By Richard O'Ffill
What do we expect to find when we go to a ball game-any kind of ball game?
· A crowd
· Lots of noise and excitement
· Clapping and shouting
· Performance - good game
· Pay to get in
· Escape from reality - diversion
· Refreshments and souvenirs
· We expect to watch, not play
· With luck, we hope to meet our heroes and perhaps get an autograph
· We hope our team will win
These are the things that we expect to find at a ball game. They are appropriate at ball games. A person who goes to a game is not offended or surprised by these kinds of things.
Now, let me ask a question. What do we expect to find when we go to church? Is it conceivable that we would expect to find the same kinds of things at church as we do at a ball game? Is it conceivable that it would ever be considered appropriate to expect the same kinds of things at church that you would expect at a ball game? Incredibly, the answer is YES, it could happen.
But, this could never happen if we understood that worship is not about this world but about another world- a world that is invisible to us. This could never happen if we understood that the purpose of worship is not to please or entertain ourselves but, rather true worship is what happens when a person suddenly discovers there is something awesome and fearful and wonderful that is above and beyond them. In a practical sense, how we worship God depends completely on our concept of God. This is why there is a growing disagreement these days on how we should worship. The reality is we do not agree as to what God is like.
God is invisible. The only way for us to know what God is like is to observe that there is more to creation than ourselves and to learn about Him as He is revealed to us in the Scripture. But even here we had better be careful! Scripture and nature not only reveal God but they also reveal the reality of sin. A person can actually study nature and Scripture with the wrong emphasis. When they do, they will pick up the human, sinful portion of Scripture and miss the revelation of Divine Holiness completely.
This is why you can expect that even a lunatic or a fanatic will often have some Bible justification for his behavior. The Bible contains many stories of lunatics and fanatics. This is why it is important that we be concerned about studying and understanding the meaning of holiness. The problem is that we know more about sin than we do about holiness. Sin has so blinded us that we find ourselves confronted with having to choose the best of the worst. In our study of the unacceptable, we have chosen to accept the less flawed of the inferior. We have studied the abnormal until we have struck a universal norm of the abnormal. The bottom line is that the pop psychology and market-driven religion has little knowledge of what constitutes holiness.
Until we discover what holiness is, our worship is going to continue to take on more and more components that are more appropriate to a ball game than to the worship of a Holy God. I believe this is what will happen if we begin to see the worship of God as a reflection of our culture. Nothing will be impossible if we decide that worship is a cultural/market driven phenomenon whose performance and appropriateness is to be set by the people themselves-like is done in the case of a ball game.
The false religions of the world have permeated the cultures of different human societies. In South Asia, the local culture is heavily influenced by Hinduism, in the Far East by Buddhism, and in Africa by Animism. For a person to say that the one and only Holy God, the Creator of the universe, is honored by worship that is culturally driven, has to be absurd. To suggest that God is pleased by worship that is infiltrated by Hinduism, Buddhism, Voodooism, or the other major human religions is to agree that all religions are the same and that everybody is worshiping the same God, albeit from different viewpoints. There are many people who do believe this.
Once I was talking to a young Hindu lady in India. She was a university graduate. I asked her about the 250,000 or so gods that Hindus have. She said that she believed there was only one God, but that there are 250,000 manifestations of Him. Many people think there is only one God and that it is legitimate to worship Him however you see Him. When we read the Old Testament, we see how God looks at worship as a cultural phenomenon. When He took the children of Israel out of a pagan environment, it took a thousand years to break them away from the heathen cultures they had lived among. They tended to absorb the heathen cultures that were all around them. Finally, though, they established a unique culture, separate from the heathen cultures around them. But before long, their unique culture itself became part of the problem, and when the Messiah came on the scene, their culture rejected Him.
We are in a struggle these days about how much we should let our culture influence the way we conduct our worship service. If we are coming to church to worship, as it were, ourselves, at least to make us feel good about ourselves, then let's do what makes us feel good. At that point, culture is king. If, though, a worship service is supposed to be directed toward God and be pleasing to Him, then we had better forget studying about our culture and start studying about His. When we do this, we are talking about purity and holiness. The act of worship was never meant to be something which brings God down to our level, but rather something that would tend to lift us up to His.
