By Randy Sawyer
In his recently released book, The Coming Evangelical Crisis, John MacArthur Jr. recalls a character that comedian Flip Wilson used in his entertainment repertoire. The pastor’s name was the Reverend Leroy and he pastored The Church of What’s Happenin’ Now. That was certainly food for religious humor in the early 1970s but no longer. In fact, numerous churches dot the ecclesiastical landscape today that could rightly be known as the Church of What’s Happenin’ Now.
Adopting a postmodern philosophy, many church leaders feel that to become relevant, we must address the “felt needs” of a disillusioned society. Tradition, therefore, must be discarded in lieu of an undated version that is less offensive to the boomers, busters, generation x, and millennials.
The consumer is king, the pastor and pastoral staff are salesmen, and the church is a shopping mall, complete with cafeteria offering a variety of dishes that will appeal to the palate of any would-be customer. This “marketing the church” approach is seen in many areas of church life, especially with regard to worship.
Mega-church pastor Rick Warren models this concept more effectively than most. In Purpose Driven Church, he argues that no style of worship is correct. “Your preferred style of worship,” he writes, “says more about your cultural background than your theology.” He adds, “The truth is, there isn’t a biblical style of worship.”
How do we respond to this line of thinking? Is there a biblical theology of worship? Does anything go?
In John’s Gospel we find perhaps the most significant New Testament passage regarding worship. The text (4:20-26) contains three specific characteristics of worship as taught by Christ.
First, true worship is found not in its form but in its focus. This is not to suggest that the form is unimportant, but that it is always secondary. True worship above all else recognizes the centrality of God.
This would, of necessity, eliminate the consumer-oriented, needs-based philosophy. Worship is to be God-centered, not man-centered.
Second, the passage teaches that true worship is found not in an external display, but in an internal reality. “ln Spirit” means that worshiping is a part of who you are as a human being. Artificial gimmicks cannot stimulate this kind of worship; it comes from who you are and what you are.
Third, John 4:20-26 stresses that true worship is found not though a subjective experience, but through an objective understanding. To worship “in truth” requires a growing knowledge of the word which increases one’s appreciation of God’s worth.
We can program a worshiper to respond to certain stimuli, yet that stimuli may be altogether contrary to truth. A song may strike an emotional chord, while presenting a message that is theologically erroneous.
Much of today’s worship is commendable in its emotive aspects, but the general lack of biblical content is its greatest weakness. The church today, in fact, exists in a theological vacuum. What we believe is deemed unimportant, how we feel becomes paramount. The Christian community treats experience as the final voice of authority. True worship, on the other hand, demands a balance between the emotional and psychological.
In the same text, John 4, Jesus informed the Samaritan woman that God is a spirit. As an invisible, immaterial spirit, God cannot be known unless He reveals Himself. It is a fundamental axiom of Christianity that only God can reveal God and He has done so in scripture.
Does it seem logical then, that a God who has specifically and carefully revealed Himself at the same time has chosen not to inform us as to how we may approach or truly worship Him? The fact is, the self-revelation of God not only enables us to know who He is, but offers definitive instructions on how to approach Him. Scripture alone must be allowed to regulate our worship.
Responsibility for worship in the local church, therefore, rests with the pastor, his life, and teaching. Today’s trend is clear to shift the role of the worship leader to musician or song leader. This paradigm rests on a false dichotomy.
The assumption seems to be that music is worship while preaching is something different. It is evident from scripture, however, that both singing and preaching constitute worship.
It is the pastor’s duty to make absolutely certain that worship has a solid scriptural foundation. He should keep abreast of various trends in music and worship, and evaluate each by God’s standard. His involvement in planning the service can also go a long way toward insuring that there is Bible-centered worship.
Furthermore, the pastor is to expound the scriptures so that in reality the Lord of the church is holding a conversation with His people.
“Word and worship belong indissolubly to each other,” writes John Stott. “All worship is an intelligent and loving response to the revelation of God. . . . Therefore acceptable worship is impossible without preaching.”
Finally, the pastor is to model true worship before the congregation. Being preoccupied with the details of the service or his sermon notes will not only affect the quality of his worship, but the congregation’s as well.
This is but a brief look at one of the many passages that provide specific guidelines for effective worship. The fact is, there is a theology of worship that is thoroughly outlined in scripture. The principles of worship advocated by Christ in John 4 require that there be balance between “Spirit” and “truth,” and the focus must always be “The Father.”
If we continue to allow cultural forces and personal preferences to shape the way we worship, we will find ourselves in a “constant state of nervousness,” never knowing what’s next and tragically misleading our people with trends and fads which God never intended. May God grant His church a generation of leaders who will search the Scripture and discover a biblical-centered approach to worship, worship God themselves and lead others to do the same.
Article adapted from Contact magazine, October 1996.