Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Worship Innovations

The desire to add new features to worship is nothing new.  Over the decades and centuries, worshipers have tweaked their practices hoping to gain benefit or avoid retribution from God (or gods), with the result that these incremental changes eventually became standard practice and spiritual reasons were built around the practices to rationalize their continued use.  Consider this old account, which I have paraphrased and removed the particular item in question in order to understand the argument:
We have now to say a few words about [this] and [that] used in your religious acts.  With respect to [the former] which you use, we wonder where or when you became acquainted with and understand its application, so that you have good reason to think that it is either worthy or agreeable to be used.  For it is almost a novelty.  And there is no endless number of years since it began to be known in these parts, and won its way into the holy places.  Neither in the heroic ages, as it is believed and declared, was [it] known as is proved by the fathers in whose books no mention is found.  Nor are the superstitious acquainted with its fame and renown as the rites of the chapels prove.  Nor was it used by anyone in offering sacrifice during the early, flourishing years.  Nor did those who were skillful in devising innovations consider either its existence or growth, as the sacred steadfastness of performing the customary and usual sacrifices shows.

So where did its use begin to be adopted?  Or what desire of novelty assailed the historic tradition, so that the thing which was not needed for so long took a prominent place?  For if the performance of a religious service without [it] is imperfect, and if a quantity of it is necessary to make the heavens gentle and favorable to mankind, the ancient worshipers fell into sin.  Indeed, their whole life was full of guilt, for they carelessly neglected to offer that which was most fitting.  But if in earliest times neither worshiper nor recipient sought for this, it is proof that today the same is offered uselessly and in vain.  Though antiquity did not believe it necessary, modern times desire such without any reason.
Examining the Questions Raised
Where and when did the practice originate?  If a practice can be found defined in a sacred document expressing the desire and instructions of a deity, there should be no question for use.  If not, then the question needs to be asked: why are we doing this?  Did the innovation stem from a better understanding of the requirement(s)?  Was a heretofore unknown document or communication made to the worshiping community requesting or demanding the addition?

What is the historical precedent?  When not found there, there should be suitable historical use context.  What demonstrates that, though the first document no longer remains, there is ample attestation of other writers and practitioners for inclusion.  Has the practice been previously examined and handed down as right and good?

Who sinned—the ancients for their failure to do right or the moderns for their vain novelty?  If neither the original requirement nor the historical witness is available, one must assume that either the inclusion or exclusion of the addition is a sinful act.  Were the first worshipers lax in giving proper divine deference in their gatherings?  Or was the novelty added relatively recently of well-meaning human insight and invention—initiating the inclusion as a method for enriching some aspect of the devotional experience, but wronging the object of worship with the contrivance?

The paraphrase above is from chapter 26 of The Case Against the Pagans, VII by Arnobius of Sicca written 1700 years ago but could have been written yesterday for any number of innovations being promulgated on members by preachers in the guise of drawing numbers or preaching self-help tips rather than the gospel.  We expect innovations from pagans, who make it up as they go in order to bend and shape with culture.  Should the church be doing the same?  What grievous element was introduced originally to elicit the questions?  Incense.  In the aggregate of worship practices a seemingly trifling matter, but how many like practices can be allowed to invade without diverting from the main focus?  Precious few.

We have the God's own revelation of who he is and what he requires of those who are called unto himself.  We have 2000 years of testimony concerning the rightful (and wrongful) understanding and implementation of doctrine and practice.  We are to test what Charles Finney once referred to as "new measures" but are now called "reaching the unchurched," "engaging in conversation," or some other catchphrase.  They are wanting.  The mission of Christ's church remains: make disciples by baptizing and teaching as we go about our lives.  As well we regularly engage in proper worship, remembering that God first gives to us as unworthy recipients of forgiveness through Jesus' death on the cross, resting in the promise of Jesus' actual presence with his gathered people, taking in his life-giving word,  and responding in adoration for so great salvation.

Maybe its time for "spring cleaning" in each assembly of God's people in order to get rid of the clutter.