Worship Styles: What Dance is the Church Teaching?

This past weekend while I was in Massachusetts, I got to experience two worship communities different from my own. The first came on Saturday at my friend Susie’s weeding. Susie and her husband are both members of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, a more-conservative breed of Presbyterianism. One distinction of this denomination is it’s theology of music in worship. They believe that the New Testament teaches us to worship with all of our heart, and that musical instruments are a barrier to this. So they only sing a capella. They also believe that it’s only appropriate to sing divinely inspired words, so they only sing musical settings of the Psalms. So at Susie’s wedding, there was a string trio that played only before and after the worship. Once the actual wedding liturgy began, the only music to be heard was the congregation singing from the Psalter.

In theory, I disagree with the RPC on their theology of music in worship, but that’s not the point. The point is that even though I don’t share this belief, I’m still really glad that they believe it, because the results were beautiful. During the wedding, the wedding guests (most of whom were members of the RPC) sang two Psalms, and they were singing them in four-part harmony. It was incredible. At one point, I looked over at the string trio that played the prelude. I’m guessing they weren’t from the RPC, because they looked genuinely surprised and impressed that so many wedding guests were capable of singing so well.

This style of worship is anything but “seeker-sensitive.” I’m pretty competent in music, and am fairly good at sight reading (seeing music for the first time and singing it correctly without hearing it first), and I still had trouble at times, especially with the second Psalm, which was not only in harmony but also had some counterpoint. If someone were to join this worshipping community, it would take weeks, perhaps months, to become fully acclamated to this style of singing. At the same time, though, I didn’t feel as if my worship was inhibited. I wanted to learn. At times I just had to stop singing and allow my act of worship to be listening to the song of praise being lifted up around me.

My second worship experience was going to Roman Catholic mass on Sunday morning with my friend, Matt. I’ve been to mass a couple of times in the past, but there are still intricacies to the worship experience that I forget or altogether miss. I nearly forgot to cross myself with holy water when I entered the sanctuary. I definitely forgot to kneel before taking my seat. At one point I put the kneeler back up too soon. And there were a number of prayers that I had to half-mumble as everyone else recited them by memory. Again, though, I didn’t feel as if my worship was inhibited. I found the intricacies of the worship intrigueing, and wanted to learn them.

Thinking about these two experiences reminded me of an analogy that I’ve heard and read from a number of different sources comparing corporate worship and liturgy to dance. The point of the analogy is that you have to take time to learn the steps and rhythms of whatever dance you’re doing. Think of the Reformed Psalm singing or the Catholic Mass, or any other complicated style of worship as ballroom dancing. Whether you’re learning an elegant foxtrot or an intense, lively swing, the dances take time to learn. The steps are intricate and rarely come naturally. The first time you try it may feel awkward and will probably require a lot of thought. As you practice and learn, though, the steps and rhythm comes more naturally and the dance feels less forced and more free, and ultimately more beautiful and memorable.

As a mainline evangelical, I find it frustrating that in most churches of this color, the worship tends to focus on the least-common denominator and being “seeker-sensitive.” The music should sound familiar and be easy for anyone to sing and learn quickly. Practices that might not make sense to a first-time visitor, whether something as minute as the sign of the cross or as substantial as the Eucharist, are either dropped altogether or explained away so that any element of mystery is removed. To use the dance analogy, most evangelical churches aren’t teaching their congregations the foxtrot, or swing, or any other difficult dance. They’re teaching the hokey pokey… over and over and over again. A dance that’s easy to learn, and maybe even fun, but also a dance that lacks beauty and intrigue and ultimately gets old if you do it too often.

Perhaps evangelical communities needn’t fear about whether every element of their worship is easily understood or explained. Perhaps it’s better to focus on doing worship well, on making worship beautiful and intrigueing. Maybe that’s what draws people in. Maybe that’s what it’s really all about.


7 thoughts on “Worship Styles: What Dance is the Church Teaching?

