my personal Savior, as a high school junior in a home mission tent campaign. Three years later, after my freshman year at Bethany Peniel College, I found myself the supply pastor of a struggling little flock in Jackson, Tennessee, while I completed my final three years of undergraduate study at the Methodist college in that town. In chapel there, as at Vanderbilt Divinity School for five additional years (still as a Nazarene pastor), my understanding of worship and my appreciation for the church’s hymnody was deepened.
At the same time, I felt entirely comfortable in revival and camp meeting services where spiritual demonstration— weeping, shouting, and sometimes even sanctified dancing!—was the order of the day. Then, as now, I found a deep response to Dr. Bresee’s call: “Oh, Nazarenes, keep the glory down”—along with an abhorrence of trumped up emotionalism. With Dr. J.B. Chapman, I say, “I was born in the fire, and I cannot settle for the smoke.”
IN MY OWN PERSONAL HISTORY, BOTH THE LITURGICAL AND FREE CHURCH STREAMS HAVE FLOWED TOGETHER, AND TO THIS DAY, I CAN WORSHIP IN A DEEP AND MEANINGFUL WAY IN EITHER TRADITION.
I yearn for only one thing: the manifest presence of God in the midst of his people, whether in the earthquake and fire or in the voice of gentle stillness.
True worship, I am convinced, is the vital spark of heavenly flame that inspires, refines, sustains, and builds up the life of the church. Worship is the highest act of which a creature of God is capable, for “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
For me, the most comprehensive and satisfying definition of worship is that of Archbishop William Temple who wrote:
Worship is the quickening of the conscience by the holiness of God; it is the nourishment of the mind by the truth of God; it is the purifying of our imagination by the beauty of God; it is the opening of the heart to the love of God; it is the surrender of the will to the purpose of God—and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which human nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centeredness which is our original sin.1
Such worship can take place in either Westminster Cathedral or the humblest Nazarene chapel if the people of God there assembled have met to ascribe to him “worth-ship”—to give to him alone the worth, the value, the honor, the glory, the adoration, which are his due as our Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer—and to join intelligently and feelingly with the angelic beings in singing, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing” (Rev. 5:12, KJV).
It is against this background of conviction and understanding that I must attempt to assess the present crisis in Nazarene worship. My task is made extremely difficult, however, not only by my own limited observation of what is actually going on throughout our movement in this matter of worship, but also by the fact that I recognize there are many different models of worship style among us, even in the same city. We must allow for variations in forms and styles of worship, to recognize the widely differing cultural needs in any given community. However—and this is most important—there are certainly some norms by which to evaluate whether or not true worship is taking place where we are or under our ministry.
For a starter, let me suggest that in many churches confusion exists as to what really constitutes worship. Many pastors apparently do not know how to plan a service of worship. They regularly ignore the elements that must go into true worship, which permits their services to fall into an informal formality that stifles the Holy Spirit. Of course, this is nothing new. More than 40 years ago, General Superintendent Chapman complained that many Nazarene services had more of the atmosphere of “an old-fashioned mountain corn husking” than of the worship of almighty God. He was struck by the fact that many pastors did not know the difference between hymns (which are addressed to God—or at least are God-centered in content) and gospel songs (which are subjective and experience-centered). The latter may be appropriate, he said, as the service moves into a more intimate and personal mood, but a service of worship should open—as does the Lord’s Prayer—with the acknowledgment and adoration of God, with hymns like “Come, Thou Almighty King” or “O for a Thousand Tongues,” music and words that enable the soul to rise into God’s presence. He was also bothered that the Scripture reading was often limited to the quoting of the text for the sermon—a deplorable practice—and that a special song was often inserted before the sermon, simply to have a special, when a hymn such as “Break Thou the Bread of Life” would be far more appropriate.
In many sections of the church, this remains a problem. More times than I wish to admit, I have had to remind the minister of music or the pastor, who was opening the morning worship in the district assembly, that “Victory in Jesus” was not quite appropriate at that moment. Unless a service of true worship was planned, for the past two years I’ve had a standard suggestion, that the morning assembly open with “Come, Thou Fount of ev’ry blessing,/ Tune my heart to sing Thy grace,/ Streams of mercy, never ceasing,/ Call for songs of loudest praise.” When the service of worship was to be deferred until the 11 o’clock hour, I still insisted that the assembly open with a hymn like, “I Love Thy kingdom, Lord,/ The house of Thine abode,/ The Church our blest Redeemer bought/With His own precious blood.”
Not many months ago, I was in one of our larger churches in the Midwest, a truly great and influential church. I was disappointed and grieved in spirit not to be able to join in singing a single hymn of worship that morning. It was a gospel song service throughout. And although the people sang lustily, I sensed little of the “wonder, love, and praise” my heart yearned to experience. The entire service was experience-centered, and when I stood to preach, I had to generate my own worship. My soul felt cheated that morning. The pastor and minister of music are spiritually- minded and experienced men of God, but apparently neither has been taught the difference between “hymns, songs, and spiritual songs” or what constitutes an authentic service of worship. (Incidentally, I still see a valid distinction between the morning worship service and an evening gospel service where informality and songs of testimony are quite appropriate.)
