"I bow down towards your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness, for you exalted above all things your name and your word.” Psalm 138:2 (ESV)
I have suggested that what we do in our corporate assembly matters to God, how we do it matters to God, and that who we are when we’re doing it matters as well. And the Bible is pretty clear about this, as we’ll see. So how are we doing?
Here's what I see: The evangelical church system, as a practical matter - exalts man over God. We wouldn't want to say it, and we may not even think it, but we do not exalt God's Name over all things. And if you have a hard time seeing that part of the problem, we absolutely, most certainly do not exalt God's Word over all things.
If there is a possibility that we do this, is it worth seeing and addressing the problem? How are we really doing? If you’re still with me, let’s start with this question:
Is it possible that what we do is wrong?
A local church is to be the physical manifestation of Jesus in a community. It is His body, His hands, His feet… it is His representative, His ambassador to the world. And in all that the local church does – the programs, activities, publications, etc., and especially when it gathers together, it must reflect Jesus. In your local assembly, what you do tells the world around you who Jesus is.
So what is it that we do together? Many things, and am I saying that they are all bad? No. Activities focused on fun aren’t necessarily a problem… neither are topical self-help seminars, focused self-help groups, or other similar things. Ministries aimed at helping lost people with their physical needs are good, too – although they are hollow if they don’t include a focus on their real need, and seeking to reach them for Christ. Frankly, all of these are good things.
But that isn’t my issue. While they are good, they aren’t good enough by themselves. By that I mean that they should not replace our primary responsibility to worship God in Spirit and in Truth… to exalt His Name and His Word above all other things. In the lives of many people and, sadly, in the corporate lives of many churches, the spiritual focus of our primary responsibility is replaced in practice by other priorities.
When we worship God, we are called to exalt His Name and His Word above all other things. We recognize that God demands that we have “no other gods before (or besides)” Him (Exodus 20:1) Jesus said that we are to love Him (and not other things) with all of [our] heart and all of [our] soul and all of [our] mind… (Matthew 22:36). We are not to be divided in focus and attention (Philippians 3:13). As imperfect as we are, we are to set our attention on fix our mind Jesus, and Him alone (Hebrews 12:1-3). As individuals, we are to examine our own hearts and see if our affections are set appropriately, and we understand that when we as individuals put other things above God and His agenda for our lives, we know that that is sin. Can local churches fall into the same trap? More to the point, does that ever happen in OUR corporate assemblies?
Yes, it can happen. Tragically, it does happen. We may say the right things, but what does our sub-culture actually do?
We err - no, we sin - when we elevate the WRONG THINGS over the Lord’s Name and His Word in our corporate assembly. A church’s primary focus, and particularly the primary focus of it’s corporate assembly, is to exalt God’s Name and His Word above all other things, and when we are divided in focus and attention, or place other things above God’s Name and His Word, well… we sin. And I suggested that, in many cases, even in evangelical churches, our focus is tragically wrong.
But who am I to say? What do you think? I’d suggest that, before you answer, you ought to consider 2 questions – one today, and the other tomorrow - about your local church. (Oh, and it’s OK to ask questions… actually, it’s your responsibility to do so. Acts 17:10-11!) So go ahead and think this through for yourself, and see where your church’s “corporate focus” is placed:
Here’s today’s question: Who is the audience in your worship service?
Worship is not merely something we do… it is a heart attitude, and heart-attention on someone or something. In true worship, the sole object and focus is on God Himself, and Him alone. When we focus on things other than God, we are not worshipping Him… no matter what we say we are doing.
Does this ever happen in a church worship service?
Let me use the “seeker-sensitive” service model as an example. By design, the gathering is focused on presenting God to unbelievers. There is nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but it is not worshipping God – He is not the service’s focus - seekers are. Typically, leaders of this type of church will acknowledge that the “worship” happens at some other time and encourage believers to attend, but many who call themselves “Christian” in America today think of this type of gathering as “worship”… and it may be their only corporate assembly. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t evangelize, or that seeing worship may not have an effect on an unbeliever. I’m certainly not saying that we should ignore the lost, but they are not to be our focus in “worship.”
But what if you don’t go to a “seeker-sensitive” church? There are other things that distract us. For example, we’ve lived through the “worship wars” that have been waged over the past several decades, and its safe to say that in most evangelical churches, “contemporary” worship style – in some form or another - has won the battle. In some places, good people who have served together in a church for their whole life have felt alienated by changes in style and preference made to reach “new audiences.” As a practical matter, this illustrates my point in a couple of ways:
First, notice that there is a fight: Why do people fight over not having “their music” played, and why do the ones making the decisions leave those who have a style preference behind? If worship is about exalting God’s name, why do we fight so much about our own music style and preference? I’m left feeling sad about both sides of the argument, and the fact that there is an argument at all is evidence that the focus is on the people and their preferences, rather than on God.
