I recently heard a news story about the supposed revolutionary nature of the American Pilgrim’s form of worship. In Plymouth Colony, exactly 400 years ago (reason to celebrate this as news), they sang their worship to God with acapella, metered Psalms and besides these Psalms, all their other hymns came straight from Scripture. While I grant that their metered and rhyming Psalter was a bit of a novelty (and a good one as rhyme improves memory), to say that their worship was revolutionary because it came straight from Scripture belies an ignorance of the more ancient path of the Church’s worship.
From the days of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the Church, Christians have taken their cue from Israel to pray several times a day a group of prayers called the Liturgy of the Hours. At each prescribed hour, approximately three hours apart, the faithful Christian recites several key Psalms to the theme of that day and hour along with many readings from the Old Testament, Epistles, and of course the Gospels. To say that the Pilgrims were revolutionary in their Scripture centered-ness forgets this legacy. To say that their congregational polity invented new forms of worship according to the direction of the people without the censuring authority of bishops or any hierarchy is more to the point. This more self-directed worship may have felt liberating in the 17th century. But the modern inheritors of their congregational piety have been wondering for several decades whether or not they may have missed something.
The Evangelical theologian of the late 20th century, A.W. Tozer, sounded this alarm:
Now, worship is the missing jewel in modern evangelicalism. We’re organized; we work; we have our agendas. We have almost everything, but there’s one thing that the churches, even the gospel churches, do not have: that is the ability to worship. We are not cultivating the art of worship. It’s the one shining gem that is lost to the modern church, and I believe that we ought to search for this until we find it.A. W. Tozer, Worship: THe Missing Jewel
Since Tozer’s prescription of this missing jewel, many have attempted a recovery expedition. The whole praise and worship movement that grew out of the advent of Christian Contemporary Music in the 60’s and 70’s claims to be an answer to this challenge. But questions persist as to the efficacy of very emotional ballads that tend to be light on theological content. While they initially please and attract the would be worshiper, in the end, they only distract as they misplace worship of the True God for the sake of a fleeting feeling. Self-directed worship can far too often land in a mish-mash of liturgical practices which are worthy of little more than parody.
While Tozer, a Christian and Missionary Alliance theologian in the holiness tradition very much wanted to see more fervent feeling in worship, he would never jettison form for the sake of it. Perhaps for a recovery of this missing jewel, one needs to consider a more ancient expedition of discovery.
In the 9th century, the pagan Great Prince Vladimir of Kiev and All Rus also greatly desired to find this missing jewel for his people (or at least a way to overcome the dysfunctional nature of his current system of gods). Like another apostle, he sent envoys into all the known world seeking for a way to unify his people. They returned to their prince with this report on the worship practices they discovered:
When we journeyed among the Bulgars, we beheld how they worship in their temple, called a mosque, while they stand ungirt. The Bulgarian bows, sits down, looks hither and thither like one possessed, and there is no happiness among them, but instead only sorrow and a dreadful stench. Their religion is not good. Then we went among the Germans, and saw them performing many ceremonies in their temples; but we beheld no glory there. Then we went on to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God [i.e. Hagia Sophia], and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.Povest’ vremennykh let (The Russian Primary Chronicle)
So what was it in that ancient church then that satisfied the prince’s envoys with such depth of feeling and drew them so closely to their eternal home? And can it be had in this age of noise and useless information? I have had the good fortune of visiting that temple with my seminarian class the summer of 2011. It served the praises to Almighty God for almost a millennium from the sixth century when it was built until the 15th century when it was overrun by Muslims. It became a mosque, then a museum and only recently was turned back into a mosque. Though when I visited it was merely a shell of its former splendour, one could still feel the impulse of worship in the very stones of the floor which in fulfillment of the prophecy will cry out to God in the absence of audible words. Or perhaps what I felt was even more profound than words, the truest answer to this search for the lost jewel of worship: silence. A silence so pregnant with meaning and the presence of God that mere words only serve to distract. For silence is the mystery of the age to come, while words are mere implements of this age (St. Isaac of Syria)
And now as silently, silently the wondrous gift is given, and God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven, may we learn from the shepherds how to pray, “Come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Immanuel”. Come Lord Jesus, come!