October 21, 2020

Scott Lencke: Evangelicalism’s World of Worship

First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, TN

Note from CM: Today we hear from the evangelical world and get a glimpse at what’s happening in evangelical worship. Thanks to Scott Lencke for sending along this piece. He’s on to something here that led many of us to move where traditions of liturgical, sacramental worship prevail. Scott blogs at Prodigal Thought.

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Evangelicalism’s World of Worship
by Scott Lencke

I work at a modern music and ministry college – Visible Music College. We’re focused on training musicians, producers and managers in their musical field and faithful character to effectively impact the church and music industry. Because of this setting, I’m constantly thinking about worship, especially through the avenue of music within the collective church setting (yes, I’m happy that worship is bigger than music).

In this post, I wanted to offer some reflections on the evangelical world of worship.

What I notice day in and day out is that we are constantly focused on the internal, or what is happening on the inside of us. We see it as the most important aspect of worship. Of course, what is going on on the inside is important. Scripture makes that very clear.

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
    be pleasing in your sight,
    Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. (Ps 19:4, emphasis added)

But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. (Matt 15:18, emphasis added)

However, this focus on the internal also means we can easily disdain external practices.

This really comes to light when we get defensive about possible judgment for our response in worship, especially in the corporate setting. “Worship is about what’s going on in the heart, our motivations. It’s not about what you see on the outside. Don’t judge me!”

Again, I understand the point. However, we forget that, at least right across Scripture, the people’s response in worship did actually involve outward practices. Not occasionally or semi-regularly, but regularly.

My sense of why we hold this primary obsession with the internal is three-fold:

a) It was a massive pushback to “dead” ritualistic practices within more traditional settings of the church. We don’t want to become like those Catholics or Episcopalians.

b) We are products of modernist Enlightenment that channels everything through the internal thought process (“rationalism”).

c) There may also be some reaction against overly heightened expressions within a more Pentecostal or charismatic setting, perhaps because of a disdain for “emotionalism.” It’s interesting that the Pentecostal or charismatic settings were a movement and reaction against some of the overly-cerebral realities of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s where the church had begun to get entangled in Enlightenment perspectives.

I am constantly gripped by how actively involved the Hebrews were in worship. I’ve been reading through Leviticus this week and it involves a lot of active participation of bringing, doing, speaking, offering, etc. Not dead rituals, but rather expressions that were very important in the ancient setting that helped form the people. The Levitical measures are not important to us, but definitely to them. Of course, they can become dead rituals. But they don’t have to be.

Not only that, but the words used for praise in the Psalms have activity connected to them. Those are words such as shabach, tehillah, barak, halal, etc.

Because of our internal (and individualistic) focus in our western setting, we run to passages like John 4 – where we’re told that true worship is in spirit and truth – and we believe our primarily internal focus on worship is authenticated by Jesus himself. Worship is about the spirit, which is inside us, and it’s about truth, which is what we know (and we know in our heads and hearts). Thus, we see Jesus and the New Testament basically denouncing the old settings or worship and supporting a mainly internal focus on worship.

While true worship is in spirit and truth, this by no means throws out external and active practices. Again, go to the Psalms. We love the Psalms, right? The Psalms are ok. Leviticus, not so much.

But it’s the Psalms themselves – the “worship book” of the Scripture – that makes clear that activity and participatory practices are very important. Oh, and pretty much the full tenor of Scripture makes active and external expression a real part of our worship. Look at much of Paul’s letters where he touches on things, which is more than just 1 Corinthians 12-14. And don’t forget that the two passages I quoted above (from Ps 19 and Matt 15) speak of both external and internal realities.

A connected point that I’ve also become aware of is how non-sensory we are in our worship. Well, in today’s world, for some reason dimmed house lights with blue and purple stage lighting seems to be what creates the right “atmosphere” of worship (note the sarcasm). Still, we typically only involve the two senses of seeing and hearing in our worship. Yet the Hebrew setting involved all five senses, including touch, taste and smell. Read the Scripture and see how it is overflowing with touch, taste and smell in the gathered worship setting.

