My wife, Lisa, and I have been members at more than our share of churches over the last 26 years. Among my wife’s favorites was a unique gathering: a conservative, charismatic, mainline congregation. Each Sunday we would settle in for an almost two-hour service that included charismatic praise songs, a liturgy with weekly communion, and a short sermon.
My wife thoroughly enjoyed it, but I thought the sermon often felt more like a “thought for the day” exercise than a “get into the guts of the Scripture passage‚” teaching that I’m most fond of. But we loved the church members, and during the week, I’d listen to recorded sermons from other preachers to get my “fix.” In this case, my Monday through Saturday personal worship allowed me to enjoy the Sunday public worship.
During our nearly three decades together, Lisa and I have found that we’re not the only couple who enjoy worshiping God in different ways. In fact, most couples have widely divergent styles of worship, which range from contemplative to charismatic, traditional to informal. Some spouses enjoy singing heartfelt praise songs; others feel closest to God while serving at a soup kitchen or while meditating on His Word.
Although personal preferences may cause misunderstandings and conflict for couples, these differences are actually a bonus for the kids, who get to see two different yet genuine expressions of worship. However, think about the ramifications when one spouse thinks there’s a right and a wrong way, or worse, an only way.
It’s tempting to conclude that, since Jesus is the only way to God, there must be only one way to worship Him. Yet Scripture and Christian tradition both present a wide variety of worship approaches, all equally acceptable because God makes us with different dispositions and personal preferences. Some forms of worship that seem to fit us just right might be too noisy, too quiet, too liturgical or too strange for our spouse.
When worship styles collide
Let’s take a look at how these differences often play out in the lives of loving, godly couples.
Ellen has been married to Bob for 15 years. She has her suspicions about Bob’s love for God, however, because she notices he never seems engaged in the singing at their church. Yet Bob is the first to sign up for any opportunity to paint a widow’s house or work on the church landscaping.
Ellen makes the mistake of assuming that, because Bob isn’t musically inclined, he’s not worshipful. She fails to realize that some people just don’t engage as well with God by singing praise choruses. Differing worship preferences reflect unique temperaments, not indifference toward God. If Ellen, who’s enthusiastic about singing to God, understood that Bob likes to express his devotion through caring for others, she could begin to appreciate her husband rather than judge him.
Jim’s a classic intellectual. He has an impressive library of Christian reference books, most of them underlined, and enjoys studying Scripture. His wife, Anne, loves to journal. She writes poetry to God, and though she’s in a weekly Bible study (and faithfully does her homework), she places more emphasis on “connecting” with God than on learning new things about Him.
Jim believes that a “true” quiet time should leave you with a life application. If you haven’t learned a new lesson, he thinks you haven’t really met with God. Anne enjoys just spending time with God. Sometimes she comes away with a new thought or perspective, but for her, worship is about adoring God and personally relating with Him. When Jim asks her how she will apply what she learned that day, Anne wants to reply, “What good is all that head knowledge if it never changes your heart?”
In reality, emphasizing only knowledge could be a danger — and so could focusing on an emotional connection with God without ever studying His Word. Instead of chastising each other, Jim and Anne need to recognize that, together, they model a worship of God that’s fuller than either one would model alone.
Learn, don’t judge
Two key attitudes will help couples with different styles of worship. First, instead of judging your spouse’s spiritual temperament, seek to understand and learn from him or her. Do you really think you’ve cornered the market on understanding, knowing and loving God? He’s an immense God, and one of the reasons He calls us to become a church is because no individual can adequately represent what it means to relate to God. Those who like an emotional connection need intellectuals; those who prefer to meet needs should work with those who want to evangelize. Let your spouse increase your understanding of worship; don’t try to fit him or her into your spiritual box.
Second, encourage your spouse to pursue God according to his or her personal bent. If you’re married to a man who finds God in nature, give him the freedom to get outdoors. He may want to spend lunchtime walking through a park or take a detour after work to reconnect with God before coming home. If you’re married to a woman who meets God in silence, she is going to need some time alone. Don’t take it personally. She needs space and quiet to connect with God. She’s not rejecting you; she’s pursuing Jesus.
No matter your spiritual temperament, four elements are essential to worship: adoration, communication with God, Scripture reading and service. One person may enjoy studying the Bible and another may enjoy serving, but they both need to spend time praying and adoring God. And although someone can sing praise songs for hours, that doesn’t mean she will mature without time in God’s Word.
But here’s the key: How we pray, how we worship and how we study God’s Word will differ. Just as I’ll never have my wife’s personality, I’ll also never have a quiet time quite like hers. And that’s by God’s design. We should celebrate and embrace our differences. Our marriages offer us the opportunity to give a fuller response to God as a couple than we ever could as individuals.
Gary Thomas is a writer in residence at Second Baptist Church in Houston and an adjunct faculty member at Western Seminary in Portland, Ore.
This article first appeared in the August/September issue of Thriving Family magazine. Copyright © 2011 by Gary Thomas. ThrivingFamily.com.