The Nature of Biblical Worship: Communication
The purpose of this book is to provide more information about public worship so that one's personal experience of worship is broadened, enhanced, and changed to the glory of God and the building up of the church.
Let's begin talking about worship by asking a question concerning the Olympics. What are the Olympics really about?
When you cut through the hype and the marketing as well as the politics, the entire exercise is about competition. The Olympic Games is motivated by, and lives off of competition. Countries compete for the chance to host the best, most elaborate show. Athletes sacrifice their lives to compete with one another to become the best in the world in a moment in time. The idea of fostering brotherhood, openness and friendship are all side items to the true "spirit" of the Olympics which is competition on a worldwide scale. So in a broad sense you could say that the "nature" of sport is competition - you play to win.
Now I am saying this because in each area of endeavor there is an essential nature or core idea that explains and makes sense of the activities surrounding it. That is why great coaches never forget that sport is about competition, not fame or money or politics. They know the core issue (competition) and never let their players get away from this idea. Little kids can play for fun, the love of the game, building character, but professionals, especially successful ones, know that it is about competing and winning.
So knowing the essential nature of something is important if you are to be successful at it.
For example, the essential nature of school is education. When I worked at OC (Oklahoma Christian University) as Dean of Students, I witnessed so many people fail because they had not grasped this basic core idea. They joined the social service clubs, signed up for inter-mural sports, rejoiced in the fact that there were between 800 and 1200 single girls running around... They dated, played video games in the dorms until 4 am, hung out at the lounge - and oh yes - went to class.
Then the 5 week grades were sent home to parents and Junior had 2 Cs/1D/1F and an incomplete grade because his assignments were not turned in... This is when it began to dawn on students that despite all the extracurricular activities taking up their time, college was about getting a structured education. Nobody got a diploma for Ping-Pong. Those who succeeded at OC where those who understood the essential nature of that place and gave themselves over to it: education.
I could go on with other examples:
The essential nature of business is profit. No profit, no business. It is not about titles, offices, networking, advertising, bookkeeping, etc. All these things are parts of business, they support the basic or core element of business, which is profit. Sometimes I am with someone and we see some shabby looking store or restaurant and the person will say, "Why are they still open, what a dump... etc." My answer is always the same, "They are open because they are turning a profit - period."
The only institution that stays open when it is not making a profit is the government.
Ok, then following this line of thinking, I suggest to you that the essential nature of worship is: communication. Communication with God.
From the first elementary examples of people worshipping God in Genesis to the exalted images given to us by John in the book of Revelation, worship has had one common thread: the effort man makes to communicate with God in some way.
This is evident from observing the actions and words used when people in the Bible are worshipping. Whether it was bowing down, offering sacrifice, expressing prayers, playing instruments in the Old Testament, or singing hymns in the New Testament, eating the Passover or sharing communion - people were not doing these things for themselves or for other believers (this was understood). The underlying reason for all of these things and more was that God was listening, watching, somehow receiving the message of faith, love, appreciation, repentance and need from those trying to communicate it to Him from here on earth.
What is interesting about this is that communication with God is the essential nature of every type of worship, not just Judeo-Christian worship.
- The Muslim pilgrims going to Mecca want to communicate with Allah.
- The Hindus who wash in the Ganges do this rite to connect with Brahma (the 1stgod of the Hindu trinity and creator of the universe).
- Native Americans use sweat lodges to help them be more attuned to their "spirits."
- Zoroastrians of ancient times lit fires to honor their god Zoroaster.
Now I am not saying that all of these methods are effective and even acceptable to the God of creation, the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ. I am simply saying that the essential nature of worship is communication. Man trying to communicate in some manner with the divine. This is the basic premise and the core idea that informs and gives meaning to the other activities surrounding worship.
Thankfully we have the revelation of God through Christ in His Word to teach us about all things including worship and how we can truly communicate with God in spirit and in truth.
9For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; 11strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously 12giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light.
- Colossians 1:9-13
In Christ we gain the ability, wisdom and knowledge to not only live in a way that pleases God but to worship (communicate) with Him as well. This is part of the inheritance we receive in Christ: true communication with the true God.
Why is this so important?
I have spent a good portion of time setting up this basic premise: the essential nature of worship is communication.
Why is this important? It is important because not knowing or forgetting or not prioritizing this core idea leads us into worship that is not in spirit or truth.
