“Words, words, words . . . !” That’s what I overheard a female student sigh to no one in particular as everyone filed out of the seminary chapel service. I wish now that I had asked her exactly what she meant by that. Was she referring to the chapel service alone? Or was she thinking as well of the three-hour class she had attended before the chapel service began? Maybe it was a reaction to her entire seminary experience. Whatever it was, it seemed to have been the worship service that put her over the edge.

As one looks far back into the church’s past (as many are doing these days), back before American frontier revivalism, before the Enlightenment, before either the Reformation or the Middle Ages, one sees a church that was surprisingly well integrated between the logical and the intuitive, the intellectual and the emotional, the verbal and the symbolic.

Early Christian writers such as Justin Martyr describe worship services in which the Lord’s Supper as well as a sermon was offered each week. The weekly celebration of the sacraments cannot help but infuse emotional and symbolic elements into worship. Further, hymns surviving from the early church are often rich in symbolic imagery. Sun and light, winter and spring are used as metaphors for God and the Christian life. The hymns often abound with imaginative and pictorial allusions to biblical scenes and personalities. And even the allegorical style of biblical interpretation so common in the early church requires the mind to think symbolically.

We know from experience that different people seem to prefer thought processes that use certain parts of the brain more than others. Some people are more logical and others more intuitive. Others seem to move from logical to intuitive thinking with relative ease. Some people are aural learners, and others are visual learners. And now we know that each of these thought patterns emanates from a location in the brain—better, a series of locations—that specializes in these ways of thinking. Different people use different parts of their brains to varying degrees, and these differences have considerable ramifications for Christian worship.

More and more people are addressing the importance of nonverbal forms of communication in corporate worship. That is to be expected, since intuitive, emotive, sensual ways of knowing are a definitive part of the current postmodern era. I see a growing awareness, especially among the young, that worship must engage the whole person, and I believe that this is a healthy trend. Today’s younger people, born and bred in a postmodernist world, are hungry not just to know about God, but actually to know and experience God with all that they are—mind, heart, body, and soul. Thus, they are increasingly attracted to worship services that are rich in nonverbal as well as verbal elements.

The Well-Tempered Worship Service

Until the age of digital keyboards, no one had ever devised a way to construct a keyboard musical instrument that would be perfectly in tune in all keys. Before the time of Johann Sebastian Bach, keyboard instruments were tuned in such a way that they would be perfectly in tune in a few common keys but increasingly out of tune in others as you moved farther away from the common keys. Around the time of Bach, composers and musical theoreticians were working to develop ways of tuning (tempering) keyboard musical instruments, so that they would be able to play satisfactorily in any key. This was called “well-tempered tuning.” The compromise was that in so doing, the instruments were not completely in tune in any key.

J. S. Bach wrote a monumental set of pieces known as The Well-tempered Clavier to demonstrate the flexibility of well-tempered tuning. One piece was written for each of the 24 major and minor keys. On a well-tempered keyboard, one could play the entire set without having to retune the instrument. Suddenly, the full spectrum of keys was constantly available to keyboard composers and players. They lost the freshness of accurate tuning, and individual keys lost their unique personalities, but a whole new world of tonal relationships opened and the musical world has not been the same since. Most people agree that it was a good trade-off, but it was nonetheless a compromise. By now most of our ears are so used to this slight out-of-tuneness that even trained musicians tend not to notice.

There is also such a thing as a well-tempered worship service. It is not a new concept, and most people stand a decent chance of finding at least one in the communities in which they live. The following are some of the major elements of a well-tempered worship service:

  • Well-tempered worship honors Word and Sacrament equally.
  • Well-tempered worship values symbolism.
  • Well-tempered worship values the spoken word.
  • Well-tempered worship welcomes and nurtures the arts.
  • Well-tempered worship honors diversity.
  • Well-tempered worship encourages various forms of prayer.
  • Well-tempered worship remembers the children.

Well-tempered worship celebrates the full spectrum of our God-given selves in all aspects of worship—prayer, praise, word, and sacrament. It involves architecture, acoustics, floor plan, furnishings, and worship order. It has to do with the personality, attitudes, and ethos of the pastor and of each person in the congregation. As with well-tempered music, it involves compromise, and, as in music, not everyone will agree that the areas of compromise are wisely chosen. It is no small matter to bring about change in a congregation, let alone in denominational traditions. But my hope is that churches of all sorts might be moved to reexamine their worship traditions, and that in so doing we may all be led to worship that is fuller, richer, more biblical, and thus more receptive to the Holy Spirit of God.

Adapted fromWith All Thy Mind: Worship That Honors the Way God Made Us, copyright © 2006 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce go toour permissions form.


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