That’s a good question: How could we better engage all five senses in our worship gatherings today?

I believe that, as we engage in fully-orbed sensory expression, it will also help build active and outward expression in worship. Not that we create a setting by which folk are judged, but rather to open space for our whole selves to be involved in worship. Actually, by the mere fact of including something like The Lord’s Table in our worship we are calling people to actively express their faith and to do so in a very sensory experience. Have you ever thought about how all five senses are used in Communion? Perhaps we should celebrate it more than once a quarter or once a month.

In all, my evaluation is that we are not very holistic in the evangelical world of worship. We have lots of gadgets, gear, instrumentation, CD’s (or downloads), lighting, auditoriums, etc. We’ve got a lot of stuff in our world. But we are missing some real opportunities at engaging in an active, participatory worship that involves our whole response. This includes the internal and external; heart and body; sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. This is worship in spirit and truth.


  1. senecagriggs says

    Good article

  2. Every Evangelical should step into a Wayback Machine and attend The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in a chairless/pewless Eastern Orthodox Church at least once.

    • Eric –

      In some ways, I like the idea of chairless/pewless gatherings. Shane Hipps wrote a book called Flickering Pixels and at one point he talks of how the medieval church didn’t have the linear arrangement of pews, but a wide-open space for standing. He notes that, with the invention of the printing press [and I’d add the movement toward more modern rationalist perspectives], church seating started to mirror the page of a book.

      Two columns on a page with a dividing space down the middle.
      Two sections in the worship space with a dividing aisle down the middle.

      We have greatly anesthetized the worship gathering in our churches.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > We have greatly anesthetized…

        Is the worship service the leading edge of this or a reflection of a cultural value? My experience and observation is that Evangelicalism’s purity culture prefers to “anesthetized” / sanitize and regularize pretty much everything: Orderliness is akin to Godliness. The shadow of the Clapham sect, for better and worse, is easily visible within American Evangelicalism.

    • John Goldenmouth, the first megachurch pastor. One treasure I managed to score when the family business broke apart is an old oil painting of some cathedral interior. There are various groups of old-timey people standing around but my favorite part is the dog in the middle of it all.

    • I did, at an EO Church in DC. I don’t understand Greek, and my knees were killing me at the end. Great aesthetics, but I didn’t get much else out of it. :-/

      • Next time visit an Orthodox Church in America (OCA) congregation. I should have added that caveat.

        The two things to ask about ahead of time or first check out online: 1. If they have pews/chairs for most of the congregation (what you *don’t* want – it destroys the sense of group worship and is also a modern practice). 2. If all or much/most of the Liturgy is done in English.

    • Christiane says

      what a lovely idea, ERIC

      talk about ‘culture shock’!
      people don’t get it that ‘the Body of Christ’ INCLUDES all that ever were in it …… and the communion of saints IS timeless

      yeah, the oldest and most beautiful of Christian liturgies out of Jerusalem, even prayed prior to the formation of the biblical canon . . . . . it would be an eye-opener indeed

  3. This brings to mind one of my little pet peeves during the mass. When the Apostles Creed or the Our Father or some other “dead ritualistic” recited phenomenon is taking place, it is not the time for individualism or personal expression. If ritual is to be embraced it must be embraced corporately. Getting past the defensive posture about dead ritualism we must in fact blend and meld into the ritual as a group. When everyone says, “Our father who art in heaven” with roughly the same internation but one person puts a strong emphasis on the word “OUR” and then on “HEAVEN”, for example, they are disruptive and drawing attention to themselves and away from the prayer or recitation. There is no way that I can focus on the word father while Sally next to me is loudly expressing the word “OUR.” Rituals such as these are just not the places for individual expression. They just ain’t.

    • Intonation.

    • Clay Crouch says

      That goes doubly for the corporate confession of our sins.

    • Chris –

      In the evangelical world, I think we treat ritualism as the leprosy for today. But rituals (or rhythmic practices) are given to ultimately bring life. We may make them “dead.” But they don’t have to be.