Like coaches who forget about the essence of competition or business people who neglect the bottom line of profitability, churches that ignore the fact that worship is basically about communication lose the benefit of worship which is transcendence, the topic discussed in the last chapter of this book.
Churches make one of two basic mistakes when it comes to public worship:
1. They make the means the end
In other words, the idea of communication is lost or subverted by the "methods" of communication.
It's like buying an expensive computer with lots of software, all kinds of gadgets but not bothering to hook it up to the internet. You have an impressive computer that cannot communicate with anyone except the owner!
Churches do this when so much attention and cost is focused on the place of worship, equipment to worship, order of worship, method of worship, etc., but no effort to examine if there is communication with God through all of it.
We think that if we get the "method" right then communication takes place, but having the right method is only part of what is required to actually communicate with God.
It is like saying that to compete in football you have to make sure every player has his name on his jersey and knows and follows the rules of the game.
Having the equipment and knowing the rules enable you to play, but you need more than that to be competitive and win!
In the same way, knowing the methods and following the rules may produce what qualifies as worship but this does not guarantee that you actually communicate with God and receive the true blessings as a result.
I will talk about some other things necessary to actually worship in spirit and truth a little further on in this chapter.
2. Some make up their own methods
In his book, Christianity's Dangerous Idea author Alister McGrath states that Pentecostalism accounts for most of the growth in Christianity in the last 50 years. His research shows that the Pentecostal movement is larger than all other evangelical groups put together. In worldwide Christianity, there is Catholicism, then Pentecostalism, then there is everybody else.
What is really interesting in McGrath's (Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford) theory is why this is so. He says that unlike other groups who have a religious framework to function within, the Pentecostals have none.
Catholics, for example, have church history/law, the Cardinals' vote, the Pope's encyclicals as well as the Bible to guide, restrict or permit what they will or will not do.
We in the Churches of Christ use only the Bible and have a framework of rules to guide our interpretation. We also have widely accepted traditional teachings that permit or restrict our actions (e.g. teaching on use of instruments in worship).
Pentecostals have none of these. Their teachings are fluid and take into consideration the needs and circumstances of the moment, especially when it comes to worship.
I mention this because they are an excellent example of ones who make up their own methods and rules about worship - the polar opposites of those whose worship is all about rules. For Pentecostals, whatever it takes to make the worship dynamic, emotional, meaningful, entertaining and spiritual is acceptable because nothing is holding them back as far as method is concerned.
The problem of course is that they define communication with God based on their methods, not on the results authenticated by the Bible.
It is like a hockey team judging their success by the color of their uniforms and the quality of the pre-game show, and not the final score.
Their mistake, I believe, is that they judge the effectiveness of worship by the way they feel about the worship itself rather than how the worship affects how they feel about God.
In the Churches of Christ there is a desire to go this way and justify the means for the end as well. Many congregations, sensing that they are not getting the benefits of worship and not accomplishing the core goal of worship (communication) are beginning to tinker with the "methods" and the "rules," thinking this will make a difference. So they add instruments, drama, audio-visual aids, worship teams, or they include women in leadership roles, or experiment with charismatic ideas like clapping or tongue speaking, even mimicking the Pentecostal religious "lingo" of prophecy and special visions. And it is normal that this is what they would try since they believe that the method produces the results, so why not change the method?
Of course, others react to these changes (especially non Biblical changes) and the debate centers on the methods while nothing really changes except more division and less communication between ourselves, and God as well.
We will talk more about rules and methods in the next chapter, but for now let's review the divine requirements for communication with God.
Communication with God - What does it really require?
1. Realization that communication with God must exist personally before it can exist corporately
Jesus trained His Apostles in private prayer for three years before they began actually worshipping corporately as a church.
If a congregation's worship is not effective it is because the individuals in the church do not know how to worship God privately. And if the leaders in the church do not have an active, effective, ongoing private communication with God, there is not much chance the church will have it either. Worship in spirit and truth does not begin with new songbooks, it begins with the patient teaching of every member to have a new and open heart to God in personal worship.
This is why Peter in Acts 6 refused to relinquish his ministry of prayer for the work of food distribution. As a true leader he was keeping his eye on the core elements of church: worship and the teaching of God's Word.
