Fashions in church worship, just as in other aspects of life, change over time. Modern worship services would probably be unrecognisable to our grandparents: ritual has been largely dispensed with, music has been jazzed up, prayers have been shortened, and sermons are chatty and full of jokes. On the whole, I think it’s a good thing; without these changes churches would have become stuffy, out-of-date and irrelevant to the younger generation.
I do wonder, though, if we have ‘thrown the baby out with the bathwater’. I admit that I’m no fan of formality, that I appreciate the use of modern English (as opposed to the Book of Common Prayer), and that I really enjoy some of the new worship songs. But in the process of modernisation we seem to be losing all sense of awe and reverence. We are encouraged to celebrate being in God’s presence with joyful abandon – and yet we are almost completely forgetting what an awesome privilege it is.
For the nation of Israel, the consecration of the Tabernacle and the new priesthood was the culmination of months of hard work and anticipation. It was a day when supernatural fire came from the presence of God and consumed the offerings laid on the altar, a day of rejoicing and celebration (Leviticus 9:22-24) – but it turned into a day of mourning when two of the priests broke the rules and were struck dead for entering God’s presence uninvited (Leviticus 10:1-6).
Under the New Covenant, of course, the situation is a bit different: we do have the right to enter God’s presence (Hebrews 10:19,20), and He will not reject those whom He has adopted as His own children. But that does not make it appropriate to treat Him casually, or with anything less than due seriousness. The Church began, on the Day of Pentecost, with a similar outpouring of heavenly fire (Acts 2:1-4) and the foundation of a joyous, worshipping community (Acts 2:42-47). And yet, within a few weeks, two of the church’s members had been struck dead for treating the Holy Spirit with contempt (Acts 5:1-10). “Great fear seized the whole church,” comments Luke (Acts 5:11).
It’s always going to be difficult to strike the correct balance between solemnity and celebration, and I suspect that all churches are tending to veer off in either one direction or the other. But somehow we have to hold these two principles in tension. We can approach God confidently, because He is our Father; but that doesn’t give us the right to approach Him carelessly. It is appropriate for our worship to be joyful, but not for it to be frivolous. “Let us be thankful,” says the writer to the Hebrews, “and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28,29)