In my short career, I’ve come across a lot of loaded words, but the word worship has been one of the most difficult to define.
Everyone is looking for a church that really worships, that really knows how to praise God. We don’t know exactly what worship is, but we are always very quick to point out what it isn’t.
We are like Goldilocks, always saying worship was too hot or too cold, too hard or too soft, too loud or too quiet, but one day we will find the worship that is just right.
It will be like finding the Holy Grail, that powerful artifact that will unite the universal church under one service, which conveniently enough, looks exactly like the worship style we really like.
Often, our definition of authenticity and our stylistic preferences are almost identical.
I spent two years attending an Episcopalian church while I was in graduate school in Lubbock, Texas, and while I was there I found I really enjoyed the high-church style of worship.
Something about the language, imagery, music, gestures, rituals and the importance of the Eucharist resonated with me in a deep way.
When I got to seminary, I was surprised – and borderline offended – by my peers who kept pointing at that style of worship and saying how inauthentic it was.
I had a small personal crisis because I couldn’t understand how something so authentic for me was apparently so inauthentic for everyone else. Was I just an incredibly inauthentic person?
I finally realized that when my classmates said, “That style is not really worship,” they actually meant, “I don’t like that style of worship.” It was stylistic preference, not authenticity, which served as their standard.
So, if it isn’t stylistic preference, then what actually makes worship authentic?
I think that worship can be authentic if:
1. A congregation’s worship is birthed out of that particular group of people
2. It has theological and ethical integrity
If these stars align, then authenticity has a chance to exist and a place to grow.
My first criterion for authentic worship might sound strange. How could worship not be birthed from the people worshipping?
What I mean is that the style of worship should be an extension of the talents and abilities of those gathered together.
There are a huge variety of worship styles. Each one has its own pros and cons, and no single style is more authentic or worshipful than another.
I cannot count how many times I’ve heard members of declining, generally older churches with more hymn/organ/piano-centric worship say that if they only had drums and a guitar, then they could bring in the young people and keep the church going.
They think that this style of worship brings added energy, and the added energy will draw in more people.
If the whole church is willing to make this move and has the personnel to make this happen, then it might work because it will grow more organically out of the congregation.
Energy does not equal authenticity, however, and using the music of your church as bait for a particular demographic has very little hope of being authentic.
My second criterion for authentic worship is that it must be consistent with the theological and ethical views of the church. If there are gaps in this area, places where theology, ethics and worship do not agree, it will be felt as inauthentic.
What we do in worship sets the example for our congregations as to how we should approach and engage the world around us.
If we believe that women have as much right to be in ministerial leadership as men do, then we should see more than just men at the pulpit.
If a church values its identity as a multicultural church, then there should be people of more than one race leading worship, and the musical styles should not be limited to any single style.
If you are in a church that values social justice and making positive changes in the world, then songs and sermons that speak of us simply being travelers in this world heading for our real home would undo that work.
If you are a church that works for the cause of peace, then militaristic images in worship don’t quite match.
In the same way, exclusively masculine language for God does not mesh with a congregation that values gender equality.
This consistency may require making some changes in your church to remove the gaps. Worship must agree with ministry, and ministry must agree with worship.
Authenticity is not a style. Authenticity is not our favorite kind of music. Authenticity is not shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops. Authenticity is not robes and stoles.
Authenticity is generated from the people gathered – from their talents and abilities, their theology and ethics.
Authenticity is good, but not the final goal, never the final goal.
Authenticity must coexist with justice for the poor and oppressed, healing for the sick, care for the widowed and orphaned, for peace, mercy and love.
When these two things find harmony together, our worship will resound with the symphony of the kingdom of God. Amen, let it be so.
Taylor Johnson is a graduate of McAfee School of Theology and is currently the minister of music and worship at Trinity Baptist Church in Madison, Ala. A version of this column first appeared on the CBF Young Baptists blog, “Talk Back,” and is used with permission.