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Jul 23

Worship This Side of Heaven: The Call for “Unified Worship”

Have you ever wondered what worship will be like in Heaven? We all know that it will be glorious and that we will have the honor of worshiping Jesus face to face.

But what kind of worship genre will it be? Will it be traditional or contemporary, Puritan psalm singing or Gregorian chant, Vivaldi choruses or Passion Praise? Will it be in unison or four part harmony, acapella or accompanied by instruments? Will the language be French, Spanish, Italian or Cantonese?

Will hands be raised or arms folded? Will it be loud or soft? Will it have a Pentecostal or Presbyterian feel? Will it be “High church” or “Low church”?

Whatever worship will be like in Heaven, one thing is sure. It will not be man centered but Christ-centered. In fact, everything will be centered on and around the throne and the Lamb who is seated there. The angels, the elders, the four creatures and the multitude which no man can number will all have one focus, Jesus. And that alone will satisfy every fiber of man’s diversity and cultural uniqueness.

Yet so often worship this side of Heaven is held hostage to our own personal experiences, traditions, imaginations and devices rather than by what God commands and deserves. And thus the “worship wars” begin. Worship wars are the result of man-centered worship, not the Christ-centered worship of heaven.  We are reminded in Scripture to “worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire”. (Heb. 12:28)

But how many times do we think of this admonition when we approach the worship service? Who is the main consideration in our planning? Is it us?

Whether you subscribe to the Regulative Principle (worship is guided only by what Scripture commands) or the Normative Principle (whatever is not forbidden in Scripture is acceptable) it is Scripture that sets the foundation for our worship. Worship is initiated by God and is by his terms, not ours.

Remember how Jesus rebuked the “religious” for their worship, which was made up of only rules taught by men. (Matt. 15:8-9; Mark 7:6-7)  And remember how Paul condemned “self-imposed worship” unauthorized by God. (Col. 2:23)

In John Calvin’s sermon on the second commandment (Deuteronomy 5: 8-10) he tells us that the Word must lead us in worship because of our sinful nature and propensity to idolatry.

The Word of God is our worship instruction book. Doing what is right in our own eyes can be a dangerous thing.

Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, learned the horrible lesson of the “consuming fire” for their inappropriate worship! So did Uzzah when he inappropriately touched the Ark of the Covenant to keep it from falling. (1 Chron. 13:10) Uzzah’s act even seemed like a good thing, but it went against God’s command and it cost him his life!

All this to simply say that Worship is about pleasing God first and foremost! “Worship wars” are red flags that our focus has shifted from God to ourselves. Sadly, they are a mark of our immaturity and sin – “Selfish Independent Nature”.

Attempts are made by so many churches to appease the demands of congregations divided by age, culture and experience. Some churches opt for the “two-congregation” scenario by having a traditional service and a contemporary service. Others have venues where there’s a little bit of everything for everybody.  And then there is the “blended” service where no one seems to be happy. None of these approaches seem to accomplish unity in the body and foster fragmentation instead.

The Church faces “today’s spirit of individualism” and has succumbed to tailoring worship to meet the expectations of various groups usually based on age or musical preferences. No longer called sanctuaries, “venues” cater to the “experience” one is up for. If you don’t like the “Traditional” try the “Edge” or the “Over the edge”……….whatever works for you! How about Cowboy venues….”Church Lady” venues…..Hip Hop venues……even “aloha music venues? And this has led to the “fractionalization” of the body of Christ right under our ecclesiastical nose!

It has often been said that the most segregated day in America is Sunday! I agree, and it goes far beyond just a racial issue. We are segregating, children, teens, senior citizens, hymn lovers and hip huggers!

And most of it centers around the issue of music.

Just listen to this comment regarding the newer music:

“There are several reasons for opposing it: It’s too new. It’s too worldly, even blasphemous. The new Christian music is not as pleasant as the more established style and because there are so many new songs you can’t learn them all. It puts too much emphasis on instrumental music rather than on godly lyrics. This new music creates disturbances, making people act disorderly. The preceding generation got along without out.”  Sound like something you’ve heard about today’s worship music? Oddly enough, those comments were made in 1723 in criticism of Isaac Watts who wrote such standards as, “Joy to the World” and “When I Survey.”

Throughout Church history God’s people have had their “worship wars”. In fact the first murder recorded in the Bible was over a worship issue! (Gen. 4:2-8) Cain despised his brother’s offering so much that he killed him! Even though this was not a music dispute, it involved a basic flaw of Cain approaching God on human terms.