One day, a woman asked Jesus a question about worship. It wasn't a "how" question, but a "where" question. She asked where was the best place to worship. Jesus answered her, not with a where or a how, but with a what. Jesus said what true worship is. He didn't say that it is a beautiful new church building, or that it is a stirring drama, or that it is a full band with a keyboard. He said those who truly worship God are those who worship Him in spirit and truth.
All the rest is only programming, architecture, and choreography. The Holy Spirit is not necessarily present in new buildings or in an order of the program. The Holy Spirit and a pursuit of holiness separate true worship from all other worship that is driven by market forces and contemporary cultures. In fact, if worship were a matter of how, anybody could worship-or at least think they were worshipping. But true worship of God is based on obedience to His Word, as practiced in the life of the worshipper. A person who comes to church on Sabbath to find a meaningful worship experience will fail or hopelessly deceive themselves unless they are experiencing on a daily basis a life wholly consecrated to the service of a Holy God.
One day, King Saul of the Old Testament took the worship programming into his own hands. He had just experienced a great victory in battle. He and his friends might have decided to have a celebration worship. When the prophet of God got there, instead of joining in the celebration, he asked, "What is the noise? Don't you realize that to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken to what God tells you to do is better than the fat of rams?" (1 Samuel 15:22).
People are desperately trying to make worship meaningful and provide more opportunity for the worshippers to participate. But what is needed is to learn the lessons of history, that worship to God is not in the how or in the where, it is in the what. A person who is not committed to Jesus Christ and the pursuit of holiness cannot worship God as he ought. As Jesus Himself said, true worship is not about doing but about being. If we truly have a desire to spice up or liven up the worship services in the 90s, we should be calling our people to repentance and the pursuit of holiness.
We must understand that we can rise no higher as a body of Christ or as individuals than our concept of God. Nothing but blessing will come when we see God high and lifted up. Nothing but disappointment, and eventually failure, will come when we seek to bring God down to our level and impose our cultural mindset on Him. God is calling us to come out of our fallen cultures. We may live within the world's cultures, but we are not to be part of them. Jesus prayed for us. He asked God, not to take us out of the world but to keep us from the evil in the world. Those who are hungering and thirsting after righteousness and who are in the pursuit of a holy life in Christ, though they be of many nations, languages, and people groups will have a lot in common. Reverence, purity, respect and all of the fruit of the Spirit are easily recognizable across language barriers, racial lines, and national boundaries.
It is possible, and even probable, that our present trend to institutionalize cultural differences could well serve to perpetuate our respective weaknesses rather than lead us on the road to a new and holy life. That we are from the United States, Zimbabwe, or Paraguay, that we are of European, African, Latin, or Asian descent must not be used as an excuse for regional carnality or worldliness. God's call to all who would follow Jesus, be they brown, yellow, black, or white, is "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world, for those that persist in defending the things that are of this world, the love of the Father is sooner or later not in them."
It is amazing that a Hindu temple in the predominantly Christian context of North America is still 100% Hindu, or that a Muslim Mosque in the American culture is still 100% Muslim. But for some reason that escapes me, a Christian church in India may very easily be at times 85% Christian and 15% Hindu, and that a Christian church in Pakistan can very well be at times 95% Christian and 5% Muslim in it's perspective.
There is an expression, "Nothing succeeds like success." Let's go back to the ball game for a moment. The bottom line is that in the Miami Dolphin Stadium if no one comes to watch, the games will not go on for long. Even an orchestra will not continue to play indefinitely without an audience. And so, attendance at church is important. But it must not be seen as all-important in the same sense as at a ball game. The reasons a ball team exists, and that the church exists, are not the same. If it's only numbers you want at a particular event, you can enhance attendance by manipulating the programming. Likewise, by using established marketing principles, attendance at church can be greatly increased. However, it should be understood that in doing this, the real purpose of the church can be cheapened or lost entirely.
The word "church" means "called out ones." This does not mean called out to go to church on Sabbath morning. The true meaning of the word is “those who are called out of the world” and it's corrupt culture and lifestyles. The church is a group of individuals who have come out of something to pursue and experience a holy life. It's not about holy singing, holy clapping, or holy laughing. It is about people who are consistently rejecting the world and its sinful ways. The called out ones don't even enjoy watching sinners simulate sin on television; but in their heart of hearts, they pray, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me" This is what true worship is about.
