I recently read a piece by a 98-year-old retired pastor. He recalled his early days in a small rural Methodist Church (where he was baptized in 1924 at 4 days old). Each Sunday the family wore “the best you have as long as it is clean and neat.” The children and youth attended Sunday school in basement rooms, while their parents went to Sunday school classes in the sanctuary upstairs. Then after an hour of lessons, the children would join their parents upstairs and would report on the bible verses and other material that they had studied that morning. The Sunday school attendance was reported on the wooden “scoreboard” in the sanctuary. After this, at 10:45 the pianist would softly play meditative hymns, and anyone who wanted to talk went outside. Congregants inside were expected to remain in quiet meditation until the service began because “the Lord is in His holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before Him.” (Habakkuk 2:22) Then at 11:00 the church bell rang, and the pastor and choir processed to the front singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” as the congregation joined in. The five churches in town joined together in special events for Easter and Christmas. Most churches sent their children and youth to denominational camps and held a week of revival each year in which the whole community participated.
My first thought after reading these things was how much the world has changed. For women Sunday's best clothing included a hat and gloves. For men, it was a suit and tie. I’m sure the pastor wore black robes every Sunday. When I started ministry I wore a suit jacket and tie every Sunday, until in my second congregation I was informed, “It is too hot in the summer to wear a jacket, and when you do, we feel guilty for not doing so. Very few small churches have choirs anymore. Our attention spans have grown shorter, and very few church members would feel comfortable with 15 minutes of silent meditation. (I tried having five minutes of silent meditation during a service one time, and met with nearly unanimous complaints that it was too long.) As for singing the same four-verse hymn every Sunday of the year…
Yet as I thought longer, I realized that God has not changed. God wants to spend time with us. Worship is a time we set aside to become aware of God’s presence. The music styles may vary, and our attire as well. But God always welcomes us. What is important is not the externals, but devoting time to meet with God and one another so that we can give and receive support for our daily struggles. It is not the form of worship, but entering into the presence of God.
The Church has always struggled with what outward form worship should take. In the early church, the struggle was whether pagans who had become Christians (followers of the Way) would have to follow all of the regulations in Jewish law. Early in Peter’s ministry, this was settled by the church leaders in Jerusalem, by deciding that as long as they didn’t worship idols, and avoided eating the blood of animals, they would not have to meet all Jewish laws. But the Epistles in the New Testament indicates that this continued to be an issue for another 50 years or more. As the church reached out to other cultures there was always tension about how much of the local culture should be allowed to shape worship. One example is that the Roman Catholic Church felt worship should only be conducted in Latin to help people know they were part of a worldwide (Catholic) church. The orthodox church allowed worship in the language of the predominant culture of an area (Greek, Syrian, Hebrew, Farsi, Russian).. Protestants said worship should be in the local language, whatever that might be.
But Protestant missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries (even more so than Catholic missionaries) said Christianity should be a way of promoting European and American culture as well as faith in Christ. Thus Native Americans were forced to abandon all of their own language and culture and wear “civilized clothing”. Similar things happened in Asia, Africa, and South America. In the name of Christianity people from around the world were asked to give up their way of living, which may or may not have conflicted with their belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Do people really have to eat with spoons and forks to worship Jesus? (That was often taught). Do people have to wear suits and hats and gloves to worship God? Do people have to adopt the practices of “Modern Medicine” in order to be Christian? Have we allowed our culture to become a new idol that keeps others from becoming followers of Christ? There can sometimes be a delicate line. How do we obey Christ’s command to be in the world, but not of it? If we allow God to guide us, we can still keep proclaiming Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Savior, in ways that those who hear can understand.