Monthly Archives: October 2015
Have you Seen the Unseen in Worship?
From the perspective of a Christian worldview, reality is more than the world we see around us, or what we experience with our senses. It’s more than what we hear, taste or smell. Reality, in the fullest biblical sense, includes both the world of our senses, as well as what is beyond our senses.
Scripture refers to this view of reality in various ways. The use of sight is indicated when Paul states that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). In Ephesians, the idea is wrapped around knowledge, “to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:19), as well as our thinking, “Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think…” (Eph. 3:19).
Notice the words and phrases that juxtapose contradictory ideas – at least contradictory to our senses. It’s clear, that on the level of our senses, it’s impossible for something which is invisible to be seen. We cannot know something that is unknowable. We cannot think of something that is beyond our capacity to imagine. These ideas should not make sense to us, yet they are clearly ideas that Scripture teaches.
How might this be reflected in our corporate worship? Unfortunately, contemporary corporate worship is often centered on a sensual experience. It focuses primarily on sight and sound, with an underlying layer of how these sights and sounds make a person feel about God. There is often little time for reflection or full, deep thought even about the topics suggested in the songs or sermons.
If the unseen world is real to the Christian, then the unseen world should also be a part of our corporate worship. This is admittedly difficult in a culture consumed by sensual input, with little tolerance for the discipline of a deeper life. But in small ways, we can give church goers some glimpse of what it might be like to know the unknowable.
One example is the great passage in Isaiah of his vision of the throne (Is. 6), or the vision of God’s throne in Revelation 5. Either of these passages can be used to prompt a further understanding of God’s greatness and power, even as songs are sung and sermons are preached on the topic. The Pastor or Worship leader can take just a few minutes to lead the congregation to “experience” these unseen realities by using their imagination. Requesting that people close their eyes, one of these passages can be read while people “see” the images in their imaginations. Short pauses and silence during this can enhance its effectiveness (and I would suggest that any background music would actually lessen the effect and be avoided!).
This is just one idea, of many, to introduce the unseen reality of God into our worship. Given the overload of sense data in our world today, one cannot help but think that people need a break from it all. And what better place to do that, than in the presence of God.
Is Jesus Too “Familiar” in our Worship?
As I’ve reflected in the last couple of posts on the loss of transcendence and the Word in worship, I’m realizing that there is another component that must be addressed that contributes to this loss. Rather than being the loss of something, it may be more accurately described as too much of a good thing.
What I would like to suggest is that Jesus is too “familiar” in the corporate worship experience of today. The signs of this are evident in the over-abundance of worship songs that focus on our personal experience with Jesus, as though our personal experience of Him is the purpose of our faith and corporate worship. Even in songs that seek to lift the greatness of God and His person, at some point the lyrics often swerve back to our personal and emotional connection with His greatness, or some other point of contact.
Please understand, I know this kind of familiarity is important when one considers the immanence of Christ, that is, His nearness and closeness to us and His creation. He is not a God that is separate from His creation, but Jesus became human, as we are, to share in humanity and redeem us (Heb. 2:14-15). I am not suggesting that we ignore the immanence of Christ. Rather, it seems to me that we have simplified this great doctrine to the point that Jesus has just become “one of the guys.”
And therein lies the problem. The New Testament teaches that Jesus is Lord, not simply a friend. Christ is the Head and King, not just one leader among many. He is the Foundation of our faith, not the justification for our fundraisers or building programs. He is the Presence of God, not our favorite neighbor or good buddy.
Having brought Jesus down to earth (down to our level), and making Him so familiar, we are on the edge of robbing Him of the reality of His person (at least in our worship). He is the second Person of the Trinity, uncreated, eternal, very God of very God, almighty, glorified and seated at the right hand of God the Father. It is Jesus that the Holy Spirit seeks to lift up and glorify in the Church, and in our lives.
Yes, I love Him. But I do not only love Him because of what He has done for me, so the songs we sing should move beyond that. I love and worship Him because He is beyond me. He is Other. He is the unseen made seeable (Col. 1:15). I absolutely want to know Him intimately and personally, but not to be so familiar that He becomes less than the God who is wholly different than me.
This is the Jesus that should fill our public worship. The One who is both near to me (the immanent), yet beyond all that I can think or imagine (transcendent). I think we’ve lost the balance.
Losing the Word in Worship
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine…
(2 Timothy 4:3)
Recently, I have been reading (and re-reading) Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus. It has been striking to notice how much emphasis Paul places on teaching doctrine, but not just any doctrine. In Paul’s mind there is a clear distinction between doctrine that is right and true, as opposed to doctrine that is wrong and false. And Scripture is the place from which sound doctrine flows.
Paul makes the point that we must be wary of strange and speculative doctrines (1 Tim 1:3-4), and to stay away from those that teach them (2 Tim 3:5). It is apparent that the novelty of their teaching and their “learning” led them astray (2 Tim 3:7). Paul even names specific individuals who have been led away from the truth into error, and are now teaching error as a result (2 Tim 2:16-18). The ultimate end of these false teachers is judgment, for their teaching denies the very God they claim to know (Titus 1:16).
To offset these examples of error, Paul also reminds us of the clarity of truth and pure doctrine. He ultimately points us to the Bible as the source of truth, and reminds us that handling the Word skillfully is absolutely essential (2 Tim 2:15). He speaks of godliness over and over as that which demonstrates a right belief and a right living out of those beliefs (1 Tim 6:3; 4:7-8). Most emphatically, Paul tells Timothy to “pay attention” to the reading of Scripture and the explanation of those readings (1 Tim 4:13). These themes are present throughout these epistles.
Having seen these themes, one must realize the vital place that God’s Word has in the life of the church and in worship. The Pastoral Epistles are the closest connection we have to what the church under Paul’s leadership was like, and though many facets of worship during that time are unclear, one thing that is crystal clear is his insistence that God’s Word being central. It must be read, expounded, explained and protected.
In today’s modern church, we may be violating this core value of what worship is to be about. I have noted in other articles that the first aspect of worship must be to hear from God (through His Word and through prayer), and it’s upon that basis we can then respond to Him (through singing, giving, prayer, and service). Without hearing from God, there is no point to worship.
How is God’s Word encountered in your worship? Are only little bits of Scripture read? Do pastors develop an outline of their own thoughts and supplement it with Bible passages, or do their sermons flow from the text of Scripture – being shaped by the Word? Do the songs line up with Paul’s admonition regarding sound doctrine, or are we choosing songs that are popular and make us feel good?
If we have been wondering why the church of today is in crisis, and why it cannot respond well to cultural challenges, this may very well be part of the reason. The doctrinal drift away from biblical truth is apparent as churches seek to emulate the culture and be supposedly “relevant” to the contemporary mind. There is only one answer to regaining our effectiveness: a return to Scripture as the source of truth and doctrine.