Article of the Month
A REFORMATION OR A DEFORMATION?
Reflecting on the contemporary versus orthodox ways of worship
We were in Uganda two months ago and happened to attend the only church we believed to be reformed. We had this impression because Billy and Tessa had in previous years come to this church and found it to be not too bad. We were rather disappointed when we went in to find that it was itself going through a reformation of some kind. There was obviously a new pastor who felt the church had been rigid (read not exciting) for a very long time, and as such had not attracted numbers, particularly the younger bracket of society. We came in on this Sunday service as the pastor was just starting out on a series on the subject of WORSHIP. Long story short, he was quite anxious that the church adopts the Hillsong sort of worship with the high octane band and ‘soulish’ kind of music. I will not today elaborate on the new age and worldly principles the pastor was employing to urge this reformation (perhaps deformation?).This downgrade from orthodox patterns of worship, to a more worldly (howbeit contemporary) system was quite perplexing to me. It was perplexing because I come from that apostate background (having been a charismatic minister for more than 17 years). For the last several years it has taken hardworking and patience in urging our congregation towards authentic orthodox Christianity and its expression especially in music and worship.
BACK TO THE HEART OF WORSHIP?
Going past the form to the substance of worship.
A band of young people (called worship team), were on stage attempting to replicate Hillsong styles of worship. What song would they belt out? “I am coming back to the heart of worship” -by Michael W. Smith. That was the line repeated ad nauseum and it was frankly quite trying to the intelligence. The Pastor afterwards (obviously in a carefully choreographed synergy with his ‘worship team’) took the trajectory in his preaching suggesting that modern music, and ‘souping’ up worship service was going back to the heart of worship. The worship team also felt that belting out a repetitive song “back to the heart of worship” and repeating quite profusely that it “it’s all about you Jesus” was in fact going back to the heart of worship.
It was all very intense and one could not fault the ‘worship team’ for lack of zeal. The emotions were strong and the voices well practiced. It was all very stylish and one would think this is truly the heart of worship, but was it? So I ask the question WHAT IS THE HEART OF WORSHIP?
THE BODY v/s THE HEART OF WORSHIP
As soon as we speak of the heart of worship, we realize immediately that we have presumed the body of worship. The heart must live in a body, and is never visible yet is the controlling center of the person. Another illustration may be that of a car; it has a bodywork and an engine. Even though the engine is invisible to the sight, yet it is the critical part of the vehicle. We can also speak of the difference between a computer’s hardware and software. The expression of worship may be regarded as the hardware, yet there is something absolutely essential which informs and animates true worship. This is the heart or software of worship. If the software is wrong, then the hardware is perfunctory and useless−a mere meaningless shell.
I believe very firmly that it is not so much the expression of worship (hardware) which invalidates worship but its software. This is why we may waste precious time arguing about hymns versus psalms, contemporary versus old tunes, whether people can clap or sway during worship. All these avail little if any edification at all, but are sure to cause wrangles and strife over things which in the end matter little. I have heard people denigrate African styles of worship (usually loud, vibrant and exuberant) and I have also equally heard people speak down on more western styles (comparatively laid back and well moderated ). In my view all these camps focus on hardware rather than software−the heart of worship.
SO WHAT IS THE HEART OF WORSHIP?−IT’S SOFTWARE
Perhaps the question ought to be tweaked just a little and be put this way “what is at the heart of worship?” I suggest 4 things which among others one cannot miss if worship is to be classified as true and legitimate; Authority, Content, Attitude and Object.
When we accede to worship, we ascribe greatness and authority to the one we come to worship. The fact of worship reminds us of the creature and creator distinctions and the eternal obligation owed to the creator−the duty of worship. It precludes our independence and freedom of choice. You are bound to the likes and dislikes of the one you worship. I have an illustration I often use when dealing with this matter. When I appear before any authority, be it an interview for a job or a performance of some entertainment or presentation of some petition before a higher authority, I do not appear in my own terms but on the terms of the authority before which I appear.
It is not any different in the matter of worship. We appear before the Lord of all the universe. We cannot appear in our terms or liking.
What I mean here is that how we come to worship and what is brought to worship must be that which has been authorized by God. The music, the accompaniment and styles must be interrogated to ascertain their authorization. It is an established principle of Scripture that God will never accept to be worshiped with people, things and in a manner He has not expressly sanctioned. God is very particular in the way He is to be approached and worshiped. There are very extensive and detailed accounts of how God directed that those who appear before Him will do so in a prescribed way. Throughout the first 5 books of the Old Testament, you see an astounding and frankly very limiting attention to detail when it comes to how God is to be approached.
