Recently a caller inquired whether our church worships in the traditional way ("like 50 years ago") or in a more contemporary way (like yesterday?). I answered that our service is the more traditional God-centered service (emphasizing God-centered) while we do use some contemporary music. But the inquiry reminded me that the church faces today great challenges and confusion regarding how worship should be conducted.
One reason for this situation is that we live in an increasingly unchurched and pagan society. This makes the church and its worship seem increasingly disconnected from where people live their lives. Many evangelicals seek the solution in what is called "the seeker service" in which the traditional concept of the God-centered service is self-consciously deserted and many of the traditional expressions of worship are abandoned. The goal, of course, is to reach seekers and then to "Christianize" converts.
I want to suggest that historic Christian worship, in addition to being God-centered, is better suited both to evangelize the lost and to educate the new believer. It is better for evangelism just because it is different. By different I don't mean quaint, old-fashioned, irrelevant, or traditional for the sake of being traditional. But the church is most powerful when it is distinct from the world and offers something the world cannot. When the church service becomes a "sanctified variety show" it diminishes the distinction between the church and the world, so that the unbeliever hardly notices the difference.
The approach of the historic church was to emphasize to the unbeliever that he was an unbeliever and that there were privileges of worship that he could enjoy only as a committed believer. For instance, unbelievers were not permitted to join in the Lord's Prayer until they had received instruction and been acknowledged by the church as believers. Unbelievers were dismissed before or not allowed to participate in the Lord's Supper until they confessed faith, were baptized, and were admitted to the community of believers. The church was not trying to be exclusive in a snobbish way, but rather to let the unbeliever know where he stood and, in those in whose hearts were working, to create a hunger to enjoy the life and privileges of Christ's people.
The historic service is better suited to educate the new (or old) believer because it is designed to move a person from paganism to a fully Christianized condition. What does the convert need?
He needs to know the content of the Bible. So rather than reading a few verses, several passages are read.
He needs to understand the Bible. So rather than a brief "problem-solving" message, he is given an explanation and application of a biblical passage or truth.
He needs to learn his faith. So he confesses his faith repeatedly using one of the ancient creeds.
He needs to learn to pray. So he hears spiritually mature believers lead in prayer and he recites the Lord's Prayer.
He needs to develop his devotion to God, blending the mind and emotions. So he sings psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs that have substance and are able to minister to the depths of his soul.
He needs to know God's holy will, confess his sins, and experience God's forgiveness. So he regularly hears God's law, is led in acknowledging sin and asking for forgiveness, and is assured of pardoning grace.
He needs to draw near to Christ, so he frequently comes to the Lord's Table to remember the Lord's death and to enjoy fellowship with the living, present Christ.
It turns out that what is true in the rest of life is also true in worship. What most glorifies God is also best for us. Historic worship not only pleases God; it meets our needs.