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God-centered worship

Category Articles
Date February 25, 2002


Where worship is focused upon the eternal God, and not man and his fading fashions, the numbers drawn to participate tend to remain relatively small

The topic of contemporary worship continues to arise for discussion, if not debate, amongst pastors and people. One finds articles and books being written now in defence of what is called contemporary worship. In fact, some of these written treatments are beginning to shift from the apologetic and defensive to the triumphal proclamation that any who do not fall in line with this form of worship are in fact dead wood in the Church, needing to be cut out as soon as possible. The cry from proponents of contemporary worship is that any way other than their way is a stumbling block to modern men and women, especially young men and women. We are told that modern people find the reverent singing of psalms, the offering of prayers that have theological content, and the faithful preaching of the whole Word of God, unvarnished by culturally fashionable garb, to be irrelevant, if not unintelligible. Added to this cry is the almost unvarying phenomenon that numerical growth occurs where worship is heavily laced with contemporary facets, especially the facet of sentimental and swinging music, and a lot of it. At the same time, where worship is focused upon the eternal God, and not man and his fading fashions, the numbers drawn to participate tend to remain relatively small.

I believe that a true analysis of this phenomenon will reveal that the divide is not essentially between things temporal and eternal, or things past (traditional) and present (contemporary). Rather, the divide is between man-centered worship (surely an oxymoron) and God-centered worship. The driving demand of contemporary worship appears to be a desire to change God and His ordinances as much as possible, refashioning Him and them into the categories and expressions which confirm modern, secular man in his ways, while challenging and changing him as little as possible. Of course where change for man is the aim, it is a change in his circumstances, not his character, a removal of his misery, not his sin.

What are we to do about a Church whose local assemblies are increasingly opting for ear-tickling gimmicks? First, we should not feel pressured to substitute man’s devices for the doctrine and ordinances of God. By God’s grace, not by our worthiness or cleverness, we are not to be drawn into the practice of such things-childish at best, carnal at worst-which characterize what is called contemporary worship. Paul warns of men wanting their ears tickled, and instructs pastors not to meet that desire, but rather to be faithful in preaching the Word (2 Tim. 4:1-5). He also warns against our building the Church with perishable materials such as wood, hay, and straw (1 Cor. 3:12,13). Let us continue to take such warnings seriously, and not be swept away by the empty bulk that surely fattens the celebratory gatherings in many a mega-church.

Let us also resist the temptation to ignore or lovelessly to castigate our brethren who have developed a spiritual sweet tooth, and thus hunger for and demand candy rather than spiritual meat. Instead, let us pray for them, seek to maintain good relationships with them, so as to win them, if possible, to better ways.

Finally, let us focus on our own worship, seeking to conform it in structure, content, and our heart’s attitude to the contours of God’s will revealed in Scripture. Such a focus will surely result in services on the Lord’s day that will seem to visitors to be drastically, even jarringly different from anything they have experienced in the world. But is that not the whole point and the crying need in our day? To men who do not know God, the observation of people who do know God devoting themselves to Him cannot but appear mystifying, challenging, even threatening. The failure of those who would conform worship to make it appeal to the so-called seeker is their verestimation of the effectiveness of the bridge they fancy they erect between God and the seeker. The truth is that no natural man seeks God (Rom. 3:10-1 2). But the good news is that God seeks and saves men, not by His becoming culturally hip with them, but by His calling them effectually through His Word and by His Spirit from their death into His life.

I conclude by sharing with you some words from Robert Louis Wilken written in an article titled “Angels and Archangels: The Worship of Heaven and Earth,” and published in Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal. Wilken concludes his article with these words:

The greatest gift the Church can give our society is a glimpse, however fleeting, of another city. But we can only do that if our worship is self-consciously, confidently, and unmistakably oriented to God. If someone wanders off the street as we pray, he should sense that there is a double Church, as Origen put it: the one that is seen and the other that is unseen. Indeed, if the visitor does not feel uncomfortable, out of place, and out of step, something is terribly ‘wrong. The visitor should experience a little vertigo, because something is going on that is beyond his ken. Yet one would hope, as he listens to our faint voices and feeble songs, that he would also hear, if only as an echo in the distance, the thunderous sound of the heavenly host singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

May this be ever and increasingly so, in our reverently joyful singing, in our praying with holy passion, and in our preaching, hearing, and applying the saving Word of God.

William Harrell

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