Nadab and Abihu were killed by the Lord at the altar because they offered “unauthorized fire” -Leviticus 10:1-4. It did not matter that the two men engaged in worshipping the Lord, but that it was not authorized by God invalidated it with deadly consequences. We are told about Uzzah; how “the Lord rushed upon him” and killed him, because he attempted to salvage the Ark of the Covenant contrary to instructions. What Uzzah was doing was perhaps well motivated, but it was not authorized. The difference between Abel and Cain’s offering (worship) was faith (Hebrews 11:4). This presupposes God’s word to both men as to how they were to bring the sacrifice in worship (faith comes by hearing -Romans 10:17). One did according to instruction, the other did not, in other words one brought what was authorized and in the way that it was authorized, the other did not. We may also recall the tragic case of King Saul sparing choice animals and vessels from Amalek, ostensibly to use them in the worship of God -1 Samuel 15:15. This despite the claimed motive of worship was tantamount to modifying God’s revealed will. It did not matter that Saul claimed good intentions, the Lord immediately pronounces a judgment on king Saul, the kingdom is removed from his house, because “obedience is better than sacrifice” - 1 Samuel 15:22. From the foregoing examples we can clearly see that God will be approached and worshipped only in strict compliance with His revealed will−it makes all the difference in the worship of God. It is this consideration which informs that admonition in Hebrews.
Care needs must be taken when we come to worship, that what we do has the direct sanction of Scripture. If it cannot be supported from Scripture, it has no place at the heart of worship. Our Savior in John 4:23 speaks of worship in Spirit and in Truth, which is to say worship that comes from the heart, enabled by the Holy Spirit, and worship which adheres to Truth revealed. We cannot take as authority contemporary trends, a need to appeal to popular culture, even the seemingly noble idea of making church appealing to the so-called seekers. God is not pleased by our wonderful inventions. He is pleased by that which He has commanded.
Unregenerate hearts thrive in a worship of self-will and entertainment−in this they are tied to the heap with discos and night clubs. They measure their worship by what makes sense to them and makes them happy. They seek fun and not the worship of God. It matters little whether that music happens in church or in a disco, it is all motivated by what pleases self and not what God has commanded.
THE ALL IMPORTANT QUESTION OF CONTENT
Content is at the heart of worship. It is a sad thing to hear people in worship mindlessly repeat things. Most worship services will differ little from the chanting and frenzied episodes of oriental mysticism or African ‘spirit-ism’. Peter Masters of the metropolitan tabernacle says “If I am asked to define worship in one word, I would say ‘WORDS’”. Almost always in scripture when we see people in worship, we read words like “they sang to the Lord saying...”. In other words, the music carried content, it never was an end but a means to an end, and that end is content. The one who is engaged in true worship is always saying something. I use the word “say” to mean logical, coherent speech which intends to pass on a message. It is never to be supposed that the piano, guitar and all sorts of inanimate instruments can worship the Lord. Scripture says “let everything that has breathe praise the Lord” -Psalm 150:6. In the New Testament we are urged to sing to one another and to the Lord -Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19. Take note of the need to consciously address one another while we sing. It cannot be mindless repetition, or frenzied gyration which takes one to a trance in which one is lost to all sensibilities and therefore fails in “speaking to one another” -Col 3:16.
But the questions lingers “are people not saying something when they say anything in worship?” This brings us to what I might call the content of content. One might say one or two things endlessly in singing, and such a one might also contend that such is their content.
LOGICAL, REASONABLE AND COHERENT
The worshiper in considering the matter of content must satisfy himself that the content of their worship is logical, it stands to standard reasonableness of the average person. I once used the illustration of a choir selected to perform before the president of the Republic. In supposedly heaping praises on the president, the choir chooses to repeat his name like this “Uhuru Muigai Kenya that, Uhuru Muigai kenyattaaaaaaa....Uhuru Muigai Kenyataa. ..Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta. We love you, we love you, we love you. ..Uhuru Muigai we love you”, then go back on that chorus again and again. You see no right thinking chorizo seeking to please the president will do that. It is expected that there will be logicalness to that music. It must be reasonable and it must also be coherent. It is sad that our great God is treated quite often to this unreasonable, illogical and incoherent sort of worship.
Christ warned his people from babbling and repetition, “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” -Matthew 6:7.
The preacher warned against having too many words before the Lord. Hebrews tells us to be rather fearful in the presence of God, for our God is a consuming fire -Hebrews 13. The Lord Christ said “those who worship Him must worship Him in Spirit and in Truth” -John 4:24. You don’t have to worship God, but if you do, there is an imperative laid on you, you must do so not only in Spirit but in Truth also. At the heart of worship is Truth, the word of God is Truth. The worshiper must say something true and they must say something intelligent. I mean that the worship he offers must say something true about God and the truth they say about God must be intelligible. Those two attributes inform the content of worship, and content of worship is the heart of worship.
