“Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.” Romans 12:16
At first glance, you may not think of FBC as a “diverse” congregation. We tend to be an ethnic reflection of Spokane, which is about 90% Caucasian. But, ethnicity aside, when it comes to socio-economic status, vocation, background, and age, we are in fact very diverse. The beauty of this is that when we gather for worship, we get to see a mechanic, a lawyer, a missionary, a software engineer, a hipster, a 90-year-old great grandmother, a squirmy toddler, a 22-year-old tattooed metal head, and a single mom of three, all singing one confession: “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” Despite their vastly different lives, they all come here to worship the same God.
We who make up this community work differently, play differently, mourn differently, celebrate differently—we all really experience the world differently. And yet, we are called to “live in harmony with one another” and to worship together (Eph. 5:19). We want to reflect what Jesus intends the church to be—a place where everyone gets a seat at the banquet feast. So, let’s take a look at a few natural tensions that can arise out of diversity in the church gathering and see how we can approach “living in harmony” with the way we worship.
Musical style probably shouldn’t be a primary issue in the church. There aren’t clear parameters in the Bible for what instruments to use, how fast or slow songs should be, or even what musical moods are appropriate.
And yet, over the last forty years, music has become one of the single most contentious subjects in Christian culture. The “worship wars” have divided churches and generated hostile language among believers.
Much of this is due to the fact that music is deeply emotional. God designed it with the ability to give us emotional language for the Christian experience. So, when someone’s preferred emotional settings get changed or criticized, it can be jarring, even offensive. On top of that, our current consumer culture has exacerbated the issue. Now, in a world of apps and algorithms, people never have to watch or listen to anything they don’t enjoy…until they come to church.
Some pastors offer a way through this conflict with what they call “preference and deference.” They encourage congregants to take advantage of the times we get to worship within our preferences, being thankful that God’s tools of music are being used to deepen our affections for Him. And then, as an opportunity to “live in harmony with one another,” we should be ready to “defer” to one another’s preferences, being encouraged that someone else is getting a chance to worship within a style that helps deepen their affections for God.
As a worship team, we approach this tension of style and preference as an issue of hospitality. Our musicians work hard at making our music welcoming and engaging for our whole church and the unique culture of Spokane. While we as a worship team keep learning to serve our people within their diversity, we as a church community should keep striving to love one another within our unique styles and cultures.
Recently, I’ve been doing a little survey work on outward expressions of worship in our gathering. I’ve been asking this question to a variety of people in our church: “Do you, and the people around you feel free to lift your hands or passionately express your worship to God in our gathering?” And, as we would expect with a diverse congregation like ours, the answers have been all over the place. Some say, “No.” Some say, “I want to, but I feel awkward.” Some say “Sure!” And some say, “Why would I even think about doing that?”
Again, this is an issue without clear scriptural parameters. Attempting to understand it is really a speculation about cultural psychology and emotional temperament, which is bit dizzying. But, looking at Scripture, we see there is some biblical precedence and even encouragement for passionate expressions of worship. When the people of God respond to His presence and truth, natural displays of emotional expression occur. These expressions are, at times, even written as imperative exhortations (italics added):
“Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!” – Psalm 47:1
“Lift your hands to the holy place and bless the Lord!” – Psalm 134:2
“Oh come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!”
– Psalm 95:6
Two polarizing, yet common reactions to verses like these often follow. The first goes something like, “Well, that’s just Jewish culture. That doesn’t mean anything for us today. Do you expect me to start ‘lying prostrate’ on the church floor, too?” The other reaction has people asking, “What’s wrong, everyone? Don’t you people know how to enjoy Jesus? Do we have to be so emotionless?”
In reality, expressive worship will look different for each of us. Some of us are naturally passionate and exuberant, and we should be encouraged to bring that life into the gathering – singing loudly, raising hands, expressing joys and sorrows. Some of us are not naturally expressive people. And though we should all be encouraged to engage whole-heartedly in gathered worship, that can often be expressed in less overt ways which are not sub-spiritual by any means.
Regardless of where each of us may land on this spectrum, living in harmony with one another should yield a judgment-free community of expression. We want to be considerate of distraction and encouraging of expression, while always keeping the heart of worship as the primary focus. Worship in the Bible is not emotionally driven, nor is it rote and lifeless. It is full of truth and emotion—a balance worth pursuing for all of us.
The tensions of style and expression go beyond just what music we connect with and what we do with our bodies in worship. These factors play into aesthetics, liturgy, formality or informality of language, spontaneity vs. structure, and more.
All these tensions seem to arise out of our subjective values concerning authenticity. When we come across moments in the service that don’t feel authentic or natural to the way we worship, our first instinct is to start labeling certain practices as right or wrong. I have fallen into this error countless times. I’ve found myself saying, “That type of music doesn’t work for worship. Those decorations aren’t helpful for worship. Those lyrics are too conversational for worship. That liturgy is too formal for worship.”
Judgments like these often come from an assumption that whatever feels authentic to me is right, and everything else is somehow “less worshipful.”
Brian Chapel explains it this way, “If a complaint comes, it is likely not to be based on rationale rooted in gospel priorities. People will instead talk about their lack of comfort with what is personally unfamiliar or uninspiring, or about someone else’s lack of respect for what’s traditional. Because they have not been taught to think of the worship service as having gospel purposes, people instinctively think of its elements in terms of personal preference: what feels good, comfortable, or respectful.”
Thinking of the gathering as having “gospel purposes,” (reminding us all of the gospel story and the Lordship of Christ over all areas of life,) should re-align our considerations in a way that leads us to a clearer picture of what “living in harmony” looks like. If seeking my subjective version of authentic worship is the main goal, the gathering is bound to fail me. But if we seek to fulfill these gospel purposes by teaching and admonishing one another with the gospel of Christ (Col. 3:16), worshiping in accord with one another will be a natural byproduct. The 22-year-old, tattooed metal-head and the 90-year-old grandmother can stand next to each other, sing with each other, read confessions together, and rejoice in the gospel of Christ together, knowing that the beauty of Jesus’ plan for the church is being fulfilled in their radical witness of harmony in diversity.