Voices: unhelpful language

Being a language person can make one appear obsessive or annoying.  Being a language person is also a state of being, i.e., it’s not exactly a choice one makes, and it’s difficult to mask or deny or move away from said state.  18 years ago, I wrote the following to the Christian Chronicle (based in Oklahoma City), and I still think such language matters are significant.

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4/5/95

To the Editor:

I would like to make two language-related suggestions toward a more appropriate understanding of what God intended in the sphere of corporate worship:

(1) Migrate from using the term “worship service” since this term tends to obscure the two distinct aspects of Christian activity, relegating what should be a dynamic and transforming occurrence to the realms of ritual ceremonies like “graduation services” and “funeral services.”  Also, since “worship services” typically contain much that is not actually worship, and rightly so, the meaning of true worship is often lost.

(2) Realize that the phrase “in spirit and in truth” refers primarily to the spiritual realm and to true, actual worship, not to attitude and to supposed doctrinal correctness (though attitude and sound theology will certainly come into play).  Jesus likely made no intentional reference here to the truth that resides in the words of the sacred writings.

[ . . . ]

Sincerely,

Brian Casey

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#1 above is a nearly universal concern; most protestant churches and believers should be able to grasp and heed.  On the other hand, not all readers’ backgrounds will allow for immediate understanding of the issues behind #2; it is a more provincial concern.

In particular, the Church of Christ (over the Christian Church and far over the Disciples of Christ) has a history of stressing “doctrinal correctness.”  While the interest in being “right” and following God’s desires certainly stems from good intentions, in my estimation, it is not always pure-hearted — and in fact can result in misguided actions and off-base emphases.

One instance of such misapplication is in the area of worship and the assembly or gathering.  It is entirely right to be concerned with what God wants and doesn’t want when the church (or an individual, for that matter) worships or edifies.  It is, however, off-base to think that Jesus’ articulation “spirit and truth” in John 4 speaks of “doing things right.”  For one thing, in John, Jesus is manifest as truth, and any John words about truth should be considered in that light.  Moreover, from a simply linguistic standpoint, to do things “in truth” is to do them truly or genuinely or authentically, and it should not logically be presumed that doing something “in truth” equates to doing it with strict adherence to a body of understood protocols. 

Jesus’ thought seems to be more about being genuine and real than “correct.”

For more on worship John 4 and worship, please click here:  A Paramount Worship Text:  John 4

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Printed programs and spontaneity (3)

The classic/progressive rock band KANSAS will soon be on my college’s stage with my orchestra.  A set list was sent to me a couple weeks ago; the program is pre-planned to the Nth degree.  Yet some room is left for spontaneity (“rap, applause, etc.”).  This kind of programming, I think, represents the best of both worlds:  detailed structure and forethought born of experience on the one hand, and also, room for things to occur in the moment.  KANSAS knows something.  After all, they’re like 55 years old, and three of them have been doing this together for more than 30 years!  They know how to plan a successful show.

In planning worship times, assembly sequences, and other events, I often arrive at a similar conclusion — and for this I have my father to thank:  a balance of a) planned-ness and b) “room to breathe” is best.

[Please see here and here for background for this post.]

Sometimes, planning and programming can get in the way of the goal(s).  Too much polish and too many detailed, strict requirements … these approaches lead to a bothersome, stifling scenario.  Besides the quietus that may be put on authentic needs and God’s moving in a situation, the need to “get the order ‘down'” can lead to anxiety around rehearsing and reviewing a sequence.  In my particular current, more traditional church setting, this situation is manifest in, e.g.,

  • the call for the order to be printed in the bulletin
  • once every few weeks, the accompanying, gracious looking-down-the-nose at someone who just couldn’t get it together enough to get his set list in to the office in time for printing in the bulletin
  • the absolute waste of time perpetrated in reviewing, three minutes before things officially begin, all the names and responsibilities (“serving at the table, we have Brother Larry, Brother Peter, Brother Lou, Brother Rick, … and the opening prayer is by Brother John, and leading songs is Brother Brian,” etc., etc., ad nauseam . . . all with good intention, but about 92% unnecessary)

For me, all this emphasis on sequence can end up as an analogue of the down side of marching bands and show choirs:  too much focus on the presentation, the glitz, the strict sequence and performance of it all … all this tends to cheapen the program, downplay the content and decrease the educational value, in my opinion.  Of course, if the content is lacking, glitz and showiness may be the program’s only salvation!  [Aside:  I once taught at a place where my predecessor was actually in the process of considering having the show choir lip-sync instead of singing at all (much less singing in harmony).  That, friends, was WAY too much emphasis on glitz, sequence, costuming, and the visual aspects, considering it was supposed to be a music program!]