Does this mean we should take a hard line and see if we can actually keep people from coming to church? Does this mean that small is good and big is bad? Of course not! But we must make it perfectly clear to all who attend that if the life is not, in fact, worshipping God from Sunday through Friday by separation from the sinful lifestyle of the world, and if a person is not led by the Holy Spirit in the pursuit of holiness, then what a person does on Sabbath may, in fact, have more in common with what happens at a ball game than we would care to admit.
Much is said these days about coming to God "just as we are." Coming to God as you are is valid only to a certain point in the salvation process. For, though it is true that we must come as we are (for there is indeed no other way to come), we will make the mistake of our lives if we think that, when we come to God as we are, we may with impunity stay as we are.
God is a Holy God, a consuming fire. To truly be in the presence of our Holy God will mean a meltdown of pride, selfishness, bitterness, lust, covetousness, and love of the world. The Apostle John states that those who continue in those things, no matter what they claim, no matter how contemporary their experience seems to them to be, do not have the Holy Spirit and do not know the true and Holy God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. People who continue to hang on to pride, selfishness, lust, and love of the world cannot, in any sense of the word, worship God, no matter how fancy the worship service.
This is why a call back to church must never be separated from a call to repentance and to the holy life. History is not ambiguous in showing us that, when repentance and the call to obedience are left out of the call to come back to church, the world will answer the call; in fact, the devil, himself, will come to an alter that is without obedience and renouncing of sin. His deadly presence and influence has always caused the church to be corrupted and fall into apostasy.
This is why what is being preached in the churches at any particular time is always an indication of where we are heading. This is why we must not cease to preach what Jesus, John, Peter, and all the prophets preached, that is, repentance and a call to holy living. I greatly suspect that the real reason there is an increasing trend to make worship services contemporary in programming and in music is because worshipping God in spirit and truth doesn't turn us on anymore. What turns us on is the music of the world and television. It is possible that we are in certain quarters introducing worldly musical styles and rhythms, as well as drama, because we can relate easier to sensual things than to spiritual things.
There are married couples who find their times of physical intimacy dull, or difficult, or disappointing. They may complain that their partner fails to "turn them on." The couple will often go to therapists, who suggest to the partners that they can spice things up, perhaps, if they will fantasize, experiment, or even use the stimulation that comes from watching X-rated videos. Have you heard people talk about getting "turned on" to Jesus? Tell me, how can a person say in one breath that they are turned on to their spouse, or girlfriend, or x-rated videos, and in the next say they are turned on to Jesus? We must recognize that certain words we are now using to describe our relationship to the world cannot be used in a spiritual sense without corrupting our concept of holiness. The same would go for the oft-heard expression of "getting a high with Jesus." It is becoming increasingly more difficult to distinguish between the sacred and the profane. Something frightening is happening to our language.
And so the unthinkable is happening. As Madison Avenue uses sensuality to sell its products, from cars to breakfast cereal, so increasingly we are trying to use sensuality to bring people to the foot of the cross. But Jesus would say, "You are missing the point. Those who worship Me must worship in spirit and in truth."
I do not believe that the end justifies the means. This is the deception of this age, and it could well be a fulfillment of the words of our Lord when He said many would come in His name, but don't believe them. The call to true worship may be recognized because it will be a call to holiness. If experience has taught us anything, there will be in answer to that call more evidence of deep conviction and tears than of shouts, raised hands, or applause.
When will we wake up and do a reality check? The answer is, when we recognize that in the pursuit of holiness the flesh must, in the words of the Apostle Paul, die. There is no fellowship of light with darkness. This means that God does not dwell in gray areas. The so-called gray areas that we refer to are only the best of the worst, and thus unacceptable to a holy God and to our pursuit of holiness.
Whenever we talk about worship, there are sincere people who feel that worship has become boring and meaningless. They are convinced that the things I have been saying are an attempt to maintain the status quo and that we want worship to be dull. I personally do not want to perpetuate the status quo. However, I believe we must pray that God will teach us the meaning of true worship. However, I do not concur with those who ask if I would rather have D or C (that is, Dull or Celebration). I am sure there are other options. True worship that is directed toward a holy God by a people who are in pursuit of a holy life will not be dull. It will be warm, relevant, accepting, and, above all, it will be reverent yet fervent. These days, our preachers are in a great dilemma. A minister who endeavors to preach a message of repentance and obedience may be poorly received by the congregation who, in effect, is singing, "Keep the World, but Give Me Jesus."
