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How Should We Worship Now? 

This weeks column in Christian Today..

How Should We Worship Now?

Hillsong’s songs are sung all over the world, reaching from Australia to the ends of the earth – including my old congregation in Dundee. I now live in Australia and have occasionally tuned into one of their services during these strange Covid times. I was intrigued during their Christmas service to see the strapline at the bottom “Broadcast in line with government health orders,” which set off a whole train of thought.

A number of Scottish church leaders recently took the Scottish government to court over the issue of them banning church services. In a surprising judgment, the church leaders won. The Scottish government had astonishingly argued that banning public worship was not a spiritual matter. The judge, Lord Braid, disagreed.

In the UK, and indeed throughout the Western world, our forefathers fought (sometimes literally) for the right to worship according to the dictates of their own consciences, not the dictates of the State. I wonder if we are nearing a moment where governments, having tasted the forbidden fruit of being able to tell churches how to worship, will think that this is something they can continue; that ‘health and safety’ can be expanded into a many headed monster, which can be used to justify many things.

Of course, there is a role for the State to apply standards and regulations in some areas. For example, they can set building standards, make noise abatement orders and even, in a time of emergency, close all public gatherings to prevent plague. But does the State have the right to tell us how or who to worship? Absolutely not! God forbid – (indeed He does!)

But then the question arises, does anyone have the right to tell us how to worship? Does it matter how we worship – as long as we enjoy it, and it suits us? Surely God is just concerned that we worship him, not how we worship him? If people want to use guitars, organs, clowns, dancers, bells, smells, statues, films, dance routines, hymns, country and Western, liturgy, rock music, puppets, etc – what does it matter? God knows our hearts and he doesn’t care what we do.

The problem with this attitude is that the God we worship seems very concerned with how we worship him. He does know our hearts and that is why he cares about what we do – because we are far too easily enticed to worship other gods – even in the name of the one true God.

On Mount Sinai, after giving the Israelites the first commandment, telling them that they were to worship him only, God then told them how they were to worship – not making any images and bowing down to them (Exodus 20:1-6). It didn’t take long before the people broke both commandments – creating a golden calf when they grew tired of waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain.

For a God who does not care how he is worshipped, he does seem to give us a lot of information about what he expects! The books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, for example, contain a great deal of specific instruction regarding how he is to be worshipped! Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, were killed because they offered ‘unauthorised fire’ (Numbers 3:4) and there are many other examples. Indeed, the Old Testament spends far more time on how we are to worship God than it does on arguing for his existence.

Ah, but that was the Old Testament. Now in the New we can worship him any way we want surely? We have been set free from the old way of the Law and we worship in the new way of the Spirit? There is some truth in that, but it is not the whole truth. Jesus said we are to worship him in Spirit and in truth. The New Testament guidelines for worship may be far simpler than the Old, but they are still there.

We no longer have a temple, or the ceremonial law or the Levitical priesthood. But we still worship the same God and we are still to worship him in the way that he requires. It is after all about him, not about us. We don’t want to be those who worship the Lord in vain – as Jesus pointed out when he cited Isaiah, “these people worship me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:8-9).

The basic elements of New Testament worship are clear – prayer, preaching, reading of Scripture, giving to the poor, communion, baptism, singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, greeting one another, the confession of sin and giving thanks. There will be different ways of doing these things, some influenced by tradition and culture. There will be extra things that we may have as conveniences to help us – which the Bible says nothing about. For example, church buildings, sound systems, electricity and even musical instruments are not mentioned in New Testament worship – which does not mean that we should not use them. But it does mean that we need to be careful not to add on to God’s commands on worship, nor to take away from them.

Here is a radical thought. Instead of asking “what do I want?” or “what would appeal to that particular group of people we are trying to attract?”, why don’t we ask: “what does God want?”

Imagine Jesus walking through your church service and asking: “who asked you to do this in my name? Was it me? Why are you doing this? Who is it for?”.

The Father seeks those who worship him – not themselves, nor their culture. How wonderful it would be, if we could put at the bottom of the screen on our broadcast services: “Broadcast in line with God’s spiritual health orders!”

9 comments

  1. A beautiful, faithful, and timely piece. Thank you, brother.

    We can also add to the New Testament regulative principle the patterns of heavenly worship in Revelation (and Hebrews, etc).

    We both look back to the shadows of the Old Testament order and we press forward to enter into the glories celebrated by the church in heaven.

  2. “Instead of asking “what do I want?” or “what would appeal to that particular group of people we are trying to attract?”, why don’t we ask: “what does God want?””

    How about simply not trusting in your own understanding but acknowledging God in all things and following his direction (Prov 3:4,5) and if anyone lacks wisdom to ask God who gives generously without finding fault? (James 1:5).

    Or to use a metaphor, if in doubt – consult the manual.

  3. I love that idea of noting ‘broadcast in line with God’s spiritual health orders’. It says so positively that we are a people under authority, under orders. But then as we live this out we are to show that He does not abuse this authority: the orders are for our spiritual health and wellbeing – to enable us to flourish! May we model living under this kind and kind of authority.

  4. Worship is always a response. Always. No scripture shows the worshipper to be the initiator, they are always responding to someone or something.

    That being the case, the question has to be, what is it are we responding in worship to?

    Praise, singing, dancing, to contemplation or prostration, these are all manifestations of the human capacity to worship, but the vital issue is not how we worship, but the object of our worship. Is it our creator, or what he has created? (Romans 1)

    In Jesus time there was plenty of worship as there is today, but his challenge to those who prayed, fasted, and gave, did so with a heart that was not set on the creator, but his creation. They praised with their lips, from hearts who were far from him.

    Let’s heed his insight, and be sure he is the object of our worship, not worship itself.

  5. I suppose it depends on where, or which church service, but what can be missing is the opening “Call to Worship”, a call through scripture that centres on who it is we are worshipping.

    What can also be missing is the scriptural warrant to lift hands, even though that can be misused, it is not a reason for none use.

    Can we really celebrate give allegiance to the two-sided coin, as it were, that is Easter: Good Friday/ Resurrection Day without Joy in the Holy Spirit, without the Joy of the Lord, without our joy- giving God?
    Even with a sanctified imagination can we really, truly take in the Father’s Joy in His Son, even a smidgeon’s worth? Oh, how cold is my heart, without otherwise being kindled. How offensive to God not to bring a sacrifice of praise. He is Worthy.

  6. PS,
    I don’t think the Western Church knows how to do biblical Lament as worship (or humble access, in some quarters.)

  7. So much of modern worship is reflective of our prevailing musical culture now. With the modern sound systems music can be played at a very loud volume that is really unnecessary in a relatively small building. It doesn’t encourage the whole congregation to worship. Choruses are often repeated several times, and you can clearly see that some of the congregation have lost interest. And some of the songs that are used now are not really helpful for congregational singing.
    So yes, let’s ask God how He wants us to worship Him, and be prepared to listen (in the silence).

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