The Etiquette of Weddings and Worship
If we carry this wedding analogy over into our worship planning, we can employ the same criteria in order to determine if our worship will bring God honour and pleasure.
It was one of those weddings – the kind where you wish a trap door would open up and the person at the microphone would drop through the floor. The best man was giving a toast to the bride and groom and had long ago stepped over the line of decorum and good taste, regaling us with tales of his friend’s former girlfriends and excessive partying. The bride listened in horror, the groom wanted to crawl under the nearest rock, and the guests squirmed.
Perhaps you have attended weddings like that, weddings where the master of ceremonies seemed to forget that the intent of the entire event was to honour the bride and the groom. That same lapse in good judgment may at times characterize our worship services.
The analogy is, of course, taken from Scripture. John the Baptist describes himself as “the friend who attends the bridegroom [and] waits and listens for him, [a friend who is] full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice” (John 3:29). And in Revelation (19:7) we are commanded to respond to the reign of the Lord God Almighty: “rejoice and be glad and give glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.”
Over a span of five years, we planned and then celebrated the weddings of all four of our sons. The menu was selected based upon the couples’ palate, the choice of music reflected the various preferences of each bride and groom, the decision to wed in the church or the backyard was made only after the happy couples had expressed their wishes. Every detail of those weddings – and there were hundreds (thousands?) of details – was made with one thought in mind: would the couple like this; would this please the young man and woman?
If we carry this analogy over into our worship planning, we can employ the same criteria in order to determine if our worship will bring God honour and pleasure.
Such an approach is not as logical or natural as it may appear. Too often our worship services revolve around our personal preferences and our ideas and ideals of what constitutes a good service. The worship wars over music and liturgies are the most glaring examples of this. Too often the discussion deteriorates into drums versus organ, praise choruses versus hymns, and God’s taste in music is confused with our own.
When it comes to preaching styles, we tend to leave God out of the debate completely. The sermon is no longer recognized as worship at all. Rather, the message is that part of the liturgy which is for us; it is the time when the parishioner is edified and blessed. God speaks to us, we maintain, and therefore, the sermon is not considered to be worship, not in the strictest sense of the word.
And as that sort of thinking starts to infiltrate our Sunday morning gatherings, we begin to stroke other liturgy items from the list. Our offerings become the most convenient way to make our annual donations, and the cause of the week is not, first of all, for God, but for the local food bank or the crisis pregnancy centre or for the local Christian school. We use the opportunity to give or to refrain from giving based upon which ministry causes we favour. And our prayers – they become litanies of our needs and concerns, wish lists of what we hope God will grant us in the coming week. We pray for healing for those diagnosed with cancer, for safety on our vacation travels, and for comfort for those who have felt the sting of death. But we stutter and falter when we attempt to spend any more than a sentence or two of our prayers in praise and adoration. At the conclusion of our services we anticipate God’s blessing upon us and then we hope that the worship planning team has selected something bright and singable for our closing song – remember when it used to be called the “doxology?”
Is it any wonder that we can lose our way when it comes to planning and participating in a worship service that is God-directed? So much of what we do the other six days of the week is about us; to re-direct our thinking and our motives on Sunday morning is not just countercultural, it is counterintuitive.
It is for this reason that the analogy of a wedding celebration might prove helpful in restoring the worship in our worshiping. If we can pass each and every item of our liturgy through the “would-God-like-this” filter, our worship will truly become a celebration of whom God is and what he has done.
The challenge here, of course, is to know what it is that God might like. “Who has understood the mind of the Lord,” writes the prophet Isaiah, “or instructed him as his counselor?” (Isa. 40:13). The question is a rhetorical one; no one can understand the mind of God. How then, can we be expected to include those aspects of our services which would bring glory and to exclude what might not be pleasing, and, at worst, could be offensive to the bridegroom?
In order to resolve the dilemma it is helpful to return to the analogy of the wedding celebration. Those in attendance, that is, the invited guests, have been included in the celebration for one reason, and one reason only: they have a relationship with the bride or the groom. Those gathered for the celebration were not invited because of their good taste in clothes or their eloquence in speech or their business acumen. The guests are friends and relatives of the honoured couple. They know them. Some, granted, know them better than others, but it is those who know the couple best who are entrusted with planning and executing the details of the event. Unless you know the bride well, you wouldn’t understand why there are no pink decorations anywhere in the hall, and unless you have shared a few meals with the groom, you would never have known that he prefers beef over chicken any day.
That same intimate knowledge can guide our worship. If we know God, we will know what he demands in worship and what it is that pleases him. That level of intimacy is now attainable. Jeremiah 31:33, 34: “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord.” We can know God, to the extent that he has revealed himself in Scripture and in his Son. Our worship planning and our acts of worship must repeatedly draw us back to Scripture in order to ensure that we are on the right track.
But there is another aspect of knowing God which determines whether or not our worship is pleasing to him. Not only will our worship be acceptable to God if we discern his will in worship, but our worship will be accepted in love because of who we are in Jesus Christ. At our wedding celebrations, the bride and groom smile broadly as their little nephews and nieces hesitantly sing the song they had been practicing for the entire week. The couple laughs with delight as a favourite aunt and uncle share memories of the good ol’ days. In the same way, God smiles upon our efforts at worship when they arise out of a loving relationship with our Creator. The pianist who hits a wrong note, the drummer who plays a bit too enthusiastically, and the reader who stumbles over the Old Testament names – each of these people offers his or her gifts imperfectly yet in a way that is perfectly pleasing to a God who loves them unconditionally.
The criteria of knowing God in order to offer genuine worship must be affirmed anew in our churches. Admittedly, not everyone present at our church services will know God. Missional church plants and seeker services recognize this and therefore will give priority to developing a relationship between God and those present. However, for worship to happen, those present must have some sense of who God is and what he has done for us. If they are not yet at that place, we must be prepared to answer their questions and address their curiosity about what is happening during a worship service. Worship is unique to any of their previous experiences – the mysterious presence of the Holy Spirit transforms mere words and music into something more. As guests and seekers develop a relationship with Jesus they will recognize what is happening for what it is: worship.
As our focus becomes increasingly God-directed, every component of our liturgy can be lifted up to God as worship. Paraphrasing the words of a popular praise song, we can take every blessing that the Lord pours out and turn them back to praise. As an act of grace, God ensures us that blessing and praise are inseparable. So, “let us rejoice and be glad and give [God] the glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come” (Rev. 19:7a). It’s the wedding of the Lamb, and it is his intention that his invited guests also have a wonderful time at this celebration. May our worship bring praise to God and blessing to his people.