In our previous study, we noted John Stott’s comment that “true worship is the highest and noblest activity of which man, by the grace of God, is capable.” All believers are called to a life of “true worship,” yet we often fall short of this privilege. Another man in the mid-20th century–A.W. Tozer–critiqued the worship of the Church thus:
Protestants are altogether too much inclined to take things for granted. We laugh at those on the other side of the ecclesiastical fence [i.e. the Roman Catholics] because they bow and scrape and kowtow in the presence of the church. But we lack reverence–not because we are free in the gospel, but because God is absent, and we have no sense of His presence.1
That critique, I am afraid, applies to large segments of the modern-day professing evangelical Church. We lack reverence in worship because we do not sense God’s presence. We are quick to criticise the Roman Catholic Church (and rightly so in many areas), but our worship is often no more real or acceptable to God than theirs. We cannot fulfil our ‘highest and noblest activity’ if we lack reverence for God. We must reverently and rationally respond to the revelation of God in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. And there is a right and a wrong way to do this.
God has not left us in the dark concerning acceptable worship: He has given us very clear rules. The English Standard Version of the Bible over and over again uses the phrase, “according to God’s rules.” Though the phrase is rendered differently in the King James Bible, the concept of “God’s rules” is nevertheless there.
It is very important for believers to understand that worship must be exercised according to God’s rules. I am afraid that the test of worship today is sincerity (“Is the motive right?”) rather than Scripture. As long as the worshipper is sincere–as long as it comes from the heart with a noble motive–we assume that God will accept any form of worship. Many today argue that worship is a matter of taste, culture or generation. But is this true? Or has God given us explicit instructions as to how He is to be worshipped?
I would submit that God has given us clear rules by which He is to be worshipped. Simply put, He seeks those who will worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24). That definition (“in spirit and in truth”) must guide our every attempt at worship. Anything that falls short of this standard–I care not how sincere, heartfelt or “relevant” it is–is not worship! The goal of this study is to present several distortions of biblical worship that are prevalent in today’s Church, and to help us to guard against such distortions. God is committed to His revelation, to His rules for worship, and He does not appreciate our innovations. Consider some of the innovations of worship in the biblical history, all of which God rejected:
- Cain’s sacrifice, to which God had not respect (Genesis 4:1-6).
- The golden calf of manufactured by Aaron as a visible representation of God, for which 3,000 were struck dead in one day (Exodus 32).
- Nadab and Abihu’s ‘strange fire’, for which the Lord struck them dead (Leviticus 10:1-2).
- Saul’s double offering, rejected by God because he was not a priest (1 Samuel 13, 15).
- King Uzziah’s unauthorised offering, for which God struck him with leprosy (2 Chronicles 26:16-23).
- Ananias and Sapphira’s dishonest worship of God, which was clearly rejected (Acts 5:1-11).
- The false worship of the Corinthians with regard to the Lord’s Table (1 Corinthians 11:17-34).
These are but some of the illustrations of false worship in the Scriptures. In each case, though worship was directed at the true God, innovations were introduced. In each case, God rejected the innovation of man, preferring His own revelation above the inventive worship of men.
The Distortion of Worship
In The Heart of Worship, Matt Redman sings these words:
I’m coming back to the heart of worship,
And it’s all about You,
All about You, Jesus.
I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it,
When it’s all about You,
All about You, Jesus.
The story behind the song is interesting:
Matt Redman lives in England, and his church was growing by leaps and bounds. The music was very important as to the reasons why it was growing, but Matt and his colleagues took a very courageous decision and said, “We have created an idol with our music. We are going to cease and desist all music in our corporate worship until the Holy Spirit clears us of our conviction about idolatry.” Essentially, he said, we’re going to put each other out of work.
So the music stopped, and the church continued to grow. And then, after much prayer and discernment, they decided to bring music back in. Matt wrote The Heart of Worship as a response to that. In the middle of it, he says. “It’s not the music, it’s you.”
The Scriptures clearly teach–both by precept and illustration–that not all worship is acceptable to God. We have already noted several illustrations of this above. The principle is simple: God is interested in His revelation, not our innovation! This is perhaps nowhere more clearly illustrated than in David’s desire to return the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. Though the story has a “happy ending,” David had some hard lessons to learn before he returned to the regulative principle of worship.
