My wife and I stood with the rest of the congregation, opened our hymnals and joined our hearts and voices to sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty” as the worship service began. It dawned in my soul that I couldn’t be a part of any congregation that ignored this great Trinitarian praise hymn written by Reginald Heber almost 200 years ago.
I do not exaggerate. I share this observation not to portray the superiority of hymn books or ancient hymn texts or one particular style of worship, but I prefer a hymn book with pages of paper on which the music notes are printed. Although I could probably sing “Holy! Holy! Holy!” in a place where the words were flashed upon the wall, I’d just as soon not do so.
One can worship the Trinitarian God in any worship setting. Robes and incense or whether the ceiling is 50 feet high or 8 feet high surely make little difference. Or does it?
Hundreds of factors guide where a person eventually decides to worship, many of them unexamined, seemingly inconsequential and completely unrelated to doctrine.
Does the church have a steeple? This is not a silly question. It declares to a potential worshiper either something very positive or even very negative about a church building. Does the church have a drum set on the stage? Or does the church have a stage? Do the church leaders wear robes? Will one sit in pews or folding chairs? Is the signage in the front yard electronic or permanent stone? Does the sanctuary hold 50 people or 500, and is it called a sanctuary or auditorium or celebration center? Can you bring coffee into the sanctuary? Wear blue jeans?
Although few people will consciously decide “up or down” for a particular congregation based on one of these indicators, I use the illustration of Heber’s great hymn because that hymn — for me — is representative of something far deeper than the hymn itself. “Holy! Holy! Holy!” represents the church of my childhood, a church experience of very warm memories and nurturing faith where I sat on a wooden pew with my parents and siblings and sang that hymn often. So whatever else I’m going to look for in a church must include elements that remind me of that childhood church.
Others will have an opposite story. The church they remember as a child or a teen is the last thing they want to replicate. In this case they’ll be looking for something precisely opposite. Even those who have never been to church prior to adulthood will have a mental image of the kind of congregation they seek.
“All the saints adore thee,” Heber writes, and so I believe. Trinitarian praise in heaven is perfect, harmonious and joyfully boisterous. But here on Earth, subtle factors determine worship choices and will continue to do so. What are the subtle factors that influence the place where you prefer to worship?
Creede Hinshaw, of Macon, is a retired Methodist minister.