17 January 2016

Refocusing Our Worship: Part 2

Worship begins with a bonafide believer who is living an authentic life consecrated to God.  This is the prerequisite for a God-centered (not me-centered) worship experience when I gather with others for corporate praise and proclamation.  Fundamentally, worship must begin with the heart and life I bring in the doors and offer to God, not what I get served up to me during the meeting by those who are leading it.  This is what has become terribly out of focus in our churches.  And it is easy to do because we are naturally drawn in selfish directions.  If we will begin with this personal foundation, then we can go on faithfully to build a gathering for the purpose of corporate worship.  Our target is to offer to God a gathering that is God-centered, authentic and seeker friendly.

John records the interaction Jesus had with a Samaritan woman.  There are many fascinating facets to this story, but in the heart of the narrative is recorded a conversation about worship.  Jesus had shockingly and rather forwardly brought up this woman's sordid past and current unholy living arrangements while revealing to her His identity as her savior.  She wasn't quite getting it yet when she was hit with the stinging truth of her unconsecrated life to God.  However, she was a quick thinker! She offered Jesus an invitation to debate a long-standing tension between Jews and Samaritans concerning worship. 

The division and rivalry between Samaritans and Jews had a long and deeply rooted history.  No need to go into all that history here, but just understand that they had a common heritage in Abraham, but for 1,000 years the two groups had different religious and cultural trajectories.  In regards to religious observance, both groups thought they were in the right concerning their views on worship.  Specifically, she brought up the long standing rivalry concerning the proper place to offer worship.  Jews adamantly asserted that the holy city of Jerusalem was the right place to worship God.  The Samaritans had for generations considered Mr. Gerizim the geographical center of worship.  This was the hot button issue between these groups about worship.

I've often wondered why she abruptly brings up this subject while Jesus is revealing the most profound truth she will ever hear from God.  I think there are two reasons.  First, she wants to divert attention away from her own life that falls short of what she knows God would want for her.  Second, this common, contentious debate about the proper place for worship would certainly accomplish it while demonstrating that she was a good religious person.  Jesus did not take the bait to debate, probably to her surprise.  However, He did use the opportunity to teach her and us the most important and profound truth about our worship gatherings.

What Jesus said is the guide for our understanding worship and how wisely to do it when we gather together on Sunday mornings or at other times.  Jesus must have shocked her when he told her that the location of worship was irrelevant.  In the past God had given specific instructions about a tabernacle or temple, but now the time had come (with Jesus Himself) that location was not going to be a constraining issue in regards to worship.  Remember, the tearing of the temple veil was just around the corner and its complete destruction a generation later!  Jesus said the Father is seeking worshippers, not to come to the certain place and follow certain rituals, but to render worship "in spirit and truth."  So, there's the big question.  What does that mean for us when we gather on Sunday?

In this context, the word spirit refers to the inner person of the worshipper.  It's that part intertwined with our physical existence that connects with God.  In Genesis we are told in the creation of Adam that God breathed into Adam and he became a living soul.  It's that part of us that is God-breathed.  So, when I worship in spirit, I am desirous to honor God with all that I am.  I want to express God's worthiness and glory.  I desire to make much of Him and little of me.  This is the essence of worshipping in spirit.  It's not about the outward trappings, it's about my inner self (the real me) before God.  Worshipping in spirit focuses on God Himself, whom Jesus reminds us "is spirit."  We are going to have the necessary outward details about place, custom, style, etc., but we remember our corporate worship is not about that stuff.

In this context, the word truth is connected to Jesus Himself.  He reveals some key truths to the woman.  He let's her know that the promised Messiah is from the Jews and that she is missing some truth with her traditional Samaritan views.  Overall, Jesus is directing her to the importance of the worshipper's correct understanding of God for worship.