AN IMPORTANT SHIFT BETWEEN THE TESTAMENTS
I often hear people press the argument of 2 Timothy 3:16 “all scripture is breathed by God...” to insist on what is basically an Old Testament expression of worship as instructive for the New Testament person. They fail to see the discernible shift which is so conspicuous between the Testaments as regarding the matter of worship. It is part of the inspired record that people brought animal sacrifice before the Lord in the Old Testament, but it is equally true that in the New Testament we no longer see people drag these animals to offer before God−there has been a shift.
I think that as you read the Old Testament and come to the New Testament you will see this shift also as regards worship. In the Old Testament you will discern that worship said true things about God in the realm of His attributes. It praised God for His attributes like mercy, love, justice and things like that. The manifestations of God were in response to a physical situation which had spiritual implications in the coming age. C.H. Spurgeon called both testaments in these words “the covenant of prosperity versus the covenant of adversity”. What Spurgeon was suggesting is the stark distinctions you see between those two dispensations. Any student of theology will tell you the difference between the type and antitype, the promise in the Old Testament and the fulfillment in the new. The Old used physical types like deliverance from actual physical enemies to speak of a future deliverance from a more deadly enemy of a spiritual nature. It is extremely vital to grasp this organic shift if we shall properly set the New Testament worship in its distinctive and proper context.
The shift we are referring to has respect to two basic aspects:
Firstly; the shift happened with regard to the type meeting its antitype. In the same manner animal sacrifice, etc. it’s antitype in the person and accomplishment of Christ Jesus, so also the content of worship (considered as types−namely the physical blessings of God to his people) met their antitype in the spiritual blessings accruing from what Christ has purchased for His people. If the argument holds, as I think it should, that the New Testament community of the redeemed is the spiritual fulfillment of Israel of old, then it must equally hold true that the spiritual blessedness of the New Testament church is the antitype or fulfillment of the physical blessedness of physical Israel. By reason of this parallel, and staying true to its consequential implications, it follows that if the content of worship in the Old Testament drew from their physical blessedness, then the content of worship in the New must similarly draw from our spiritual blessedness.
Secondly; the shift has happened not just with the content of worship, but also with respect to the place of worship. I do not merely mean temples and buildings in the Old Testament but the whole domicile of worship having shifted from physical expressions (dance, clap and such stuff), instrumentation (in their varied types) to more internal expressions. In short we are saying worship in the Old Testament is almost entirely by physical expressions, while in the New Testament the emphases shifts to internal motions.
This shift in what I call the domicile of worship is best captured by our Savior’s words to the woman of Samaria in John 4:23. The Lord says the time is coming and now is when true worshipers would worship God not on some mountain or some physical temple, but “in Spirit and in Truth”. In spirit may mean aided by the Holy Spirit or that which is done in the heart or even both (as I suppose is most likely ). The point is nevertheless inescapable; worship in the New Testament has little to do with external expressions and more to do with internal motions. It is this shift which accounts for almost zero citation of musical instruments in the New Testament worship, notwithstanding that such is very dominant in the Old order. This is not a comment on the validity or otherwise on the use of musical instruments in New Testament worship, it is however an invitation to make that observation as a moderating factor in our expression of worship in the New Testament.
So whatever our views of worship are, whether we allow musical instruments or not, whether we allow certain expressions or generally shun them, we must never ignore those 4 Biblical realities surrounding the matter of worship discussed this far. Whatever we bring to and in worship must carry the stamp of God’s authorization, the necessity of logical, reasonable and coherent content, the content of that content being Christ and his work of redemption and then the obvious shift in the expression and domicile of worship.
THESE PRINCIPLES WERE EVIDENT IN THE PRACTICE OF NEW TESTAMENT COMMUNITY
The first church which the Holy Spirit constitutes in the New Testament is heard in their new gift of supernatural utterance “declaring the mighty works of God” - Acts 2: (most probably a reference to the great things just accomplished by Jesus Christ in the preceding few days, crowned by that dramatic resurrection from the dead). Peter in chapter 3 expounds at length the works God had done through Christ. In Acts 4 again when they gather after the persecution of the Sanhedrin, the prayer is thoroughly Christological and Soteriological. In Acts 10 again Peter addressing the gathering of the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius expounds the great works of God in Christ Jesus. This is the pattern which is picked up and carried on throughout the New Testament record.
We scarcely need to flog this horse any further; seeing it is already dead, but just to reiterate that one will struggle to see musical instruments anywhere in the gathering of the New Testament community. The apostolic teaching and practice, both in the record of Acts and the precepts they propound in the epistles are loudly silent on any instrumentation or shouting in God’s worship. Contrary to the common way of worship in our day, reason and sobriety is urged in worship (I Corinthians 14:15, Matthew 6:9). It is quite instructive that in the New Testament worship is not only for the glory of God but also for the edification of His people. When we especially speak in music and melody, we are urged to make sure we are “addressing one another” -Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. The whole discussion in 1 Corinthians 12, 13 and 14, though in the context of spiritual gifts and their use, is nevertheless one addressing the unction of public worship and the refrain is order and mutual edification.
