In Western culture we like to measure things in order to give them value:
- The tallest / strongest / biggest / fastest
- The first / the most / the newest
- The Guinness Book of Records – the man who holds record for most records
This is why we are so interested in the Olympic Games, the ultimate measurement of human achievement in sports: it reflects the spirit of our times where one's value is ultimately based on one's achievement.
Imagine – we will all remember and celebrate Michael Phelps winning a gold medal by beating another swimmer by 1/100th of a second, but for whoever came in second or third there will be no celebration, no fame or fortune. Such are the rules for a system that rewards only achievement.
Now I say all of this because in the church we are often influenced by the things in the world, and it is not a new phenomenon. Paul urged the church not to be molded or conformed to this world in Romans 12:2, so the problem existed in the first century as well.
What happens is that we are influenced by the world to judge our worship in the same way we judge things that are strictly in the world and of the world, forgetting that worship (although done in this world) is not something of this world, it is otherworldly.
And so the result or goal of worship is not:
- That we finish on time
- That we do it right or very well
- That there be lots of people in attendance
- Things you can "measure" or "count".
Or, in our personal worship and devotion:
- That we be regular (every day devotion)
- We finish reading the entire Bible in one year or less
- We please God, our wife, be a good example.
All these things have a place and a part in worship but they are not the ultimate goal. What we are striving for as we come before the Lord in humility to commune with our God.
No, the goal of our devotion, the final result of our worship in spirit and truth is transcendence.
Before we explore this idea, let us first get a handle on the meaning of this word.
To transcend means to go beyond the limit, to surpass what is normal. For example in the world of sport, Muhammad Ali, the boxer, transcended boxing and became a social, religious, and political icon. Transcendence is an essential quality of God's being and character. He is beyond the material, the natural. He is, as we say, supernatural.
And so when I say that the result of worship is transcendence, I mean that our goal is to get beyond:
- The time we use to worship
- The "acts" of worship
- Some see the various "acts" of worship (praise, prayer, preaching, Lord's Supper, giving, fellowship, etc.) as goals in themselves, meaning I worship in spirit and truth because I did these acts, or I did them often, or I did them well, sincerely, accurately, among 10,000 people.
But God has given us these things so we can communicate with Him and in so doing transcend these things to a point we can actually experience Him. Transcendence in worship is the experiencing of God in our spirit.
Am I describing something which is Biblical? Possible?
Well, in the Bible those who served God sought Him out in prayer, worshipped Him in spirit and in truth, had transcendent experiences of Him:
Isaiah the prophet began his book by saying, "The visions of Isaiah (…) which he saw…" (Isaiah 1:1). This is the transcendence of the prophet. Not just a teacher of the Law, a counselor to kings, but one who transcended these things to experience God through visions. I am not proposing we have the same today, I am merely showing an example of transcendence as experienced by one of God's special servants.
David, in bringing the ark from Obed-Edom to Jerusalem, worshipped the Lord with praise, with the sacrifices of animals, but II Samuel 6:14 also says that "…David was dancing before the Lord with all his might…" Upon seeing this his wife Michal called him a fool and chastised him. David rebuked her because she could not see that he was celebrating before the Lord – he experienced a transcendent joy at that occasion that expressed itself in dance. Again, I am not saying let's introduce dancing to our worship so we can attain a transcendent experience. However, if we experienced transcendence in worship we might want to burst out in some form of expressed joy!
We read the Bible and not only marvel at, but are hungry for the transcendent experiences we see in the dreams of the prophets, the vision and inspiration of the New Testament writers, and the encounters with the Lord that Paul describes. We are jealous of the powerful manifestations in the early church of mighty works, dynamic growth, even the ground shaking after the saints prayed in thanksgiving for the release of Peter and John from prison (Acts 4:3).
They had transcendent experiences in their worship and service to God, and I believe this is what we are missing, and what we want for our worship to be satisfying and motivating. After all, if we meet to communicate with God Himself, should this experience not be as, or more dynamic than watching a movie or going to a concert or seeing a football game?