Setting the Scene
During the days of the judges, the Ark of the Covenant had fallen into the hands of God’s enemies. Israel had been at war with the Philistines, and had not been able to gain the upper hand. Flustered at their inability to defeat the Philistines, the Israelites had resorted to drastic measures, “Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of Shiloh unto us, that, when it cometh among us, it may save us out of the hand of our enemies” (1 Samuel 4:3).
Do you see the problem with their rationale? The Israelites believed that the Ark–a wooden box overlaid with gold–had the ability to save them. Their reliance was not upon the LORD, but upon the Ark. Needless to say, the Ark did not save them. Quite to the contrary, the Ark was captured by the Philistines and taken to Ashdod.
Arriving in Ashdod, the Philistines placed the Ark of Jehovah in the temple of Dagon (their half-fish-half-man god). The Ark resided in the temple overnight and, the following day, Dagon’s statue was found lying on its face. Somewhat bemused, the Philistines set Dagon aright before resuming with their daily activities. The next day, Dagon was again face down before the Ark: this time, his arms and head were broken clean off!
The Philistines, however, were yet unimpressed with the power of Jehovah. As judgement, He struck them with haemorrhoids, and sent a terrible infestation of mice throughout the city of Ashdod. The solution of the Philistine elders was not, initially, to send the Ark back to Israel, but to send it to Gath, another Philistine village. The result? Similar plagues in Gath! And so they decided to send the ark to Ekron, another village in Philistia. The Ekronites, understandably, were absolutely terrified at the prospect of the judgement-inviting Ark residing in their borders and so, finally, the Philistine elders agreed that the time had come to send the Ark back to Israel. The historian records the decision thus:
And the ark of the LORD was in the country of the Philistines seven months. And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners, saying, What shall we do to the ark of the LORD? tell us wherewith we shall send it to his place. And they said, If ye send away the ark of the God of Israel, send it not empty; but in any wise return him a trespass offering: then ye shall be healed, and it shall be known to you why his hand is not removed from you. Then said they, What shall be the trespass offering which we shall return to him? They answered, Five golden emerods, and five golden mice, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines: for one plague was on you all, and on your lords. Wherefore ye shall make images of your emerods, and images of your mice that mar the land; and ye shall give glory unto the God of Israel: peradventure he will lighten his hand from off you, and from off your gods, and from off your land. Wherefore then do ye harden your hearts, as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? when he had wrought wonderfully among them, did they not let the people go, and they departed? Now therefore make a new cart, and take two milch kine, on which there hath come no yoke, and tie the kine to the cart, and bring their calves home from them: And take the ark of the LORD, and lay it upon the cart; and put the jewels of gold, which ye return him for a trespass offering, in a coffer by the side thereof; and send it away, that it may go. And see, if it goeth up by the way of his own coast to Bethshemesh, then he hath done us this great evil: but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that smote us: it was a chance that happened to us.
(1 Samuel 6:1-9)
The plan was simple. If the Ark was the cause of the judgement, it must be sent back to Israel. A new cart was thus manufactured, and golden images of Jehovah’s judgement were moulded as peace-offerings. Two never-before-yoked cows, with young calves, were given the task of taking the Ark back to Israel. The significance of this is plain. If the cows had never before been yoked, they would ordinarily have refused to move when the yoke was placed upon them. Furthermore, they would normally be wholly unwilling to leave their calves behind (we can almost picture the young ones lowing, “Mommy, come back!”). This was quite a test: the cows must submit to the yoke, leave behind their calves, and pull the cart–unguided–along a set route to Israel. Only then would the Philistines admit that the judgement had been of Jehovah. If the test was not passed 100%, they would assume that it was coincidence.
Jehovah, we see in the remainder of the chapter, made clear that the judgement was His, for He led the cows unhesitatingly through the entire process. The Ark arrived safely in Israel, where it was brought to rest in Kirjathjearim.
Some 40 to 60 years later, long after the death of King Saul, David–the man after God’s own heart–decided that the Ark must be brought to Jerusalem. The historian again details the process:
Again, David gathered together all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. And David arose, and went with all the people that were with him from Baale of Judah, to bring up from thence the ark of God, whose name is called by the name of the LORD of hosts that dwelleth between the cherubims. And they set the ark of God upon a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab that was in Gibeah: and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, drave the new cart. And they brought it out of the house of Abinadab which was at Gibeah, accompanying the ark of God: and Ahio went before the ark. And David and all the house of Israel played before the LORD on all manner of instruments made of fir wood, even on harps, and on psalteries, and on timbrels, and on cornets, and on cymbals. And when they came to Nachon’s threshingfloor, Uzzah put forth his hand to the ark of God, and took hold of it; for the oxen shook it. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God. And David was displeased, because the Lord had made a breach upon Uzzah: and he called the name of the place Perezuzzah to this day. And David was afraid of the Lord that day, and said, How shall the ark of the LORD come to me? So David would not remove the ark of the Lord unto him into the city of David: but David carried it aside into the house of Obededom the Gittite. And the ark of the LORD continued in the house of Obededom the Gittite three months: and the LORD blessed Obededom, and all his household.
