The strength of an army is seen not so much when things are going well, but rather when things are going badly. It is one thing for a battalion to look good when the numbers are in their favour and things are going well; quite another things to see how they cope with being pressed back.
The same kind of principle can be applied to the Church. At times, the Church has been in the ascendancy and things have looked pretty healthy. Needless to say we – at least Christians in North America and Europe – do not live in such times, but are very much being driven onto the back foot in a number of areas. The question is, how are we faring?
The answer appears to be, “not very well”. By and large, wherever you look in the West, the Church is in retreat, shrinking in numbers, and on the receiving end of an increasingly aggressive and confident secularism. On top of that, many of those who are rejecting secularism are turning not to the Church, but to Islam.
Why is this happening? Well, there are a host of reasons, but if you want to know the central reason for what is happening to the Church, then you need to look firstly at the thing that is central to all that the Church does. And that thing is worship. Let’s be honest here: how much do we think our corporate worship on the Lord’s Day is likely to shake the gates of Hell? How likely is it that our worship is going to be tearing down strongholds anytime soon (2 Corinthians 10:4)? Or to put it another way, if a rampant secularist were to come into our worship, would they be more likely to go away awed by the militancy and strength of what they have seen and heard, or to go away sniggering at the sheer feebleness and frivolity of it all?
To say that a lot of what goes on in a lot of Christian worship today is weak would be an understatement. For many Christians, going to church is intrinsically connected with personal feelings or perhaps about being entertained. Then of course there is the reaction to that sort of thing, where worship resembles being in a morgue and any kind of outward display of joy is frowned upon.
Worship is central to the life and health of the Church, and so it is essential that we take seriously what it actually is and what happens when we do it. Much of the weakness of the Church at the moment stems from weakness at the very centre of what we do, and so with that in mind here are seven brief points about worship, its purpose and its importance:
Worship primarily flows from God to us, not the other way around
This might seem utterly counter-intuitive. Surely when we go to church we are paying our dues and giving back to God? Yes we are, but there is something else going on behind that. Primarily, worship is about God doing something for us, not about us doing something for him. Just as salvation is initiated by God and not us, so the primary flow in worship is from God to man rather from man to God. It is God who calls on men to worship him, it he who initiates it, it is he who gives us faith to do it. We respond to all this, but we should remember that in the first instance, our worship services are God’s service to us, not our service to him.
The purpose of worship is for God to renew us
But if worship is primarily something God does for us, what exactly is it that he is doing? The answer to that is that he is renewing us. When we approach him as a congregation, we are, in a sense, corporately unclean. Don’t misunderstand me, all true believers are justified by faith alone and we can come into the presence of God assured that he sees us as righteous because of Jesus’ sacrifice. But just as we still confess our sins individually before God on a daily basis, even though we are ultimately justified in his sight, when we come together as a congregation we still need to corporately confess that we are unclean. What then follows, is that God pardons us, accepts us into his presence to hear his Word, bids us to feast with him at his table, and then sends us out into the world to live for his glory and to be “more than conquerors”. Through this process, of being accepted, of hearing, of feasting, and of praising and petitioning him, God is not just receiving our praise, but is renewing us individually and corporately week by week.
When we worship God, we are spiritually in the throne room of God
Amongst the many hard-to-be-understood themes of the book of Revelation, one of them is that the people of God on Earth worship together with the people of God in Heaven. This comes out in several places, for example, in chapter 5, verses 11-14. The same theme is brought out in the book of Ephesians, where Paul tells us that we are seated in the “Heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:6), and in Hebrews, where we are told that we have “come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the Heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering (Hebrews 12:22). In other words, when you go to church, you are not just setting foot in a building, or meeting with other believers. You are not even just “worshipping God from afar”. Spiritually, through Jesus – you enter into the Holy of Holies.
This being the case what ought our worship to look like?
If we are spiritually in the presence of God, and Christ is spiritually in our midst (Hebrews 2:12), how should our worship look? The two things we should be aiming for above all else is reverence and joy. However, being fallible creatures and prone to fall into ditches, we often tend to major on the one to the exclusion of the other. So we go all out for the reverence, omit the joy and end up with something that looks more like a dry parched land than streams of living waters. Or we go all out for the joy, omit the reverence and end up with something that looks floppy and frivolous. It is hard to aim for joyful reverence, but if we are in the presence of a God who is Holy and who calls on us to “rejoice always,” this is what we should be aiming for.
Worship ought to be robust and in some way reflect the great battle against evil
There are many ways this could be addressed, but one obvious example is the praises we sing. I am by no means an advocate of exclusive psalmody, but the Scriptures do at the very least instruct us that at least part of our corporate worship ought to consist of Psalms (see Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; plus the numerous exhortations in the Book of Psalms to sing them). There are a couple of good reasons for this. Firstly, the Psalms are the Word of God and so singing them will inevitably shape us, according to God’s Word. Secondly, they contain sentiments which far more accurately reflect the world and the battle against evil than do many hymns. The book is filled with enemies, and David calling on God to come and deal with those enemies. Our world is full of enemies. So what is the first thing we should think about when we see ISIS doing unspeakable things in the Middle East? Dropping bombs? No, if our worship is shaped by the Psalms, our primary response will be to corporately cry out to God to judge these foes who are creating havoc for so many. Maybe this seems like a tame response to some, but whenever the Israelites stopped trying to fight battles themselves, and instead corporately cried out to God for deliverance from vicious enemies, that is when he delivered them. What might happen if churches throughout the world united against some of the greatest evil in the world by employing the kinds of strong petitions seen in some of the Psalms?
Worship is our primary weapon
The Apostle Paul tells us that “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.” (2 Corinthians 10:4). Chief amongst these weapons is our corporate worship. Sure, our individual faith can achieve much, but the Church is at its strongest when its corporate worship is robust and powerful – when it effectively hammers on the throne room of God demanding that he come and judge a situation: “They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’” Worship is a weapon, and we should use it.
So what happens when we worship?
If all this is true, what happens when we worship? Well if we miss its centrality and importance, and if our worship is filled with gimmicks, or frivolity, or joyless insipidness, the answer is “not much”. We can go to church, be entertained, feel sentimental, or even morose, and leave an hour or so much the same as when we went in. But if we grasp what is really going on in worship, and we use it as an opportunity to be renewed, to worship God at his footstall with robust, joyful reverence, seeing worship as our primary weapon, what then? Why God might just hear us and turn around the fortunes of the Church, just as he once promised to his people in Solomon’s day:
“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place.For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there forever” (2 Chronicles 7:14-16).