Recently a friend of mine asked the question, can we experience worship? I answered, no, but we might experience God in worship. He said the reason he asked the question, a local church had on its sign, Come and experience our worship!
I thought about it for a few days and called him back. I said, “Yes, you can experience worship, when people fall down and worship you.”
This question helped me to clarify what I find wrong with modern worship. Worship is supposed to be our expression of the worth of God. In worship we glorify God, praise, and celebrate him even as we fellowship with him. However, when worship is focused on the audience instead of God, worship is given to the audience. I use the word audience on purpose because a congregation is an assembly of the People of God intent on worship. But when the worship is focused on the people, it is hard to call them a congregation.
Let me be clear. This is not about musical styles. It is not about old music vs. new music. Traditional churches and formal churches can be as guilty as contemporary churches. I am opposing any worship which is designed to be inoffensive to the audience at the expense of Scriptural truth. One church that I am familiar with is made up primarily of senior adults. They have stated that they do not want a pastor who will preach the Gospel to them. They want someone who will make them feel good and entertain them. This issue is not about age or style.
Many churches will go as far as removing any signs and symbols that represent the Christian faith. Churches remove crosses and remove the pulpits to be less offensive. Confession of sin, prayer and Scripture reading are removed as well. Preaching, if there is any preaching, revolves around typical self help topics that range from finance to sex. In recent days, pastors have ridden up on the podium on a Harley. One placed a sports car on the podium and proclaimed that your wife is like an expensive sports car. Recently, several churches made the news by preaching on sex and encouraging all married couples to have sex every day for a week.
No doubt that a number of these issues need to be taught to Christians as part of a discipleship program. But we cannot pretend that this is worship. The glory and honor and worship expressed has nothing to do with God and everything to do with the audience.
Several years ago, church leaders decided that the church was no longer relevant to the world. Of course this presupposes that the church was ever relevant to society. I would argue in the other direction, society, culture, is not relevant to God. It is the church’s responsibility to make people relevant to God through the very unpopular act of bearing witness to Jesus.
However, when you think the church is no longer relevant, then you will do what you think is relevant to the lost culture. Thus, the seeker service was born. The seeker service went one step beyond the church growth movement. The center piece of the church growth movement involved demographic studies and the homogeneous principle. You study the demographics of an area and you cater your church to a certain group of people based on class, status, income level and even race. Seeker service oriented churches dropped the homogeneous principle and adopted the need to be relevant to culture. Using H. Richard Niebuhr model from his Christ and Culture, it is no longer Christ against culture, it is not even Christ transforming culture. It is now, Christ and culture. In fact, is all about adopting culture and dropping some key elements of church.
All too often the new view of church meant a weakening of the church’s primary message and adopting an appeal to works as a means of pleasing God and feeling good about ourselves. So good deeds became our gospel. Today mission trips, working in soup lines, passing out food, etc. are considered acts of Gospel proclamation. They are certainly righteous acts but it is not the Gospel. When God calls us to give a cup of water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, it was not to be a substitute for preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Social action is part of our lifestyle but it is not our primary mandate. If you want to change a life, giving food will fill them for a few hours. The Gospel will transform their lives. However, it is the very least thing that Christians do. Furthermore, it is the most feared act that any church can ask of its members.
The proclamation of the Gospel includes the fact that we are lost and that we have real guilt before God. It also includes that idea that we have no standing before God; rather, God’s wrath is poured out on us until we are redeemed. But the good news is that Jesus died on the cross as our substitute, as our sacrifice. His blood was spilled in order to cover our sins and to pay the price for our sins. Thus, we have biblical words like ransom, redemption, and propitiation. The primary message of the church is not social action. It is good to do good deeds. The primary outward purpose is to tell the world what God has done about our sin.
The primary inward function of the church is worship. But, in this new scheme, worship is almost eliminated from church. The music is almost always man-centered. Of course this was true of many nineteenth and twentieth century gospel songs. Music moved from the glory of God to the glory of what God has done for man to the glory of man. Confession of sin is seen as negative. The reading of Scripture is not necessary and prayer is boring. So, worship focuses on telling the congregation how good they are, making them feel good, lifting their self esteem and expressing their value before God. This is not the worship of God but the worship and adoration of the audience. Some will say that we have to do these things so that we can earn their trust and then we can witness to them. Never mind that this is not the biblical model because we take our cues from society not Scripture. The biblical model is we come in to worship and we go out to witness and proclaim Jesus as Lord.
Worship is the people of God assembling before God to bring praises and honor to him. It should always contain confession of sin. How could the body of Christ approach God without confession of sin? It must contain praise and honor and glory to God for his person. And it should also contain our recognition of what God has done for us. These should be done through music and Scripture reading and through prayer.
The other element of worship that needs to be reformed and revived is the act of preaching. There can be no substitute of good, expositional preaching. I know that it seems odd for someone to stand before the church and speak for thirty minutes (if you are lucky) and expect people to come and hear. But this is the biblical model. And God has promised that his word would not return to him void. God has chosen the weakness of a man through the silliness of preaching, as the means of feeding the church.
Preaching is incarnational. God is present in the preaching of his word. The Holy Spirit goes forth in our preaching and accomplishes the intended work of God in the life of his people. It may not be good preaching according to homiletical standards, but if it is biblical preaching the word goes forth and it accomplishes work of God. As part of worship we are called upon to submit ourselves to the authority of the preaching of the Word of God.
I have watched the two distinct groups in church, those who attend worship regularly and submit themselves to the preaching of the Word and those who do not. There is a tremendous difference between the two. Those who worship regularly and listen to the preaching of Scripture have stronger marriages, they have less trouble with their kids, they tend to be less materialistic and they give more of themselves to others than those who refuse to worship. And quite often, they do their deeds in secret and rarely do you hear them bragging about what they have done and how good it makes them feel.
I am just a simple pastor and my observations are far from scientific. But I think my observations are true and they seem to agree with other pastors when we compare notes on the life of the church.
I also know that my message will not be positively received by a large number of people. I will seem as old-fashioned and out of touch. I may even be seen as somehow less “spiritual” because I do not go along with the crowd. However, I will take my stand here on Scripture alone. I urge other pastors to read Scripture in one hand and compare what the churches are doing in the other and weep over the difference. But, don’t weep too long for you have work to do. It will be a life consuming work of preaching and challenging and calling God’s people to repentance. May God bless you as you fulfill you calling of proclaiming Jesus until he comes again.