Here’s a special challenge to those church leaders who think we really need to spend all this time, and more, in getting the sequence and set list “down”:  get a critic (like me!) to make notes of every time there’s a foul-up or glitch in your little sequence.  This will be a humbling experience, because you will find that there’s something that goes wrong pretty much every week.  Someone forgets this aspect or that.  Someone forgot to let someone know he’s out of town.  Someone shows up late and messes things up because he wasn’t available for conferring.  I do know that things have to be planned, and someone has to take charge to make sure things go reasonably orderly.  I do this very thing!  But we do obsess over details sometimes, letting the more important content go without as much attention as it needs.

Those recognized as “entertainers” (I think here of Carol Burnett and the guys on the Drew Carey show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and late-night talk show hosts and such) can keep people’s attention with spontaneous reactions and witty repartee.  Many popular “artists” depend on canned accompaniments and tracks played in their “live” shows, and this indicates some rigidity in the planning and sequencing.   It’s also true that most art/cultivated music (a/k/a “classical”) concerts are rigidly programmed, not only with printed orders, but with supra-structures that govern programming from a macro level, as well:  three or maybe four works make up most classical orchestral concerts:  an overture, a concerto, and a symphony–often performed in that very order.  (Rarely is an overture played last, for instance.)

There are certain conventions in Christian gatherings for worship and study, too, that deserve to be followed–at least most of the time.   The problem, siblings, is when we overemphasize the sequence without enough emphasis on the content.

Printed programs and spontaneity (2)

Caveat lector brevis: I’m trying to think through something here (beginning with the last blogpost), and I’m not really ready to present it, but I’m presenting it anyway.  What follows may well sound confusing, and confused, because I have conflicting observations and feelings.

~ ~ ~

Speaking pragmatically, I have concerns with worship “set lists” in terms of the preparation timetable.  Recently, the Lawson Road church where we worship (Greece, NY) finally got with it and changed the timeline so that the group involved in preparing for the assembly is working 12 days in advance instead of 5 days.  Consider this with me …

The old timeline:

  1. Tuesday noon:  conference call bringing everyone to the table in knowing any special considerations, sermon topic, etc.
  2. Tuesday pm and Wednesday am:  scramble to prepare (or, in my case, revise, because I’ve nearly finalized thematic and sequential planning by this point) a set list based on new information received
  3. Wednesday noon:  deadline for church office receiving set list, for printing in the bulletin
  4. Thursday & Friday:  finalize PowerPoint slides and send to the tech deacon (or, as some prefer, send set list to tech deacon and let him prepare slides)
  5. Saturday:  receive PowerPoint presentation back from tech deacon, with his added pretty backgrounds, transition & announcement slides, etc.

Aside:  step 5 is always wasted for me, because I print the slides no later than Thurdsay, 6 per page, punch holes, and put them in a loose leaf binder for my own use as I led, and I never refer to the new version at all.  If I’ve learned one thing in my 15-or-so years of leading worship using PowerPoint, it’s that you can never trust the tech people to change slides on time.  While our particular tech people are pretty good at this, I always want my own printed hard copy, so I can surmount as many word/memory lapses as possible, and so I can read ahead in order to enhance my leadership in the moment.

The new timeline:

  1. Tuesday noon:  conference call bringing everyone to the table
  2. ALL THROUGH THE NEXT 7-8 DAYS:  prepare/revise a set list based on new information received (I rarely do well at being flexible here, because my thinking and planning has already been crystallized by step 1, but at least I have more time to try to process and make some adjustments)
  3. Wednesday noon, 8 days after the conference call:  deadline for church office receiving set list, for printing bulletin
  4. Thursday & Friday:  finalize PowerPoint slides and send to the tech deacon
  5. Saturday:  receive PowerPoint presentation back from tech deacon

The new timeline works much better, allowing for other things in the lives of volunteer leaders.

