Wouldn’t you kill for a paragraph or two in the NT on what should happen in the worship assembly? Maybe we could put to death some of our worship wars. Alas, no NT writer ever weighed in on the appropriate style of music or whether sermons should be topical or textual. In fact, I think much of the NT assumes views of worship carried over from the temple and synagogue, practices developed over time and modeled most clearly in the Psalms.
This is not to say the NT has nothing to say about worship, it’s just that what is said is embedded in narratives or assumed in theological arguments. So, what is said about worship is fairly indirect and must be teased out theologically. Since we have no NT manual for worship, we have to think about what we do in relation to the God who is the subject of our worship and what it means to live in praiseworthy ways in the world God created.
There is, however, one direct statement about worship in the NT that is both deserving of our attention and frustratingly vague in its application. When Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, she poses a question about worship to him. “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” She tries to pull Jesus into a worship war to deflect his queries into her personal life.
Jesus responds, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Well, that’s clear. We must worship in spirit and truth. My hunch is that the various worship traditions represented by contemporary Christianity all think they are in compliance with this statement, but have very different views about what it means. Some place the stress on the word “spirit,” others on the word “truth.” All would agree that something huge is at stake in the phrase “spirit and truth.”
I’m not sure I’m the one to shed a lot of light on this text. Fortunately, we have Jamie Clark-Soles coming to Streaming to help us think about worship in relation to the Gospel of John. Jamie is a Johannine scholar from Perkins School of Theology at SMU. She is also very concerned with the renewal of the church in North America in our post-Christendom context. My first instinct in encountering Jesus’ statement to the woman at the well is to say it needs to be answered first in relation to the world imagined by the Gospel of John. So, I’m anxious for Jamie to help us explore the contours of John’s gospel with this question in mind.
Here, I will offer only one suggestion. In John, both seeing and hearing play a role in creating belief. Seeing creates initial belief, but hearing is necessary for deeper belief. In a crucial text near the end of the gospel, Thomas believes because he has seen the resurrected Jesus and touched his wounds. Jesus does not rebuke Thomas for his need to see, but offers a blessing that indicates the priority of hearing: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
I’ve often thought that much of what passes for worship renewal these days runs along the rails of seeing. We want the experience of worship to be immediate, to produce in the moment. The one thing, then, that we can’t be is boring. We are constantly giving people something to “see.” Hearing is a much more patient endeavor, requiring the capacity to be still, to be attentive, to be reflective. Perhaps I’m wrong about this, but I think it’s worth asking if our worship aims too much at the more superficial level of seeing, not enough at the deepening capacity of hearing.
Come to Streaming and help us extent this important conversation.