If we have little concern for truth (in the music we sing, in our prayers, in our sermons, or in whatever we may do), then we will end up measuring the quality of worship by what we feel emotionally.  And herein lies a great danger.  Counterfeit worship occurs often when the emotions are stirred by something that appeals to sentimentality, traditionalism, or our senses rather than truth.  Having our affections stirred in worship is good as long as the object of those affections is God, His beauty and His truth.

I believe the most common place where our affection is misplaced is with music.  Music in itself is a powerful mover of emotion.  This is why a musical score to a movie can be what pushes you to tears, laughter or fear.  Music alone has the ability to set the tone and create the mood.  Music alone can make you want to jump around, feel bold or defiant, feel relaxed, sad, or nostalgic. You name an emotion and the right music can help you feel it!  We could say that lighting and other effects that many churches use in corporate worship have a similar effect on the senses and emotions.   

However, the same quality that makes music so easily misused in worship is the same reason it is such a gift for worship.  Music touches us at an emotional level.  It just does.  That in itself is not a bad thing.  When beautiful music combines with words of truth, then we are faithfully bringing together what God has created and put in us for the purpose of offering it back to God as a form of worship. 

But when the music itself becomes the object of our emotion, whether it be the strings of an orchestra, the grandeur of a pipe organ, the rhythm of percussion, or the screeching rift of the electric guitar, then we have lost sight of the importance of truth as the source of our emotion.  This is why meaty lyrics that communicate strong biblical and theological truth are imperative.  Lyrics that let me contemplate God's attributes and celebrate the Gospel is what we are after.  Lyrics that emphasize me too heavily end up using up time and emotion that should be focused on God and His truth.  Any musical trappings that bring attention to itself and away from the truth of the lyrics is moving our affections in the wrong direction and away from worship. 

Additionally, there is sometimes a confusion of the music itself with worship.  It is easy to fall into the trap that the music has to be the kind of music I like for me to be moved emotionally in worship. A person may be thinking that it's the message of the song that is moving him, but in reality it may simply be the beauty and passion of the music itself.  I think this is really at the heart of our so-called worship wars between traditionalists (old hymn singers) and the contemporaries (the worship bands).  It's really about our own preferred style.  We just want what we like.  When that is the focus, then it ultimately becomes about the music itself, not about proclaiming truth even if the lyrics are biblically sound.  This is a subtlety in the heart, but a really important one.          

So, the worshippers the Father seeks are those whose hearts are filled with love and passion for him and whose heads are filled with His truth.  And that truth is centered on the identity and work of Jesus, the Messiah.  The form and style always take a back seat to spirit and truth.  Actually, knowing what we know about our own tendencies, we must work hard to keep style completely overshadowed and covered up with spirit and truth.

When we put what Paul wrote in Romans 12:1-2 about a consecrated life together with Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman recorded in John 4, we get a complete guide for our aim for that meeting of the church each week on Sunday that we call worship.  I offer the following as a guiding definition based on these key biblical texts.

A church experiences God-centered, authentic, seeker friendly corporate worship when believers, whose lives are yielded to God, offer expressions of God's worthiness with a sincere love for God that conforms to God's revealed truth that results in God receiving glory, believers experiencing God's truth, and unbelievers encountering the Gospel.

Worship is at the core of the personality and vitality of a church.  When we get it right, believers bring to God yielded lives, proclaiming truth together and focusing on doing it in a way that honors God while allowing the Gospel to be sufficient and constantly filtering out our own selfishness.  We were created to worship God.  Jesus said that the Father seeks worshippers.  Let's not just go to church, let's be worshippers. 

07 January 2016

Refocusing Our Worship: Part 1

Any church is greatly defined by it's corporate worship time.  The church may have wonderful ministries that touch its community and focus on making disciples, but typically it's most frequent activity with the most participation is the Sunday morning gathering.  Frankly, this is what most people think of, if they think of church at all.  They think of that hour or so on Sunday morning when people get together in the church house, store front, or auditorium and have a meeting - typically involving some mixture of praying, singing, giving, observing the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper and listening to the preacher. 