Second, notice that the leadership philosophy is to design the service to “reach people.” As a practical matter, I’ve found this approach both disconcerting and confusing as it is impossible to accomplish given the wide and changing variety of musical and other tastes of different people! For example, musical taste varies significantly by age-group – by focusing on one, you will by definition alienate others. The musical style favored in many churches today mirrors the tastes of those in their 30s and 40s, but those younger and older are asked to make all of the adjustments in taste and style. If you're my age and you like the style of music at church, there's a good chance that your parents and your kids do not!
Also, if we want to “reach people” and use “their style” to aid them in entering into worship, why do so many involved in the musical selection process seem to care about the preferences of those who aren’t attending more than the style of those who are already there?
My point is that in both of these examples, the focus is on the audience, rather than on God. If the focus was on God alone, and leadership sought to aid the attendees in worshipping Him, wouldn’t leadership eagerly seek to use the “musical language” of all those attending to do so? As I’ve said before, in some churches, your opinion seems to matter more if you are not attending than if you are!
Another thing that is far too common is the blurring of the lines between “worship” and entertainment. Too often in evangelical churches – especially those with very talented musicians, “worship” can become for many just a religious form of entertainment. It may be uplifting, challenging, and helpful, but its use in the service is not primarily about God – it’s about us.
It’s not unusual to hear comments about whether people “liked worship” after church. I’ve actually heard people say that their church “has the best worship in the county”! They mean, of course, that the music is top-notch, engaging and attractive. Lots of new people are coming because of it. Even in presentation, the whole feel is like a concert, with performers often becoming (intentionally or not) a focus unto themselves by the way they move, posture or even dress. I’m not opposed to excellence in everything that we do. But if discussion about “worship” focuses on musical style and preferences, about technical excellence and “gosh, wasn’t that worship tune excellent” or “why don’t they do more of my music”… isn’t the focus in the wrong place? And even if the "worship artist " has the purest heart and motive, the American "celebrity culture" places an enormous burden on the artist, and a great temptation to those who place celebrities on a pedestal (or long to be there themselves).
“Worship” has become big business in our sub-culture… a career path that didn’t exist like this even 20 years ago. For example, a quick search on Amazon.com shows over 3,400 “worship” CDs (how about “The Chartbuster Karaoke: Very Best of Praise and Worship” or “I Can Only Imagine – Ultimate Power Anthems of the Christian Faith”). There are over 12,890 books on Christian worship alone! What is one to think about paying to attend, or view on DVD, Christian artists selling a “worship” event? Again, I’m not saying that these are evil or bad, but is “worship” something that can – or should – be bought and sold?
And just as another aside, when did “worship” become synonymous with just “music” anyway? When did “worship” become just a half-hour of singing? Have you heard people say that their service is “worship” followed by a sermon? While that is certainly imprecise thinking at best, (of course preaching – and listening to it – is “worship”), it begs the question: Is singing all that all there is to worship? In our movement, “worship” has become almost completely synonymous with “singing” – and mostly celebration. Is there no room for things other than celebration in our corporate assembly? What about sorrow, grief, awe, fear (!) - are we always “happy-clappy?” Samuel's mother wouldn't have felt comfortable (or at least authentic) in this type of gathering. And people living in open disobedience to God ought not to be celebrating at all.
What has happened to other elements of worship historically included in a service? What ever happened to the creeds, the reading of Scripture… and what about corporate prayer? I remember Martin Lloyd Jones being asked once about his church’s services – mostly pastoral prayer and sermon. When asked if he had do give up one, he said that he’d give up the sermon before he’d give up the prayer – it was his opportunity to lead his congregation to God’s Throne in adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication… when was the last time you’ve heard prayer like that? Corporate, pastoral prayer is NON-EXISTENT in many churches. Apart from sermon introductions and closes, it almost NEVER happens in a “worship” service. And many times, even the tragedies of life (like a serious accident or death) are never even mentioned – let alone brought before the Lord in prayer in a Sunday morning setting.
What does “worship” look like in the Bible? When I read about God’s presence being revealed in Truth and in Power in the Bible, I’m hard-pressed to find examples of people standing and singing. More likely, they are prostrate and stunned into silence by the awesomeness of the Holiness of Almighty God. The New Testament church practice was to be "devoted to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). I don’t see much of that these days. And I (almost) never see it in some evangelical “worship” services.
So who is the audience in your church's worship service? Is it “seekers,” or is it designed to “meet the needs” of a “target audience”... or is it God alone? If God is the audience of the service, you will find that from the congregation’s perspective, human preferences will fade away, and you will hear little about what “I” like or need. From leadership’s perspective, great attention will be placed on facilitating worship in those sheep within their current care... and while there will be a heart desire to reach others and to include them, it will not be at the expense of those to whom God has entrusted the care and nurture of their souls.
Here is a simple truth: When the focus of your service (or the “target audience”) is not God and Him alone, the service – however good and helpful it is – is not a worship service, and it does not exalt God’s Name and His Word above all other things.
But a more pressing question is coming next time: "WHAT" Is Wrong With Our Message?