Cultural Habits of Worship

In spending a great deal of time trying to unpack a theology of worship for New Covenant believers, one thing that’s lacking is a strong biblical argument for the worship service. (This from the guy who has been a worship leader/pastor more than once, so I’m making this argument from the inside, not the fringes.) The fact is that worship services are simply a given. “Of course, the church comes together to worship.” Of course? “Clearly the church is a worshiping community.” Clearly? “The new covenant community gathers for one purpose: to worship.” Really?

When something is so ingrained, so assumed, so automatic, we don’t realize there’s something we need to work around. There’s nothing to change or so we think, because it’s never occurred to us to question it.

I’m a trained classical singer. While the vocal cords and resonance chambers are the instrument of the singer, an easily overlooked aspect of singing is the fuel behind the cords and chambers: air. As I watch my wife teach voice lessons in our living room, one of the most basic things she does with new students is teach them how to breathe.

Now, that seems silly, doesn’t it? Don’t we already know how to breathe? Isn’t it an autonomic process of the body? It certainly is. And easily ignorable. Unless we get choked or run a marathon, we rarely give a bit of thought to breathing. It’s just what we do. And most young or inexperienced singers think about the sound they hear or the pitches or the timbre of their voices but completely ignore a core component of any sound-making device: something has to cause sound waves to vibrate.

So my wife teaches new singers to breathe. And I think they all kind of think she’s crazy. Why are we talking about breathing? I’m here to sing. “But,” my wife says, “you sing by using air and you’re singing like you’re a car running on fumes. Your car works best with a full tank of high quality gasoline. Your voice is like that car and your breathing provides the fuel.” And finally, they start to believe her.

But even then, the change isn’t instantaneous. Over and over and over again, she has to remind, “Full, deep breath” or “use your air” or “keep your rib cage expanded so that your lungs can take in even more air”. The reminders are constant, because even though the singers have been taught and even convinced, they still forget over and over and over again.

So it is with church services and worship services and worship in the church. We take it for granted. It’s like breathing. Of course we worship on Sundays. What’s there even to talk about? So like the inexperienced singer, breathing is just something they never think about because why would they? And for most believers, who would even ask the question? There’s no reason to.

But say a believer gets a good solid teaching on John 4 or Romans 12 (something I’ll expand on later), does that mean they immediately make the connections and worship takes on new meaning? Again, like the singers, the old habits slip back so easily. Old habits die hard. And we have not only experiential barriers to overcome (because even nonbelievers know that churches are buildings that have services on Sundays), but we have generational and cultural barriers to overcome. Imagine trying to convince America to drive on the left side of the road. Or– heh–how about getting America to adopt the metric system instead of the imperial system?

When our culture and our personal history have written such a strong-storied habit, there’s a lot to overcome. But being people of the Word, cultural habits and traditions aren’t our standard. I think there’s more to see of what the New Testament in particular shows us about the transformation of worship than we’ve really pieced together with our practice. It’s time to see our theology really drive our practice here, because we’ve let the habits run the show for a very long time–old habits that die hard indeed.