Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Psalm 138:2 (Part 3) - "WHAT" Is Wrong With Our Focus (In Worship)

"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 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?

Friday, January 26, 2007

New Links

Please be sure to note the new authors listed in the links section... they're worth a read!

Psalm 138:2 (Part 2) - The Problem Defined...

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)

As I said in my last post(s!), I’ve been thinking about what it really means to follow God’s lead and exalt “His Name and His Word” as exalted above everything else. And as I said… there’s a problem: If God truly has “exalted above all things His Name and His Word” then we must seek to do the same, especially in our corporate assembly. It is this assembly – “church” - that marks us, defines us and, for all practical purposes, it is the thing that makes us “us.” Without the assembly, we can not function as a body.

I trust that you can see why the local church is so important in God’s plan and purpose. It is His Body incarnate and it is the visible and tangible corporate evidence of His presence… He is present uniquely when we “gather” (Matthew 18:20). So if we are His body when we gather, then we must share His priorities in our gathering. We MUST exalt His Name and His Word above ALL OTHER THINGS.

But that begs the question:
Do we exalt God’s Name and His Word above all things as well – especially in our church gatherings?

Consider this with me: Is it possible that, despite all of the good we seek to do, we might actually prioritize other things over a true focus on God and His glory and His Word?

I think it is more than possible… I’m saddened because it actually is happening, our evangelical sub-culture has elevated LOTS above God’s Name and Word. Perhaps your local church is free from this problem, but some churches in fact do not exalt God’s Name and His Word above all other things; instead, they exalt other things above God’s Name and His Word, focusing instead on other things.

Ok, I’m getting into deep water here, aren’t I? So before I talk further about the problem, let me say this as a disclaimer:

I want to make it clear to who ever reads this that I take no pleasure in pointing out this problem, (which, by the way, isn’t just a “problem”… it is sin). There is, after all, a perception that people who do point out others sin are arrogant, self-righteous Pharisees, pointing out the specks in other people’s eyes and missing the logs in their own. And sometimes – all too often – that perception is sadly accurate.

But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s a warning that ought to be heard. I’m certainly not claiming “prophet” status, and I acknowledge that I am a flawed person who is frequently wrong. But if I’m right in identifying this problem, we as a sub-culture are in danger or pursuing the wrong priorities and are offending the God of the universe! If that problem exists, wouldn’t it be important to focus on it – no matter how painful it might be to hear? “Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Galatians 4:16).

And the same problem I see in our sub-culture can be my problem, too - if I'm not willing to look carefully at myself. So, in a spirit of humility, I'll say what I see… and I’m praying for me, and for you as my reader, that “the eyes of [our] hearts would be enlightened…" Ephesians 1:18. And you might consider Gamaliel’s admonition when you read my thoughts here: “…if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:38-39)

So… here's the problem as I see it: 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.

No, we really don’t.

I’m grateful that God understands our weakness and imperfection (Psalm 103:14); He recognizes that we are still a “work in progress” (1 Corinthians 13:12); and He even takes ownership of perfecting both our will and our actions in the sanctification process (Philippians 2:13).

But we have a responsibility too… one which we are to “work out with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). And while I take great comfort in the sovereignty of God in all aspects of life – we live in the paradoxical world of both sovereignty and responsibility. And in acknowledging “the problem,” I’m not saying that God can’t or won’t address it… He will. I’m confident in His sovereignty, but I'm also burdened about the exercise of our responsibility.

So as I said last time, if you’ve come with me this far, consider holding on over the next couple posts to decide if you agree with me, and we'll consider “the problem” in practice by thinking about this:

  1. What we do in our corporate assembly matters to God;
  2. How we do what we do also matters to God; and
  3. Who we are as we follow Him matters as well.
If we are out of step in the “what,” “how” or “who” of our corporate assemblies, we do more than just miss the mark: We fail in our mission. And we do not exalt His Name and His Word above all things.

Tonight: "What" is the problem

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Psalm 138:2 (Part 1) - The Call of God's Priorities

"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)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been writing about this verse… and how it has gripped me. The truth in it, and the challenge that it contains, is something that has forced me to rethink a lot of what I see… and what I expect in “church”. To clarify and refocus my thinking, I’ve pulled my former posts, and I’m swinging again at this topic… and trying to break this down into more digestible chunks.

We evangelicals live in a sub-culture of the regular American society. We (hopefully) have different values and a different world view (although George Barna and Ron Sider may question just how “different” they really are). But it is a distinct sub-culture nonetheless. And in this sub-culture, it is fashionable to say that “we’re God’s people”… “we’re doing great things”… “we’re doing all of the right things”… and of course, “God is working through us in powerful, mighty, impressive ways”. It’s a safe, happy place, where people in the know will say that everything is good, positive. And that would be nice if it were all true.

Except in many places, it’s not. And the truth of this verse points us at the heart of the problem. And there’s good and bad news:

The good news is that there is a solution. The bad news is that we have to face the problem before we can get to the solution. So in these posts, we’ll discuss both – the problem and the solution.

But first, this thought: Believe me, there’s no quicker way to get yourself into trouble in a safe, happy, positive place than to stand up like the little kid in The Emperor’s New Clothes and say that you think that – gasp – there’s a problem. But sadly, yes - there really is a problem. So, at some risk, I’m going to say what I think is really going on… and why.