  1. Interesting does this mean you’re planning on incorporating high church worship style and liturgy at UR? Or perhaps liturgical dancers? I’m glad you enjoyed a change of scene and society and of course rejoicing…

  2. I agree with you. I find RPC services to be a beautiful thing, but I’m totally intimidated by it too. Haha. Catholic services have their own brand of beauty, which I sometimes miss now that I’m Protestant. I love my church’s contemporary worship, but I sometimes wish they would do a little of everything. I’d like to see them try to sing Psalms the way the RPC does once in awhile, but I know it wouldn’t sound the same. Maybe I’ll try going to the RPC in my area once in awhile. It’s good to try new experiences in worship. It keeps us on our toes and makes the most of our worship.

  3. Hahaha! The hokey pokey is a devastating analogy for seeker-sensitive worship. Of course, the motives behind the seeker-sensitive movement are good. The church is called to be a witness to Christ in the world, and our worship should reflect that.

    A problem with the seeker-sensitive movement, though, is that it often tries to bring everything down to a “seeker’s” level, yet the whole point of seeking is that one is looking for something more and greater than what one already knows.

  4. Three more comments from Facebook:

    First, from Patrick Cherry:

    Very interesting thoughts. Gives us as church leaders a lot to think about. Allowing worship to be welcoming to newcomers yet rich with meaning and mystery (because worship is in fact the worship of God) is a fine line to walk.

    Second, from Andrea Hall:

    Thanks for that, Mike. I have never understood why we seem to prefer making worship elementary to educating the congregation. I like the hokey pokey analogy. So true. BTW…did you go to the Henderson lectures at PTS? If not, you should listen to them on the website. John Witviliet was really amazing. Purves stood up and said that they were the best lectures that he’s heard in his 25 years there, and I agree that they were excellent. All about worship. I highly recommend.

    Lastly, from James Purdie:

    Liturgy, the greek word being found in the New Testament, means “the work of the people.” Liturgy is work, and it reveals the community’s faith (doctrine and piety). I enjoyed your thoughts. “Doing worship well”: sounds very Ortho (right) dox (worship).

  5. I have one thought in defense of “contemporary” (i.e. what I think you are referring to as “seeker-sensitive”) worship. That is the style of my church, but I haven’t found that all of the songs have been “elementary” just because they are trying to be easy to follow. Of course, you have the “I am a friend of God” type songs that are really juvenile, but more often than not we get bits of Psalms set to contemporary music, and I don’t think that is bad at all, because it can be easy to sing, but still meaningful. I agree that it’s a fine line, but I sometimes feel that people won’t even consider contemporary type music because they automatically think there is no message. Literally, I have had people tell me that God couldn’t possibly be gratified by that form of worship. I think that is stupid, because whether it is a very intricate compositition or an upbeat contemporary praise song, that’s what it is. Praise! How could he not be gratified by it?

    1. Actually, Rainey, I don’t think “contemporary” and “seeker-sensitive” are necessarily the same thing. By seeker-sensitive worship, I’m referring specifically to churches that design their worship with seekers (i.e. those not yet in the church) in mind. Granted, most of these churches tend toward a contemporary style, but I’m not sure if that’s an absolute. For example, if the seekers in your neighborhood were the type of people who donate to public television and go to the symphony on weekends, contemporary might not be seeker sensitive at all. The oppositive of seeker sensitive worship would be worship that is either developing naturally from the talents and interests of those in the church, or worship that stands in a great tradition which is larger than the individual congregation Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox services are probably the best examples of the latter. Regarding the former, I think Upper Room is a good example. Our music is contemporary (though on a small scale; we usually just have one guitar player and no mics), but our reason for using this type of music is primarily the fact that guitarists are the only instrumentalists we have at the moment. We never did some survey of Squirrel Hill to conclude that most Squirrel Hill residents prefer guitar over piano; we’re just using the gifts and resources available to us. To sum up, I think “contemporary worship” refers primarily to aesthetics, and “seeker-sensitive worship” refers more to a mindset that dictates the decisions we make in planning worship.

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