Don’t miss the word “volunteer” above — and the significance of it in this equation.  “Clergy” (I have trouble using concocted, abiblical words and ideas to talk about biblically based things, thus the scare quotes) folk, take note:  when volunteer leaders are involved, you need to do things on a timetable that suits THEM, not you. Stop making proclamations from your holy chairs and desks that say “Pastor” or “Minister.”  Wrap your schedule into the schedules of the volunteers.  They are spending significant time they don’t have for the betterment of corporate assemblies, and in some cases, they are working a lot more hours than you are, so don’t take advantage of them.

Now, back to our story (and questions).

Does printing a worship “set list” present an organized, “we-got-it-together” face?  Or does it acknowledge death in the Christian gathering?  Or both?  Is “we-got-it-together” requiring too much out of your congregation’s energies on a weekly basis?  Is the business model (think CFOs and CEOs and VPs and budget-drivenness in academia instead of deans and principals and teaching) driving churches to more organization than worship and teaching, or are all the technological and administrative tools helping us?  To what extent?

How can the Spirit (or the spirit) live and breathe in us when things are programmed to the Nth degree?

For churches that use instrumental worship bands, a cappella “praise teams,” etc., what are the implications of the “set list”?  (Do remember that bands and teams and PowerPoint and amps are not necessaries; they are just methods.)  Is there more time spent in rehearsing transitions between songs — getting the sequence of the set list “down” — than in experiencing the textual content of the songs, scripture passages, dramatic presentations, etc.?  The mechanics of transitions and who starts what, how, and from where–all these things are important, but I’ve focused too much on them, on many occasions.  In fact, I’m guilty of this very thing in this very week of my life.

The content is what it’s about.  The words.  The concepts.  The musical ways and means, and other peripherals, must support the content.

Printed programs and spontaneity

Caveat lector: Sometimes, I have a conclusion in mind, and I write in support of that conclusion.  Often, I write when I feel (or know) something uncommon is better or right.  This time is different.  I’m really not sure what I think yet, I’m trying to think through something, and I’m not really ready to present it, but I’m presenting it anyway.  What follows may well sound confusing, and confused, because I have conflicting observations and feelings.  Some cherished, long-term experiences exist in opposition to some more recent observations.  My opinions are definitely still in development.

~ ~ ~

Thinking recently about PowerPoint use in church gatherings, I think I came off as somewhat one-sided.  While presentation software is not the end-all, and while genuine worship is clearly possible without it, I do think PowerPoint is useful.  Such software applications, combined with projection capabilities from computers, allow for possibilities that were never previously considered.

I’ve written before about printed lists of leaders in church bulletins/programs.  I’m not sure, however, whether I’ve ever blogged on the printing of “worship set lists.”  I think these lists can definitely have value and can remember, when I was young, that a marginalized but deep-thinking leader used such printed programs in my “low” church on occasion.  I thought that was pretty cool back then, but these days, it’s old hat.  Lots of churches print orders these days.

“Set list” is terminology I first learned in jazz combos, big bands, etc., where the content is comparatively light and temporal.  As worship music gravitates more and more from “Shepherd of Tender Youth” and “Holy, Holy, Holy” to more contemporary, populistic expressions, the label “set list” seems more and more apt.  People now think in terms of their music stands and a sequence of songs all printed and ready for them to refer to when pulling music out of their “books” or folders.  While “set list” is realistic and not a bad descriptor of the status quo, it strikes me as pedestrian and shallow, not worthy of the God the music and other worship activities are supposed to be calling attention to.

Sometimes the set list is called “order of service” or “worship service.”  Blecchhh.  The term “worship service” is neither biblical nor helpful.  The observation (the “neither biblical” part) and the opinion (the “nor helpful” part) are no passing fancies for me; I’ve emphasized moving away from calling a worship gathering a service–with little to no fluctuation–for about 20 years.  “Service” connotes a ceremonious ceremony with a set order and no life.