You see, God has elevated 2 things over ALL OTHER things. I think we’d agree that God gets to set His own priorities, doesn’t He? If God has done this, we must do the same, personally and corporately… and here’s my issue: In many corners of our little sub-culture, we claim to agree with God’s priorities, but deny that belief in practice. If that’s true, that’s a problem.

So let’s focus on three things in this series:

1. What has God exalted above all things?
2. Do we exalt these things "above all things" as well – especially in our church gatherings?
3. To the extent that we do not, what should we do?

If you’re with me so far, consider holding off your conclusion until we’ve covered all three. So first, let’s consider this:
What is it that God has exalted above “all things”?

Psalm 138 states that there are two things that God “exalts” (raises up, glorifies, elevates) above all other things, and they are:

1. His Name. God will not share His glory with anyone or anything. (Isaiah 42:8) He does everything for the sake of His Name… for His glory and fame. Charles Spurgeon said that “the great end of God in Christ was the manifestation of his own glorious attributes”. Bryn MacPhail in Toronto said that

“The plain truth of Scripture is that God is relentlessly self-exalting. The Bible commands that we praise and adore Him. The God of the Bible cares immensely about His reputation, His righteousness, and His glory, and He opposes those who belittle it. You can scarcely find a page of the Bible without seeing God excited about God.”

Does this seem selfish to you? Is God egocentric or arrogant in requiring that we have “no other gods before Him” (Exodus 20:3)? Is He unreasonable in requiring that we love Him “with all of [our] heart and all of [our] soul and all of [our] mind” (Matthew 22:37)? Was Jesus self-centered when He said that anyone who didn’t love Him more than their parents, their children – and even their own lives “were not worthy” of Him (Matthew 10:37-38)? To the natural mind, this is arrogant and insane!

But it makes sense to us, because we know that God is the only being in the universe for whom this is an appropriate thing. He ALONE is worthy of all praise, all honor, all glory… from everyone and about everything.

What else is more important than God Himself? Who is more beautiful, more excellent, more worthy than Him? Exalting His Name is worship, and what we are to live for – is to do everything that we do, with all that we have, for all the time we have to bring glory to His Name. It will be our business and passion throughout all of time and eternity to bring honor and glory to the Name of the Lord. With all that we are, with all that we have and with all that we do, we are to seek to put God in His rightful place of glory and honor.

How unworthy we are to do so; how frail and weak we are in the process; how little even our best efforts achieve when compared to what He is due! But we are to press on anyway – individually and corporately, to share God’s priority of exalting Himself above everything else, because God has exalted His Name above all things.

2. His Word. God has also exalted His Word above all things. Think about it… Jesus Christ is the living Word of God (John 1:1), the fullness of God dwelling in Him (Colossians 1:19), and the revelation of Jesus is made plain and clear in the book that God Himself has written. Listen to what the Bible says about itself – it is:

• Inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16)
• Written by men under the direction of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:16, Hebrews 3:7, 2 Peter 1:21)
• Relied on and used by Jesus Himself in the practice of His earthly ministry (Matthew 4:4, Mark 12:10, John 7:42)
• Used by Jesus to teach about Himself (Luke 24:27)
• “The Word” (James 1:21-23, 1 Peter 2:2), “the Word of God” (Luke 11:28, Hebrews 4:12), “the Word of Christ” (Colossians 3:16), and “the Word of truth” (Daniel 10:21, James 1:18)
• “Holy” (Romans 1:2, 2 Timothy 3:15)
• “The Book of the Lord” (Isaiah 34:16), the “Book of the Law” or the “Law of the Lord” (Nehemiah 8:3, Psalm 1:2, Isaiah 30:9, Galatians 3:10)
• The Sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17)
• The Oracles of God (Romans 3:2)

I could go on and on… The Bible contains the promises of God (Romans 1:2), reveals the laws, statutes and judgments of God (Deuteronomy 4:5), the prophesies of God (2 Peter 1:19-21). It is full and sufficient (Luke 16:31), an unerring guide (Proverbs 6:23), able to make us wise unto salvation through faith in Jesus (2 Timothy 3:15), and is profitable both for doctrine and practice (2 Timothy 2:16-17). It is pure (Psalms 119:140), true (Psalms 119:160), perfect (Psalms 19:7), precious (Psalms 19:10), quick and powerful (Hebrews 4:12). It’s intended for the use of all men (Romans 16:26). It’s designed for regenerating (1 Peter 1:23), quickening (Psalms 199:93), illuminating (Psalms 119:130), converting (Psalms 19:7), educating (Psalms 19:7), sanctifying (John 17:17). It produces faith (John 20:31), hope (Romans 15:4), obedience (Deuteronomy 17:19-20). It is heart-cleansing (Ephesians 5:26), life-changing (Psalms 119:9), protecting (Psalms 17:4) and life-supporting (Matthew 4:4). Everything is to be tested against it for accuracy and truth (Isaiah 8:20). And even today, the Holy Spirit Himself is illuminating people to understand the truth and power of what it has to say (1 Corinthians 2:10-14).

Is it any wonder that, along with His Name, God has exalted His Word above ALL THINGS?

So I’ve been thinking about what it really means to follow God’s lead and treat “His Name and His Word” as exalted above everything else. Like I said… there’s a problem: If God truly has “exalted above all things His Name and His Word” then we must seek to do the same, especially in our corporate assembly. And therein lies the problem.

Next: The problem defined…