The incredible worship

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This is a passionate plea for churches to review our practices. Aussies can’t see God in what we’re doing at present. While culture doesn’t set our agenda, we’re off mission when we don’t represent God well.

God isn’t visible. That’s why some faiths carve little images to worship. We don’t believe dead timber or stone can represent the living God, so from ancient times people have asked, Where is your God? (Psalm 42:3, 10).

So, churches try to manufacture God’s presence in other ways. We’ve designed cathedrals with soaring ceilings so people can feel the presence of God hovering over us. We’ve crafted liturgies to offer the “real presence” in the bread and wine. We’ve offered emotional experiences in revival meetings and personal conversions. We’ve tailored worship experiences with smoke and stage lights so people can feel God’s presence, since music moves people.

How does your church pump up the talk about God’s presence? How many of our songs express a yearning to feel God? How much of our energy and resources are devoted to giving people a sensation of God?

Why did we do that? Didn’t we believe God was already there?

Years ago, I was pastoring a Pentecostal church. Feelings of God’s presence were encouraged, yet I felt spiritually dry. After many months in that desert, I felt desperate for God, crying out for his presence. God didn’t change my feelings. He reshaped my faith with a simple word: I am not your feelings of me. Love me for who I am, not for what I do for you.

I’d been worshipping the wrong thing.

What are we called to do?

Shockingly, the New Testament barely mentions the things we pour our energies into. Jesus barely sang at all. He never trained his disciples to craft music to give people a sense of God’s presence.

They did struggle to see God. “Show us the Father,” Philip asked. Jesus didn’t say, “Let’s sing and see if you feel it.” That’s not where to look to see God (John 14:8-10).

The disciples were in awe of the “magnificent buildings” where they understood God to be present. Jesus burst their bubble: “All of that is coming down, stone by stone” (Mark 13:1-2).

His commission was not, “Go into all the world to build beautiful buildings and write beautiful songs so people can feel God’s presence.”

Jesus pointed them towards something greater than the temple (Matthew 12:6), where God was physically present, embodied for people to see (John 2:21).

Listen to his prayer. This is how Jesus expected the world to see God:

John 17:17–26 (NIV)
17 I in them and you in me … so the world will know …
25 Though the world does not know you, I know you … 26 I have made you known to them … that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.

God is seen in Jesus. Jesus is seen in his people. In Christ we are being restored in our vocation: imaging God to his world.

When we fell short of imaging his glory, God persisted in making himself known in us:  in Abraham, Moses, and the nation called to make God known to the nations. The ultimate revelation of God was a human descendant: the son of David, the son of Abraham, the son of Mary who was God is with us (Matthew 1:1, 23).

We see God in him. The previous revelation of God in ancestors and prophets pales before the Son who is the radiance of God’s glory, the exact representation of God’s being sustaining all things (Hebrews 1:3). So, Hebrews concludes with the flock of the great Shepherd who equips us to do what he wants done, displaying his glory (13:20-21).

That’s the heart of the other NT letters too: God is revealed in Christ, and consequently in the community that lives in him. God is dwelling not in songs or stones, but in the people who live in Christ (1 Corinthians 3:16; Ephesians 2:21-22). Living stones embodying the Living Stone — that’s the temple (1 Peter 2:4-5).

To be human is to make God known. The church makes God known by equipping people for works of service that embody the corporate presence of our anointed ruler, until we all arrive at a unified trust in and knowing of God’s son, until humanity is restored as the reflection of the full measure of the Christ (Ephesians 4:12-13).

So what are we doing?

We sing, “I’m desperate for you.” Aussies walk away: “Yeah, you look like pretty desperate.”

We sing, “Nothing is better than you,” Aussies say: “Yeah, nothing would be better.”

Our strategy to make God known through worship services is flawed. We’ve misunderstood the nature of worship and of divine revelation. It’s not “For God so loved the world that he sent his song.”

Worship is not a cathedral or a concert. It’s a kingdom living in honour of its king. Can we focus on that instead?

What others are saying

Monte Shanks, “A Proper Worship of Yahweh: Worshiping Jesus in the Synoptics” in Biblical Worship: Theology for God’s Glory (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2021), 362 (emphasis original):

Jesus never promoted a style of worship, nor did he teach his disciples how to generate “an atmosphere” that would encourage it. … By today’s standards, therefore, Jesus would be an abject failure with respect to promoting worship. Regrettably, however, many have missed the Lord’s entire emphasis concerning authentic worship. In an attempt to manufacture worship, many churches focus on singing, musical performance, human emotions, and the atmosphere of the moment instead of lifelong obedience to the Lord. …

If the words “music” and “singing” are what first comes to mind when the word the word “worship” is heard, then there is little understanding of what Jesus actually taught about it. … Authentic worship is an appropriate and sincere response to God through faith in Jesus that produces in the one who has been enlightened lasting changes in attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors; all of which are constrained by conformity to the Scriptures and submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ. Anything that emphasizes the performance of the moment instead of enduring obedience to the Lord has missed the essential point of what Jesus taught about worship.

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Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia
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