HERE IS THE SUM OF ALL MATTERS
The content of New Testament worship is redemption in Christ. It does not center on temporal benefits God may have given or expected to give. Felt needs do not form the integral part of New Testament worship. Survey the New Testament record and you will undoubtedly find this to be true.
To the regenerate heart in which resides the heart of worship, Christ our Savior is the Truth to be said in worship. He is the living Word which informs and animates the heart of worship. To do otherwise or less than this is to denigrate true worship. Christ earns His rightful place at the heart of worship not merely by divine decree which has time and again said to the Son of God “thy throne oh God is forever” -Hebrews 1:8, but also by the passage way of redemption through humiliation by which it is declared “God hath highly exalted Him and given Him a name that is above all names...” -Philippians 2:6-11.
ONE MORE CRITICAL POINT
It is easy to discern a regenerate man from one still in the flesh by observing the content of their worship. A heart of stone, one not touched by divine Grace, notwithstanding its religious pretensions, will plead physical blessings and rejoice over the fat of the land. By this they prove consonance with who they truly are−children of this world. It is true what Proverbs says “from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks”. If what comes out of your mouth is always this and that physical blessing, wealth, bodily healing and such felt needs, you show the true state of your heart−the world and its things. This is truly why the present scourge of the faith movement is a disaster to Biblical worship.
But a heart touched by grace despises the fleeting pleasures of this world. They love not the world nor the things of the world -I John 2:15. They are transfixed with beauties unbeknown to this natural realm. They are those who declare plainly that they are strangers and pilgrims in search of a better country -Hebrews 11:13-16. Someone did say that God gives the inferior temporal ‘blessings’ to others, but to His beloved children, He reserves the superior blessings, the eternal sort of blessings. God’s bona-fide child knows the difference and He or she speaks accordingly in worship.
Jesus accuses the Jews of His day “these people worship me with their mouths, but their hearts are so far away from me” -Matthew 15:8. This charge may be true for many who fancy themselves worshipers of God. May our hearts be brought near, may we come to the true heart of worship, where it is truly all about Jesus, this can only happen if and when we are truly and efficaciously touched by divine Grace and born again. With a new heart and new appetites we may then worship God in conformity with the New Testament shift - in Spirit and in Truth.
In the first part of our discussions on worship we were concerned to make the distinction between what would generally be called the body of worship and the heart of worship. We used another illustration of hardware and software to press that distinction. We have thus far identified two key issues which make for the heart of worship. The first is authority, and here we saw from the evidence of Scripture that God insists on being approached and worshipped when He authorizes it, in the manner He authorizes it and with the elements or things He authorizes. We saw that failure in this respect has fatal consequences that go beyond the rejection of the worship but also judgment, even death of the worshipers (Leviticus 10:1-4). In the second place we examined the all important question of content. Worship has to have logical, reasonable and coherent content. It cannot be empty rhetoric or inordinate repetition of some line or chorus in worship music. We saw from evidences such as Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 that in Christian worship, especially public worship, it is expected that in our music and melodies we actually speak to one another. This element of mutual edification and therefore the need for sobriety, order and deliberate intelligibility cannot be gainsaid in the matter of public expression of worship.
In this third installment in our series, we wish to examine a third aspect which makes for the heart of worship−the matter of proper attitudes.
ARE WE ON THE SAME PAGE?
When I was taking my theology course at Pastor’s Theological College in Nairobi, my lecturer Keith Underhill advised us that when we engage on any issue, it is essential for the purposes of clarity that we define what we mean by the terms we employ. This is to ensure all involved are having the same conversation and not talking at cross purposes. In this context the big word is attitude. I am suggesting that at the heart of worship sits a proper and acceptable attitude. A clear understanding of what we mean by attitude therefore becomes essential.
I am anxious to press this point because the word attitude in today’s parlance brings with it new and contemporary nuances. In Pentecostal and charismatic worship services (in which I was for more than 17 years), it is not uncommon to hear ‘worship leaders’ exhort congregations to dance with an ‘attitude’ before the Lord. They are urged to show that they are enjoying what they are doing, that they don’t care about the opinion of the person standing or sitting next to them “sing with an attitude like a child of the king, let no one hinder your freedom in the Lord”, is not an uncommon exhortation in these circles. This is not what I mean by attitude.
SO WHAT DO I MEAN BY THE WORD ATTITUDE?
