What the Church Needs Now

By Ron Man
Pastor of Music and Worship, EXW Contributor
December 31, 2018

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Worship Perspectives for the New Millennium by Ron Man

As the church of Jesus Christ has entered a new century and a new millennium, along with the rest of the world, we find that her worship is in a state characterized by profound contradictions.

The Good News

On the one hand, the last thirty years have seen an explosion in interest in, and focus on, worship in churches. A.W. Tozer, who bemoaned the state of worship in his day by calling it “The Missing Jewel in the Evangelical Church,” would certainly be amazed at the worship reformation (or revolution) which has transpired since his prophetic call in the 1950’s -- and which was probably touched off by him (or rather was used by God to touch it off). Worship has become a primary concern and consideration in most of evangelicalism today: conferences and books on the subject abound; we have witnessed a landslide of printed and recorded worship materials; there has been a massive trend away from “Directors of Music” to “Pastors of Worship.” Most importantly, there is no doubt that there has been a God-honoring return to genuine worship in spirit and truth in many churches.

The Bad News

At the same time, worship has erupted out of its former benign neglect to become the leading hot button and center of controversy in the church today. Churches and staffs have split over the issue, while in other situations there is at least constant foment or an uneasy truce. Scarcely any congregation has been spared the debates over individual tastes, music styles, instrumentation, dynamics, audiovisual aids, etc. etc. And whatever decision (if any) has been rendered by the church leadership on these areas of disagreement, it has often resulted in someone leaving the church out of dissatisfaction (or, worse yet, staying with a grudging spirit).

What’s at Stake

Sadly, there is no sign that the storm is abating. It is scandalously true that the supposed worship of our holy and almighty God is today’s leading source of dissension and division in our churches; tragically, that activity which should express most powerfully the unity of Christ’s body under its Head is all too often the seedbed for disunity, strife, and distrust. In sadly short supply is fulfillment of the apostle Paul’s prayer, “Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Jesus Christ, so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans15:5-6) There are precious few places where “the same mind,” “one accord,” and “one voice” would characterize either the debate on worship or its outworkings; and without those things how can we hope to (in Paul’s words) “glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”?

Brethren, this need not be! This must not be! I believe that in the swirl of debate and controversy we have all too often lost sight of some foundational truths which must undergird and fortify our worship practices, regardless of which direction those practices may take. We must agree on these fundamental premises concerning worship, that we might move forward together on this common ground. For only if we strive for unity, even in our diversity, will we truly be acting as Christ’s universal body, and be pleasing to Him in our worship.

Foundational Truths

1. We must focus on God’s glory.

“From Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever! Amen.” (Romans 11:36) If “all things” are for His sake and unto His glory, certainly this would be preeminently true, among all human endeavors, of worship. For in worship we echo Paul’s doxology; we acknowledge the supreme greatness and utter majesty and all-surpassing worth of God; we consciously and deliberately “honor Him as God [and] give thanks” (Romans 1:21); we engage in the defining and central activity for which we humans were created, and return to Him that which He will not tolerate being deflected in any other direction: “My glory I will not give to another” (Isaiah 42:8).

Are we preoccupied in our worship with God and His stupendous glory? Do we dwell on His absolute holiness, whereby He stands infinitely above and distinct from everything else which exists-- because He created everything else which exists? Are we so intoxicated with the wonder of His love and mercy and condescension towards us in the Lord Jesus, that “the things of earth . . . grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace”?

What aspect of the currently raging worship debates is so weighty that it deserves even mentioning in the light of His ineffable glory? Do we really think that the God who flung a billion billion stars into space, who calls each of them by name (Isaiah 40:26), and who keeps each of them in their courses, is really that concerned about whether it is a hymn or a chorus which is lifted up to Him in praise, or whether the text is in a book or printed in a bulletin or flashed on a wall or screen? If the nations themselves are but “a speck of dust on the scales” to our great God (Isaiah 40:15), how much less must such issues (which loom so large in our sight) seem to Him?