Regardless of the tradition, formula or style, what's important about that meeting is that it be God-centered and authentic.  We often fixate on the form of worship with little thought of the substance of worship. Questions about form and method are important questions to ask, but ones about substance are more important.  Furthermore, it's only when we understand what worship is, can we begin to make sure that the content and style of our gatherings are in focus.

So, what is a the very heart of the worship of God?  Well, it's not what we usually want to talk about.  It's not the preaching, although rightly preaching the Word of God is critical.  It's not the music, although music is a God-given means to express praise.  It's not about style - liturgical, traditional, high church, low church, or contemporary.  It's not about what we do, although we will do something when we assemble. (I'll address that in part 2)

At the heart of worship is what we are not what we do.  Instead of seeing Sunday morning as a time in which we check into a worship event, we need to see Sunday morning as a time in which worshippers have the privilege and joy to gather to proclaim and praise together.     

When you look into the Old Testament and observe the worship of Israel, the key idea that emerges is consecration.  Consecration refers to the act of persons or items being separated for God, to be considered holy and belonging to God.  When we understand the heart of worship to be a consecrated life, then we have the proper understanding of worship.  A biblical awareness of consecration keeps us from reducing worship to a weekly event.

If you glance through the book of Leviticus, you'll encounter the word and idea of consecration repeatedly.  Consecration was expected in regards to the priests themselves, to the items in the tabernacle, to moral standards for daily living, to special gatherings and celebrations, and to a host of other instructions and regulations.  Throughout the Old Testament the emphasis was upon the priests and the people being consecrated before the Lord. 

In other words, people were to be set apart and holy for service to God.  The particulars of the Old Covenant are not important (e.g. dietary laws, temple worship, sacrifices, feasts, etc.), but the essence of what God required throughout it all is important.  He required consecrated people.  And when the people were not consecrated, their acts of "worship" were not merely empty, but offensive to God. The prophets reminded the people of this when the people's lives were not consecrated, but they still went through the motions of offering "worship."  David knew this in his prayer in Psalm 51. God's great concern was with the disposition of his heart and obedience, not his sacrifices.

Now, fast forward to the New Covenant in Jesus.  We see that the form of worship undergoes dramatic change, but the heart of it remains the same.  In the greatest and fullest explanation of the Gospel, the Apostle Paul describes the heart of the worshipper in his letter to the Romans.  In the first 11 chapters he had beautifully and skillfully unpacked what the followers of Jesus have received by the grace of God.  Believers had been saved from God's wrath through faith in Jesus, freed from the deadly grip of sin, given the righteousness of Christ and made spiritually alive.  At the beginning of chapter 12, Paul begins describing what every believer's natural response should be to such a marvelous grace.

"Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.  And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:1-2 NASV).

Permeating these verses is the idea of Old Testament consecration.  Paul likens our lives in Christ as being a consecrated sacrifice to God - one that is living, holy and acceptable.  In other words, we are to present to God a consecrated life, and this life is our worship (or service).  Worship at its root is what we are before God, not merely what we do in a gathering.  When you consider what Paul says here about how a consecrated life is the essence of worship, then a few things become much more clear. 

First, we understand that only a genuine believer can be a real worshipper.  Paul is urging those who believe ("brothers").   An unbeliever may be in the gathering of the church on Sunday morning as a guest, but he cannot be a worshipper.  He might even participate by singing along and listening, but he is not worshipping.  This truth has tremendous importance for how we understand the purpose and design of our weekly gatherings. 

Second, if our gathering time on Sunday is to be truly God-centered and authentic, then I must enter into that time as a consecrated follower of Jesus.  I have to give up this notion that I can conform to this world Monday through Saturday, then come into the church house for an hour on Sunday and rub a little "worship" on my life and keep it Christianized.  Understanding God's call to a consecrated life will help me not to compartmentalize my life into my "regular" time and my "church" time. 

