John Depoe over here and here began a discussion on the role of form and attitude in worship. The gist of his position is that having a good intention is not enough. Worship needs to be right hearted, right headed, and done in a form that communicates well. Such discussions on worship are valuable and call for a well articulated and precise theology of worship.
The church has a practical need for a clear word on worship due to the very real conflict that the topic of worship generates. People are bound to have great differences in worship music preferences and have varying preferences regarding worship service forms.
Some like liturgy. Some hate liturgy. Some like long sets of simple folk-rock styled music. Some hate long sets of folk-rock styled music. If I had my preference, the whole church would be skankin’ to about an hour of reggae followed by an hour of preaching and maybe some ministry time, but that is not likely to happen in the near future at our church. Preferences are fine, but the real problem is that most all of us have created “theological” reasonings or beliefs to buttress what, in actuality, are merely cultural preferences.
Some say songs should be about God and not about us. Some say songs need to be intimate, which makes them inevitably about our feelings or "about us". Some equate repetition with chanting and trances; others equate repetition with contemplation and passion. Each group in each camp has a theological argument to support their position and probably a proof text or two.
So, where ought we to go to get some clarity on the issues which affect so many churches and weigh so heavily on so many pastors?
I think the answer is in John 4 where Jesus articulates a “Clear Theology of Worship”.
In fact, Jesus as the great prophet, the one who proclaims the final word on right worship, has the exact antidote for the conflict in churches today over worship. Unity in the body of Christ can come if we take to heart Jesus’ teaching on the matter of worship. The need is to be convinced of some unifying principles so that we lay down our self-serving, myopic understandings of what is true worship. Jesus has just the word we need.
In John 4, while talking to the woman at the well, Jesus articulates a clear theology of worship that speaks directly to the conflicts that churches experience over the form and content of worship.
John 4:19The woman said to Him, "Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. 20Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship." 21Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22"You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23"But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. 24"God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth." 25The woman said to Him, "I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us. 26Jesus said to her, "I who speak to you am He."
The context of this passage is so crucial to understanding the teaching of Jesus. The Samaritans were second class citizens in Jewish society. The Samaritans were unclean and the temple worship discriminated against them. The Samaritans were not allowed, in Jerusalem, to worship in the temple per se but were forced to worship with the money changers and the lambs in the outer court. Therefore, the Samaritans made way for a tradition of their own in order to avoid the shame of sitting in "the back of the bus" or the “coloreds balcony” in Jerusalem.
from this stance, the woman at the well asks, “Do I really have to worship in Jerusalem?”
Jesus’ answer is liberating.
New Covenant Worship
I have attempted to emphasize that Jesus in this passage lays out the standard or specification of true worship. The Samaritan woman has a right understanding of the Messiah, “When He comes He will explain to us everything.” So her question is most on target. “OK, I accept that you are a prophet, so teach me about true worship.” We need to be as wise as this woman and look to Jesus for the specification of true worship.
Jesus’ answer says that “a hour is coming and now has arrived…”. Here, Jesus is speaking of the inauguration of the new covenant in Him. Under the new covenant, the shadows of worship will disappear in the Glorious light of the age of the Kingdom and 'kingdom worship'. The rules of worship are changing because the covenant and the relationship between the gentiles and the common man and the Lord is changing. Many of the conflicts in the church over worship come from a lack of understanding of the opportunities of new covenant worship. Is our worship focusing on the shadows of worship and missing the substance?
The Place of Worship
The Samaritan woman asked a common question. “Where does true worship happen? Ought we to worship here on this mountain or is the correct holy place of worship in Jerusalem?” Jesus, being the Son of God and great prophet, explains clearly where true worship takes place. Jesus’ answer is pretty clear:
21"Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father… But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit…”.
The place where worship takes place is in the spirit. True worship does not actually take place in a physical locality at all. The true place of worship takes place in one particular place, in our spirit. True worship doesn’t take place in a church. It can take place while I am in a church and sometimes, by the grace of God, it does. But the true specification of worship is that it only actually takes place in our spirit. Worship is a spiritual act. Therefore, when I come to “worship” I might worship and I might not. I might sing songs and not worship. I might hear the gospel preached and not worship. But only if in the course of that music or listening to the word, I present myself to God from the most authentic place in my being that I can muster, by the grace of God, only then have I worshipped. In fact, during the music time, I often am not listening to the music at all. Instead, I am praying; I am working through my confession of sin; I am receiving forgiveness and love from God, and I am beginning to rejoice in Him. By the end of the set of music, I may very well be worshipping if i am connecting to God with my spirit. Worship is a spiritual act. Anything else is not worship.
Romans 8:15-16 says, 15For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, "Abba! Father!" 16The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God”.
Does not Paul assume that a believer can discern when the Spirit is bearing witness with his spirit that he or she is a child of God? Isn’t this spiritual communion eternal life itself (John 17:3)? Can we therefore know when our worship culminated in spirit to Spirit communion with God? The issue facing the church is not whether worship is good or bad but whether or not we worship at all, and the believer can discern the answer to this qustion if he or she knows the specification of true worship.
Why is New Covenant Worship “in spirit”?
So the place of worship is in the spirit of the individual worshipper. But why is this the place of new covenant worship? Jesus says that “God is spirit and those who worship him MUST worship in spirit..”
True worship, which the world groans for, can be no other way. All the shadows of worship which mediate our worship are not actually worship. These may lead to worship, and they may not lead to worship. But true worship is unmediated (or actually, as we will see in part two, true worship is only mediated by truth) . Therefore, it is not appropriate to codify or standardize any particular form of mediation. Only truth mediates worship. We worship in Spirit and in truth. But this does not mean that all other ways to mediate truth other than the bible are somehow anathema. No, but we must not seek to codify and standardize forms which are not transcendent. God is spirit; He transcends our cultural preferences and sensibilities.
Whenever we appeal to our cultural sensibilities as part and parcel to the essence of true worship, we are denying the direct teachings of Jesus. True worship is the spirit to Spirit communion between the worshipper and the LORD.
In the next, post, I will look at truth and the role of culture to incubate meaning BUT...
Enough for now…