When harmony was introduced to the church there was upheaval because singing had only been in unison prior to the eleventh century, mostly by way of psalms or Gregorian chants. Throughout the Reformation era the worship wars continued as Luther pushed for congregational singing, Calvin burned organs, and Zwingli, a musician himself, said that music should have no place at all in worship! Lutherans wrote new hymns and the Calvinists made new arrangements for the psalms and both received criticism that the melodies were secular or too “rhythmical” and “irreverent”.

Arguments even emerged over the color of wine and the grain of the bread served at communion! I wonder what they would have thought about grape juice?

Bach’s “Saint Matthew’s Passion” was banned from the church because it was too dramatic!

During the evangelical awakening of the 1700’s, new hymns written by John and Charles Wesley were criticized for stressing too much emphasis on personal experience rather than doctrine. Many Presbyterians resisted the new music and insisted that the psalms alone were appropriate for worship.

In the late 1800’s there were controversies surrounding the music of Fanny Crosby, Ira Sanky and Philip Bliss saying it was too much like popular music!

Shall I mention the songs that came out of the Jesus Movement of the 1960’s and 70’s? Maybe it was just the hair and Tie-dye shirts! Kumbya was really a good song after all.

As Ralph Carmichael and Bill Gaither blazed the trails of newer Gospel and youth music, many in the church cried foul! They hadn’t heard of Larry Norman who in his long blonde hair and high pitched rock n’ roll voice echoed the words of Martin Luther centuries earlier, “Why should the Devil have all the good music?’.

And so here we are in the 21st century still squabbling over all the music issues, except for the most important issue of all when it comes to worship. Is God truly glorified when we are so fixed on ourselves and on what we like or dislike? Does God receive our appropriate worship when we cater to ourselves by creating “musical denominations”? Scripture is silent on what style of music is to be used in worship, but it is not silent on the heart attitude and posture of worship.

Martin Luther also said that Abel could have offered God the shell of a nut and God would have been more pleased than anything Cain would have offered. Why? Because worship is a matter of the heart! Thank you Matt Redman for reminding us of that! We do need to come back to the “heart of worship cause it’s all about you Jesus”. It is here that we also must see that our worship music is worship in the “narrow” sense, while the way we live our lives is worship in the “broad” sense. Worship in the broad sense is foundational to worship in the narrow sense. We may honor God with our lips in the church sanctuary, but where is our heart in the sanctuary of life?

Unified Worship

I prefer using the term “Unified” worship over “Blended” worship, because our intention should be to reflect the scriptural teaching of unity in diversity. (Gal. 3:28; 1 Cor. 12:12-14) The term “Blended” worship does not necessarily mean that it is “unified” worship.
Dr. Jerry Nelson who coined this term describes “unified” worship as “anchored in the church’s historic worship and seasoned with the fresh winds of the Spirit’s movement in the present, using the “best of the best” from the past and the present”.

And this kind of worship must go deeper than just having the best music. It is grounded on having the best “heart attitude”. Maybe we could call it “Abelic Worship” after Abel. Having the right posture of our heart is the first thing God looks for when we approach him.

Blended worship insinuates the combining of different styles of music placing the emphasis on the methodology. Unified worship points us beyond the methodology to the true heart and goal of worship as God’s people humbly come together unified in the Spirit to worship Christ!

Unity in cultural diversity

Of course it is appropriate for children, youth, seniors or those of other cultures to have a meaningful experience within the context of their own group. But we must realize the importance of corporate worship or to use a more significant term, “Covenantal worship”.

Worship is both vertical and horizontal; it is about God, yet it is also about His people in fellowship with one another worshiping before Him as one body. We are a covenant people. We are a family. This is key to understanding Biblically appropriate worship. Worship in the “broad” sense is expressed in how we live our lives in relationship to one another. Jesus even tells us to be reconciled with each other before we enter into worship in the “narrow sense”. (Matt. 5:23,24)

When there is so much stress on individual tastes, the battles will continue to rage. Yes we are diverse, opinionated and selfish, but we must rise above these obstacles and like a group of porcupines, learn to hug one another because this pleases God. As we mature as a people those quills will soften and we will actually enjoy our diversity.

Imagine how difficult I thought it could be leading worship for a church in the Middle East with 500 members from 40 different nationalities and dozens of denominations. Yet somehow it worked, not perfectly, but it worked because the greater focus was on God and the unity of His people. They had their individual meetings throughout the week, but on the Sabbath they were in corporate worship and there was no musical criticism! As different nationalities learned to trust one another it opened up the door to greater celebration incorporating the “sounds of the nations”. This is a building process through discipleship and prayer, but it can never be accomplished if there are never corporate times together.