All my time is His time.  All my life is service to Him.  All of me belongs to Him.  All of me is dedicated to His will.  All my life is worship.   This is how my activity during the gathering on Sunday morning stays authentic and finds acceptance with God.  This understanding and emphasis is what we are most typically missing in our worship gatherings.  It's not about what I get out of the worship experience; it's always been and always will be about what I bring and present to my God.

When I grasp that worship is fundamentally about a consecrated life to God, then my whole disposition changes about the corporate gathering of believers on Sunday morning.  I don't evaluate worship by whether certain forms and elements of the service were served up to my liking.  Suddenly, it's not about any of that stuff.  It's about my life before a holy God and the joy of corporate confession of faith and praise to the One who is worthy.

Of course, there are the practical considerations of what a congregation actually does together when it meets.  Again, it's not that those are unimportant or insignificant details.  They are actually very important.  But we have to get the main thing right first.  When we know what worship truly is, then we can put together gathering times that both keep God at the center, keep the experience authentic, and is sensitive to those who are seeking.  Once we have nailed down what worship is, then we are ready to engage how to best plan and conduct our weekly gatherings.  We now have a compass to guide us concerning what we should do and what we shouldn't do.

That's where we'll pick up in part 2.                               

04 January 2016

Is Christianity Rational?

The dictionary definition of the word rational means that a claim is perceived to be "based on facts or reason and not on emotions or feelings."  Likewise, a rational person has "the ability to reason or think about things clearly." 

Religion is perceived by many to be irrational.  In other words, religious beliefs are only based on humanity's more primitive thoughts and traditions that emerged from a context in which much couldn't be explained rationally.  Religion became both a quest for explanations and for a sense of control and hope in the face of all the uncertainty and dangers of primitive human existence.  For those who view religion as irrational today, religion is a holdover from a less enlightened era, which modern people need to discard.  At best, religion may serve to promote beneficial moral behavior and organize people to perform benevolent acts. 

However, religion continues to have a massive appeal in our modern era.  Many predicted that the 18th-century European Enlightenment and the scientific revolution would bring about the end of Christianity, which possesses a foundation of unobservable, supernatural claims.  Rationalists, like Thomas Jefferson, believed that Christianity would die a natural death as a new generation of enlightened minds embraced a more naturalistic and universal understanding of God, who could be considered the distant, supreme architect of the universe.  Jefferson was really smart, and I'm grateful for his contributions to our political beginnings as a country, but he was wrong on that one. 

The most interesting and meaningful questions are not ones that observation and rational thinking can answer.  We might have a certain confidence in current theories about how the universe began, but we can't begin to answer why it exists.  We might think that we understand the evolutionary development of humanity and other life, but we can't explain what life is and how it suddenly (or gradually) turned from inanimate stuff into living stuff.  Even a rational genius like Stephen Hawking understands that observational science has limits to the kinds of questions it can tackle, much less for which it can provide answers. 

So now to the question: Is Christianity rational?  Christianity offers assertions that are not immediately observable.  So, if you think you have to be able to observe something with your own senses in order for it to be intellectually reasonable, then I suppose Christianity is irrational to you.  Or if you think that in order to believe in the supernatural claims of Christianity, then you need to observe similar demonstrations of the supernatural with your own eyes, then I suppose it's irrational to you. 

However, I would suggest these issues do not make Christianity irrational.  The vast majority of human history is not observable.  I suppose only very recently can we say that something that happened in the past is observable in the form of recordings, if it was indeed recorded.  But this is a recent reality and still limited. 

The bottom line is that every person is operating on some faith in regards to those big questions that are not subject to our immediate observation.  For roughly a century and a half modern humanity has warmed up to the idea and embraced a materialistic and atheistic view of existence.  The scientific theories of the origins of the universe and the development of living things have become for many their deeply held convictions.  I call it conviction, because to have such confidence in these theories' truthfulness takes faith. 

