The Essence of Worship: Form or Material?

What best captures the essence of something: its form or materials?

This is an interesting question that came up tangentially on an episode of RadioLab last fall. During a discussion about how different types of cells in our bodies replace themselves at different rates, one of the hosts was reminded of the differences between historical sites in Kyoto, Japan and Athens, Greece.

The Japanese temples are constantly being maintained and restored because the essence is found in the form. Greek temples, on the other hand, are preserved in their current state because the essence is captured by the original materials.

It is important to emphasize that both approaches result in temples that are beautiful in their own way. They are both valuable. They are both inspiring.

One approach is not inherently better than the other, but we each have our own preferences. When it comes to history, I am a material guy. I would much rather strain to focus through the horribly reflective, thick plastic that protects the Apollo 11 capsule than crawl into a replica. Other people cannot wait to purchase tickets for a voyage on the full-sized Titanic replica that is set to sail in 2018.

The same lens can be applied to how we understand and approach worship.

Well-done, theologically-sound “modern” or “contemporary” worship is like the temples in Japan. We take the historical structure of worship, and we implement this structure using new worship elements.

Well-done, theologically-sound “traditional” worship is like the temples in Greece. We preserve and continue to utilize the actual worship elements that have been a part of the history and tradition of the church.

Just like with the temples, both are beautiful, valuable, and inspiring. Yet, perhaps what has made the “worship wars” so bitter and so often ineffective is that we see our own approach as preserving the essence of worship, while other approaches are merely preferences. We are tapping into something beyond ourselves, while they only think of themselves.

If, instead, we recognize that we are all in different ways trying to accomplish the same fundamental task — embodying and expressing the essence of worship — perhaps we can find more common ground.

And, at the end of the day, worship is so much more flexible than a building. There are no irreversible decisions — like replacing the roof on the Parthenon.

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