By Doug Priest
I grew up in Ethiopia where my parents served as missionaries. They planted churches among the Oromo people, in an area that had not had any previous Christian witness save for the minimal presence of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
We encouraged the new believers to write songs to be used for worship. We did not feel it was right to import a Western hymnody or utilize Western instruments for churches in rural Ethiopia. Our prayer was that the church would remain long after we were gone, and that it would be a church that used indigenous forms rather than ones brought from Europe or America.
The people wrote songs from their hearts that reflected their thoughts in their own language. The instruments, if any, were traditional Ethiopian instruments rather than an accordion, trumpet, or piano.
We worshiped with those believers though the tunes were foreign to our ears, we did not completely understand the words, and the instruments were very different from what we were used to. We understood that our worship was to God, and that it was recognizable and acceptable to him.
After graduation from Bible college, I served as university minister at the Westwood Hills Christian Church in Los Angeles, and I loved the worship there. The minister (and the university minister!) wore robes, as did the elders and the choir. The music was classical. Each week we had an introit, a choir processional and recessional, and we sang from the hymnbook in a cathedral-like building to the sounds of an amazing pipe organ. We understood that our worship was to God, and that it was recognizable and acceptable to him.
A few years later my wife and I were missionaries in Africa, ministering among a different group of people. For the Maasai tribe of Kenya, the word for singing is the same as the word for dancing. The two went together. To sing was to dance—all singing included dancing. The singing involved individual body movements, and with the body movements came percussive sounds, the only musical instruments used by the people. Their metal bracelets clanked together and their sandaled feet slapped at the ground. We learned to love the songs and the dancing, and the longer we were there, the more completely we understood the content of the songs sung to the Lord. We understood that our worship was to God, and that it was recognizable and acceptable to him.
For the past decade I’ve been back in the States. My home church worships in a blended style on Sunday morning, and we have a contemporary service on Saturday evening. The two worship styles differ from one another; one is choruses and hymns, the other is (somewhat) raucous singing and music that those of my “hippie generation” and younger seem to appreciate. We both understand that our worship is to God, and that it is recognizable and acceptable to him.
Choosing the Focus
My varied worship experiences are probably similar to your experiences. Unless you have been in the same church your entire life, or unless your church has refused to change in its worship, you too have worshiped through a variety of expressions.
What has differentiated my worship experiences most has been the congregation—different cultures worship using different styles, languages, tunes, and instruments. I have never understood worship style to be a theological or ethical matter. In fact, I cannot even comprehend that. When our focus is on God, exactly how we worship and what style we use becomes irrelevant.
When our focus is on our own desires and preferences, too often we try to sanctify these personal preferences by appealing to theology, Scripture, and ethics. I can tell you this: Most of the people reading this article would not have found worship in the earliest church understandable or to their liking because it would have been in a foreign language utilizing completely different music styles and instruments. So much for the lofty-sounding appeal to just do it like they did in the New Testament.
I am sure I have said enough. May we all understand that our worship is to God, and that it is recognizable and acceptable to him.
Doug Priest is executive director of Christian Missionary Fellowship and a member of the Oaklandon Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.