The Worship of Worship

People on music concert

By Gary Rushing

Recently I watched an episode of a somewhat crass but very insightful English show entitled “Rev.”  Perhaps you’ve heard of it.  It is the story of a struggling Anglican priest in a dying historic downtown church.  In the particular episode I saw, another Anglican congregation came to the old downtown church to merge their Sunday morning services.  The visiting congregation was a contemporary one; filled with young, exciting people and a super-hyped and hip pastor.  Immediately the contrast was stark and the writers did a very good job of vividly portraying the difference in personalities, approaches, and demi-gods.  Yes, demi-gods.  The old Anglican church worshipped its past and its stoic ritualism, while the young hip group (which took in £10,000 that Sunday morning as opposed to the £30 taken in by the old guard) fell down and worshipped at the feet of the cool pastor and the even cooler music, visuals, couches, white leather sofas, and resident Hip-Hop worship leader singing praises to the “resurrected Jew.”  I sat enthralled, wondering if this is how the world views the church today; as either an archaic institution of irrelevance or a poor and embarrassing copy of the cool, secular society.

Can corporate worship, be it high-powered, digitized projections or ancient stained glass, become the object of our worship?  Anything that is placed above the our holy God becomes an idol and idols are for worshiping.  It is possible to place our style of worship or any super-star worship leader into this position.  Our adversary, the devil, is a master craftsman at taking good things, like the tools and mediums of worship, and turning these means of worship into the ends of worship.   Sometimes it is very difficult to see this when we are caught up in our preferred worship genre.

                  So how do we know if we’re truly coming into the presence of the triune God, or the presence of a powerful idol called “worship”?  Here are some symptoms to be aware of:

  1. 1.     Are the People Praising the Worship or Praising the Lord?

Sometimes it is impossible to discern this with your eyes, but you can gain insight by what the people are saying.  Comments like, “That drum solo was killer” or “I love it when the choir sings a classical piece” are troublesome.  These statements may have nothing to do with Christ.  “The way you guys lit the stage during communion settled my soul, and I felt God’s Spirit move in me” is something very different from the previous comments.  If the positives are about the tools of worship, caution is warranted.  If they’re about Jesus Christ, the object of worship, praise the Lord!

  1. 2.     What is the Humble Temperature of Your Worship Team?

Be it a choir or a praise team, it is imperative to know the worship heart and mind of your team of leaders.  If you sense a desire to hurry through devotions and prayer so the “real job” of rehearsing is palpable, it may be time to remind your group that they don’t exist to make pretty music, drama, or light shows.  That can be done in other venues.  Their job is to exalt Christ through the arts and create a space that draws people into the presence of God.  That is far more difficult than pulling off an anthem by Bach or nailing the guitar lick from The Edge.  Humility rules in God’s kingdom.  There is no room for “diva-tude”.

  1. 3.     If You are a Worship Leader, Are You Feeling Pressure to Perform or Being Prompted to Praise?

Let’s face it – worship is hard to lead when guitarists are out of tune, lighting techs are trying to recreate “Saturday Night Fever”, and the Lead Pastor is looking into your eyes while tapping his watch.  God calls us to play excellently before him (Psalm 33:3) but this should never take precedence over a humble and contrite heart.  God’s call for us to be the best artists we can be is not because he insists on perfectly crafted masterpieces.  It is because our effort to create the best we can is an offering of praise to him for his glory and his gift of Jesus Christ.  We are not called to perform for the applause of people but are gifted and empowered to bring to glory to God and God alone. 

After having this discussion with a fellow worship pastor the conversation fell quiet.  He looked at me and said, “I totally agree with you.  But this is the real world.  If I don’t sing and play better than I did last week…or if I don’t create tears and chills in the congregation like I used to…I’m out of work.  Someone that is either cooler or better than me will take my place.”  I shared with him that if that pressure truly existed it was time to share his concerns with his pastor and other leaders.  If that performance was expected, maybe it was time to go.  If we sacrifice the humble and contrite spirit in worship we sacrifice to an idol of worship, and God has very little tolerance for idols.

The high-octane pastor on “Rev.” found another place to perform and the struggling conservative priest went back to his dozing, dozen parishioners.  At the end of the show there stood the glaring paradox that perhaps the church is unfortunately known for by some; that a people that worships worship offer only two things to the lost:  truth-less power or powerless truth.  Neither is acceptable to the God that we are to worship in Spirit and in truth.

 

Gary received a BA in Music from Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri in 1984.  His seminary education was at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas where  he received a Master of Arts degree in Communication in 1989.  He is currently pursuing the Doctor of Worship Studies at the Institute of Worship Studies in Orange Park, Florida. Visit: faithum.com.

 

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    14 comments on “The Worship of Worship

      • True worshippers can worship in spite of their environment. Absolutely love your message. Thank you Lord for putting it in his heart.

    1. Gary, you’ve nailed it. I have been preaching these exact points for years only to run into a brick wall. When I’ve pointed out that music is a means, not an end, it’s like I’m speaking another language. There is an implicit assumption that unless we are performing up to Hillsong standards with a full praise band, our worship is substandard or defective. I would counter that music is a great servant but a terrible master. The point of it all is to create an atmosphere where people see the glory of God and are inspired to worship Him.

      It’s so easy to assume we have done our job when people comment that they love the worship at our church. Do they really love the worship? Or do they just enjoy the cool music we are playing? It’s a subtle but critical distinction. Thanks for drawing attention to it.

