Adventist ministers in several parts of the world are frustrated about the form of their weekly worship hour. We have used pretty much the same order of service, made the same announcements, sung the same songs, prayed the same prayers, and preached almost the same sermons decade after decade, generation after generation—until recently.
Young people say we're out of tune with the times. Significant numbers of members seem bored with worship. They are voting for change—with their feet. Thousands of Adventist congregations have twice as many names on the books as they have worshipers in the pews. Perhaps yours is one of them.
Pastors are experimenting with new ways to worship. But these innovations can have their problems too. We must not replace traditional worship, from which time may have drained the meaning, with gimmickry and entertainment that have no biblical basis.
Adventist ministers should not be afraid to experiment with new forms of worship, but we need some guidelines. There's no better place to find them in Scripture than in that uniquely Adventist chapter, Revelation 14. Verse 7 insists we must be a worshiping people. It is our worship of our Creator that makes us unique.
Ingredients of Adventist worship
1. Adventist worship should be awe-inspiring. Revelation 14:7 says the first angel declares, "Fear God, and give glory to him." As Adventist ministers know, this word "fear" suggests reverence, awe. Worship does involve having a good relationship with your fellow worshipers— a gospel of love cannot be realized in isolation. And it involves having warm feelings toward God. But these are no more than parts of worship. In corporate worship, God's people enter God's throne room together. Worship is not primarily for feeling good, but for seeing God.
2. Adventist worship should be joyful. Revelation 14:2, 3 describes God's redeemed in worship: "The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps. And they sang as it were a new song" (NIV). This heavenly harp-playing and singing reveal that joy and feeling belong in worship. When we who are preparing for heaven worship as we will in heaven, our worship will be joyful. It will include both our thoughts and our feelings, demanding both clear heads and warm hearts.
Too many of us Adventist ministers have had the emotion educated out of us. Too many of us so fear emotionalism, excess emotion, that we're afraid of any emotion at all. But we are wrong in presuming we defend our pioneers when we defend only the formal and the rational. Early Adventist worship included great gobs of relating and participating. And sometimes it was highly emotional.
3. Adventist worship should be experiential. Of the song God's people sing Revelation 14:3 declares, "No one could learn the song" (NIV). Why? Because it is a song of personal experience. Nobody else can do it for us. Worship is experiential.
Worship is not a routine, a tradition. It is an event, a happening. It is not a passive, spectator sport, but personal interaction between Creator and created. Worship is encounter.
Adventist worship controversial
Adventist worship has become controversial. Myriads of pastors worldwide have been communicating with the General Conference Ministerial Association, asking for guidance as they seek a way through the minefield surrounding change in worship practice. Some don't know where to turn. What should we change? What should never change?
The subject demands far more than the cursory treatment this brief article affords. We have begun research for a book on Adventist worship, and plan to survey a sample of Adventist congregations. Preliminary plans include addressing such questions as:
1. How did early Adventists worship?
2. What are our current worship customs or traditions, and where did we get them?
3. What do our pastors and congregations think about worship?
4. What do our young people think of our worship services?
5. What are the Bible principles that will keep us balanced between divine ad oration and human fellowship and between reason and emotion?
6. What about "celebration" worship?
Pastor, how does your worship service measure up? Sometimes you ought to sit alone in the sanctuary, when the people are gone and the pews are empty, and ask the one question that counts: "Did they or did they not meet God today?" Keep preaching the old message. But keep experimenting with more meaningful ways to worship, until you feel certain that every week every sincere worshiper is encouraged to encounter God. Worship is encounter.