The Cambridge English dictionary defines attitude as “a feeling or opinion about something or someone, or a behavior that is caused by this:”
The Oxford dictionary has more on what attitude means “settled way of thinking or feeling about something.” This online dictionary goes further to give the word attitude the following synonyms; “point of view, view, viewpoint, vantage point, frame of mind, way of thinking, way of looking at things, school of thought, outlook, angle, slant, perspective, reaction, stance, standpoint, position, inclination, orientation, approach.”
From the above definitions, you immediately see that attitude is not what in today’s popular culture and slang may be called ‘Swag’, a rebellious or self-pride sort of disposition. It is rather my settled view of something or someone which then causes me to behave in a certain way towards that someone or that something. In the context of our discussion, that ‘something’ or someone is the Almighty God. It is about Him we have certain settled views, opinions and feelings and these views and feelings then inevitably cause us to behave in a certain way before Him in His worship.
Thus in discussing the place of proper attitude in worship, I propose to divide that discussion in two broad aspects. Firstly; our views, opinions and way of thinking about God, and secondly; how those views, opinions and way of thinking about God informs our behavior and comportment in worship.
THE GOD OF OUR WORSHIP.
One is saddened by the predominant attitude within much of evangelicalism which appears to have a very low, even casual view of God. This low view of God finds expression in worship services and particularly music. Indecent dress, language that boarders on profanity or blasphemy, calling God ‘the man upstairs’ or ‘sir God ‘ are considered ‘cool’ or simply being ‘real’. This is how men like Mark Driscoll, formerly of Mars Hill Church would get away with lewd remarks in church and attract more following while at it. Many feel they have the liberty to innovate styles and fashions in worship. With this liberty, the world has been brought into the church, and the worship of God turned into something not much different to a disco scene and reveling spot. The more sedate and ‘spiritual’ who would not be that drastic in their expression, nevertheless have turned the worship service into a therapeutic experience in which they ‘let go and let God’, they pour out all their hurt and feelings. It is all very self-centered.
I wonder, would Paul, Peter, John and the other Apostles recognize worship in say the Hillsong set up? In the shout, dance, comedy, indecency, ecstasy and gyration; could you picture James in the middle of such a service?
In a nutshell, when one surveys modern worship and makes a casual comparison between that and the expression we see in both Testaments, one sees the difference of day and night, light and darkness. Naturally the question comes to mind “what has changed?” Something drastic must have changed, shifted or moved to explain such a drastic difference. Has the change been in musical instruments? I do not think so. Evidence is indisputable that musical instruments have always been in abundance even in Biblical days. It could be a legitimate argument to set forth, that perhaps the prevailing culture in the Biblical period had more musical instruments (numerically speaking) compared to modern times. Could the change have been that new instructions are revealed in the New Testament to give warrant to this massive shift in expressions of public worship? Again we must answer this in the negative. A casual perusal of the New Testament would quickly dismiss this suggestion. The tenor and texture of worship in the New Testament as we suggested in our discussion in the first two parts moves away from physicality to spirituality. From the Old through to the New Testaments you see worship that is very restrained and reverent, quite unlike what is common among the charismatic and Pentecostal scenes. So what has really changed?
I submit that our view, opinion and way of thinking about God has changed. God remains immutable, His standards never lowered, but we have changed our view of Him.
THE MARCIONITE DICHOTOMY
A heretic by the name of Marcion emerged towards the middle of the second century who championed an error which became known as Marcionism. He basically imagined a dichotomy between the God of the Old Testament and that of the New Testament. In Marion’s view, the God of the Old Testament was an angry capricious despot compared to the one we see in the New Testament. This error is not far removed from the Manichean error in its dualistic proposition. This false mindset represents a rebellion against those attributes of God which do not settle well with our fallen human nature. One Kenyan professor disparaged the God of the Old Testament as an old grandfather desperately in need of anger management classes. Professing Christians would of course vehemently object to this sort of characterization, but in practice they prove their unwitting agreement with it. Subtly, the misguided idea of grace and love in the New Testament has inferred a change of God, or at least a change in His modus Operandi. In this view God no longer operates in the New Testament as He did in the Old. There has been a lowering of His own standards, is the unspoken consensus. You have in the minds of many professing Christians a mellowed God, whose rough edges have been smoothened by the coming of Christ, and the ushering in of the era of Grace. The God of the Old Testament is strict and has too many rules. In today’s language He would be called ‘uptight’, ‘nitpicky’, ‘grumpy’ and a ‘kill joy’ .We have been subliminally persuaded that He has changed in the New Testament. He is more accommodating, more liberal, loves fun and generally easy going. Men like T.D James would call God “my buddy, my Homey”. Another would be heard using the American colloquial “God and I are tight”. These are expressions which would be anathema in both the Old and New Testaments and in a good part of the subsequent history of the faithful.