2. Recognition of God's presence in worship
People who are bored at worship fail to recognize God's presence. People who check their text messages, daydream, visit with their neighbor, or are otherwise distracted, fail to sing, say Amen, etc., do all of these things because their faith in His true presence is weak.
I am persuaded that God realizes that the singing may be sub-par, the preacher a little monotonous and the babies fussing, after all He sees and hears what you see and hear. But He is present in Christ because the church has gathered in His name. We should at least give the same attention He does! His presence is not based on our performance of worship but rather on His promise to be with us whenever two or three are gather in His name (Matthew 18:20).
We cannot truly communicate with God unless we first acknowledge and respect the fact that He is really there according to His promise.
3. A sense of ourselves
I know that worship is supposed to be focused on God, but nothing really focuses our minds on God like getting a true sense of ourselves first.
Paul the Apostle's most fervent cry, his sincerest prayer, his clearest vision and communication with God is when he declared:
Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?
- Romans 7:24
Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
- Romans 8:1
Every man who comes face to face with God (the ultimate communication / worship) has experienced this sense of self.
For example, Isaiah who was eloquent in words and counselor to kings was only aware of his unclean and unworthy lips and words when caught up in the Spirit before God (Isaiah 6:5).
And John the faithful Apostle who had seen Jesus resurrected still fell on the ground as a dead man when he faced the Lord in His heavenly state (Revelation 1:17).
The more we see ourselves for who and what we are, the more the Lord opens our eyes to His own glory and the chasms of righteousness and glory that lie between us. This enables us to experience awe, thanksgiving, relief and joy because then we can see and value the gift that is ours in the cross of Christ.
This was the problem with the Pharisees. They were so full of their own self-righteousness that they could not see their true condition and need, and therefore, could not see (or communicate) with Jesus and what He said and did.
Nothing improves our worship (communication) with God like a sober and ruthless self-examination. This reveals our need, and our need opens the eyes of our hearts.
4. We need to know the language of communication
Everything has a "language" peculiar to itself:
- Sports (hat trick, touchdown)
- Business (profit and loss statement)
- Computers (software, hard drive crashed)
Worship has its own language as well, and it is not cultural (English or French), it is spiritual.
The spiritual language of worship includes the following types of communication with God (this is not an exhaustive list, but a good sampling in Nehemiah's prayer):
4When I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven. 5I said, "I beseech You, O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments, 6let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father's house have sinned. 7We have acted very corruptly against You and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses. 8Remember the word which You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, 'If you are unfaithful I will scatter you among the peoples; 9but if you return to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though those of you who have been scattered were in the most remote part of the heavens, I will gather them from there and will bring them to the place where I have chosen to cause My name to dwell.' 10They are Your servants and Your people whom You redeemed by Your great power and by Your strong hand. 11O Lord, I beseech You, may Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant and the prayer of Your servants who delight to revere Your name, and make Your servant successful today and grant him compassion before this man."
- Nehemiah 1:4-11
Let us just examine Nehemiah's prayer as we close out this chapter in order to see the types of prayer languages that he uses:
- Praise - Vs. 4-5. A short review of some of the good things of God.
- Supplication - Vs. 6a. Making specific requests on behalf of someone else.
- Confession - Vs. 6b-7. Acknowledgement, review, rejection, mourning for sins committed.
- Confirmation - Vs. 8-10. Reviewing and claiming for oneself God's promises and blessings. (You said you would give this and I am claiming that promise.)
- Protection / Mercy - Vs. 11. A request for personal help, protection and mercy in the face of difficulty or danger.
Five different types of prayer are made. Five different prayer languages used in 10 verses. This is God's language of communication. Not long or flowery words or even the quoting of Scripture.
The language of worship or communication with God is praise, mercy, supplication, request, confession, confirmation, remembrance, this is what God hears and answers! Not bands, big crowds, or little crowds, not just men praying but men praying and communicating with Him in this language!
So, the essence of worship is communication and God has shown us in His revealed Word that there is a particular language He hears and responds to.
If our worship has not been satisfying spiritually it may be that we are not trying to communicate or we may not be using the right language to effectively communicate with Him.
- How do you understand worship?
- How is communication the essential nature of worship?
- How does Paul's statement in Colossians 1:9-13 relate to worshiping in spirit and truth?
- Discuss the two common mistakes made concerning public worship.
- What does communicating with God really require?
- How can we apply this information to grow spiritually and help others do so?