(2 Samuel 6:1-11)
David’s worship, like that of the above-mentioned innovators, was soundly rejected by God. Why? Because he had not done things according to revelation. His motive was pure, even admirable. His worship was enthusiastic. He and his fellow-worshippers were sincere. Without a doubt, they were “spiritual” in their worship. They were serious, seeking God in their worship. But they directly disobeyed God’s explicit command as to the proper method of transportation for the Ark: “they set the ark of God upon a new cart.”
In the opening chapters of Numbers, God clearly commanded how the Ark was to be transported. Of course, during the wilderness wanderings, it was necessary to move the Ark from place to place. The Temple had not yet been constructed, and the Tabernacle moved with the people wherever they went. Certain Levite families were entrusted with various transportation responsibilities whenever the Tabernacle needed to be moved. During the transportation process, four Levites were charged with carrying the ark. Moses had constructed golden staves, which the Levites were told to slide through the four rings on either side of the Ark. These four Levites then carried the Ark to its new destination, where it would again rest within the Holy of Holies. This, by the way, was perhaps the safest mode of transportation: the Ark was far less likely to fall when being carried on staves by four Levites than it was to fall off a cart!
I am sure that David knew the law concerning the transportation of the Ark. Levites were readily available. But he chose innovation over revelation, which had disastrous results.
Where did David get this innovative idea? Did he read it in a worship magazine? Did he borrow the idea from another church? Actually, he adopted the idea from the Philistines (1 Samuel 6:7)! They had originally come up with manufacturing a new cart for the transport of the Ark. David had simply copied this worldly idea in his attempt to worship God. “The staves–the ordained method of transporting the Ark–are outdated!” he seemed to say. “Why not try something new? Why not make God more ‘comfortable’?” But, once again, God shows that He is committed to His revelation, not to our innovations!
David was visibly distressed at God’s rejection of his worship. But the result was wonderful: David was driven to search the Scriptures, and returned to offer the Lord the worship of which He was truly worthy. This time, we consider the record of the chronicler:
And David made him houses in the city of David, and prepared a place for the ark of God, and pitched for it a tent. Then David said, None ought to carry the ark of God but the Levites: for them hath the LORD chosen to carry the ark of God, and to minister unto him for ever. And David gathered all Israel together to Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the LORD unto his place, which he had prepared for it. And David assembled the children of Aaron, and the Levites: Of the sons of Kohath; Uriel the chief, and his brethren an hundred and twenty: Of the sons of Merari; Asaiah the chief, and his brethren two hundred and twenty: 7Of the sons of Gershom; Joel the chief, and his brethren an hundred and thirty: Of the sons of Elizaphan; Shemaiah the chief, and his brethren two hundred: Of the sons of Hebron; Eliel the chief, and his brethren fourscore: Of the sons of Uzziel; Amminadab the chief, and his brethren an hundred and twelve. 11And David called for Zadok and Abiathar the priests, and for the Levites, for Uriel, Asaiah, and Joel, Shemaiah, and Eliel, and Amminadab, And said unto them, Ye are the chief of the fathers of the Levites: sanctify yourselves, both ye and your brethren, that ye may bring up the ark of the LORD God of Israel unto the place that I have prepared for it. For because ye did it not at the first, the LORD our God made a breach upon us, for that we sought him not after the due order. So the priests and the Levites sanctified themselves to bring up the ark of the LORD God of Israel. And the children of the Levites bare the ark of God upon their shoulders with the staves thereon, as Moses commanded according to the word of the LORD.
(1 Chronicles 15:1-15)
Stating the Principle
In every biblical case cited above, you will notice that the worshippers sought to worship the one true God. None of the instances mentioned involve idolatry in the sense of deliberate worship of a false god. They all understood that worshipping a false god is wrong (even today’s Church could probably recognise that!). Their problem (like that of many churches today) is that they worshipped the true God in a false way. And God rejected that! It is, therefore, imperative that we understand the difference between true and false worship. We cannot worship God at our own whim; we are not free to introduce our innovations into the worship of God.