Are our best worship energies expended in ways which are worthy of the One to whom our worship is due? To be sure, He delights in the praises of His people; but He who “looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7) of the worshiper is surely not too concerned with the “outward appearance’ of the proceedings.

If we could really grasp something of the glory of God, and commit ourselves to its display and celebration in corporate worship, our petty squabbles would quickly fade into significance.

2. We must remember that worship is first and foremost for God.

The New Testament seems to allow for considerable freedom in terms of the actual forms of our worship, and that freedom has found expression in an incredible diversity of worship practices in the church of Jesus Christ, both through history and around the world today, not to mention in our own country! Yet freedom in worship is only viable, is only true worship, as it is founded in immovable, non-negotiable truth. The fact is that worship is for God, primarily and fundamentally; and all decisions about form or style or taste, while inevitable and necessary, must never lose sight of the fact that worship must be utterly God-centered; God must be both subject and object in our worship, and all other considerations are secondary. Hence, talk about personal tastes, about the “appeal” of this or that kind of music, about style preferences, about “relevance,” about being “user-” or “seeker-friendly” must always and forever take a back seat to the primary focus of our worship, which is God Himself. Rather than these man-centered issues, our main concern must be that our worship is acceptable to God and gives Him the honor and reverence which He is due. God is the true Seeker, and what He seeks is our worship (John 4:23); we must devote ourselves to pleasing Him, not “playing the house.”

Neither must we presume to know infallibly (for our church or for others) what kind or style of music is acceptable to God and what is not. If one looks at Christian expressions of worship world-wide, one could reasonably conclude that God Himself is much more tolerant than we are about what can be fittingly brought and laid at His feet as a musical offering! And to apply standards of discernment and value which go beyond what God Himself has set forth is to stand on very shaky ground indeed!

Worship is for God; and whatever factors are taken into consideration in settling on the structure and style of our corporate expression, may the first and primary grid concern that which will truly reflect and magnify the glory of God in the company of His people.

3. We must obey Paul’s admonition “to regard one another as more important than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3)

To be sure, this command runs against our natural instincts as products of the Fall, and in our pride we will war our entire lives (with the Spirit’s help) against our tendency to see ourselves as number one in every area of our lives.

But have we even thought to apply Paul’s principle to the practice of worship in our churches? How often in our considerations concerning worship do we rise above thinking only about what I like, what I think is good, what I think honors God and is worthy to be offered to Him? We are so prone to assume that God’s taste in music amazingly happens to coincide exactly with our own!

The application of Paul’s exhortation, along with his teaching that every member of the body has something crucial to contribute (I Corinthians 12:12-18) must start in this area with a recognition that what does not bless me may, indeed, bless the person next to me (C.S. Lewis makes this point beautifully in his writings ), but again realizing that “being blessed” is of secondary importance to God being exalted. And God may, indeed, consider Himself to be exalted by my neighbor’s musical contribution, even if I consider it sub-standard or petty or too esoteric or boring—if his or her heart is genuinely engaged and desiring to make a spiritual sacrifice with the heart and voice. And even if “being blessed” is an issue, then the direct application of Paul’s principle is that my neighbor’s blessing should matter more to me than my own!

This is difficult terrain to traverse. The fact of the matter is, we’d far rather others defer to us (in all areas, including musical ones) than as for us to have to defer to them. But the sobering truth is that, as soon as we wonder why that other person is not deferring to us, we have by that very act broken the spirit and the letter of Paul’s command to consider the other more important!

Let us not consider the comfort of the person in the pew (believer or unbeliever) as of first importance, but rather how God would be honored and pleased if we sought to genuinely defer to one another in self-sacrificial love in the body—even in the area of worship! And what a healthy and wholesome spiritual exercise for the people of God to root out “selfishness [and] empty conceit” (Philippians 2:3) in this area where the self can so easily predominate. What a gift to offer God—a corporate sacrifice of praise infused with self-effacement and mutual humility!

