Formalism in Worship

By Johnny Stringer

Some have decided that the worship in most congregations is not sufficiently spiritual, that it is stilted and formal. They seem convinced that the way to solve this problem is for the congregation to change whatever order is followed in the worship. Many of these brethren want to engage in the same scriptural actions, but they want to change the order in which these actions are done. Some, in fact, would even have us destroy whatever order is being followed and replace it with no orderly procedure whatever, thereby creating a disorderly assembly (1 Cor. 14:33, 40).

All must admit that, for too many brethren, worship is merely a formality which they go through-a routine obligation they feel they must fulfill to avoid hell. Their hearts are not involved, their worship is not in spirit (John 4:24) and they receive no spiritual benefit from it. This is sad. But the question is: Is this condition due to the fact that the congregation follows the same orderly procedure? Will changing the order or destroying the order solve the problem?

Certainly, there is no order prescribed by the scriptures which must be followed in performing the scriptural expressions of worship. It surely is wrong for brethren to reach the point that they believe the order they follow is the only way it can be done. There is absolutely nothing wrong with replacing one orderly procedure with another orderly procedure. Sometimes a change in order serves a useful purpose. But those who are crusading for change under the impression that a change in the order of procedure is going to make the worship more spiritually meaningful are laboring under a strong delusion. Their proposed solution betrays shallow and superficial thinking.

If the worship of certain brethren is mere formality, if it is not spiritually meaningful to them, it is not because of the order in which the acts of worship are performed. In those same assemblies which are so dull and formal and meaningless to some brethren, there are other brethren who are deeply involved and greatly blessed-and they are following the same order of procedure that the bored formalists are following! If the worship is but a meaningless formality for a person, that person himself is responsible; he must not try to justify himself by shifting the blame to the fact that the congregation follows a certain established order.

What matters is not what order is followed, but whether or not one’s heart is involved in the worship. A Christian’s heart can be involved regardless of the order. If a Christian meditates upon the spiritual thoughts expressed in the songs, the singing will be meaningful and edifying to him, no matter where they come in the order that is being followed. One can pray just as intensely and sincerely even if the praying has been done immediately after the third song for twenty years. The Christian cannot help but be stirred by meditating upon what the bread and fruit of the vine represent. All who listen intently will be helped by the preaching of God’s word. If a person wants to find the one who is responsible for the fact that the worship is but an unmeaningful formality to him, all he has to do is find a mirror, look in, and behold the culprit!

The solution to cold formalism in worship, brethren, lies not in changing the order of procedure, but in changing the hearts of brethren. The meaningfulness of worship depends upon the hearts of those involved. If they are spiritually minded and their hearts are involved in what they are doing, the worship will be for them a wonderful, beneficial experience; otherwise, it cannot be but a boring formality, unless it is artificially made interesting by gimmicks and constant changes for novelty.

Truth Magazine XXI:17, p. 265
April 28, 1977