Why does God not appreciate our innovations in worship? For several reasons. First, innovations are often an attempt to reduce effort. Many of the innovations introduced into churches over the last 60 years or so have been the result of laziness within the Church at large. Introducing a host of new-fangled worship ideas takes the burden of the believer to exercise his mind in worship. This laziness, sadly, is rather prevalent in the Church today. I am saddened to see parents bring their children to church and allow them to sleep during the service. What are you teaching your children by allowing them to sleep during the preaching of God’s Word? That God is not all that important! That it is okay to turn God off! Then, when they are older and you want them to pay attention, you are grieved at the difficulty of turning their focus to God! But why should this surprise us? When I was a child, I often had a red ear in church–when I would begin to fall asleep, my father would flick me on the ear to wake me up and make me pay attention! Did I understand everything I heard? No, but I did wake up and learn to pay attention! We ought to teach our children the same: stay awake and apply effort. Most of us wouldn’t want our children to go to school and fall asleep. But it’s okay in church? If we don’t teach our children that worship requires work, we will simply perpetuate generations of lazy worshippers, who will have to introduce all sorts of new innovations in order to maintain interest in their churches.
Second, innovations tend to introduce false concepts of God. You become like that which you worship and how you worship. The psalmist made this point clear:
Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth’s sake. Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is now their God? But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not: They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not: They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat. They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them. O Israel, trust thou in the LORD: he is their help and their shield.
Third, innovations reduce our reverence. This is essentially the problem that we find with Uzzah. Ordinarily, he would have been very careful about touching the Ark. But the innovation that David introduced reduced his “guarding” of the reverent approach to God, which caused Uzzah to stretch forth and touch the Ark when it fell. I am not suggesting that he deliberately and defiantly sought to break God’s law–I’m sure that his motives were pure–but he, nevertheless, acted with less reverence than he normally would have, which was the direct result of “innovative worship.”
Fourth, innovations are ultimately self-serving. Much of what passes as worship today strives for a “worship experience”–something that makes us feel good. Listen to what C.S. Lewis had to say about such “feel-good” worship:
As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.2
If we have a true “worship experience,” we will find innovations unnecessary, for we will be totally focused on the character of God.
What, then, are some of the modern-day innovations in worship, which ultimately only interfere with true worship? And how can we guard against such distortions, worshipping God, rather, in spirit and truth?
Specifying the Distortions
There are several contemporary trends in worship that are nothing but distortions of biblical worship. As we have seen, any innovation that goes outside of clear Scriptural principles distorts the worship of the true God, and must be avoided at all times. I want to make mention of but five such distortions of which we must be aware.
Embellishment in Worship
By “embellishment,” I am referring to the practice of adding to God’s Word (concerning worship) in order to achieve a more “visible” or “physical” dimension. For instance, drama (which was prevalent in the Medieval Church) is making a big comeback in modern-day worship. This embellishes worship, as it reduces the emphasis on God’s Word and adds the physical dimension of drama in order to maintain attention. Of course, the problem with this is that the observer now becomes the interpreter, rather than hearing, “Thus saith the Lord,” in Word-centred worship.
In certain circles, there is the embellishment of ceremony–the “bells and smells” form of worship. There is nothing of such worship in Scripture. Some might argue for ceremony by pointing to the feasts of the Old Testament–but we should understand that those were fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ. Why would we want to live in the shadows when we can live in the Light? Why would we want to embrace the shadows whilst ignoring the Substance to which the shadows pointed?
There is what I would call the stained glass approach to worship. By this, I am referring to the practice of “setting the mood for worship.” There are all sorts of innovations aimed at setting the ambiance for worship. I am afraid that such embellishment actually distracts us from worship, rather than focusing us more on God. I recall being in a Baptist church once where a big celebratory ceremony was held before the observance of the Lord’s Table. During the celebration, dozens of church folk walked down the aisles bearing large banners depicting crosses and lambs and all sorts of symbols. I shuddered within myself as I thought, “This is Roman Catholicism being carried out in a Baptist church!” There is nothing inherently wrong with a banner, of course. We have banners lining the walls of our own church building. But the emphasis of our banners is the Word of God: they are simple banners, each emblazoned with a Scripture citation. But when the goal of the worship service is to set the mood, to move people emotionally, you are going outside the bounds of Scripture. We are not to “set the mood”; instead, we are to sanctify our hearts as we strive to worship God through His Word. We cannot make images of God, for He is a Spirit and expects to be worshipped in spirit and in truth. He has told us that we are to worship Him through words; the Word of God, therefore, must always be central in worship.
