“He who marries the spirit of the age will soon find himself a widower in the next.” So wrote William Ralph Inge. The church would do well to keep this in mind as it seeks to live before a watching (and often very critical) world. Among other areas, before we jump to embrace the catcalls of our culture concerning how we should “do” worship, we had better ask whether our changes are biblical or merely a caving into the zeitgeist of our times. This applies no less to the place of preaching and the centrality of the Word in our corporate worship.
I am working through a helpful book called Perspectives on Christian Worship. Five perspectives are presented concerning corporate worship, with an emphasis on what should characterise our weekly Lord’s Day gatherings. The five perspectives are: Traditional Liturgical, Traditional Evangelical, Contemporary, Blended and Emergent. Without reproducing the book here, let me highlight that the main concern of each author is how the church can meaningfully and relevantly “connect” with the culture as we worship. This, of course, is a healthy concern, for who in their right mind would want to be irrelevant? After all, we want to reach people with the gospel, and so we of course want them to understand what we are doing when we gather on the Lord’s Day. We want them to experience God and the saving truth of His gospel. We desire to reach their heart, soul and mind. Therefore, “relevance” is important. But as I see it, this is precisely where we often miss the point. That is, in our quest to be “relevant,” we take our cues from the culture rather than from the Word of God, which of course is the most relevant thing in the world!
In other words, it seems to me that, too often, we listen to the spirit of the age rather than paying attention to the Spirit of the Ages.
We are told that since we live in an era of the “visual” and “existential” (that is, a quest for the experiential) we should therefore promote more activity from worshippers than what is all too often pejoratively labelled “passive” or “traditional” worship. But we should pause here to examine whether this label is even accurate.
When Jesus told the Samaritan woman that God seeks those who worship Him “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23–24), He was speaking of our enthusiastic response to the truth of God—and, of course, the Truth as found in Christ Himself. Christians are to respond to God with wholehearted adoration and devotion as we consider God’s majestic, gracious, powerful, encouraging, challenging and life-transforming truth as it is found in Christ Jesus our Lord and Saviour.
Such a response, in corporate worship, may be manifested by differing emotions and various physical demonstrations: lifting hands, tears, smiles, laughter, closed eyes, and even orderly “dancing.” (As I recently confessed, I was perched on my toes during a recent congregational hymn!) But what, in the context of corporate worship, will bring about such adoration and varied worshipful manifestations?
In reading the arguments put forth in Perspectives it seems to me that some confuse meaningful worship with movement in worship. Some so emphasise the experiential that the expositional aspect of worship is eclipsed. Again, we might legitimately ask, what should we expect in corporate worship? And my answer would be fundamentally that we should expect to do a lot of listening. And by the way, listening requires a lot of effort. There is very little that is passive about it.
Timothy Quill, in his contribution to Perspectives, argues for the centrality of the Word in corporate worship, and he is deeply concerned about today’s emphasis on the visual at the expense of the “vocal.” He writes, “We live in a time of hearing, not seeing…. Faith comes through the ears not the eyes. If we want to see God at work, we need to gouge our eyes and put them in our ears.” That is admittedly a little graphic, but Quill’s striking statement captured my attention.
In an increasingly visual, “experiential” age, this kind of counsel needs to be heeded by the church. There are many making the argument that it is precisely because we live in such a predominately visual age that the church needs to “get with it” and include more visual stimuli into our corporate worship. And so drama is encouraged as a supplement to, if not a complete replacement for, proclamation of the Word. The push for the use of icons (statues and such) in corporate worship, along with “media moments,” is more popular than you may realise. I am sure that many who advocate this “contemporary” approach do so with genuine concern for the souls of those to whom they are seeking to minister. Nevertheless, such an approach is fundamentally wrongheaded. And Moses would tell us the same thing.
The writer of Hebrews says that Moses “endured as seeing Him who is invisible” (Hebrews 11:27). He deliberately uses this provocative statement, for, after all, how can you see what is not seeable? Of course, he is simply undergirding his thesis statement of v. 1: “Faith is … the evidence of things not seen.” Moses saw God, not by the organ of his eyes, but rather with his “ears.” As a child, he heard the promises of God, and faith was graciously produced in his heart. Though it is true that he saw the burning bush (Exodus 3), this was at the end of forty years in which he “kept continually (literal translation) seeing God.” His faith was rewarded with sight. And, one day, so will ours be.
All of this illustrates the importance of preaching, and it also highlights the importance of reading the Word. I suppose technically you could argue that, in this sense, the eyes as well as the ears are organs of faith. But let’s not quibble. The point is that reading and/or hearing the Word is irreplaceable if we will worship God “in spirit and truth.”
Ligon Duncan puts it well when he argues that in corporate worship we are to read the Bible, preach the Bible, pray the Bible, sing the Bible and see the Bible. Though many of our senses will be involved in such regular activities of worship, nevertheless the emphasis is upon the Bible and the Spirit’s help in transforming our ears into eyes.
BBC has come a long way in its quest to reform according to God’s Word. This has resulted in many positive changes in how we “do” corporate worship. I am sure that more changes will be coming as the Spirit enlightens us. But by the help of God, I can assure you that the Word will remain central. If we ever lose our commitment to hearing, then we will lose our ability for seeing the glory of God. May God continue to give us ears to hear so that we might continue to have eyes to see.