I sat back and reflected. The roundtable discussion spread out before me just seemed to be missing something. I know these good-intentioned statements depicted what I have felt many times. In fact, each statement that my colleagues just uttered has come across my lips or at least my heart. After all, I have sat in my share of Christian assemblies and agonized at the irrelevant music I heard. Somehow though, it just seemed that our discussion on worship was falling short of the divine. Are preferences all there really is when it comes down to worshiping the God of the universe? Perhaps we have lost sight of whom we are worshiping. Maybe instead, we are worshiping our worship and in fact grieving the heart of God?
Without perverting Paul’s commentary on communion in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, I think here lies a hidden gem that our generation has failed to unearth in regard to "worship preferences." Let’s remember the context, Paul is writing to some pretty carnal Christians. You or I have probably never seen a communion service where some people are getting wasted (v. 21) or going hungry (v. 22). In fact, the Lord’s Supper seemed to evolve into something so wicked and filled with friction that, as a divine judgment, some people were being killed (v.30).
Whenever the Corinthians got together, someone started fighting (v.18). Divisions (Greek word schismata, from which we get or English word schism) were breaking out all over the place. There was no love (1 Corinthians 13) displayed to the watching world. Instead, selfishness and flesh were flying everywhere. Personal agendas took precedence over love for the saints.
Yet, their situation seems strangely familiar to me. Lately, in regard to church, have you been in heated arguments in which your preferences of musical tastes dominated the discussion? Have you found it easier to be critical of the music you just heard, rather than praise the fact that you just spent the last hour with the most creative artist in the galaxy? Perhaps it has been much subtler. Possibly you have just voiced your complaints to a supportive ear (gossip) about specific musicians in your church community who are out-of-date. Or maybe you have just agreed to disagree and surrounded yourself with an experience that caters to your tastes. Please do not think of me critical, for I have been guilty of all the above.
In my opinion, our generation has elevated worship, in and of itself, to a more prominent position than God Himself. This is idolatry in its rawest form.
Could Jesus be just as grieved about Christians in the 21st century as Paul was in the first century? After all, since when did the same standards of American Idol‘s judging panel creep into the doors of the Church? Are we to casually approach the presence of God in our worship service in the same manner that we approach the radio dial when we encounter a station that does not play our style? I believe author Michael S. Horton sheds some light, in his convicting treatise, Where in the World is the Church? "Music—and art in general—should not be forced to always serve a cerebral, intellectual objective that is associated with preaching or reading Scripture or a book of theology," he wrote. "There is nothing wrong with art appealing primarily to the feeling and imagination, but there is a great deal wrong with worship that is motivated by feelings and imagination. Therefore, church music should be judged by criteria that are very different from those by which we judge common art. There is nothing unspiritual about enjoying a secular concert simply to be entertained. While we should not be naïve about the worldviews that shape secular music or ignore the lyrics because we like the music, we do not have to be rigorously analytical about the music. But we must be rigorously analytical about sacred music. Why? Because it is used not in our own entertainment but in the worship of God."
In the Old Testament, when people approached God on their own terms, it meant judgment, death and discipline. This process is seen in Cain’s offering (Genesis 4:5), Nadab’s strange fire (Leviticus 10:1-2) and Saul’s sacrifice (1 Samuel 15:22-23). Each of these examples illustrate, in regard to a worship experience, how man thought he could come to God on his own terms. God did not view these as misunderstandings, but rather idolatrous attempts that elevated worship to a higher level than God Himself. Remember, God stated in black and white that "You shall not make for yourselves other gods before me" (Exodus 20:2). Whoa! Hold on, you might be thinking. I thought we were talking about preferences in worship. How did we jump to making false gods? After all, God is pleased with anything we bring to Him?
A.W. Tozer, in his book, Knowledge of the Holy, addressed this very thought as preeminent over all other thoughts. "The mightiest thought the mind can entertain is the thought of God. The idolatrous heart assumes that God is other than He is—in itself a monstrous sin—and substitutes for the true God one made after its own likeness. The essence of idolatry is the entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of Him."
As demonstrated, it is a fearful thing to approach the presence of the Living God. I think we have forgotten that. I casually come to God, in both corporate and personal settings, many times on my own terms. We do have freedom to worship in Christ. The question that remains is the focus of our worship. Is it God or worship itself?
Worship is the expression or act of ascribing worth to the One worthy of it. Worship is not an end in itself; rather it is a response of the created (us) to the Uncreated (God). Worship can be creative; however, it must be theologically accurate. Jesus said to the woman at the well, "An hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth" (John 4:22).
So what about that gem in 1 Corinthians? Remember the Christians at Corinth came to the worship experience with their physical stomachs empty. Divisions, fighting and selfishness occurred because everyone was trying to get his or her fill of physical food at the worship service. As a result, Paul said, "What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you will not come together for judgment" (v. 22, 34).
Today, I believe many of us are coming to the worship service with our spiritual stomachs empty. Divisions, fighting and selfishness occur because everyone is trying to get his or her fill of spiritual food at the worship service. As a result, I believe the modern day Church needs to be told to hear a pointed message—Do we not have homes in which to worship through prayer, meditation, Scripture, singing and fasting? If anyone is spiritually hungry, let him worship at home, so that you will not come together for judgment.
I pray that I am not taking our modern day dilemma and "reading it into the text." I just believe that the tendency is to come to the worship service in a spiritually starved fashion. It would be ludicrous to imagine going one week without eating, and yet many of us go a whole week without reading the Bible and praying daily. When we fail to eat healthy spiritually speaking, no wonder it is easy to become edgy, irritable and critical when we finally get our hands on some spiritual food in a once a week worship service. Likewise, in this state of mind, it is much easier to slip into the framework of worshiping our worship, rather than worshiping God.
I looked at my watch, and it was past noon. My stomach was grumbling. The roundtable discussion ended, and I drove to a local sandwich shop and ordered a pita. I seemed to be in a better mood and friendlier after lunch. In a few hours a special time of worship was planned for that evening. You can bet after these roaming thoughts on worship all morning, I was going to dig into a generous helping of some spiritual food before the service. After all, there is no sense going to worship with others on an empty stomach.
[Kary Oberbrunner is the pastor of student ministries in a suburban church outside of Columbus, Ohio. He is married to his soul mate Kelly and is committed to reexamining how the controversial teachings of Jesus are incarnated into everyday life.]
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