      • I don’t think I implied that the rituals are dead, only that they are perceived that way by the Evangelical world. I find them to be rich and full except when someone turns them into their personal bully pulpit for espousing their uniqueness and perhaps higher level of holiness or attention to the ritual that the rest of us lack. A criticism of lifelessness lobbed by evangelicals is an easy one because in fact the ritual is designed to take the unique characteristics of the individuals out of play. From that perspective it looks like a bunch of automotons. I think the point that gets missed is that it is designed specifically to minimize the individuals and to maximize the God we are after. Now are there people who lifelessly repeat the words by rote? Every Sunday without exception. But there are people who get into a frenetic charismatic arm waving, tongue speaking frenzy who are thinking about their brother who slighted them or their mother who took their cookies.

        • Yeah, I saw that you were speaking of “perception.” I think most of them are not dead rituals, though they may become. They are plenty of dead evangelical rituals.

        • Btw I put “dead ritualistic” in quotes to mean that that’s how it is perceived but not how I perceive it. I guess I wasn’t quite clear.

        • –> “I find them to be rich and full except when someone turns them into their personal bully pulpit for espousing their uniqueness and perhaps higher level of holiness or attention to the ritual that the rest of us lack.”

          Religion in a nutshell. Good when it’s healthy, bad when it isn’t.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Yet the Evangelical world has its own rituals, from the kickin’ “worship” band to the long sermon followed by the Altar Call.

      • Christiane says

        there’s many an evangelical that wants to come with their Catholic friends to a Midnight Mass at Christmas

    • Jaroslav Pelikan I believe said something like: “Tradition is the living voices of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead voices of the living.”

      • I like that, Eric.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says


      • “Tradition means giving a vote to that most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”

        –GK Chesterton

    • Burro [Mule] says

      I like dead ritual and vain repetition. I like it better than pretending to be excited about something that I’ve heard twenty times before.

      The long, slow rhythms of the Liturgy and the Offices, the rotation of the fixed and variable prayers do tempt me into ritualism and my mind is prone to wander. My lips mouth the responses but my mind is on the problem at the office, or on the bills, or on something I read here that needs correction :).

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > I like dead ritual and vain repetition. I like it better than pretending to
        > be excited about something that I’ve heard twenty times before.


    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      When everyone says, “Our father who art in heaven” with roughly the same internation but one person puts a strong emphasis on the word “OUR” and then on “HEAVEN”, for example, they are disruptive and drawing attention to themselves and away from the prayer or recitation.

      As well as introducing subtle differences in the meaning.

      Remember the example (I think in Joys of Yiddish) of “Two tickets to her son’s concert I should buy?” How changing the emphasis on each word in turn changes the secondary meaning of the sentence?

  4. Good article. I’m glad to see an awareness of this in evangelicalism. However, I think in citing the causes he does not go far enough back. I think you can trace some of it back to platonism and gnosticism very early on in the church. Spirit=good, matter=bad. Extrapolate that to worship and its forms, with help from the enlightenment, reaction to charismatic expressiveness, and maybe even puritan streams of influence, and you get conservative evangelical worship and thought. And I think this same stream of influence also resulted in my parents generation not even talking about sex. Sensory and sensual things were NOT considered spiritual. Never the twain shall meet.

    At the same time, the focus on the internal itself is reined back by this influence, so it is lacking also. There’s little or no mystic tradition in evangelicalism. Why? Because they want that internal life and activity to be circumscribed and certain. Black and white. Free of mystery. They know exactly what that internal process should look like (there are even many books that line this out for you).

    So, yeah, evangelicalism missed the boat at both ends of the material-spiritual spectrum. And it did so fairly deliberately, often out of fear. Still does. It’s one of the great weaknesses of the movement.

    • Good insights about both ends of the spectrum being a problem.

      • +1. Every strength can become a weakness. As I just commented on one of ChrisS’ posts, that’s religion in nutshell: Good when it’s healthy, bad when it isn’t.