And yet for many (most?), it is not. Asked to use words to describe their worship experience and we often hear – boring, long, duty, pleasing to God, the right thing to do to fulfill God's will. But we rarely hear the words transcending, joyous, life-changing or bursting with happiness.
Of course I have to make disclaimers so you will not misunderstand.
- Experiencing transcendence is not the goal of every worship service or personal devotion or prayer. You do not make transcendence happen, it happens to you. Not because it cannot happen – with God all things are possible. It does not happen because we could not take it in our present sinful flesh.
- Transcendence comes in small doses, enough for us to get a "taste" of the heaven that awaits us, but not so much that we are rendered useless here on earth. And that "taste," that experience of God, is reserved for those who worship Him in spirit and truth.
Okay so now comes the hard question, "What about today, what is the nature of that transcendent experience? If it is not a direct revelation through a dream or inner voice; if it is not the empowerment to do miracles or prophecy about the future, etc. What is it exactly?"
I do not know all the ways that God permits us to experience and know Him thus bringing us beyond the limits of human knowledge and into transcendence, but I do know some of the ways we experience God today:
- We have that "Here I am Lord" experience. Some refer to it as a "calling." Where somehow we know God is calling or directing us to a mission, a work, a task, etc. It is always hard to explain to others why we feel like this, but this is one form of a transcendent experience.
- Truly hearing the Word. Those who come forward are having a transcendent experience. The "words of life" have pierced their souls and they respond with repentance, baptism, or confession of a need for prayer, etc. Sometimes we "hear" or understand the Word in a newer, deeper, more fulfilling way than ever before. This is transcendence. This experience has made me weep in its power to affect me.
- Sometimes we see a vision of God's will. Not a supernaturally created vision (like the burning bush or the valley of dry bones), but a real vision where real things and situations and people all come together like a puzzle creating an image so that you can actually see what God's Word is pointing you to in a concrete way. This is a transcendent experience.
- Then there is the transcendent joy we experience when we see God's word and will fulfilled in our own lives or the lives of others. This too is transcendence.
But beyond all of these, Paul describes the transcendent experience of realizing the power of God's love in Christ Jesus.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
- Romans 8:38-39
Note the words he uses here. God's love is greater, transcends death, life, spiritual beings, worries or fears or any created thing. If this is not transcendence, I do not know a better way to describe it.
When we are immersed into the full realization of God's love for us in Christ Jesus, we experience transcendence in its highest and purest form.
The Problem with Transcendence
The main problem or obstacle to our experience of transcendence is fear. We are afraid because we have been taught that our only and true experience of God is intellectual, not emotional. In other words, we "know" God by knowing correct doctrines about God. This is like saying I know my wife by reading a report about her, or listening to what her friends tell me about her.
We can know God's will, purpose and character in this way, but we do not actually know Him in this way.
How would you rather know your wife: by getting a correct biological and anatomical report from her doctor OR know her with a kiss? Which is better? More intimate?
Now there is a reason why we are afraid and it has a lot to do with our history. The history I am speaking of is the history of emotion, feeling and transcendence in the church.
A. The Catholic church called it "mystery."
The changing of the bread and wine into the actual body and blood at communion is a mystery (transubstantiation). Every Sunday there is a miracle accompanied by an otherworldly experience of candles, ritual and imagery. They create a "mystic" experience through their religious service and system (saints, relics, pilgrimages, shrines) and went to a point where it did not resemble Biblical Christianity anymore.
B. The Protestant reformation was largely a reaction to these practices which were, for the most part, unbiblical. Protestantism promoted an intellectual experience, a reasoned approach to religion to counterbalance Catholic excesses.
Many Protestant groups took over Catholic churches in Europe and removed statues, painted over frescos and replaced stain glass in order to wipe away any suggestion of mystery. The goal was a purified and almost sterile environment.
