More about worship

The Case Against “Contemporary” Worship

A provocative title for a thought piece to get pastors’ liturgical juices flowing…

‘New Truth’ is a Contradiction in Terms

In empirical science, we say that the laws of nature apply in the same way in all places and at all times, and that even if those laws change over immense period of times or under special conditions, the change is orderly, consistent, and amenable to mathematical description.

In theology we say much the same thing—except for the mathematical part. We say that the truth of God is the same in all places and at all times.

In theology, there is no such thing as a ‘new truth,’ because if a proposition is new, it means there was a time when it was not true. The fundamental characteristic of truth is truthfulness. Nothing that is, was, or will be false is a truth in the proper sense; therefore, a ‘new truth’ is not a truth. It might be news to me, it might be a surprise to you, but it cannot be objectively new. It must have been there all along, escaping our notice. If we learn a proposition that seems new, we must be able to discover, upon investigation, that despite our inattentiveness, it was there all along—or it is not a truth.

Discovering Truth and the Nature of Truth

If we want to prove the truth of a theological proposition, we have to find it in all ages and places; it might be a thin trickle of a minority view in one century and a wide rushing river of a majority view in another, but it should always be there.

Truth did not begin when your church was founded. It did not begin at the Reformation. It did not begin when Peter became bishop of Rome, or Andrew became bishop of Constantinople. It did not begin when Jesus rose from the dead, or when He preached on the mountain side, or when He was born in the manger. Truth did not begin when Moses brought the Law down from the mountain or when Abraham heard God’s call. Truth began when God said, “Let there be light.” Truth began with the Word of God who became incarnate in the womb of Mary, who lay in the manger, who exists with the Father since the beginning.

The Ancient Church Built on an Even More Ancient Foundation

Sometimes people ask why we bother to keep the Old Testament around now that we have the New Testament. The ancient church has an answer for this: to abolish the Old Testament would be to deny the truth of God, which is Jesus Christ, the way, the truth, and the life. Jesus is the ‘yesterday’ before the very first dawn, and the ‘tomorrow’ after the sunset on the very last day.

This is why Jesus said that the Law and Prophets (that is, the Old Testament) are about Him, and it is why the New Testament writers were set upon proving that Christianity wasn’t new; it had been true all along and people hadn’t realized it then even though in Christ it is so obvious now. The ancient church did not replace the Old Testament with the New Testament; it kept the Old Testament to prove that the truths in the New Testament weren’t new.

The Blackout Period

The Roman Empire recognized Judaism as a legal religion, and even granted certain concessions to the Jews. For example, Jews were exempt from Roman military service, because the enlistment process involved oaths to pagan gods, and from the requirement to make an annual offering of incense to Caesar, because Caesar was worshipped as a god. Christianity was legal as long as government officials regarded it as a sect of Judaism.

When the rabbis expelled Christians from the synagogues in the AD 90s, they also inserted curses into the synagogue liturgy to flush out any Christians who might still attend. Because of that action, the Roman authorities no longer regarded Christianity as a sect of Judaism and Christianity therefore became an illegal religion. It remained that way until Constantine and his co-emperor issued the Edict of Milan in AD 313, which legalized all religions in the Roman Empire. (It wasn’t until long after Constantine’s death that the Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official state religion of the Rome Empire and actively suppressed all other religions.)

During the period of about AD 90 to AD 313, it was dangerous to write Christian things down, because it could be used as criminal evidence. For that reason, most of the Christian writings that we have from the period between the New Testament and the fourth century are apologies and sermons, not liturgies.

It is interesting that scholars who attempt to reconstruct the church during this period generally find a church just like their own. For instance, if the scholars come from a church without bishops, they find evidence that there were no bishops. If the scholars come from a church that has bishops, they find ample evidence of bishops. I’m not impressed with any of these reconstructions for that reason.