      • The way we talk about worship I think often reveals our flawed understanding of what worship really is. To say that such and such a person may or may not have loved the worship isn’t right – but to say that such and such a person may or may not have loved giving worship really is. I don’t think we’re called to love the worship – we’re called to grow up in the maturity of loving to give worship. To ascribe.

    2. John, you took the words right out of my mouth. I grew up in a very traditional church which still fights over its tradition–if Jesus walked into the room they’d miss it. Now I worship in a rather “high octane” bible church where the teaching is fantastic but the worship is way too often shallow, annoyingly repetitive, and blatantly a rock concert…which to me is no different than the other churches traditions–we’ve just upgraded the stained glass windows to hot guitarists, the latest top 40 and sizzling movie screens…folks don’t sing, prayers are rarely shared corporately, but the show goes on and I really do believe that God in heaven weeps and so does David the Psalmist!

    3. Great article! I still think a church band should be invisible to the heart of the congregation, so that only the Lord is seen and heard. Styles come and go, but God never changes

    4. The “Resurrected Jew” lyric made me chuckle. But I don’t have a problem with that really. And I wouldn’t say I am a hipster either (not even sure what a hipster is) but I think some are and that’s cool. I wouldn’t like the Hipsters to stop being Hipsters or the lyricists stop experimenting – what I would like is to see biblical teaching on what ‘worship’ means to be hand-in-hand with contemporary/traditional church alike. I think if both contemporary/traditional forms of worship pray big prayers like Ephesians 1:17 then all will be well. As long as the content is being preserved and honoured (the timelessness of the majestic gospel) then the packaging can do what it wants! I work in an Anglican Church where 90-year old stalwarts attend mid-week meetings and 20-year olds lads smash the drums up on a Sunday morning – the point is, they’re not in bed or in the pub. Worship of worship is definitely idolatry and it’s probably way more common than I’d dare think, but if you’re going to be an idolator church is probably a good place to be one. Grace ultimately will teach us to say no to ungodliness and I pray that the idolatry of worship and the idolatry of religion will hear the cry of God to grow up! I think that worship of worship and worship of religion are two book ends on the shelf of church immaturity which is real Trojan horse of our worship. Lord Jesus, teach us mightily! Cheers mate – great piece!!

    5. Good thoughts! Sometimes I feel we place form over substance. I would love to see a church where the people prepared for worship like we expect our children prepare for school every day. There seems to be too much performing rather than offering our talents to the Lord. Write more!!

    6. I am crushed when a worship leader says, “We will sing that song again. This time look happy [or smile].” So many times I recognized God’s work the first time through the words. Then I feel punched down for recognizing God instead of the worship leader. The second or more times through the song, I usually don’t sing, because I’m trying to hold on to what I recognized the first time through.

    7. I appreciate this article. I have had to retreat to an Anglo Catholic parish because I got tired of music becoming as loud as a rock concert and the feeling that if there was not an over head the church was not considered Christian. I see beautiful churches being rennovated at great expense because they are acoustically perfect for unplugged music but the unplugged music is out of fashion. The church is then expensively turned into a radio studio and expensive sound systems have to then be put into place. Sometimes the music gets so loud I started to wonder if we were getting too loud to hear from God. One church has copied another church over the years and voila: organs are out and choirs are out and a few rock stars are up front leading worship in a style copied from TV evangelism. Shouldn’t each church ask God what he wants from them? Or are we to be a carbon copy of the latest style of worship. I am born again, raised Anglican, spirit-filled (most of the time) , believe in the spiritual gifts but I do not want to go to church where there is a stage with stage lights and lots of noise that hurts my ears. If my ears are hurting and the other people are going deaf without realising it, then how can that be God’s will? The liturgy for me now helps me focus on Jesus, who is at the centre of it. Mega churches have rejected stained glass and liturgy and colourful vestments but worshipping God with our whole being means that colour needs to be brought it so we have introduced flags instead. I could go on but I feel sometimes like a lone voice. God led me to become a professional singer but many churches that preach the Word, which I hunger for, have no platform or space for me to share the glorious gift that I know God gave to me. We should all be able to bring our gift to the altar and share what God has given us so that it makes a very beautiful tapestry of many colours that lift HIm up in praise.

    8. Pingback: Some Idols Are Sneaky | Worship Links

    9. I’ve watched both series of Rev – and I think it’s brilliant. Sure, the small, aging congregation can be guilty of worshiping tradition, or stained glass or whatever – but keep your eye on Rev himself. In the middle of all the dire stuff, he keeps his eyes very firmly on God. He tries so hard to love ALL his neighbours… and to forgive his enemies… even when they are nauseatingly hip mega-church leaders, making him feel small. It’s a struggle, he fails repeatedly, but he keeps returning to the core of Christ’s teaching.
      I agree that worship/church life/ buildings can all become the focus of idolatry – the article makes the point brilliantly. It can happen in any kind of church – and with any kind of leader. Rev is undoubtedly a true Christian, but it’s not having much effect on his congregation. The more I watch Rev, the more puzzled I become about the nature of “church”.

    10. Thanks for the comments everyone. I really gained a lot of additional insights into your thoughts.
      I had a church music professor once that started his class by stating that, “The first murder in recorded history was over worship.” That has stuck with me ever since. Worship is, and should be, a tremendously emotional experience. And emotions can become an unlocked “backdoor” for the enemy to slip in. If you think about it, people “arguing about worship” is an oxymoron in and of itself – since slamming someone’s worship preference is in fact “anti-worship.” The “worship of worship” may just be one of the adversary’s most productive undercover attacks on the church and the message, just as theology was during the reformation.

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