Words matter. Words of praise, words of anger, expressions of joy, cries of pain, tatements of belief, questions of doubt, long, patient conversations exploring the heart of God or the soul of another, humble admissions of failure, and requests for forgiveness. Words are the stuff of my calling as a pastor, a biblical scholar, and a preacher. Words also reach their limit, which is why music and images, movement and silence, are gifts, reaching the heights and depths that words can’t manage. The words that we sing and speak, enact in sacrament, or embody in art during worship do more than teach us the language of faith, they also transform us to embody the hope of Jesus Christ in the world.
Yet words are also wearisome. In our cultural and denominational conflicts, we are weary of words. Our age is weary of words. (And if it isn’t now, it will be by the end of this next election cycle!) So many who don’t know Jesus regard Christians as all talk. This, it seems to me, is where worship matters. Worship directs words back to their source in God. Worship with song and silence, sacrament and symbol, restores words to godly proportion, rescuing words from idolatry. Worship stills our noisy echoes in silence to receive the Living Word. Worship of the Living God may just be the only words that matter, whether spoken in the sanctuary or uttered in the street.
One word in particular that has emerged over and over again in conversations since I began working as the Worship Team Lead here at UPC has caught my imagination recently. That word is “transcendence.” There is a desire for worship that moves us into the presence of God, that reminds us that we are shaped for eternity. This isn’t escapism. It is a desire to be met by God’s Holy Spirit in the mundane so that we experience the wonder of the Incarnation: God at work and at play in the stuff of everyday living. We long for a worship service that is ordered to bring us into the presence of the Living God.
For some of us, the invitation into the presence of God is spoken in the language of history and orthodoxy. “Traditional” worship isn’t so much about choirs and robes as it is about a timeframe. Traditional worship is ordered in alignment with a long history of songs, prayers, images, and actions. Traditional forms of worship remind us that this story did not begin with us and will not end with us. We are part of a great cloud of witnesses who join in praising and pursuing Jesus who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. For others of us, the invitation into God’s presence is best spoken in the language of the street and the culture. “Contemporary” worship isn’t so much about guitars and drums as it is about a worship that begins with the words, music, and images of life right now and moves into the epic story of salvation. Contemporary forms of worship remind us that this story is being lived out where we live—today—transforming this culture with a hopeful vision of the future.
Both styles of worship use word, sacrament, music, image, stories, and silence to tell the greater story of God’s work in our world. Neither is complete without some influence from the other. The contemporary voice challenges the traditional away from the idolatry of words lost in ritual and form that fail to open daily living to God’s presence. Likewise, the traditional voice challenges the contemporary away from the idolatry of self-projection that fails to see God beyond what we know and feel right now. This is a redemptive tension!
In all our words, only one matters. Whether a worship service is predominantly traditional or contemporary, the first and last word is Jesus Christ exalted as Lord and Savior.
Laurie Wheeler began her ministry career right here at UPC as a youth intern and coordinator, received an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and is currently finishing a PhD through Durham University in northern England.