I’ll never forget a prayer and communion service I attended in South Africa during the turbulent times of apartied. It was right before the election when Nelson Mandella was expected to win. But there was tension and uncertainty everywhere. With seventeen black African tribes vying for political power and the British and Afrikanos (German descendants) fearing the loss of their country, South African troops were ordered to patrol the streets. One black candidate had just been gunned down in front of a convenience store and shots were being fired randomly at people traveling the freeways around Johannesburg. I remember my wife and I shielding our children as we drove to a church service.

All hell was starting to break loose outside of the church we had gathered in. Yet, by the grace of God, Christians from various warring tribes along with European and American whites were holding hands as we circled the communion table, prayed and worshiped together. Believe me, no one was concerned about the style of music we used. No one was thinking about himself.

We enter worship not so everyone will be “pleased”. We enter worship to please God, and musical style is not what pleases God. God is pleased by our unity in the midst of our diversity! He receives greater glory by unifying that which is diverse!

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28

Paul is not pushing for a mono-cultural norm here, but rather a heart culture.
The church is made up many “cultures” or “sub-cultures” which include various age groups, ethnicity, economic status, educational degree or social position. But there is a culture that transcends all of these. It is called “Kingdom Culture”.

Obviously, music will reflect some sort of culture. It is not possible to be a-cultural musically. But in “Kingdom Culture” it is possible to have a “cultural free zone” so to speak, because this culture is marked by humility and spiritual maturity. In this context there is freedom to celebrate the diversity of our cultural expressions.

Unity among the generations

For several years there has been a trend to tailor worship to meet the expectations of various age groups. But we must be guided by a principle that says our worship will not be about Builders, Boomers, Busters or Buckaroos, but about the people of God, of all ages and of all cultures appropriately worshiping Christ!

I remember a high school student telling me that he didn’t like what we did in “big church” referring to the main worship service. I asked him what he was going to do when he was big enough to attend “big church”. He just frowned.

Unfortunately many churches have segregated the youth so much that they do not feel comfortable attending the main service. They think it is for adults only, except for that one “Youth Sunday” each year where they stand and sing awkwardly before those strange looking old fogies!

It is sad when they graduate, they often look for another church that reflects more the cultural language they have experienced in their “youth only” world. They have been given little opportunity to fit into the larger context of “Body life” and feel uncomfortable with other age groups.

George Barna estimates that there are roughly eight million young people in their twenties who were raised in the church, yet no longer attend!

To answer this dilemma, new hip or “emerging” churches pop up with clever names like “the Rush” or “the Experience” or “the Wave” and draw thousands of college students and singles. Yet as good as these churches may be in attracting and relating to the emergent generation, if they aren’t multi-generational, something very valuable is lost. If worship is to be “covenantal” then it is to be about families. In this day and age where there is such an attack on the “family” covenantal worship is needed more than ever!

Teens, young adults, little children, middle aged and seniors each have significant contributions that should be made in the worship life of the church…and not just on those “special” Sundays. I appreciate churches that at least allow the children to be in the service through the worship in song before they go off to their Sunday school classes.

“Young men and maidens, old men and children. Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted” Psalm 148:12-13

Some argue saying that we must appeal to “seekers” in a language they understand. I agree! We also speak to children in words they understand, but as they grow we increase their vocabulary so they can communicate with and assimilate into a bigger world. Venues may be a good evangelistic tool but as believers mature in their faith they should be able to assimilate into the full covenant community. I realize that we are in the “postmodern or even post-postmodern age but that doesn’t mean we foster it. The church will always cut across the grain of the present age, just as it did against the Roman, Corinthian or Ephesian cultures. Times may have changed but the same evil philosophies and heresies rear their ugly head. And the human heart is just the same as it was when Paul spoke from Mars Hill.

Fooled by our “entertainment driven culture” the church has been duped into believing that we need to provide the right ambiance and experience to “keep the people coming.” And our menu looks like a Starbucks! I’m a decaf-non fat-latte Christian! Don’t laugh, a brother in California actually told me that he went to a certain mega church because they had great coffee!

One very successful pastor in the southeast said that if he changed his theology he’d loose ten percent of his people. If he changed his music he ‘d loose fifty percent! This is a sad indictment as to the state of many churches today.