Ecstatic-ism in Worship
Here, I am referring to the practice of stirring the emotions by directing all attention straight to the will or the emotions. Now, I don’t want you to misunderstand me: our worship should touch our affections and emotions–sometimes more than at other times. But when the entire worship service is geared to directly affect the heart, when the pressure is only on the emotions, true worship is distorted. To the contrary, one author said it this way, “We must feel things because we think them.”3
In many instances, there is a massive emphasis on music and professionalism. Modern worship songs are often extremely repetitious–the same phrase over and over and over… There is almost a mob mentality: repeating words to a nice tune in order to appeal to the emotions. Al Mohler’s definition of a praise chorus is humorous, if a little caricatured: “One word, two chords, three hours!”
In the 1980s, Neil Postman authored a book entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death. Though he makes no profession to faith, he writes with great insight into modern culture. Amusing Ourselves to Death is written on the heels of the rise of television in American culture. Postman is very critical of the television-culture, arguing that the rise of television has led to a demise in our ability to think rationally and logically. He insists that television directs all attention straight at the emotions, bypassing the intellect. Even though he does not claim to be Christian, he has studied much of Jonathan Edwards’ works, particularly his Religious Affections, which is a Christian classic dealing with the emotions in worship. Jonathan Edwards, of course, was used of God in a great way: the Great Awakening broke out almost as a direct human result of his ministry. When he preached his famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, some in his congregation audibly screamed in fear. Others, sweating and white-knuckled, grabbed hold of the pew in front of them, emotionally moved by his biblical exposition of God’s holy wrath. Interestingly, Edwards read that sermon in a monotone voice directly from his written manuscript, with a candle in one hand (no professional lighting or sound system!), because he did not want to appeal directly to people’s emotions! Though Edwards’ ministry certainly touched emotions, Postman says this: “Audiences may have been moved emotionally by Edwards’ language, but they were, first and foremost, required to understand it.”4
In biblical worship, the understanding always precedes the emotions. Biblical worship never bypasses the mind, for God seeks those who will worship Him in spirit and in truth. We must worship God with an understanding response to His Word.
Of course, music certainly has a function in our worship. I am not opposed to music, for the Bible is not opposed to music. But music is always a servant in biblical worship, not the master. My concern is that music has become the master in too many churches. I recall being at an inter-church meeting once at which a good deal of time was spent in “praise and worship” (i.e. song) at the beginning. When I got up to preach, the “praise and worship team” went to the very back of the church, some of them even putting their feet up, and began to sleep–until I woke them up, that is! Such an attitude is quite simply ungodly!
Emotion in worship is wonderful, but only when it comes from a contemplative understanding of God’s Word. For this reason, I maintain that musicians in a church are to be biblically-instructed and spiritually mature. A good voice and musical ability are not the only criteria for selecting a music director. Years ago, a man began attending our church, whose brother was the worship leader at a large church in our city. His brother was very concerned about him coming to a Baptist church. He called me and asked if we could meet, which we did over lunch. The first question he asked was, “How is your praise and worship?” I told him that he would probably be bored, because the “praise and worship” (i.e. the music) is not the main thing in our church. “In our church,” I said, “we worship throughout the entire service–especially during the preaching.” He wanted to debate the issue. During the course of our discussion, I asked him to turn to the book of James; after he had fumbled around for a few minutes, I leaned over the table and found James for him. I do not mean to be critical, but there is something wrong when you are a worship leader and you don’t know the Word of God! If the ‘worship leaders’ in the church are not spiritually mature, they can easily ‘hijack’ the ministry of the Word. The main thing in the church is the ministry of the Word–whether in preaching, in prayer, in song or in the sacraments.
In stark contrast to the above-mentioned worship leader, I think of a man by the name of Paul S. Jones, who is the music director at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Jones contributes a chapter on the music ministry of the local church in a book entitled Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship. He does not so much deal with the actual ministry of music as with the theological philosophy behind the church’s music ministry. The chapter is soundly theological, obviously springing from a mind in close tune with God’s Word. It is so theologically sound it is convicting! This is precisely the kind of man that God would have lead the music in local church worship. Our own church has a high standard for those who are involved in the music ministry, for we never want true worship to be hijacked by emotionalism.