I find myself in reluctant agreement with John R. Stott’s critique:
We evangelicals do not know much about worship. Evangelism is our specialty, not worship. We have little sense of the greatness of almighty God. . . . Our worship services are often ill prepared, slovenly, mechanical, perfunctory, and dull. . . . Much of public worship is ritual without reality, form without power, religion without God.2
Contrast this with Dr. Bresee’s description of morning worship in the old “Glory Barn” of Los Angeles First Church.
It was the fire within that gilded the boards with glory and made them shimmer and shine with the light of heaven. When the multitude has gathered, and there are hundreds of one mind and heart, and the Holy Ghost descends in his plentitude and power, that place is garnished with a beauty and glory in comparison with which all the adorning of Solomon’s Temple would be barrenness. Every board shines with the jeweled beauty of the New Jerusalem. What are carved marble and overlaying of God and trimmings of silver; what are arches and turrets and spires, in comparison with the beauty of the Lord and the glory of the Divine Presence?3
Ideal? Perhaps; but a worthy ideal for every Nazarene pastor and congregation. Those who come into our services should be able to say: “This is indeed the house of God, the very gate of heaven.”
A second critical area is the growing tendency to crowd out congregational singing with special music. If the church is not large enough to have a trained choir, they can at least assemble a gospel quartet—or a gospel combo!
This past October I had the high privilege of a 17-day preaching mission in Great Britain. What made the visit such a great spiritual benefit to me was the opportunity I enjoyed in each service—but one—of singing with the people of England, Scotland, and Ireland, not only many of John and Charles Wesley’s hymns, (sung to tunes I’d never heard but soon learned to love) but also those of other great hymnists like John Newton, Horatio Bonar, and Isaac Watts, men who knew how to describe in poetic language the soul’s aspirations for and praise of our great Redeemer.
I said, in every service but one. I must be careful and considerate of what I say here because that particular Irish church was alive and growing. But since apparently it was the first time a general superintendent had visited them, they prepared almost an hour of special music—for the Lord I’m sure -- but also for me and for the lord mayor of that city and his lady who would come that evening. The service opened with the heartfelt singing of Charles Wesley’s “Oh for a Thousand Tongues,” but that was the end of the congregational singing that evening. For about an hour, the youth choir, the ladies ensemble, the men’s choir, the combined choirs sang and sang and sang. When I was presented to preach, it was already past 9 o’clock, and I felt I was speaking into a spiritual vacuum. The sermon God had used in other services to expand my own soul and lift God’s people, that night was a laborious struggle. What was wrong? An hour-long stream of “specials” had dissipated the spirit of worship. The lord mayor’s wife commented to me kindly after the service, “I wish they had furnished us the words to their songs so I could have followed along.” Her felt need, apparently like mine, was to participate in the worship.
WE MUST ALLOW FOR VARIATIONS IN FORMS AND STYLES OF WORSHIP, TO RECOGNIZE THE WIDELY DIFFERING CULTURAL NEEDS IN ANY GIVEN COMMUNITY.
Robert E. Webber has rightly said, “Worship is a verb.”⁴ It is not what the people passively listen to that constitutes worship, it is what they do. In overemphasizing special numbers to the neglect of congregational singing, we are robbing God’s people of one of the best ways to involve them in worship—provided the hymns and songs are prayerfully chosen. I would add a second proviso: and provided the pastor models for [their] people the worship of God by [their] own spirit and participation.
Closely related to the growing practice of substituting special music for congregational singing is the drift toward religious entertainment in our services. This is not the place to go into all the reasons for such a drift. I will simply put it bluntly: this practice represents an invasion of the Church by the spirit of this age. A narcissistic culture demands entertainment, and we can be religiously entertained and left untouched by the Spirit of Christ.
In another context, Dean Inge once warned, “When the church marries the spirit of the age, she will be left a widow in the next generation.”5 This is what has been referred to as the danger of “the secularization of our people’s perceptions.” And without the intention of unholy alliance, the Church is suddenly in a vulnerable position. I agree with James Spruce who writes:
The tension for the church is to remain a reliable witness by refusing to sacrifice its credibility to the god of worldly popularity . . . And it is within the sacred precincts of the church at worship that we are most severely tested.6
One of the obvious testing grounds is Christian music, where the blending of sacred and secular music is so subtly done that the difference between Christian praise and worldly entertainment is often confused if not indistinguishable. The response of the passive worshiper is often failure to distinguish between what is truly entertaining and what is truly God honoring.7
This is not much of an issue for people at a Saturday night “praise gathering” at a downtown concert hall. But what about Sunday morning, when we gather in church to worship? Are we then too being entertained by the musicians or the preacher? Are we more impressed with the performer, showmanship, and decibels than we are with the message and words? The current practice of applauding at least leaves the impression that the skill of a performer has drawn the response, rather than the message of truth being conveyed. This is most disturbing to me when the singer has obviously been under the anointing of the Spirit and my soul, hushed in wonder and adoration, is assaulted by loud applause!
