Orthodox Worship vs. Contemporary Worship


I get in arguments all the time with my boyfriend about churches. He is Lutheran and I am Orthodox and all the time I tell him about how the Orthodox church is the original, whole and unchanged. He does not like “formal” type of worship and prefers contemporary worship with drums, guitar, etc. He asks me, “Does God care how you praise him?” [I go to a Christian College and I am challenged all the time because I have conflicting views because I am Orthodox. I see these people living great lives, very devoted to Christ, and I can’t help but think, are they wrong for not worshiping the original, Orthodox way? So, how would you answer the question, “Does God care how you praise him” if someone’s heart is in it while they are praising in contemporary style?”

How could I get them to become interested in Orthodox worship.


Unfortunately, since I do not know your friend personally, it is impossible for me to tell you precisely how to “convince” or “interest” him. What I can say, however, is the following.

1. The tradition from which he comes is what we Orthodox Christians might call “man centered.” The focus is on how God affects “my life,” what “I get out of worship,” etc. In this mindset, worship must be “appealing to me,” to “fit my needs,” and so on. “Personal taste,” rather than the faith, often dictates the external form of worship, which can lead to congregations offering “traditional,” “contemporary,” “pop,” “folk,” “rock,” and other “styles” of services, each “form” appealing to the taste of a specific “group” within a community, yet no one form appealing to the community as a whole.

2. The Orthodox Tradition approaches such things from the exact opposite position, undestanding as well that how one worships is not a matter of “personal taste.” Rather than being “man centered,” Orthodox Christian worship is “God centered.” Worship, as we read in Scripture, must be offered “in Spirit and Truth” and must be “well pleasing unto God,” Who is the only One we strive to “please” by our worship.

We do not gather for worship to be entertained, to be “relevant,” or to “appeal” to this group’s “taste” at the expense of the whole. While humans have the need to worship, worship must offer a glimpse of the divine, not an affirmation of humanity. Worship must always be seen as focused on God, period, and not on “me.”

3. Unless you can impart a change in another’s essential and fundamental outlook from “man centered” to “God centered,” you will probably find that it will be virtually impossible to convince him or others, or to change their attitude toward worship. We’re dealing with two radically different traditions, theologies, ecclesiologies, and soteriologies here, and unless the underlying elements, the internal faith and vision that support their views are changed, their views probably will not change.

4. With regard to whether God cares how we praise Him, I cannot presume to speak on God’s behalf. But I can say that we are called to worship “in Spirit and Truth,” as we read in Scripture; that we are called to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ “as often as you come together” lest, as we read in the words of Our Lord Himself in the Gospel of Saint John, we have no life in us; that we are to “lay aside all earthly cares” [which is pretty difficult with rock music, and often lousy rock music at that]; that we are called to transform our fallen human existence by bringing it into the very presence of God Himself—in His Kingdom, not ours—and meeting God “where He is,” rather than “where we are” or “where we would like Him to be.”

Hence, the external form of worship must reflect the internal faith of the worshipping community. Orthodox Christian worship reflects the fullness of Truth as preserved and proclaimed by Orthodox Christianity. It is “sacramental”—that is, it strives to “make holy.” It is Eucharistic—that is, all worship flows from the one, essential act of worship and thanksgiving, the “common union” with the Trinity and with God’s People into which the “community” enters through the reception of Holy “Communion.”

Orthodox worship is not “fossilized,” as some non-Orthodox would opine, nor is it true to say that God only accepts this or that ritual action. God accepts worship “in Spirit and Truth;” if the “externals” do not accurately reflect the “internals,” there is a disconnect, just as if the “internals” are not reflected by the “externals,” something is amiss.

In the early Church there were a wide variety of Liturgies, in addition to those of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great, and all were considered “valid,” because they were God-centered and God-focused, sacramental, and consistent with the faith of the community. Over time, the Liturgy took on the external form to which we are accustomed today, but the internal faith that is reflected in worship has remained the same, for as Saint Paul teaches us, Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and inasmuch as our faith is in the “changeless Christ,” the key is to remain faithful to Him and to express that in the externals of our worship, rather than changing the externals to accommodate the “changing world” and its ever changing “tastes.”

5. As far as how you can get others interested in Orthodox worship, I would have to emphasize again, that unless you can transform or reverse—or, to be more precise, “complete”—the underlying understanding of worship or impart to them the fullness of Truth as proclaimed and preserved by the Orthodox Church at all times and in all places, you will probably not interest them in Orthodox worship. It is essential to understand that the Church’s mission is not to get people “interested” in the externals of our worship.

Our Lord came into the world to proclaim reconciliation between the Creator and His creatures, and this is the very heart of the faith. If we cannot interest others in this, then it is futile, and even dangerous, to try to interest them in how we express the heart of our faith externally, through worship. The Church’s mission is to proclaim the fullness of Truth as revealed by Jesus Christ through the Good News, and then to express this as a community through “liturgy,” the “common work” of God’s People. If one accepts the fullness of Truth, one will naturally worship accordingly.

I might also add that the Liturgy was never meant to be an evangelization tool, a means of interesting or attracting people. While it is true that there have indeed been countless individuals for whom their first contact with the Orthodox Church may have come through an Orthodox worship experience, it is also fact that, in the early Church, those who had yet to fully embrace the faith were dismissed after the Liturgy of the Word, because the Liturgy of the Eucharist was not something that they could participate in until after they had converted.

It is only my opinion, but one of the biggest mistakes we Orthodox Christians make is thinking that by taking a non-Orthodox individual to a Liturgy, he or she will be convinced instantaneously of the fullness of Orthodoxy. Ultimately, those with no understanding of the faith, just as those who define “good worship” by their personal tastes or interests, are not in a position to fully understand the Liturgy, even though they may “enjoy” the experience. [“Enjoyment” is not a goal in worship.]

While there are indeed those who may “enjoy” the incense, chanting, vestments, icons, candles, and the other externals of our worship, it must always be remembered that the externals are a reflection of the “internal” faith of the People of God, at all times and in all palces. For someone to pursue conversion to Orthodoxy simply because he or she likes the externals of the service, with only a secondary concern for the fullness of Truth that the worship expresses, he or she would, in my opinion, be entering into a spiritually dangerous state, since the greater emphasis would be placed on the “form” of worship while placing the “power” of the faith which the worship expresses in a secondary position.