Entertainment in Worship
I once saw an advertisement for a church proudly boasting: “It’s the greatest show on earth!” Now, I believe that the Church has the greatest message on earth. And worship properly exercised allows the congregation to see “the drama of redemption.” But when worship is geared only toward entertainment, we have, once again, managed to distort that which God intended for His people.
There is a great emphasis on entertainment in worship today. Professing Christians come to church as consumers–only to be entertained. If you are what we call a “couch potato”–that is, you are always in front of the television at home–you will probably have a difficult time focusing in church. The television is great at keeping our attention. Every few minutes, there is a break in a scene, which refocuses our attention. Then there are commercials, which give us time to focus on something else. In thirty minutes (perhaps twenty once you take away the commercials), the television is able to cover someone’s entire life–from birth to death. When the couch potato, then, comes to church, he expects the same. He wants to see things change all the time; he is not content to exercise his mind for more than a few minutes.
I am not teaching against having a television (though there might be merit in that!), but we must at least be very careful in our regulation of television use. I like Ted Tripp’s practice with the television when he was raising children: the television was on a small cart, which was pushed into the cupboard when there was nothing to watch, and only brought out when there was something particularly edifying to see. In many homes today, the television cabinet is one of the largest pieces of furniture in the house–it can almost become the focal point of the house. Such an image-oriented society has lost its ability to think clearly (even Postman argues for a word-based society over an image-based society). Since we are accustomed to images, the Church has opted to compete with television, with Hollywood. The temptation is to make the church as entertaining as the local television network.
This has resulted in a “remote control” mentality to worship. If you are watching television and do not enjoy the program, you simply pick up the remote and switch to another channel. This is precisely how many worshippers approach church: if you do not enjoy the worship in one church, simply go to another–until you get bored there, too. And so we have people hopping from church to church in much the same manner as viewers flicking from channel to channel. Clear, biblical exposition is almost viewed as a “commercial”–just a “filler” during the entertainment. Churches, therefore, are adding program after program to their worship, because this attracts people.
Biblical enthusiasm will go a long way in destroying such narcissistic consumerism. And I mean “enthusiasm” in its most literal sense. Our English word “enthusiasm” derives from the late Latin word enthusiasmus, which finds its roots in two Greek words: en, meaning “in,” and theos, meaning “god.” In its absolutely literal sense, “enthusiasm” means “to be possessed of a god.” As a believer, I am possessed of God. I have been born again, and the Spirit of God dwells in me. If we realise that we, quite literally, have “God in us,” entertainment will be irrelevant in worship. Then, to borrow C.S. Lewis’ concept, we will dance without counting the steps. We will be so absorbed in worshipping God that we will forget about ourselves in the process.
Exhibitionism in Worship
Exhibitionism, quite simply, is showing off in an attempt to exalt self. One of our elders, during the weekly pre-service prayer meetings, always prays something to the effect of, “Lord, help us to not see the man as the Word is preached.” By that, he means that we should see the Lord rather than the man. There is a danger that, in worship, we can exalt the preacher and the “worship leaders” whilst forgetting about God (by the way, when the worship leader is exalted, God is always ignored!). James Denney, speaking specifically of preachers, said it this way: “No preacher can make himself look clever and show Christ powerful to save at the same time.” Paul understood and guarded against this danger in worship:
And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.
(1 Corinthians 2:1-5)
Years ago, my father-in-law–the man whom I consider to be my pastor–visited us in South Africa. He agreed to preach at our church and I introduced him with some nice comments. I know that he is uncomfortable with this and so I apologised afterwards for saying those things publicly. He said to me, “The problem is that I actually like it when you do that!” Any honest preacher would admit the same. We like being exalted, and this is a danger against we must guard. The same danger applies to song leaders and anyone involved in a public way in the worship service.
I get very nervous about “crooning and swooning” song leaders in worship services. The man will be swaying about during the song, almost eating the microphone. We have our “worship team” seated at the corner of the stage so as not to attract attention to them. “Crooning and swooning” is for professional entertainers, not for those involved in publicly leading God’s people in worship. True worship helps us to forget about ourselves because we are so focused upon the Lord. Worship is not about showmanship–not in preaching, in prayer, in song, or in testimony. Worship seeks to exalt God alone.
