The Heart of Worship (1): Authority
We were in Uganda two months ago and happened to attend the only church we believed to be reformed. We had this impression because friends of ours 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 from 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. Cutting a 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 elaborate today 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 (however contemporary it be) 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
A band of young people (called a ‘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 quite trying to the intelligence. Afterwards the Pastor, obviously in a carefully choreographed synergy with his ‘worship team’, took the trajectory in his preaching that modern music, and ‘souping’ up the worship, 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 vs. the Heart of Worship
As soon as we speak of the heart of worship, we realize 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 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 that don’t matter much in the end. 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, which is the heart of worship.
So What is the Heart of Worship?
Perhaps the question ought to be tweaked just a little and to be put this way: What is at the heart of worship? I suggest four things which among others cannot miss if worship is to be classified as true and legitimate: Authority, Content, Attitude and Object.
When we come to worship, we ascribe greatness and authority to the one we worship. The fact of worship reminds us of the distinction between the Creator and the creature and the eternal obligation owed to the Creator, which is 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.
Let me illustrate. If I appear before any authority, be it an interview for a job or a performance of some entertainment or presentation of some petition, 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 on our terms or according to our 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 investigated to ascertain if they are authorized. It is an established principle of scripture that God will never accept being worshiped in a manner He has not expressly sanctioned. God is very particular in the way He is to be approached and worshiped. There are extensive and detailed accounts of how God directed that those who appear before Him must do so in the way He has prescribed. Throughout the first 5 books of the Old Testament, you see an astounding and frankly very careful 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 worshiping the Lord; 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 steady the Ark of the Covenant contrary to instructions. What Uzzah was doing was perhaps had good intentions, 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 pronounced a judgement on King Saul. The kingdom was 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 worshiped only in strict compliance with His revealed will. This makes all the difference in the worship of God.
Care 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 speaks of worship in Spirit and in Truth in John 4:23. This is to say worship is that which comes from the heart, is enabled by the Holy Spirit, and which adheres to Truth revealed. We cannot take as authority contemporary trends, the need to appeal to popular culture, or 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. 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.
This is the first of three parts of this article. To be continued.
Of Further Interest
Authentic or Synthetic?
We were in Uganda two months ago and happened to attend the only church we believed to be reformed. We had this impression because friends of ours had in previous years come to this church and found it to be […]