Why should we study the history of Christian worship?
Tomorrow I begin another semester teaching a graduate class in the history and theology of worship. The class is largely a survey of the historical, theological, and philosophical events and ideas that have shaped worship today, and one of the first tasksI tackle on the first day of class is to answer the question, “Why?” What significance is the history of Christian worship for how worship takes place in our churches today?
There are several very important reasons I believe a thorough study of the history of Christian worship is essential for anyone planning and/or leading worship, including church musicians and especially pastors:
1. God tells us to.
Job 8:8-10 says,
For inquire, please, of bygone ages, and consider what the fathers have searched out. For we are but of yesterday and know nothing, for our days on earth are a shadow. Will they not teach you and tell you and utter words out of their understanding?
God himself has commanded us to “inquire of bygone ages”–to look into what has happened in the history of God’s dealings with mankind in order to learn from them. This kind of command is found in several places in Scripture, including Deuteronomy 32:7 and Psalm 78:2-3. This is true for a myriad of issues related to the Church, including its worship.
2. To recognize error and understand how it develops.
I doubt anyone would disagree that significant errors have crept into worship throughout the history of Israel and the Church. From creation to consummation, God’s people have and will always struggle with their own frailty and depravity when it comes to worship. The first sins were ones of wrong worship, and the Prince of Darkness himself suffers from a lust for self-worship. Thoroughly examining these errors helps us recognize the inevitable problems that will creep into worship today.
3. To recognize the common successes we should emulate.
On the other hand, God’s people have also often worshiped in ways that God clearly approved. Models in the Scriptures especially present for us today the kind of theological and philosophical ideas that we should emulate as we shape worship in the 21st-century.
4. It helps us understand today.
Today’s worship was not developed in a vacuum. For better or worse, we worship today as we do because of hundreds, if not thousands, of years of influences and development. Deeply understanding the history of worship from Moses to today helps us understand better why we do what we do. Isaiah 51:1 expresses this idea when it says, “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.”
5. It helps us understand tomorrow.
Having a grasp on all of this–the good and the bad, the errors and the successes, we who plan and lead the church’s worship today will be much better prepared for the future. We will have a better idea of what ideas and practices to avoid; hopefully we’ll root our ideas and practices in Scripture and the models we find therein.
So if you are a pastor, church musician, or worship leader, make it your goal to understand what has come before you as you seek to lead the church into tomorrow.