When a message of repentance and holiness is preached, it does not mean to convey, "Let's beat ourselves to a pulp and see how bad we can make ourselves feel." Repentance is just the opposite. David said that when he refused to repent, it dried up his bones-that means it was affecting his health. But when he repented, the joy of his salvation returned. The thing that makes going to church boring for many people is that they love the world. While talking with a person recently, I asked if he ever prayed. He responded, "No, I don't want to. I know what I would have to give up if I should pray." Those who love the world and it's sinful ways will not take well to preaching that is spirit-filled and calls them to a new life.
Why is it when we go to an auto mechanic, we want him to fix the problem. When we go to the doctor, we want to get well. Yet for many, when they go to church, it is not to be delivered from the sins that are ruining the quality of their lives. Somehow they have gotten the idea they come to church to make them feel good about themselves, to build self-acceptance and self-esteem, all the while, continuing to insist on justifying their selfishness, pride, covetousness, lust, bitterness, and lack of self-control.
If only we would submit ourselves to the power of God, if only we would believe that Jesus must not only forgive us our sins but that we must allow Him to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. I don't know why anybody, except someone who has lost all spiritual feeling, would resist this. If only we could catch the vision that, if we will just admit we stink, Jesus will, as the Apostle Paul says, "deliver us from the body of this death." If only we will believe, Jesus can wash away our pride, selfishness, lust, lack of self-control, and give us love, joy, peace, and all the rest of the fruit of the Spirit. The trouble is, many of us pray that the Holy Spirit will give us fruit on a tree that is dead in trespasses and sin.
A shade tree in my front yard died one year. The man who cut it down said it probably drowned from all the rain. We needed the shade that the tree provided. But when the tree died, I didn't go out and buy 500,000 silk leaves and try to glue them on the dead tree. Instead, I had it cut down. If I want leaves to make shade, I must have a new tree.
If you are not getting along with your wife or husband, if you are full of bitterness and resentment, if you are being dragged along by bad habits that are driven by an obsessive, compulsive behavior, you might benefit from a seminar or a self-help course, or even a little therapy. But, while you are at it, check the tree. Jesus wants to give us a new heart. Old things are passed away and all things are becoming new. If we let Jesus give us a new heart, we might even find a change in our spouse and children. Even our boss will see the difference.
We are all different. We have different ways of expressing our feelings. We are men and women, and at differing stages of our lives. There are those who are healthy and those who are sick. There are those who are employed and those who are unemployed. There are those who are lonely and grieving, and those who are new in love. So, we are not all at the same place on the road of life. A person once told me that to him the greatest expression of emotion, be it joy or sadness, was tears. Come to think of it, what does a new father often experience when he holds his newborn babe in his arms and realizes the miracle that this new life represents? Tears. What is it that a bride often does as she stands beside the one she is committing her life to? Weeps. What is it that a gold medal winner does as he stands on the podium and they place the gold medallion around his neck and he hears the playing of his national anthem? Weeps. This is why I don't know why we should feel that, if we don't happen to be shouting, laughing, or clapping in church, something is missing or wrong.
The wise man said that "there is a time for everything under the sun." The problem is that our ways of expressing human emotion, whether in our actions or our words, seems to be narrowing and becoming less meaningful rather than expanding and becoming more meaningful. It is surely appropriate to shout at a ball game, but not at your wife. It is appropriate to fall into bed at night, but I don't think it is appropriate to fall out of your pew in church.
Perhaps we are confusing ourselves, and maybe even deceiving our young people, as we continue to blur the distinction between holy things and the things of the world. If a person thinks that the proper response at a ball game, a rock concert, and the worship in church have common elements, perhaps we need to think again. This is why Jesus did not fall for the Samaritan woman's question when she asked, "Where shall we worship, our place or yours?" It is time we became serious. It is time we think deep, not shallow. It is time we expanded our narrow concepts of the world and its sensual ways and learn the wider concept of the invisible world, that of the sacred and the holy.
We know what the world and it's culture is. We know what it is like to be sensual. What we don't know, but need to learn, is what Heaven and it's culture is like. What we need is to learn about holiness!