I stumbled into a contemporary worship service at a Southern Baptist church in the Missouri northland recently. The service was punctuated by emotional outbursts (people standing with arms uplifted or clapping to the rhythm of the music while the congregation was largely seated; loud “amens!” during the preaching).
There was no pulpit or choir loft but the front of the auditorium was a raised stage. Three music leaders were spread out in line on the stage: a central leader playing a guitar with two persons on either side leading out in the singing. The communion table was out in front of the stage by about five yards behind which the director of the service stood, prayed, made announcements and introductions, and closed the service.
The seating of the auditorium was in the half-round style. The arrangement of the auditorium reminded me of stage performances. In my youth, however, a central pulpit had signaled the primacy of preaching in Baptist worship, but in this case the speaker of the day stood behind the music stand used by the guitar player in the center of the stage over which the speaker wandered. Three numbered hymns from the Baptist Hymnal were listed in the single sheet program guide. Two were sung by the congregation; the third was sacrificed to “praise songs” where people learned tunes by repetition from words displayed on screens on both sides of the auditorium. The mood of the service appeared to encourage the emotional displays and states of ecstasy. As an outsider I found myself rather distracted, and was reminded of Paul’s gentle attempts to correct what he saw as the emotional excesses of the Corinthian worship (1 Cor14):
14:15: Pray with spirit and mind; sing with spirit and mind
14:19: In church he would rather speak 5 words with his mind to instruct others than 10, 000 in a tongue
14:26-32: Everything done should be orderly and for edification
14:33: God is not a God of confusion, but of peace
14:26-33, 40: Things should be done decently and in good order
Naturally congregations must choose their own worship style for public worship; for not all find the same worship styles to be meaningful and uplifting—but also not all worship styles educate (1 Cor14:26). Some are even harmful—animal and human sacrifices, for example. Congregations must develop what will work for their benefit. Nevertheless, what transpired in the service that Sunday made me feel somewhat uncomfortable.*
Paul’s own view of public worship is suggested in Romans 12:1-2. He seems to have regarded worship as intelligent, rational service to God involving the whole person. He specifically mentions that worship should transform the mind rather than being conformed to what was the present rage—or as he put it “conforming to this present age.”
Paul argued (1 Cor 11:27-30) that it mattered how the community worshipped (1 Cor 11:29-30; 14:23-25). When the Corinthian saints gathered for the Lord’s Supper, for example, he said that it was “not for the better but for the worse” (1 Cor 11:17), because they were not conscious that worship was a corporate or joint affair (1 Cor 11:33). The Corinthians appear to have engaged in a kind of individualized worship (1 Cor 11:17-22), but Paul conceived of worship as a “gathering of the saints” (1 Cor 1:2; 11:17-26), whom he conceived as the “body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27). Hence, worship was a corporate act involving a gathering of the body of Christ collectively. One can only wonder how Paul might have responded to the individualism reflected in a “contemporary” worship service in the Baptist tradition. Would he have seen it as being “for the better” do you suppose?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
*Compare what Paul says about the reactions of outsiders to public gatherings of the Corinthian saints:1 Cor 14:16, 23.