4. We must understand the New Testament teaching on “whole-life” worship.

One of the main points Jesus was making in His conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4 (obviously a pivotal passage on worship in the New Testament; the term itself occurs some 10 times) was that His coming was responsible for the transformation of worship into something which was no longer centered in a place nor oriented to one event “neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem” (v.21); but rather “in spirit and truth.” (v. 23)

How we tend to revert to the Old Testament model of place-centered, event-oriented worship, which Jesus was very clearly abrogating in John 4! How quickly we forget that, while worship may well culminate and find its climax in the corporate gathering (in fact, it should), it does not, must not, cannot begin there. What shallow, undernourished Christians will we be if we come on Sunday morning for a fix of “weekly worship”!

In Romans 12:1 Paul gives us a more balanced perspective, one totally in keeping with Jesus teaching in John 4. Paul urges his readers to respond (“therefore”) to the “mercies of God” (those saving mercies which he has just expounded in chapters 1 through 11) by presenting their bodies (that is, their entire being) as a “living and holy sacrifice;” this, he says, will be both “acceptable to God” and a “fitting/reasonable/spiritual [depending on the translation] service of worship.” In other words, an appropriate worship response to God for His saving work through Jesus Christ is a life and lifestyle of worship; a moment-by-moment, weeklong offering of ourselves for God’s pleasure and glory. “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.” (Colossians 3:17) “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)

What makes corporate worship is when believers come together out of a week of walking with and worshiping God (both in times of focused individual worship, and in a life-permeating attitude of gratitude and prayer); the Holy Spirit can take a people thus prepared and forge a precious and powerful corporate expression of worship. On the other hand, “corporate worship is irrelevant, however beautiful its protocols may be and however nourishing its sacraments are, unless it participates in the seamless life of continuous worship, and unless it is seen as a symptom of how we live and act all week long.”

Worship pastors must humbly acknowledge that such a title is actually a misnomer according to the New testament understanding: as if a single staff member could possibly oversee and stimulate the whole-life worship of the people! Rather (as mentioned in the previous section) may all those (staff and lay) involved in localized ministries see themselves as catalysts for the week-long worship of God on the part of His people, and as those who seek to channel the fruits of that worship into focused corporate activities.

5. We must see the entire ministry of the church as ultimately directed towards worship.

John Piper, in his book Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions, explains how worship is the ultimate and eternal purpose of the Church while missions is but a “temporary necessity.” He also shows how missions must flow out of worship (“You can’t commend what you don’t cherish.”) and must ultimately lead to worship being offered up by those from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9); as he puts it, “Worship, therefore, is the fuel and goal in missions.”

What Piper says about missions could indeed be applied to all ministry, and to all ministries of the Church. “Worship is the only Christian activity which is an end in itself,” Piper has also written. In other words, worship is unique in its purely vertical focus. All other ministries and Christian endeavors necessarily include a horizontal aspect which is focused on people, be it evangelism, discipleship, children’s or youth ministry; but indeed the ultimate purpose of all these activities is to direct people’s gaze heavenward, to bring them to that place of vertical focus; to “make worshipers out of rebels” and to draw believers into a closer walk of God-glorifying worship. In short, the goal of all Christian ministry is to make more and better worshipers of God (and, of course, ultimately He is the One who must make this happen).

So let us take a more unified, holistic view of the church’s ministry, and see its singular goal in all of its diverse functionings—not just the worship service—as the deepening and enhancing of people’s worship, to the glory of God. “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36)

Conclusion

How easily we lose sight of the forest for the trees! To be sure, decisions must be made concerning musical selections, form, instrumentation, etc. But these are decidedly secondary concerns which pale in importance next to far more weighty biblical considerations: the primacy of God’s glory; worship being for Him; the need to practice humility and mutual submission in our practice of worship; the pervasiveness and centrality of worship in the life of the church and of the individual believer

These things must be pursued or our worship will not be pleasing to God—no matter how the quality or how big the crowd. We must worship in unity, or we worship in vain. Let us be reminded, as James Torrance has put it, that “there is only one way to come to the Father, namely through Christ in the communion of the Spirit, in the communion of saints, whatever outward form our worship may take.”

“To Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen!” (Ephesians 3:21)







Ron Man
Pastor of Music and Worship, EXW Contributor
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