Emulation in Worship
This is perhaps the summary of all that we have said thus far. Emulation refers to the effort or ambition to equal or surpass another. In this case, I am speaking about the effort to equal or surpass the world. More simply, the effort to imitate the world. Again, David got his “new cart” idea from the Philistines, who are a biblical picture of the world. David loved the Lord, and he was sincere and God-seeking in his worship. But he overcompensated in his desire to worship the Lord. The staves on which the Ark was carried were deemed to be outdated. And modern technology could better the worship of God! So they manufactured the cart, probably adorning it in a beautiful manner. But this was not God’s way, and He rejected their innovation. When they emulated the world, their worship suffered and judgement fell.
When we seek to worship God, we must begin with that which God has revealed. If we don’t, our worship will fall short of being acceptable. We must look into the Scriptures to see what God says, and persist in worshipping Him according to His revelation. Simply put, we must worship Him in spirit and in truth. Our worship must be the reverent, rational response to the revelation of God. There are churches in this world that have a great burden for souls–whose pastors weep for the lost–but who have begun to deal with people as seekers rather than sinners. They have begun to “dumb down” the worship and introduce innovations in order to make people more “comfortable” in the presence of God (a concept that stands in stark contrast to the biblical picture of worship–see, for example, 1 Corinthians 14:24-25). It is not our assignment to make people comfortable in church. Rather, we are to obey His commands, which often make us uncomfortable, but which ultimately lead to His comfort through grace in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Design of Worship
As we close this study, I want to briefly deal with three matters that we must understand when it comes to the biblical design of worship. What does true worship look like?
First, our worship should exalt the Lord. The supreme purpose of worship is to drive us to our knees before God. Like the women at the tomb, we should hold Him by the feet and worship Him (Matthew 28:9). True worship always seeks to exalt the Lord our God. We glorify Him as we observe His majesty in the Person and Work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Second, our worship must edify God’s people. The church should be built up through the worship of God. As Christ is exalted, God’s people are quite naturally edified. Of course, if God’s people will be built up, the worship service requires preparation. The elders and those responsible for leading the public worship must put a great deal of preparation into the worship. For instance, the pastor should give as much thought to the pastoral prayer as he does to the preaching. The songs should be carefully selected to coincide with the Word preached. There should be thought invested in the call to worship. But the preparation cannot just come from those leading in the worship; the Body must prepare as much as the leaders. If you expect to meet with God and be edified, you must put in preparation seven-days-a-week: you must worship Him throughout the week in order that you might worship Him on Sunday. You must worship Him privately and as a family if you will worship Him corporately. Only then can you expect to be edified as Christ is exalted.
Third, our worship ought to evangelise the lost. The worship service is not primarily geared toward evangelising the lost, but when Christ is exalted and the Body edified, the lost will be evangelised. “But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth” (1 Corinthians 14:24-25). Jesus said, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (John 12:32). Of course, He was speaking of being “lifted up” on the cross, which would secure the salvation of God’s elect; yet the wording is interesting. It holds just as true that if Christ is “lifted up” in the corporate worship of the local church, unbelievers will see Him and be exposed to the gospel. You can have every apologetic argument for the gospel at your fingertips, but you will never argue anyone into the kingdom of God. Only God’s Spirit can convince unbelievers of the truth as they witness a truly worshipping church (indeed, there is perhaps no more powerful witness than an assembly of worshipping saints!).
How will all this come to pass? How will the worship of the church be exaltational, edificational and evangelistic? Only if it is truly evangelical! That is, only if it is gospel-centred. Worship is only biblical as it focuses upon that which God has done for us in Christ Jesus. Worship always focuses on the gospel–whether the topic of the sermon is the passion of Christ, tithing or music. Our gathering must always focus us on the good news through Jesus Christ.
Every ceremonial worship type in the Old Testament has found its fulfilment in the Lord Jesus Christ. The time has come in which we worship God neither on this nor on that mountain; rather, we worship Him everywhere, all the time, in spirit and in truth. Let us then focus upon the Lord Jesus Christ, and worship of the Triune God will be the result.
- A.W. Tozer as quoted by Michael Horton, In the Face of God (Dallas: Word, 1996); pg. xv ↩
- C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963); pg. 4. ↩
- Peter Masters, Worship in the Melting Pot (London: Wakeman, 2002); pg. 49 ↩
- Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York, Penguin, 1985); pg. 54 ↩