        And all good can become bad.

    • John –

      You’re correct. This could have been taken back longer on the historical side. Still, I do believe we hear a challenge to the dualism of our day. We evangelicals know how to quote Tom Wright to back it up. 🙂

      For me, talking about dualism is more a conclusion to highlight what I’ve shared here, rather than a historical point. “Ladies and gentlemen, whether you like it or not, what we have here are the modern-day makings of gnosticism.”

      Thankfully there is some resurgence in mysticism amongst evangelicals. You have folks engaging with St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Madame Guyon, Quaker writers, Richard Rohr, etc.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > there is some resurgence in mysticism

        Is Mysticism the opposite of Dualism/Gnosticism? That seems an odd construct to me.

        • >> Is Mysticism the opposite of Dualism/Gnosticism?

          Mysticism is the consciousness or apprehension of Oneness, our God is One, I AM WHO I AM, The Father and I are One, before Abraham was I AM. There are no opposites in Oneness.

          Duality is what you got when Adam & Eve et the apple. The knowledge of good and evil, separation from Oneness, self-consciousness, seeing everything in terms of opposites. Most people live in duality.

          Dualism is the formalized belief that there are two equal and opposite gods or cosmic principles, good and evil, light and dark, vying for ultimate control. This is the common thread of Gnosticism, whatever the individual differences.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      JMJ/Christian Monist blogged extensively on Platonic Dualism’s influence on the church and its negative side effects. It was a favorite subject of his.

      I’m sure his book (at the top of the current “IMonk Authors” book list) also speaks on the subject.

    • I agree with your points whole-heartily.

  5. Everyone knows Romans 12:1-2 Some translations (not the Message below) calls our lives as a living sacrifice is the reasonable act or service of worship. Sometimes I wonder if the ideas of worship (as we now know it), like the idea of a king for Israel, is a concept that came from humans and God blessed (or used).

    Each person draws from their own experiences, which influences our present state. I know for me, there is rarely a church service of any type, that gives me a good sense of worship. I don’t find it the emotional-laced services that most evangelicals would call a good worship. I’ve had some bad experiences with these.

    So if worship is a place where I sense an honest adoration of God and sense Him working in my life, then my greatest worship experiences have been (and this comes back to including all the senses) such things as; 1) listening to an intellectual challenging lecture (tape, MP3, in person) of a really thoughtful Christian, where I’ve been moved to tears, 2) standing (or sitting) in a great European cathedral and listening to a pipe organ recital of Bach, 3) walking through an incredible museum of art. I don’t think I have ever felt the presence of God as much as my first trip through the Louvre. 4) watching a program of images from the Hubble Space Telescope, 5) fly fishing in a river in the high country of the North Cascade National Park. But that is just me and I don’t impose that idea of worship onto others.

    Romans 12 1-2 So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (The Message)

  6. I have to admit, I am not very comfortable with the idea of worship in general. Am I the only one, or does this idea come across as a little bizarre to anyone else?

    • >> Am I the only one . . .

      Me two, Doc. At it’s root, worship in the Bible means falling on your face before a divine being. Watch Muslims worship to observe it in ritual action. In the Book of Revelation, John falls on his face before one of the angels and is chided for doing it, is told to worship God only, it being assumed that what John was doing was “worship”.. Be that as it may, in reality no one but me, and possibly you, is going to pay any attention to this, and people seem to need to construct convoluted religious ritual and call it “worship”. See King David, perhaps the first of modern “worship leaders”, praise band and all. I guess it isn’t hurting anyone, but yes, it’s more than a little bizzare to me to call it worship. I’m guessing that falling on your face is an instinctual reaction to divinity, but I’m not so sure that God looks forward to our weekly mega productions. Still and all, He prescribed some fairly bizarre ritual in the Olden Testament, or so we are told. Perhaps the question is, who does ritual “worship” benefit and how?

    • As in, ” Why does God need worship?” If that’s what you mean I’ve thought long and hard about that one for many years. It would make a good topic of discussion.