We, in the Restoration Movement, come from this background. Now the problem for Protestants who broke away from Roman Catholicism based on the idea that only the Bible will guide us (not mystery, or history, or ceremony, or papacy) was this: "Who is right when it comes to what the Bible says?" because there were different opinions on many matters.
We are the ones who answered that question by saying, "Correct doctrine through correct interpretation." The result was a movement that focused on being correct but rather lifeless.
Catholics focused on the effect (mystery) and neglected the actual cause (Bible) and ended up with a religion that did not resemble Christianity anymore.
We, in the churches of Christ, focused on the cause (Bible) and were afraid of the effect (transcendence) because we feared making a mistake and now have lifeless churches.
C. Along comes the Pentecostal movement in the early 20th century.
They put the feeling back into Christianity. Every service has "mystery" because the Holy Spirit is at work every Sunday and Wednesday and Friday giving people a "transcendent" experience (tongue speaking, prophecy, healing, etc.). They also avoid the Roman Catholic error of neglecting the Bible by basing their claims and authority for the experience they have on the Bible.
The results: fastest growing churches in the world. Why? Transcendence on demand.
The problem? They use their own definition of what transcendence is, and not the Bible's definition! Just as they use their own definition of tongue speaking, healing, prophecy, etc. and not what the Bible describes as legitimate examples of these phenomena. A religious example of "the end justifying the means." In their case, a counterfeit end pursued by inaccurate means.
In the end they are very much like the Roman Catholics who focus on the results and pursue this with whatever methods work using their growth as justification.
The sad thing about Pentecostalism is that their system and approach denies them the very thing they seek… true transcendence. Right idea, wrong tactics.
So someone might ask at this point, "What makes us so smart, or better than these others?"
The only thing I can answer to that is that at least we are asking the questions, seeking for answers, striving to find that perfect balance where we truly worship God in spirit and in truth.
- Approaching Him in humility and submission, that's Biblical.
- Communicating with Him according to His will and purpose, and not our own, this is correct and in the spirit of the Word.
- And having that transcendent experience that must come from an encounter with the living God according to His will and not our own.
I believe that the place to return to in order to restore our efforts to conduct Biblical worship is to not invent new forms of worship or increase the repetition of the present forms. I believe that the first step is to focus on our personal and corporate submission to God's Word, not just intellectualizing or debating it.
Submission that brings us to transcendence requires:
1. True obedience
Obedience to the things you know and are convinced of now. For example, when I first became a Christian, I was not sure about which was the true church, did the Spirit actually dwell in you, the meaning of Revelation, but I was convinced that I had to give up smoking. This was what was required now. Some people wait to obey God until they understand everything. Submission to obey what you know is an act of faith towards God about what you do not know yet.
2. True discipleship
Not just faithful attendance to services. True discipleship enables others to have the transcendent experience of seeing God living and acting in you. The purpose of discipleship is to bring others to Christ by allowing them a glimpse of Him in you. My most rewarding and dynamic experience in Christ is seeing someone give themselves over to God more fully, based in part on something I may have said or done to serve them in the name of the Lord.
3. A true living sacrifice
Like all good things, there is a cost. The submission that leads to transcendence requires that we be ready to sacrifice what is precious to us. Do not get me wrong, God rarely asks someone to sacrifice what He has already blessed us with (family, peace, ministry, etc.). What He asks is for us to lay on the altar the things that are precious to us but not from Him! …Our secret sins; the source of our pride; the dreams and goals of our own making; the delights of this world which, in themselves may not be evil, but together get in the way of offering ourselves up as a complete sacrifice to God. These are the things that mark those who are fully engaged in obedience to God's Word.
They may not be as flashy as a charismatic, modern, hip worship service. They may not be as easy to define and explain as a three part sermon with PowerPoint, but in the end they will enable us to worship God in the way He seeks us to worship Him, and will reward us with a more perfect knowledge and experience of our Lord – something called "transcendence."