I don't mean that these theories are irrational.  On the contrary, they are quite rational based on certain observations.  From those observations, the theories have been reasoned.  But because the events (Big bang, evolution, old earth, etc.) have not been directly observed, then it takes a certain amount of confidence in the witness of the stars, rock strata, and fossil records coupled with a certain interpretation of the data to assert that these theories are good theories, and even more faith to declare they are true.  Actually, most who are given completely to an evolutionary, materialistic, atheistic world view are extremely confident about their views (i.e. they have a lot of faith).  To call any of the theories it into question is to tread irreverently on their holy ground.  

At the very least a Christian worldview and an atheistic, materialistic worldview are on equal ground in regards to being both rational in the fact that both are reasoning from certain data and requiring faith to assert confidently their truthfulness because both have at their foundation things that cannot be observed directly.

The data that I refer to in regards to Christianity is of course the Bible.  Right now, someone reading this is deciding whether to bother reading on.  Maybe that is you.  You may think it irrational to consider the Bible as data.  But I would challenge that bias in you.  Instead, I would ask you attempt to recognize at least the collection of writings we call the New Testament as a historical document that chronicles a real historical movement of the first century.  Actually, as far as ancient documents are concerned, the New Testament is right at the top of the most reliable and plentiful documents we possess concerning any part of antiquity.  No credible historian can simply dismiss the evidence of the Gospel writers simply because the content makes supernatural claims in regards to Jesus.  One should consider the claims in light of the actual historical movement itself and any corroborating evidence.

Even if you are predisposed to reject the claims of supernatural events, like Jesus' miracles, you still need to take a moment to think rationally about the claim of the resurrection, which is the foundation of Christianity.  The reason this deserves any rationally thinking person's time is because of the historical witness to it, not merely in the preserved writings, but also in the people themselves who supposedly witnessed it. 

The Gospels are clearly written as history.  Fairy tales, myths and legends are written in a style in which the reader knows he is reading fiction, even ancient ones.  The questions still remains, however, if the Gospels are reliable history.  At this point, some basic logic helps us.  If the resurrection was simply a fabrication of a few men for their own unknown purposes, then we have a logical dilemma.  It's certainly rational to consider that these men (the disciples) lied about the resurrection.  People do lie.  They lie to gain advantage, to avoid negative consequences, to get rich, to advance themselves and so forth. 

The logical question then becomes this: What advantage were the allegedly lying disciples trying to secure for themselves when they spread their lie that Jesus had been resurrected? What we do know is that these men and those who spread the message of a resurrected Jesus encountered tremendous push back from their neighbors and authorities.  However, they could not be threatened or beaten into silence. 

Under severe persecution, they maintained their adamant message of the resurrection - many all the way to their death.  Rationally, that doesn't make sense if you were the one in on the hoax from the beginning.  People will die for a lie in which they believe.  We all have the potential to be deceived.  However, it defies logic for people to die for a lie they themselves made up.  Furthermore, we have no evidence from Jewish or Roman historians of the time period that any Christian with knowledge of such a hoax ever recanted the story.

If you have a bias that simply makes you dismiss Christianity categorically as irrational, then I would encourage you to consider the resurrection as a possible event in history.  You may still dismiss it; however, I hope that you can admit that those who accept it as history are not irrational.  Yes, it is still a step of faith to assert it as truth.  Again, I didn't witness it.  But it is not a blind leap of faith.  It is a faith that is built upon a foundation of a certain historical witness that I find very compelling.  I find it to be unparalleled in content and most significant of all human history.  And if it is true, which I believe, then it is the defining event for all humanity and the reason that Christianity is the truth.

It certainly takes faith to believe confidently that Jesus was resurrected and that the propositions of Christianity are true, but it is not a faith that defies rationality - at least no more so than it defies rationality to have confidence (i.e. faith) in the truthfulness of the Big Bang or the evolution of the species from inanimate material.   

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