In fact, besides the context of those horrid academic commencements (which I suppose have a hint of a promised resurrection after the death-knell of pompous processions, presumptuous presentations, and brittle boredom), a more appropriate use of “service” is in the context of funerals. Using “service” to describe what Christians should do when they are together is misled/misleading at best, and spiritually stultifying at worst.  When trained, reasonably intelligent, biblically literate leaders perpetuate labeling the assembly a “service,” it’s like force-feeding barbiturates to all the saints.¹  Okay, maybe it’s not that bad.  After all, people aren’t likely thinking about the label “worship service” when they’re in the middle of what’s going on in the assembly/gathering.  But I really hate it, and I enjoyed finding some new expressions to tell you how much I hate it.  🙂

“Prayer service” and “song service” are no better; these are just offspring-offenders … children of the offending parent “worship service.”  This terminology rubs me raw and calls me to make a run to the local Walgreens or CVS for soul salve.

Next … the intersection of “set lists” and weekly preparation

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¹ This is infinitely more eternally significant than the use of mild performance-enhancing drugs by sports figures (I’ve never used them, of course, but I’ve never understood why congress and courts have been involved in investigating … it all seems like more a matter for, e.g., the MLB commissioner’s office), but that’s beside the point.

Worship–ritual v. relationship

“Relationship.”  An overused word in our time, perhaps.  Yet it can scuff at the root of what life — both temporal and eternal — is about.  When considered in juxtaposition with ritual in the context of worship, relationship may be even more crucial.

Brad Carman, a preacher in Delaware, wrote this for his bulletin recently, springing out of Heb. 9:1-5:

In these opening passages, the author briefly takes his readers into the highly ritualized worship of the Jewish Tabernacle. . . .

. . . Almost everyone still has some rituals in his/her life and worship. (We sit in the same pew, order the same foods, sing the same songs, etc.) But more importantly, these rituals of Tabernacle worship serve a valuable purpose as summary of the first covenant God made with His people. They describe a system in which a Holy God is inaccessible to His people except through a series of sacrifices made by High Priest for himself and the people he represents. Sin has separated us from God and the idea of an intimate relationship with a Holy God is unthinkable under such a system.

That all changed when Christ came and ushered in a new and better covenant with God. This new covenant still involved a blood sacrifice but this offering was the blood of the Son of God, delivered to the eternal dwelling place of God. As our High Priest, he continually dwells in God’s presence providing us an opportunity for an intimate relationship.

In a recent interchange with Alan Knox on his blog, I found a thoughtful person with more time and careful insights than I:  he appropriately, kindly challenged several of my hastily penned comments.  Yet I continue to believe his understanding of the relationship of  worship and service is a trifle flawed.  (I know, I know — whose understanding isn’t flawed?  But this topic is important to me beyond most other things of the Lord, and most of the Christian world has gotten it so wrong.)

Brad’s comments above show something I concur with, believing it is significant:  a fundamental difference between Jewish and Christian worship lies in the difference between the “series of sacrifices” to which Brad refers above on the one hand, and the spiritual attitude of reverence, adoration, and homage on the other.

Under the New System, worship may must not be confined to ritual acts.  Rather, our worship of God is based on a more intimate (can anyone say “Incarnation” and not think there’s a different approach to God now?!) relationship.  Latreuo is the Greek word that appears to refer, more often than not, to the former, Jewish rituals (≈things done) and is found in Romans 12:2; proskuneo is the word that renders the attitude of obeisance, homage, reverential adoration (John 4, Revelation 4-5).  Hebrews 13:15-16 nicely sets these two word-concepts together, simultaneously differentiating and relating the two.

The above paragraph is an oversimplification, but I present it for thought and comment nonetheless.

[Coming soon … I’ve been thinking a lot about worship recently, spurred by Alan’s blog and various other stimuli.  I’m preparing a post on the notion of sacrifice in worship, and if you have any thoughts to contribute in advance, I’d love to see them.]

Elucidation

Please consider with me the following terms:

  • Prayer service
  • Praise service
  • Funeral service
  • Graduation service
  • Preaching service
  • Song service
  • Revival service
  • Devotional service

(and the most common of all …)

  • Worship service

Perhaps you could add more to the list. I would ask this: what does the word “service” in each of the above word-pairings suggest/connote? After you answer that question for yourself, perhaps you would, with me, engage in a three-step process:

1. Elucidate.

2. Gravitate.

3. Eliminate.

In #1, I mean to clarify the core meanings, e.g., of the words “worship” and “service.”

