Should everyone always be doing the same thing in worship?
My dad’s father passed away when I was still a baby. Consequently I have only ever known one grandpa. My mom’s father, my grandfather, was a farmer. For most of my growing up years he lived four states away, so visits were usually once a year. Looking back on those visits, it seems to me that each member of my family (Mom and Dad and five kids) greeted Grandpa differently.
My middle sister, Barbara, seemed to have a special place in his heart. I remember “Bobbie”—as Grandpa called her—running to him and giggling. My brother, Bruce, had spent extra time with Grandpa working on the farm. They had labored side by side for days in the fields and in the barn. As a result, Bruce greeted Grandpa in a much more serious way, because he had a different relationship with Grandpa than did “Bobbie.” I was the youngest. I saw Grandpa as a giant. He was well over six feet tall. My father, by comparison, was a mere 5’6″. I would generally just fling myself at Grandpa. My dad, in his inimitable way, would welcome Grandpa with a firm handshake and a warm, broad smile. And my mom would move quickly toward him and give him a big hug. In later years, when Grandpa was becoming increasingly frail, if you paid close attention, you might observe a tear in Mom’s eye or slight catch in her voice when she welcomed him.
None of the various ways of greeting this wonderful man were done to intentionally show our differences. We each welcomed him in different ways because our relationship with him was different than the others. Additionally, our personalities were (are!) different. The differences did not divide us. In fact, they made us stronger as a family.
Is it always necessary for everyone in a corporate worship setting to express themselves precisely the same as the person seated next to them? Those who would suggest such an idea usually have a noble reason for desiring it: unity of the Body. That’s a good reason. Actually, that’s a very good reason.
I am a hardcore proponent of unity. I have authored four books on the subject and taught on biblical unity in hundreds of churches across North America. I believe that unity is one of the highest priorities of the Church. However, everyone acting in exactly the same way in a worship service does not necessarily constitute unity. More accurately, this would be uniformity. Further, to insist on total uniformity in a worship service goes beyond Scripture. The Bible does not emphatically state that we must all act the same way in a group worship setting.
Please understand that, in general, there should be a corporateness to corporate worship. There are places in Scripture where leaders tell the people to stand or kneel or sing together. Such times can be very meaningful and even unifying experiences. I personally believe that too many popular worship songs express only “me” and not “we.” (I am not saying that “me” songs are wrong, only that the pendulum is too far in that direction.)
Further, it concerns me when people draw undue attention to themselves during corporate worship. The reason for such attention-calling can be varied. It could be something as improper as wanting to prove a dimension of spirituality, all the way to those who genuinely desire to express their love to God in a demonstrative way.
Some time ago I interviewed a pastor whose church had gone through a major transition in worship styles. The church had been very traditional but began a rather contemporary style service, even hiring a new worship leader from a different tradition. The new worship leader brought along some friends to help in the transition. One of the friends was extremely demonstrative in worship and sat in the very front pew for the first of the new services. Her arm waving and dancing shocked many of the folks in that church. It was quite different from their past experience. Though the pastor wanted to move the church ahead, this was a bit too much too quickly. Some people who were uncertain about the changes became openly rebellious to the changes because of her actions. It actually set their entire plan back somewhat because the woman drew undue attention to herself.
Even in this illustration, though, there is a balance. In some churches this woman’s expressiveness would not have been out of order in the least. It would be the norm. The leadership of each church must decide for themselves, based on the precepts of God’s Word, how far they are willing to go and how quickly they are willing to go there. For example, Scripture talks about worshiping God in common, ordinary ways like singing or using musical instruments. Most churches utilize these expressions. The Bible also mentions expressing worship to God by much more demonstrative means like shouting and dancing. All of these various expressions are acceptable, yet God’s Word does not demand all of these in every service. For a church where no one has ever lifted their hands in worship to expect everyone to suddenly begin to dance in honor to God is absurd. Too rapid of a change can alienate people. We need to encourage unity in worshiping God. That is a very good thing.
Indeed, unity in corporate worship is a high and noble goal. However, the Bible does not say that group worship must always be expressed in a uniform way. Deciding exactly where to draw the line against individuals expressing worship differently in a corporate setting is very difficult—perhaps impossible—to pinpoint with any precision. If someone sings a harmony line instead of the melody, is that disunity? During a song about the unfailing love of God, if one person cries while others smile, is that inappropriate? While singing “I Surrender All,” if one person raises their hands as an act of surrender, is that wrong? The further one probes, the more blurry the line of uniformity can become.
Again, I believe that unity is a noble, godly goal, one that should be sought after and prayed for. Uniformity, on the other hand, is not. And there is a world of difference between the two. If my father had insisted that each member our family greet Grandpa in exactly the same way he did, that would not have caused unity in our family. In fact, more likely it would have fomented rebellion. Can you imagine giggly “Bobbie” or tiny, young Tommy just shaking hands with Grandpa? Or what about my mom? A handshake for the man who nurtured her and provided for her throughout her childhood?! Not very appropriate. However, if Dad had insisted that we do it, we all would have conformed. Such conformity, though, certainly would not have brought about unity.
As I mentioned earlier, there are times in the Bible when leaders told everyone to respond together in a similar manner. Such times can be helpful, unifying and God-pleasing. But Scripture does not insist that we should always do everything exactly the same as everyone else.
Rather than insisting on uniformity, it would be better for leaders to teach the Church that we can be unified even though we don’t always do things in exactly the same way. Then, when people express themselves in differing ways, they are not seen as rebellious or wrong, just different. And that’s okay.