The LORD said:
Because these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote; so I will again do amazing things with this people, shocking and amazing. The wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.
Ouch. "A human commandment learned by rote...," that sums up many worship practices I see. Now let me caveat that statement by definitively saying I am not against traditions. Traditions flow out of identity and provide a way for communities to pass on their identity from one generation to the next. That is a wholly good think. At the same time, when it comes to life and purpose and value, within the Church those things must only come from our identity in Christ. In other words, traditions flow out of identity, but identity cannot flow out of traditions.
Let me give you an example. If you want to look at one thing that will help you get a read on the identity of a congregation, look at the music it sings. Music tells you a lot about the people singing it, and this can be a very good thing. However, it is easy for music to stop being something that comes out of identity and start being the thing that provides identity.
My religious background is in Churches of Christ (henceforth C of C), a religious tribe that uses a cappella music in its worship services. Personally, I love a cappella music. There is nothing like sitting in a building with good acoustics and listening to the power and beauty of the human voice, and then adding to it with your own. It can be a wonderful experience to worship a cappella. However, by the late 1800s, the C of C decided that it was unscriptural, and therefore a sin, to use instrumental music for worship. This was mostly due to the north/south, C of C/Disciples of Christ divide that was happening in America at the time (but that's a tangent). Most modern C's of C, but let me stress that it is not all C's of C, still believe instrumental music is unscriptural, and have their proof texts to support their argument. The suggestion of bringing a piano into a C of C is heretical to most C of C congregations.
For such congregations, a cappella music has stopped flowing out of their identity and become the source of their identity. That is a dangerous, dangerous place to be, and again, I love a cappella music. "But God made the human voice to praise him," a cappella advocates say. I wont argue with that, but he also gave us the ability to make music with guitars. Both come from God, so does God really care which we use to praise him? Might we, to our shame, be arguing over human commandments learned by rote?
And let me flip the coin for all you instrumental congregations out there. Kalyn and I once worshiped with an instrumental congregation down in Texas. They were a welcoming, loving congregation, but their congregation had shrunk and they no longer had any members who knew how to play any instruments. Their solution was to play recordings of instrumental music and sing along. Now, I don't think this was "wrong," but why not just go a cappella? Their song leader had a beautiful voice, and the congregation happily sang along. Why not just use the gifts God gave you in worship and know that God is pleased? Saying that a congregation must have instrumental worship makes no more sense than the argument that it must not.
What is the purpose of worship, and what is the source? The purpose is to praise God, and ironically the source of the worship is God himself, who gives individuals and communities the gifts with which to praise him. We call ourselves Christians, people "Christ like," yet we ignore how much Jesus says about how to structure our worship services, which is a big, fat zilch. That means two things. First, we have freedom to praise God as we have been gifted to praise him. And second, we must be humble in acknowledging that much of what we do is human commandments learned by rote. Let us be open to God's Spirit working in us in new ways, or else we might find that God makes perish and hides what we thought of as our wisdom and discernment.
Stopping point: Isaiah 30