In #2, what I hope to suggest is gravitating toward more intentional, more accurate uses of both words.

And in #3, I indulge in fanciful dreaming: that by the end of my lifetime we might eliminate inappropriate uses of such erroneously concatenated terms as “worship service.”

Of course, if your preconceived ideas on the connotation of “service” aren’t anything like my preconceived ideas, then you won’t dream along the same lines at all. 🙂

NT worship vs. CofC assembly

[The substance of the following first appeared in response to a question on the blog of Peter Horne, preaching minister at the Lawson Road Church of Christ. Peter shows great interest in dialogue on the topics of his sermons.]

I find that the Church of Christ (and the Independent Christian Church) has traditionally made less-than-valid assumptions about the NT teaching on congregational worship.

And I’ve recently been seeing anew that the 19C American Restoration Movement leaders were even more interested than I thought in shucking denominational trappings. Such passion for moving away from human inventions — a passion I share! — would naturally lead a movement to look ardently for lists and blueprints and requirements and laws among the NT writings, wouldn’t it? No Calvinism, no Baptist doctrine, no synods or enforcements of associations, no creeds — no superimposed, divisive doctrinal statements. Only scripture!

But when ya git ta lookin’ (I’m writing this from Arkansas in December), there’s so little found in scripture about assembly protocols . . . so little that unequivocally, specifically relates to what God wants of His people when they’re gathered. 1 Cor. 14 gives us a smidge, but Eph. 5 and Col. 3 really don’t, despite the protestations of many of my RM siblings who look to those brief passages out of context to support preconceived ideas. It would be easier if He had specified more what we were/are to do together on Sundays. (Or would it?)

Although I am interested in etymologies in general, when I challenge the a-biblical term “worship service,” I emphasize not the derivation of the term but the ramifications and implications of what I believe is an errant concept: I suspect that the term “worship service” prods some of us further down the path of thinking the inspired writers of the NT intended to dictate specific orders and “acts” and such. And yet there is so little written about the assembly!

Thinking of the activities of assembled Christians as a “service” relates, for me at least, to the human invention of “five acts of worship.” Since we can find no such list of “five acts,” I think we may rightly question whether God has many specific expectations around those “five acts.”

Some have objected that a Christian should not perform two “acts of worship” simultaneously. Years ago, I remember reading what I consider to be the seriously misguided opinion of Guy N. Woods on this (and I can nearly quote verbatim, because the silliness of this wording has stuck in my memory for more than a dozen years): “Not only should a Christian not sing and participate in the Lord’s Supper simultaneously, but such is a gross corruption and perversion of both acts of worship.” This kind of narrow thinking originates in sincerity, I think, but its off-base legalism is evident. If we think we must do this, this, this, this, and that, we tend to want to see the things discretely — as items to be checked off — rather than as the integrated responsiveness of an adoring heart toward his benevolent, worthy God.

We in Christendom generally know what we mean when we say “worship service,” but I suspect that that thing — the stuff we identify as “worship service” — is an inherently flawed thing. Therein lies my problem with the term: it belies an errant assumption that there is an established (whether by God or men) order to be followed. The more we use the term “worship service,” the more we pump up the balloon and let it hover over us.

I wonder how many issues would dissipate if we retreated to a more biblical view of the assembly without the smoke-colored glasses that have us seeing everything through the hazy lens of the “service” or “ceremony,” complete with its liturgical expectations.

Acts of worship

Not everything done in a Christian assembly is worship, despite the misbegotten term “worship service.” When the saints get together, various activities may be a part of the meeting, and rightly so. Some activities–both private and corporate–do tend to foster true worship (proskuneo) in our hearts, but not necessarily all.

In the Campbell-Stone tradition of churches, a legacy list exists that is probably as ill-conceived as the idea of the “worship service.” Many of us came up knowing the list of Five Acts of Worship. Nevermind that there were variations on the list. (Hmmm. Is it preaching or listening to the supposedly articulated Word of God that qualifies for The List?) We were instructed, and taught by example, that five things, and five things only, were authorized as corporate acts of worship.

