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Summer Reading Group: Deep Worship

This is the fifth post in a nine-part series for the Spectrum/re-church Summer Reading Group. The nine posts will be drawn from chapters of Deep Church, by Jim Belcher. You can find the reading schedule here.

Chapter 7

More recently, I’ve had the growing feeling that something is missing from my worship experience, at least on a consistent basis; perhaps you’ve felt it, too. Reading this chapter helped me identify what it might be—a sense rootedness and a sense of transcendence.

I have fond memories of growing up attending a Korean Adventist church. Since the adult service was in Korean, the “youth”, which included everyone that didn’t speak the mother language fluently, held their own services in a side room. Twenty of us, or so, would gather to worship. Our liturgy, if I can use that word, was simple. Someone would lead out in some songs on his or her guitar. This would be followed by passing around a basket for offering. Occasionally, we’d have special music; someone would play their violin or the piano, or sing. Our time together would culminate with the youth leader sharing some spiritual thoughts, i.e. a “sermon.”

Since my childhood, I’ve been a participant in many different kinds of Adventist worship. Interestingly, in small or large gatherings, aside from stylistic differences, i.e. “contemporary” or “traditional”, where it meets, i.e. in a sanctuary or in a home, the elements of most of these worship services basically seems to be the same as the ones I grew up with–some music, something “special” (be it a skit, a movie clip, or musical performance), offering, and a sermon.

For the most part, Adventists, along with other evangelicals, are heirs of the low-church movement of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Ironically, what was once a reaction to the excesses of tradition has become its own tradition. Most “traditional” evangelical churches, Belcher points out, “are handcuffed by a style of worship contextualized during the Reformation that no longer connects with postmodern people” (133).

This has led to movements in evangelicalism to create worship experiences that are “seeker-sensitive.” Large churches, modeled after corporations in the business world, organize high-energy entertainment-driven worship services. The emphasis, however, on the felt needs of the attendees seems, problematically, to perpetuate the consumerism of contemporary culture.

Belcher is appreciative of the corrective some in the emergent camp have provided to both the traditional and mega-church models by experimenting with worship that is more intimate, multi-sensory, and draws on the symbols, calendar, and practices of the ancient church. At the same time, he worries that a worship service that merely “samples” from the ancient church might just be another form of faddishness, one that is a different form of the same consumeristic, entertainment model of worship of the mega-churches.

We have our own version of the worship wars that Belcher describes in Adventism. At first glance, his suggestion for moving forward seems counter-intuitive: more tradition, not less. Belcher argues we must reclaim the riches of Christian liturgical practice that predate the Reformation. In addition to gleaning the best of the worship practices of free-church tradition, i.e. longer sermons, extemporaneous prayer, etc., Belcher advocates the singing of hymns, the reading of more Scripture in worship, the use of written prayers, and the weekly practice of communion. Worship, for Belcher, should be joyful, but reverent, facilitating an encounter with a holy and transcendent God.

“Deep worship is rooted in two thousand years of the church and the historic flow of worship” (138), involving the corporate movements of “calling, cleansing, constitution, communion, and commission” (138). Belcher offers his own church’s worship service as an example of how this might be done. It is one, he claims, that attempts to blend critique, appreciation, and reverence for the worship practices of the ancient church, while being Biblically faithful and accessible to contemporary worshipers.

I’m not sure how Belcher’s own model for worship avoids the “sampling” model he critiques. I do appreciate, however, his suggestion that we need to reclaim and emphasize our Christian heritage not just intellectually, but also through our weekly worship practices. Belcher challenges us as Adventists to move beyond our debates about the appropriate day of worship, and style of worship, i.e. hymns vs. praise music or violins vs. guitars, and address deeper issues about the flow and ultimate focus of our worship gatherings, i.e. its substance.

It seems to me that many of our worship services, ultimately, are seeker and speaker driven. Someone recently informed me that the traditional Adventist worship service was modeled after the Baptist revival tent-meeting; the entire service culminates with a charismatic speaker who through his or her preaching will bring someone to a decision. The worship service is thus organized around the needs of the people attending the service and the sermon that meets those needs. This is a departure from ancient models of worship that have culminated in a teaching on the life and teachings of Jesus and a celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Such worship forms are deliberately Christ-centered in word and deed.

I don’t how possible it is, but personally, I would love to be part of an Adventist community where I could consistently experience the kind of worship Belcher describes—one that is relevant, but thoughtfully rooted in the best practices of the church, broadly speaking, and that helps people regularly encounter the transcendent and gracious God Jesus revealed.


Zane Yi is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at Fordham University. He lives in Atlanta, GA and teaches courses at Kennesaw State University.

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