I stood in the dimly lit narthex of the chapel at St. Andrew’s Monastery reading literature about the historic site when a middle-age woman entered. She paused before a statue of the Blessed Virgin, crossed herself, and stared for long, silent moments at the beautifully adorned icon. The fading late-afternoon sunlight cast shadows about the room and dozens of rows of burning candles — visible expressions of prayers offered up during the day — gave off their soft light. This was no curious tourist stop for her. Her solemn expression told me that. It was a sacred moment, filled with meaning my Protestant mind could not grasp, a reverent pause in the presence of the Divine. Then, quietly, she eased open the ornately carved chapel door, walked down the aisle toward the altar, slipped into one of the deserted pews, knelt and folded her hands. There, unhurried, she prayed in silence. Alone. In quite another setting I witnessed a very different form of worship. Over the growl of diesel trucks and honking traffic, pounding music could be heard echoing from an old warehouse that abutted a congested inner-city expressway. Deep in the bowels of this dingy building, a hundred or so worshippers were dancing about, waving their hands in the air, gyrating to the deafening reverberations of drums and amplified guitars. Some sang words, some shouted praises, some stood with faces turned heavenward, tears streaming down their cheeks. I did not recognize the songs. It was clear, however, that even though the worshippers were quite obviously from different parts of the city — their hygiene and attire revealed the extremes of both affluence and severe deprivation — they all knew the verses well. During lulls in the music various ones took the mike and offered animated testimonies of how God had dramatically transformed their lives. Hugs. Amen’s. More pulsating music.
Uptown, a few blocks and a world away, I listened to bells high in a stone bell-tower peal out their invitation for the community to gather for worship. Inside the historic structure a grand pipe organ filled the sanctuary with the sounds of traditional hymns, some dating back centuries to the time of Wesley and Luther. This Sunday morning a 48 member choir and 21-piece orchestra presented a medley of classical religious songs, a performance so majestic and inspiring that the audience was left nearly breathless. Some sat reverently with eyes closed, several dabbed the corners of their eyes with handkerchiefs, most sat motionless in rapt silence. I recognized every melody, knew most of the words by heart. This was heavenly worship that touched deep places in my soul.
What kind of worship is most pleasing to God? Is it simply the style most meaningful to the worshipper or does God have a preference? The scripture says that God takes delight in the praise of His people but is there a preferred form for acceptable praise? We might look back to some of the earliest worship instructions where God’s people are to have week-long worship celebrations with dancing and singing and feasting and burning lambs and oxen on the Temple altar. Perhaps some of that might still apply, though the sacrificial slaughter of animals would be a bit of a stretch. (Was the smell of burning animal carcasses really a sweet smelling savor in God’s nostrils?) Perhaps the more recent scriptural examples would be more helpful. Like the singing of hymns and reading of scripture and offering of prayers. And, of course, communion. But what kind of music or liturgy did the early church employ? And if we could know, would that really tell us anything? After all, they themselves were trying to figure out what the doctrines and norms of this new movement should look like.
It seems reasonable to me that at the very least God would appreciate good music. I mean splendidly written, intricate, perfectly performed — like Bach. And that He would appreciate thoughtful lyrics full of well-turned phrases, rich with theological truth — like A Mighty Fortress is Our God. How could He not? Yet there are other of my friends who think God loves joyful, spontaneous outbursts of unbridled praise accompanied with thumping rhythm. And still others who think He prefers candles and Gregorian chants and lots of silence. Who’s right?
Apparently some affluent Jewish religious leaders in ancient Israel were having a debate of a similar nature. The discussion, focused on worship practice rather than on the practice of loving their neighbors, was abruptly silenced when an obscure farmer broke in with words he proclaimed to be directly from God:
“Away with your hymns of praise — they are mere noise to my ears. I will not listen to your music, no matter how lovely it is. I want to see a mighty flood of justice — a torrent of doing good.” (Amos 5:23-24 The Living Bible)
Or as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it:
“I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religious projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. Do you know what I want? I want justice — oceans of it. I want fairness — rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want.” (Amos 5:21-24 The Message)