Aside: a hermeneutic of authorization, set over against fear of doing anything not expressly authorized by God, no longer seems adequate to me. While some attempt (operative word: attempt!) to do those things God specifically instructs them to do in scripture, all the while refraining from things He appears to be silent about, I have learned not to trust “arguments from silence” and have become generally comfortable with a bit more open view of God’s will. This doesn’t mean I’m a liberal–far from it. I’d say that, in this context, I’m a different kind of conservative.

Now, I learned early on–owing to high-quality parental and grandparental heritage–that worship is much more than a list, and more than performance of activities associated with said list. Yet it serves a purpose, I think, to consider various activities that frequently are a part of congregational assemblies. Ponder these actions/media and the essence of each:

  • Singing . . . sometimes worshipful, sometimes exhortative or instructional
  • Praying . . . sometimes worshipful, sometimes petitionary or confessional
  • Pouring expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and wiping them with hair . . . adoringly worshipful, sacrificial, vulnerable
  • Preaching sermons . . . mostly exhortatory/didactic, may be worshipful–depending on the heart and intent of the preacher
  • Listening to sermons . . . sometimes meditative & worshipful, introspective–again, depending on the heart of the receiver
  • Observing the Lord’s Supper . . . sometimes edifying, sometimes introspective, sometimes worshipful
  • Speaking praise-filled thoughts . . . worshipful, with an exhortation element present if spoken in the presence of others
  • Meditating on His grace . . . worshipful, with elements of introspection & self-examination
  • Serving others . . . edifying, perhaps evangelistic, redemptive, and, indirectly, perhaps worshipful
  • Sharing information about illnesses of church members . . . caring, merciful, probably not worshipful per se
  • Contributing money . . . sacrificial, and, depending on the person, perhaps worshipful in the Romans 12 sense
  • Calling a sister to discuss what God’s been doing in our lives this week . . . edificational and worshipful, if the focus is on GOD, calling attention to His goodness

The above list may help in showing how the five traditional acts of worship fit in with a more adequate concept of worship. The list is certainly not exhaustive; I could not begin to provide a full description of the realities present in each act I named. Worship is no simple thing. It defies analysis in terms of checklists of things to do. Much better to worship than to discuss worship, anyway!

And yet, I like to discuss it, too. In my perfect world, I might have had enough time to think of another ten or twelve items to add to the above list. But I what about you? What could you add?

Worship and service: the worlds of awe and anxiety

While taking a long-deferred bicycle ride, I listened to an old tape of Mike Armour talking about “Worship When the Wonder Withers.” A worthwhile re-experience! Among other things, Mike spoke about the two “worlds” in which we exist as believers:

  • the world of worship, in which we’re surrounded by others who believe, and in which we’re overwhelmed by awe
  • the world of waiting, in which we’re surrounded by the rest of the earth’s populus, and in which we’re overwhelmed by anxiety

Another helpful phrasing was the notion that worship can, and should, connect these “worlds” of worship and waiting. Worship should not just be part of the so-called world of worship (I guess this is or something along the lines of a conundrum or a paradox); we need private and corporate worship that will change us . . . so that our ethics of living are ultimately affected.

This may be what Paul was getting at in Romans 12:1-2 when, after extended theological treatments of faith, sin, justification, etc., he says that our horizontally focused religious service is, in a sense, “worship.” This is not proskuneo (vertical, “kissing toward” obeisance) here; instead, the living of true religion seems to become, by spiritual transformation, another type/manifestation of worship to God.

The term in Rom. 12 is latrein, from the root latreuo, which in turn is related to leitourgeia, from which we get “liturgy.” I have a stiff-necked reaction to the very word “liturgy.” For me, in that word lies all the haze of religious incantation and shadowy practice, all the presumption of full-blown, human-led denominationalism, and all the off-base, manmade ceremony of the centuries.

But what does Paul say? Our latrein, our service is to be thought of as an offering to God. It’s not worship in the strictest sense, yet our horizontal service is transmogrified into a spiritualized vertical worship. And this “worship” is no longer the ritual of a special priesthood; it is the holy calling of all of us saints.

P.S. In case you didn’t notice, I should like to point out that nowhere in this essay does the term “worship service” appear. I’ve said it before and will say it again: both this term and the concept are human inventions that do injustice to each distinct idea. Worship is worship, and service is service. It’s not that “never the twain shall meet,” but they are distinct and deserve distinct consideration.