BUT THE GOD OF OUR WORSHIP HAS NOT CHANGED
This is why our views, opinions and the way we think of Him (which would influence our behavior in His worship) likewise must never change. The God we have described in modern worship expressions is a plastic sort of God; He is synthetic, He is not the God of Scripture, He is a creature of our own conceptions. Because he is a creature of our own making, we shall devise how we worship Him and He will have no choice but to accept that which we bring to Him. He really answers to us, and not us to Him.
Paul Washer tells a story of a pastor who asked him to come to his church and speak on the attributes of God. Mr. Washer objected, much to the surprise of the inviting pastor. When he asked Washer why he would not come and speak on the attributes of God, Washer said and I paraphrase “if I preached faithfully in your church about the true attributes of the God of the Bible, no one in your church would remain; they would all go away saying “we do not want a God like that”. This can be said about popular worship today, it is aimed at the wrong God, or at the very least, motivated by false or defective views of the God of Scripture
SO WHO IS THE GOD OF OUR WORSHIP?
It is impossible to answer this question in a million pages of writing beyond the statement “He is the almighty God”. Think of the one who by a mere word of His mouth spoke the great and expansive galaxies in place! What terror must we attach to the one who effortlessly caused the earth to be buried in watery graves in the days of Noah? The eternal Lord who lives in unapproachable light is our great God. The one who fills the heavens and says the earth is His mere foot stool is the one we purport to worship. He who kills and gives life is the God before whom we appear in worship. The God who rained fire and brimstone in Sodom and Gomorrah is one to be greatly feared. The God we worship gave us fearful snapshots of His terrible deeds in the night of blood and death across Egypt, is the one we approach. The God of our worship is the one who killed Nadab and Abihu in a quid pro quo manner at the altar. He is the one who rushed upon Uzzah and killed the man in the presence of the assembly. Friends, that is the same God who struck Herod dead when worms ate him alive. He enacted that terrible episode again in the New Testament to a man and His wife who dishonored his presence by telling lies. Has that God changed? Should we be afraid of the presence of such a God? He is the one in whose presence we are cautioned to be careful because “Our God is a consuming fire”.
Now this, dear friends, is the biblical view of the God we come to worship. These are the views which must shape how we really think, respond, and our expression in worship. You see then how the terrain has completely changed? How casualness looks and sounds incongruous, disorder, assumption and presumptions are rendered dangerous?
You see that as soon as you lose sight of this God, your worship and its expression degenerates instantaneously to something of a glib, blithe, flippant and trite exercise.
SO WHAT RESPONSES SHOULD BE EVOKED IN US AT WORSHIP?
This frame of mind is essential to worship, we do not bring gifts which God is desperate for. Our music must never be viewed as entertaining God. This has been the unspoken (sometimes spoken) attitude. It views our worship as some kind of life line for God. It is not uncommon to hear within Charismatic worship services the outlandish claim that God created man to fill His own need to be worshiped. I have heard not a few times preachers and worship leaders present as a ground for worship, the idea that God was lonely all by Himself in eternity and with no one to worship Him and with whom to fellowship. What this blasphemous reasoning creates is a threefold cumulative attitude, firstly; that there is a need in God and secondly that to fill or fulfill that need, God needs man, and thirdly that worship being thus man’s response to God’s need, man is therefore very important (others would say necessary) to God.
We are in the era of ‘sought after worship leaders’. I have time and again read or heard world famous ‘worship leaders’ described in this grand term. Ron Kenoly enjoyed this sort of description until he fell off the limelight (as they all must at some point). Don Moen continues to be described as such and attracts thousands in His ‘worship concerts’. Don Moen (perhaps the greatest in this respect) was in our country a few days ago. People from all walks of life thronged that concert; both professed believers and unbelievers. Our political class is notorious for lewd and immoral behavior. Some have a record of insults which cannot be printed, some have murder probes against them and others have time and again made their political point by undressing in public before Television screens. We saw these people gathered in the concert hall with hands lifted up, eyes tightly shut and obviously carried away in Don Moen’s ecstatic music. I make this reference because even our TV stations without regard to what authentic religion should be, still noted the hypocrisy and the joke in town was, “Don Moen should do that music in our House of Parliament. The point is unbelievers, immoral people of all sorts were quite pleased with Don Moen’s ‘worship experience’.
In Truth it was not really a worship experience, it was a music concert by a world renowned superstar a ‘sought after worship leader’. Never mind the aesthetics and emotions of it, this was a coming to pay homage to a ‘Christian superstar’. It is symptomatic of a growing importance of the worshiper and most significantly the ‘worship leader’. This symptom is not limited to those few at the top. Churches in Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu among other major cities which follow western trends now scramble for the gifted and sought after worship leaders, poaching from each other. The assumption is that these ladies and gentlemen are gifted worshippers−they have something valuable to bring to worship. Some would say ‘anointed to worship’. No doubt this category of ‘Christians’ attract big bucks and have well mastered the art of spicing worship with techniques and soothing voices. All these have the effect of elevating men in worship, to create categories of worshippers which Scripture knows nothing about. Pride is never too far from the music arena, it is just the nature of the situation. This is true not just in church music, but also in what is called secular music scene and the dominant pop culture. Lucifer belonged to this category and we know the pride which preceded his fall.