Truth and Worship

After the blackout period, we have Christian liturgies from Cappadocia (modern Turkey), Jerusalem, Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), Egypt, and other places. They were distributed over a large geographical area, and they are pretty much identical, so they must have a common origin. People under persecution don’t make changes in liturgy. Ask any pastor how hard it is to make a change in the order of worship—then imagine how hard that would be after someone in the congregation had lost a grandmother or uncle to a bloody, tortuous martyrdom. It’s not likely that anything changed. The churches could not communicate with each other during the blackout period, so that means that the common origin of these liturgies must be before the blackout period—and that puts it squarely in apostolic times.

If you visit an Eastern Orthodox church today, you’ll hear the same liturgy they were using in the fourth century. Christianity has been legal since AD 313, but the deacon still calls for the doors to be closed for Communion, even though no one has closed the doors or politely escorted the unbaptized out of the building for nearly two millennia. They have not changed a thing since the fourth century, when they inserted the Nicene Creed. So if you want to witness first-century Christian worship, the closest you will get is your friendly neighborhood Orthodox church.

The liturgies were translated into Coptic, Syriac, Georgian, Armenian, Latin, and Slavonic, and now they are translated into modern languages such as English. Those translations have to be adjusted over time, but the liturgy itself does not change. The reason they have not changed the worship service is that they believe that what was valid worship in the first century is still valid worship today, and that if we have to change our worship and our doctrines, we are in effect saying that the original revelation was false. For if worship expresses truth, and truth never changes, then how can worship change? More importantly, the object and audience of worship is God. If God does not change, His taste in worship does not change, so how can worship change?

A hard question. Imagine that a fourth-century Syriac Christian, a fifteenth-century Bulgarian Christian, and a third-century Celtic Christian walked into your church. Would they say, “Truly God is in the place!” Or would they say, “I enjoyed the show, but can you tell me where I can find a Christian church?”

Whatever is True is Traditional, but Not All Traditions Are True

Now suppose I am studying the New Testament, and I discover a major truth that I never knew before. Have I found an old truth that is new to me, or have I misunderstood the text and made up a new “truth”? How can I tell the difference? This is quite simple, actually. If something was true then and is true now, it stands to reason that it must have been true in all the intervening ages. So if on further research I find corroboration for my discovery in all the intervening ages among clergy and lay people who are orthodox, then I have found an old truth that is new to me, I haven’t invented anything.

Since we believe that God is incarnate in Jesus Christ in the first century, we can despise nothing old. And since we confess that the Holy Spirit is active in the world today, we can despise nothing new. So we can express old truths in new ways. We can read the New Testament on the radio, or show a fourth-century liturgy on television. Even if the media, the language, and the expression are new, our theology and worship cannot be new. We should find a continuous thread linking our theology and worship to the orthodox theology and worship in the ancient church.

Jesus said that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church. The Holy Spirit animates the church and speaks through it. If we affirm these biblical truths, we can consult the Holy Spirit by examining, with careful discernment, how He has spoken through the church in all the ages.

So what is true must be traditional, but not everything that is traditional is true.

The Problem with Contemporary Worship

Now we get to the meat of the matter: “contemporary” worship.

There is a technique in use today in which people poll the neighborhood to see what sorts of activities people enjoy and then they build a “church” that meets those specifications. They downplay the religious parts, to avoid offending anyone. Quite often there is no cross, the building does not look like a church, and they keep the Bible in the back room under wraps. They don’t even call it a church. (Which, come to think of it, might just be truth in advertising.)

The problem with this sort of contemporary worship is that it has new forms but no ancient content. It has no connection through the centuries to the original revelation. In other words, it is a new truth, which is no truth at all. If we throw out all old things and start completely over from scratch, we have denied the validity of the old, and paradoxically also the basis on which we claim to stand. We have actually invented a new, contemporary religion that is based in contemporary marketing techniques and expressed in contemporary entertainment genres. It is inherently narcissistic, because it is worship the way I want it, in ways that please me. In designing this sort of worship, we ask the question, “How would a congregation of secular people like to be entertained?” We never ask the question, “How would God prefer to be entertained?” In this sort of worship, the congregation has usurped the role of audience, a role that properly belongs to God. In effect, the congregation is worshiping itself!

So how shall we worship today?

How to Go Back to Your Roots

Here is a way for twenty-first century Christians to plant the roots of their worship firmly in the ancient heritage of the Church: