Robert Webber was a minister and academic who often led seminars for churches navigating the landmines of worship renewal. He challenged Christians to think theologically about worship. “Right” worship isn’t a matter of hymns versus choruses or pipe organs versus drums. It’s about grounding our worship in a solid biblical, historical, and theological framework.
I attended Webber’s “Renew Your Worship” seminars twice in the 1990s and found them both enlightening and challenging. One of his memorable aphorisms was: “Stingy symbols, stingy God. Lavish symbols, lavish God.”
In other words, our symbols tell a story about what we believe God is like. When God blesses us, does God begrudgingly give us a little trickle or does God pull out all the stops? Which image of God do we want to convey in our worship?
Webber was a Baptist and the son of a Baptist minister. He was fully aware that his tradition tended to downplay religious symbols. He eventually found a new spiritual home in the Anglican tradition. Read his books and listen to his lectures, and you’ll find a thoughtful believer who learned to appreciate the best of both traditions.
When it comes to worship, however, Webber understood that symbols matter. Colors and textures and materials and gestures and light and sounds matter. Beauty matters. It says something about what we believe about God.
So when Solomon decided to build a temple for God in Jerusalem, he wanted it to be great because “our God is greater than other gods” (v. 5). He spares no expense and commits to giving this project the best efforts his nation can afford.
Do the biblical writers scold him for “wasting” money on such finery? Not at all.
Why? Because sacred spaces matter. We must never worship our buildings or their furnishings, but there is still a benefit to setting aside appropriate and beautiful places in which to encounter God.
Not every church can pay a fortune to create a beautiful worship space. But every church can make the effort to create an environment that invites worshipers into God’s presence.
• People can worship God anywhere, but what would be your ideal worship space? What does it look like? What does it sound like? What does it feel like?
• What symbols best express your beliefs about God and God’s blessings?
• How can we balance the time and resources we spend on our church’s architecture and adornments with what we spend on missions and ministry?
• What is the role of planning and budgeting in our work for God?
• Solomon received help from a Canaanite king in constructing the temple. How does service to God affect our relationships with others outside our community of faith?
Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.
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