We come to God as puny, sinful, unworthy little worms, who are before God accounted as nothing (Daniel 4:34-35), but who have been highly favored with an appearance before an almighty God. This terrible reality grips Isaiah when he is given a glimpse of proceedings of worship in the very precincts of heaven itself in Isaiah 6:1-3.There the prophet is witness to holy, sinless angels engaged in heavenly worship. These perfect angels hide their faces as they worship God, an expression both of the pristine holiness of God and their own unworthiness in the engagement they undertake. If this be the attitude of holy, sinless angels, how much more should this be true of us who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God? Should we be haughty and presumptive? Should we be so ‘confident’ in what we offer to God? Must it not be borne in our minds that the access we have before God is a mediated one? (Ephesians 2:18). That apart from Christ we are personas non grata before God, and our worship “an abomination to the Lord” (Proverbs 15:8). This mindset enforces a humble deportment, and regulates what would be presumptive liberties.
One of the things we see as descriptive of Christians in Scripture is the phrase “those who fear God”, and “the fear of God is the beginning of Wisdom.” The root of the majority of the aberrations, presumptions, innovations and liberties taken in worship can be blamed on the absence of the fear of the Lord.
As we have presented throughout these series, biblical worship is a highly regulated activity. With that regulation comes sanctions, and with sanctions punitive penalties. When we see how fearful God is, and that He has not left worship to the whims of our styles and innovations; we are immediately gripped with a sense of fear. This is not a bad thing, this is a good thing. Familiarity breeds contempt and this was perhaps the undoing of Cain. His attitude before the Lord was well captured in the irreverent question “am I my brother’s keeper?” He did not show his fear of the Lord, and the curse which came upon him was to his own regret “too heavy for me to bear”. Nadab and Abihu paid with their own lives for presumptive irreverence before God (Leviticus 10:1-4). The people of Israel insisted on appearing before the Lord, when their petulance was granted, it was an experience they regretted and wished no longer. God descended upon the mountain of meeting with such fearful signals that the people pleaded with Moses never to have that experience again. We read in the New Testament that when the Church walked in the fear of the Lord, and Ananias and his wife Sapphira presumed before the Lord, leading to their death and burial on same day; we read that “fear came upon all men” and none dared to join them (Acts 5). Returning to Isaiah’s experience in Isaiah 6:1-4, we read that when the prophet saw God’s fearful holiness for what it really was, his reaction was not trite celebration in music. That tremendous visage strikes fear in his heart and we hear him cry “woe is me, for I am an unclean person living among unclean people...” (Isaiah 6:1-4).
All that we have said this far might make one to think Christian worship if properly practiced will be a boring and dreary experience to be endured rather to be enjoyed. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is nothing sweeter and more fulfilling than to engage in the worship of the Most High God. We read from David “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord” (Psalm 122:1). We also read from him “I will enter His gates with thanksgiving in my heart, I will enter His courts with praise...” (Psalm 100:4). As a deer pants after the water brooks so does my soul pant for Thee oh Lord”. (Psalm 42:1). “One thing have I desired and that will I look for, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord forever”. (Psalm 27:4.) We read in this wonderful song and worship book in the Bible “in the presence of the Lord is fullness of Joy and in His right hand are pleasures forever more” (Psalm 16:11). There is not the slightest doubt whatsoever that Christian worship is a joyful and satisfying experience. It is the sort of experience of joy and gratitude which cannot be hindered by the fetters of prison as was in the case of Paul and Silas in remand (Acts 16).
But how can we square this obvious truth with the heavily regulated, even restrictive portrait we have thus far painted of Biblical worship? The answer can be supplied by considering the following points;
Matthew 5:12 has our Lord exhort his people to rejoice and be exceeding glad when they go through trials and persecutions. No one thinks for a moment that this rejoicing is stoic pretense in laughter and music while in pain. The Lord is saying despite external pressures the Christian may look to his eternal blessedness and have an inner joy. This is the kind of joy Scripture refers to as “unspeakable and full of glory” (I Peter 1:8). It is unspeakable in the sense that it is not natural, it defies human comprehension. Nehemiah tells us “the joy of the Lord is my strength”− this is a statement made in the midst of dire straits, of battles within and without. They say still waters run deep; that worship is not highly gesticulating, frenzied and light-hearted does not at all take away from its joy. Indeed sometimes, noise and too much activity can take away from the joy of an activity. Sample David in the house of God, seated and speaking alone with God and almost in holy whispers (II Samuel 7:18-29). What you see is a portrait of a man who is so thankful, and so joyful he can do no better than sit and express his innermost feelings before the Lord. I invite the reader to take note of the content of David’s worship while he sits before the Lord. It is loaded, hearty and meaningful, not casual and trite. Sample the same worshiping King in Psalm 63:1-11. The man lays on his bed, tears rolling down his cheeks as he contemplates the goodness of God and expresses his inner longings. What a picture of real, unfeigned joyful worship!