IN THIS AGE OF ENTERTAINMENT, THE FOCUS IS ON THE MEDIUM RATHER THAN THE MESSAGE. IN OUR SERVICES, THE PROBLEM IS THAT THE SOLOIST, THE MUSIC, OR THE PERFORMER MAY BECOME GREATER THAN THE MESSAGE THEY CONVEY.
If the people are only passive observers or spectators, their chances of confusing the medium with the message are very high.
Worship is not something done before or for the congregation, as if those leading the service are the actors and the congregation the audience. No, but as Søren Kierkegaard reminds us, the worship leaders are simply “prompters” for the true “actors,” who are the people of God gathered to ascribe worth, honor, and praise to almighty God. The “performance” is not by the leaders but by the congregation. George Frideric Handel’s classic statement, in 1741 after the premier of his Messiah, is still valid: “Sir, I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I had hoped it would make them better.”
Being made better has little or nothing to do with whether or not we have a sense of fulfillment through being emotionally entertained, says Spruce:
But it has everything to do with a sense of fulfillment through servanthood. The sad consequence of passivity is the loss of servanthood for the fun of being a spectator. And in an age of Christian idols, fans find it easy to follow the stars. When our favorites are performing either on television or at an all night sing or are moving from church to church, who has time for servanthood? Who has time to visit the nursing home? Who provides a meal for the poor?8
This is not to criticize Christian artists who sing or preach for us. They too have a duty to fulfill before God. They have the responsibility and privilege of helping us to praise God too. But let us place the Christian response to human need where it really belongs. Spruce concludes, “On the shoulders of the people who come to enjoy good feelings or their old-time religion but are rarely, if ever, moved to faithful servanthood.”9
Theologically, this means that religious entertainment, in harmony with the spirit of this age, tends to reinforce the egocentricity of our fallen humanity. Whereas, true worship, as William Temple believes, in moving us to the surrender of our wills to the purpose of God “in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which human nature is capable,” provides “the remedy for that self-centeredness which is our original sin.” To me, this is the heart of the present crisis in Nazarene worship.
Underlying this crisis is a cultural shift in the way people think and feel. Robert Webber has put it well:
There was a time when the idea of mystery was more a part of our thinking than now. God was in His heavens—high, holy, and lifted up. In worship there was a sense of awe and reverence in the presence of the one who was wholly other. But now we have . . . so reduced [God] to clichés and formulas that the mystery has disappeared. Our approach to God is intellectual and scientific in one extreme and excessively ‘buddy-buddy’ on the other; both are sorely lacking in imagination.10
We holiness evangelicals have not escaped this secularization of life and the influence of our narcissistic culture. We rejoice in our “Body Life,” as we should, but our worship tends, in some churches, to be too much a reflection of our experience in Christ. Great hymns like “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” lose the depth of their meaning in [human]-centered worship; then, our services tend to become exercises in showmanship and decibels. The celebration of our oneness in Christ is precious, but it must not be divorced from the sense of God’s sublime glory and matchless grace, which move true worshipers to be “lost in wonder, love, and praise.”
Despite the scientific, secularized, [human]-centered thinking of this present age, God is still God. He remains indeed “the high and holy One who inhabits eternity.” He has not abdicated his throne, and he is worthy of our praise as our Creator and our Redeemer in Christ. Since this is true, we must find ways to instill a sense of awe within worshipers. We must help them to understand why they are in church on Sunday and what it means to bow down before the infinite God in that mixture of awe, wonder, and joy, which we call “worship!”
As Christ’s ministers, we must “take time to be holy” by living in the Word and sustaining a deep personal relationship with God in Christ. From that should flow a spirit of awe, praise, and adoration that will communicate itself to the worshipers who gather in our churches on the Lord’s Day. “We must commit ourselves to the biblical view of knowing that God deserves so much more than He is getting from us,” Spruce reminds us.11 Of course, in our frailty, we will never give God all the glory he deserves, but we can give him our best! And our best means that God paid a great price for us to be able to sing, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain’ (Rom. 5:12).”
WILLIAM M. GREATHOUSE (1919-2011) was a pastor, educator, college president, president of Nazarene Theological Seminary, and general superintendent of the Church of the Nazarene.
Copyright © by Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2923 Troost, Kansas City, MO 64109. Used by permission of the Publisher. All rights reserved. Taken from Preacher’s Magazine, December/January/February 1989-90.
1. James R. Spruce. Come, Let Us Worship (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1986), 9.
2. Ibid., 10.
3. E.A. Girvin. A Prince in Israel (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1916), 109.
5. Ibid., 52.
8. Ibid., 54.
10. Robert E. Webber. Worship Old and New (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982).
11. Spruce, 74-75.