We have a diverse little church! I'm not just talking about ancestry and culture, but also the variety of Christian and non-Christian backgrounds we come from. We've got the liturgicals, the Catholics, the Pentecostals and a few methodical Methodists and predictable Presbyterians. Some of us are used to approaching worship quietly and reverently. Others wanna shout! Some want pulpits and pews and formal dress; others prefer something more simple and less formal. Some like the new songs; some like the old songs.
My point is that we all carry with us our personal preferences for how we'd like to 'experience' worship.
But if we're not careful, we will find ourselves trying to make worship in OUR IMAGE (the same way we try to re-make God in our own image or the church in our own image). We are all susceptible to our own narcissism trying to shape what belongs to God (like the church or worship).
It might surprise you to learn that the Scriptures give God's people quite a bit of liberty in how we choose to worship the living God. The New Testament, though, does give us some guidelines for our public worship (there's a distinction between public worship and personal worship, by the way). 1 Corinthians 14 gives us some important counsel for our public worship.
But we have to start with 1 Corinthians 13.
That's where Paul tells us it's not about your tongues, your eloquence or your generosity but your love! So if our personal preferences can cause us to break fellowship with the church, we may have made an idol of a worship style.
So what are some of those NT guidelines for public worship?
1] Our public worship must be edifying (1 Corinthians 14:1-5). Public worship is meant to build up the church, not just to build up myself. We come together so we all can be built up, and our preferential love for one another helps us keep this proper perspective. We don't insist on having things our own way, because we're also interested in what blesses others. You may not like the song choice or sermon topic, but it may bless the socks off someone else. We've got to make sure we don't turn our worship into an act of self-pleasure.
2] Our public worship must be intelligible (1 Corinthians 14:6-25). Years ago, I was mentoring a group of young people in Northern Ireland who were all new believers. After meeting with them for a few months, one of the guys said to me, "Mr. Ray, you use really big words." Come to find out, they couldn't understand half of what I was saying. My words were of no use to them if they couldn't understand what I was saying. I had to learn to speak their language. I needed to be understood.
Paul uses the gift of tongues and prophecy to illustrate this point. He uses a side-by-side comparison of these gifts in the context of public worship, and his conclusion is that our worship must be understood and intelligible. If a tongue is spoken, it must be interpreted. This is why in the assembly (ekklesia), Paul said he would rather speak 5 intelligible words than thousands in a tongue. In the public gathering of the church, the Gospel message must be understood. I apply that same perspective to the Bible translation I preach from or how I preach a message. If it's not understood, I've not done my job.
3] Our public worship must be orderly (1 Corinthians 14:26-33). Disorder and chaos is confusing, and we know God is not the author of confusion. If the message (and the messenger) can get confused, the message can be silenced. Ordered worship simply means that we must not throw confusion and chaos, interruption and inappropriate behavior into the mix of our worship. The Gospel needs no competition in the assembly.
Our public worship is an essential part of our life together in the gathered church. So let's keep our times together edifying, understood, and without chaos.