When the main draw for the church becomes music, production, signs and wonders, feel good theraputical sermons or anything else besides the joy of the Word, sacrament and fellowship then we have lost the very essence of what church is meant to be.  “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Acts 2:42.  It is interesting that out of this context flow the awe of Christian worship and not vice versa! Acts 2:43-47

Listen to these wise observations:
“As soon as we come to worship looking for and expecting an experience, we have violated the most basic principle of (worship). We easily become religious aesthetes capable of judging the entertainment value of a church service while remaining unaware of the reality it can open us to. Unfortunately for us, when our worship becomes self-conscious rather than God-conscious, it points not to God’s reality but (only to) our own” Mark Horst

“Music is a powerful and vital element in the worship life of God’s people. But precisely because it is so significant, we need to give careful thought to it. We must be sure that we are pleasing God and not entertaining ourselves. The temptation to turn worship into entertainment is great because as sinners we are much more inclined to be self-centered than God-centered. We are much more inclined to amuse ourselves than to serve God.”
Robert Godfrey/ The Reformation of Worship

“Music is just a tool meant to enable people to express themselves to God, yet we sometimes spend more time arguing over the tool than over the product and purpose of the tool.” George Barna, Symposium on Christian Music, held at Baylor University

“The major challenge,” according to Barna, “is not about how to use music to facilitate worship as much as it is to help people understand worship and have an intense passion to connect with God”. From The Barna Group website

Instead of trying to make our worship “entertaining,” we should strive to make it engaging!

Dr. Jerry Nelson states, “Far too often we think of worship mostly or solely in terms of how it impacts us rather than how it impacts God. And we are the losers when we do that.  If we think of ourselves as the necessary beneficiaries of worship we won’t truly worship. If we think of God as the beneficiary of worship, we will also benefit because we are engaging with Him, and not the form of worship. “

We do not enter into worship to engage with the form. We enter into worship to engage with the Lord! If we are arguing over form or style, we’ve missed the whole point because we have just switched the focus to ourselves. Even though worship is horizontal in terms of the communion of the saints, it is ultimately about God.

And if it is about God, then it is about pleasing God with a heart attitude clothed in humility.

Philippians 2:3-4 “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

Yes, worship should reflect and even celebrate the diversity of the Body of Christ. But the beauty of his body is that we prefer one another before ourselves. If we can’t do that then our worship is unacceptable, no matter what the style?

Worship leader and theologian John Frame reminds us that “one’s hymnody is his language of worship: it is the language of his heart’s conversion with God. To lose the hymns one has grown up singing is, therefore, no small thing. The younger generation should sympathize with this sense of loss and to accommodate their desires to the spiritual needs of their fathers and mothers in Christ.

But the opposite is also true: if the older do not bend somewhat, the younger will be deprived of their own language of worship…by which they can grow best grow in Christ.”(Worship In Spirit And Truth)

Frame is speaking about humbling ourselves and deferring to one another in love, in the Spirit of Christ. (Matt. 20:20-26) When we worship in Spirit and Truth it is in Christ’s Spirit, not ours! Insisting on our own way in worship, I believe, quenches the Holy Spirit because it is rooted in pride, which the Lord resists. (James 4:6)  “Proud worship” is an oxymoron! Proud worship demands it’s own way. Proud worship allows no room for others. It is “individualism” to the max! Our culture is engulfed with the “spirit of individualism”. This is the kind of worship the Lord resists! Can you imagine God resisting us? Can you imagine him saying “Away with the noise of your songs”? (Amos 5:23) It sure makes me shutter.

Our humility should lead our worship, for “a humble heart the Lord does not despise”. (Psa. 51:17)
This kind of worship is irresistible to God. It’s not about style. It’s about heart. This is what we should be striving for! After all, one day we will all worship before our Lord and maker, not in separate venues, but in His Holy heavenly sanctuary as one Holy nation from every tribe, tongue, language and people!

One of the Greek words used for “Worship” is the word “latreia” which means labor or service. We enter in latreia, or service to Jesus, not to ourselves. We labor on His behalf and not ours. Laboring on our own behalf literally puts the letter “I” in front of latreia and forms the new word “idolatry”!

Demanding that worship be “my way” is, in a sense, a form of idolatry. That’s a scary thought! I don’t think I know any Christian who enters worship to consciously worship himself. Yet we do that when we become the focus. If the body of Christ could grasp this understanding, it would certainly change the atmosphere in many sanctuaries around the world. Imagine humble, unified, covenantal worship flowing from the lips and hearts of diverse congregations around the world. Could it happen this side of heaven? Only when we pick up our cross, abandon all rights to ourselves and follow him. Let us labor together for His glory!

“Enthralled in the presence of the living Lord and Savior, we can expect to engage in the most glorious worship service of all time. No one has any sense of an “order of service.” No one is conscious of any worship “style.” The Father has set matters in order. The Son is the focus of all eyes. The Spirit prompts the singing of songs. From the lips of sinners saved by amazing grace come Hosannas to the King of kings and Lord of lords…” (The Journey Home Bill Bright)

(c) 2007 Scott Wesley Brown

Scott Wesley Brown

Christian artist, songwriter, worship leader, pastor and CCM pioneer

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