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.
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