At the resurrection when the women discovered the absence of their Lord’s body, and angelic emissary explains the glad tidings of the risen Lord, we read the following excellent words; “So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples”. Matthew 28:8 (ESV). Notice how fear and great joy are felt together, this is true Christian joy. It is not unruly, irreverent joy, it is if you like responsible joy.
All we have presented with respect to what Christian joy looks like, may still not settle well with people who are accustomed to other forms of worship expressions and the kick they derive from them. So I enter what I consider to be a very pivotal point in the whole matter of worship and the attendant attitudes and expressions. It is on this point all else turn in worship. Human beings are not just creatures of nurture but also of nature. It is a granted fact that we are by and large influenced by the dominant culture and attitudes of our day. We are in this respect children of our day. However a more central and far more influential fact to our worship is the nature we carry with us. I submit that unless we are made true worshipers by a radical change of nature, our appetites will pander to things other than those that make for true worship.
It was strange that the children of Israel after they were taken out of Egypt struggled with appetites and tastes. We read of them desiring the onions and garlic of slavery. When God provides heavenly food for them in the form of manna, we read of them complaining that it tasted like coriander seed. The people had no taste whatsoever for the things of God. Lot’s wife is a monument of leaving Sodom yet Sodom not leaving your heart. Let me state it a little more bluntly; you cannot expect an alcohol addict to enjoy a cup of tea as he would a bottle of vodka. The drunkard is not having any more joy than the tea drinker merely because he is rowdier and expressive. Children of Zion will love the things, music and mannerisms of Zion, to them nothing holds an appeal in adopting the fleeting pleasures, musical styles of the world, and indeed such expressions grieve their hearts exceedingly. It is different with the friends of the world, the systems, styles, expressions and innovations attract them.
At the end of the day it is a question of nature, do we have a new nature, new appetites or do we retain the appetites of the world? Are we seeking fun or the worship of the Lord? Do we want to be like the other nations or do we want to “come out from among them and be separate?” (II Corinthians 6:17). We have been warned “Do not love the world, or the things of the world” (I John 2:15). We are urged to present our bodies a living sacrifice which is our reasonable act of worship, and while doing so “do not be conformed to the standards of this world” (Romans 12:1-2).
It is my considered view that what is ruling contemporary worship in Charismatic and Pentecostal churches is really the spirit of the age. It relies upon fun and feeling. The object of worship is not God but the worshipers. We too often measure the success of worship by how it felt to us, its appeal to the congregation and how well the diverse gifts and departments of the worship team collaborated to present flawless choir.
In the age of the seeker friendly movement, the worship service is all designed for the people and not for God. In this respect the purpose of worship has been turned on its head. I submit that at the end of the day when all has been said and done, it is a more fundamental question that goes beyond the expression of worship, to the very eligibility of the supposed worshiper. Jesus said to the woman of Samaria “a time is coming and now is when the true worshippers will worship the Father in the spirit and in truth...for such worshipers the Father seeks” (John 4:23-24). There may be worship everywhere really, but there are such people as true and false worshipers. We must examine whether we may be included in that blessed category of true worshipers. In the words of our Lord Jesus “for such worshippers the father seeks”.
It seems to me that those who would be true worshipers must be those who have been first sought and found by the Lord. True worshipers are not developed in music schools or church apprenticeship programs. True worshipers are born of God; they are spiritually made. A friend recently told me these series are restricted in their scope of worship (of course he is right but I restricted this treatment to expression of worship in song and physical expressions). The point which the friend was making is that worship is the whole and all of life; it’s the attitudes, responses, relationships, duties, church, work place and all of that. That whole gamut can only be enabled to engage in true and acceptable worship if and when God changes the person by the miracle of the new birth. One must have a new nature with new appetites−the appetites and tastes of Zion.
May we be helped to look further and deeply into this matter and may the Lord seek out, and find more true worshipers, for the glory of His most wonderful name. Amen
Pastor Elly Achok serves alongside other elders at Gospel Missions Agency church, Kenya. He is also Principle of Wisdom Training Center schools of Theology and Ministry in Kenya. Pastor Elly has a passion for the Reformed Truth−Biblical Truth, and recovery of the authentic Gospel in Kenya and Africa. He also hosts reformed content at www.reformedgospel.org.
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