Order and creativity are desirable in worship

In a context where worship at Corinth could be somewhat chaotic Paul commanded that “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor 14.40). For Paul “the Spirit of ardour is also the Spirit of order” (D.E. Garland).

So much depends upon the context in which we find ourselves as to where the emphasis between creativity and order should be placed. In some charismatic churches, the emphasis needs to be on order. On the other hand, in more institutionalised settings there needs to be a great openness to the Spirit’s power and presence. Richard Hays, a New Testament profession at Duke University, wrote:

“Paul pictures a church in which all the members wait together on the moving of the Spirit, and all take responsibility for discerning what God is saying to them. Could our churches learn to listen to the Spirit in this way? If we did, would we stand to gain something that has been lost? Might many members of our churches discover a new openness to the power of the Spirit working through them? Could we on some occasions experience worship as a graceful extemporaneous dance of the whole body?” (First Corinthians, John Knox Press, Louisville, 1997, 250).

Recently, on the basis of 1 Cor 11-14, Stuart and Sian Murray Williams, have powerfully argued the case for “multi-voiced worship”, which means

“equipping many voices to express praise to God in many ways, to share their own stories as they retell the big story of God, and to express the full range of human emotions as they pour out their hearts to God in prayer” (Multi-Voiced Church, Paternoster, Milton Keynes 2012, 7)

Multi-voiced worship is what used to be called ‘open worship’ or ‘body ministry’. Although this reduces a church’s dependence upon worship leaders, as the Williams recognise, leadership is still required – for worship cannot be a free for all. This is where cybernetics is needed – the gift of leadership mentioned in 1 Cor 12.28, where the pastor is at the helm, steering the meeting in such a way that it catches the wind of the Spirit in its sails, and at the same time avoids the dangerous rocks and reefs of self-centredness below. In practical terms this means:

  1. The leader provides a structure, where praise, proclamation and prayer are the three constituent parts. Structure also includes a timed process: as Paul himself said, “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (1 Cor 14.32)

  2. The leader gives direction, drawing up an ‘order’ of service, yet always being open to the unexpected leading of the Spirit.

  3. The leader encourages people to contribute and share whatever God has laid on their hearts. This is where pastoral knowledge of people concerned can be helpful: from visiting the pastor may know what God has been teaching particular people, and as the leader of the meeting may actively seek to draw out such a testimony

  4. The leader ensures that at no stage the meeting gets out of control. In a meeting of this kind, there will always be the immature and the unstable, the exhibitionist and the attention seeking, those who have hobby horses to ride, and those who, for one reason or another, wish to take over a meeting. Contributions need to be weighed and evaluated. It is significant that in the list of spiritual gifts in 1 Cor 12.10, the gift of ‘prophecy’ is immediately followed by the ‘gift of ‘discernment of spirits’.

Such ‘open worship’ is not possible where large numbers are involved. The larger the church, the more difficult the kind of worship described in 1 Cor 14.26 becomes. For the New Testament churches were house-churches, and therefore they were limited in size. For instance, on the basis or archaeological considerations, the Roman Catholic scholar Murphy-O’Connor estimated that the total number in the Corinthian church was between thirty and fifty people. Group dynamics, let alone personal preference, mean that in a larger church multi-voiced worship has to be limited in the context of Sunday worship. To my mind the home group is a much more fitting context for this kind of worship.

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