“The primary factor in worship concerns not the structure, nor the style, but the content. For worship to be biblical and Christian, the story of God’s redemption and salvation must be its content. Otherwise it ceases to be Christian worship.” Robert Webber
The most disturbing worship service I’ve attended took place at an evangelical church in the USA. It was America’s Independence Day (July 4th) and this church was ready. The opening video clip showed the Statue of Liberty, fireworks along with images of the Bible and the cross. The worship team appeared on-stage in, you guessed it, red, white and blue outfits. The “worship music” praised the USA, which prompted our six-year-old daughter to ask, “Mommy, why are they singing about America instead of Jesus?” The worship leader took the role of a cheerleader, as he worked the crowd into excitement over Independence Day. It was amazing. He even said, “We are here today to celebrate the USA and…Jesus too.” I was shocked. You may be asking “what’s wrong with Patriotism?” Nothing really, it is a normal and moral thing to have patriotic feelings for one’s country. In fact, morals of all kinds are extremely important to the proper functioning of society, but Moralism is different from morals.
Moralism is the explicit or implicit teaching that one must Be Like…, Be Good, Be Disciplined (Bryan Chapell, Christ–Centered Preaching, pp. 281-284). Chapell also says, “The primary problem with Moralism is not what is said but what is not said…the difference between presenting principles and a person.” Since Moralism is the default setting of humans, every Christian struggles with the problem of reducing Christianity to a set of moral principles. This is what the Pharisees, archetypical Moralists of Biblical proportions, did. They were proud people who were sure that they were “right” and better than others. In contrast, those who really “get” the gospel are deeply aware of their broken state. “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,” is their heart’s cry. The Apostle Paul looked down on no one because he viewed himself as the “chief of sinners.” He would say the same today, even in relation to the members of the most despised group on the planet, the group some think it is OK to dehumanize, hate and torture -- Al Qaeda.
Moralism in worship is not a “far off” problem peculiar to Americans. I have attended worship services at evangelical churches in Japan where I left thinking, “a Confucianist could have preached that message.” In most cases, the people responsible would be horrified if they realized what they had communicated. In other words, even if we firmly believe the Gospel, even if we think we have Christ-centered worship services, it is very easy to miss the mark. I asked myself, “Of the hundreds of messages I have given over the years, how many were moralistic “be” lectures that failed to focus on the great meta-narrative, the story of God's redemption?” Lord, have mercy…
The American Pastor John MacArthur identifies the issues: “The mandate for the Christian (is) the ministry of reconciliation to God through Christ, which brings about righteousness, transformation, and a new creation. There is, however, today in Christianity, in its evangelical element, an emphasis on another kind of effort. It is an effort to produce morality...”
Clarity about the purpose of corporate worship helps us to stay focused. Corporate worship is a time for God’s people (the church) to receive God’s revelation and respond appropriately to Him. It is an opportunity for the people of God to retell and relive the great stories of faith (past, present and future ones). The elements of corporate worship we find in the Bible (offering, silence, Scripture reading, message, testimonies, communion, baptism, fellowship, music, visuals, dance and drama) are all means of encountering and/or responding appropriately to God. Clearly, the means themselves are not worship. They are “ways” for us to hear from God, “connect” with Him, and express the adoration (worship) we have in our hearts.
How can we stay focused on our purpose in corporate worship?
1. Find at least one brave person who will give you honest feedback on your services. You may have to train someone; this would be a great opportunity for mentoring others.
2. Ask: “Could a Mormon (or Jehovah Witness or Muslim) agree with my message? For example, Mormons also have good, strong “family values.” Therefore, if your message is on family/marriage issues and the music is patriotic, it is possible that a Mormon would agree with 100% of your service!
3. Ask: “Does the music focus on faith, salvation, the cross, Jesus and other redemptive themes? Choosing good hymns is not difficult as there are many outstanding “classics.” Due to the volume of new material, choosing good “Gospel-driven” worship songs is a lot more challenging. Quality is “spotty” producing some outstanding worship songs, and others that should never be projected on a screen. Good ones that are available in Japanese, include: “Lord I Lift Your Name on High,” “All Hail King Jesus,” “Shout to the Lord,” “The Power of Your Love,” “How Majestic is Your is Your Name,” and “Majesty.” There are also some excellent songs by Japanese composers including: “威光、尊厳、栄誉；主の前に；十字架のほかに and 子羊イエスを。
4. Ask: “Does the flow of my service reflect the Biblical model of revelation and response?” (See Isaiah 6:1-9 where Isaiah responds to revelation). Musically, two hymns followed by a worship song would be revelation and response.
5. Ask: “Does every worship service at my church celebrate the great historical acts of salvation?” The preeminent acts of salvation are the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Every Old Testament story is part of redemptive history though and relates to the Gospel “meta-narrative.” If we don’t “get to” Jesus, we have probably been Moralistic.
6. Visual art can be effective in reinforcing the message of the gospel. Christian symbols, images of Biblical stories, and video clips are all available on the Internet.
7. Read Scripture! One researcher, who visited dozens of churches in her study, found that many churches spent three or four times more time on announcements than on the reading of Scripture.
8. Include an emphasis on public prayer. Prayer can also receive very little time in our services, unless we are intentional about it.
9. It may seem mechanical, but time what you do in your services. How much Scripture is actually read? How much time do you spend in prayer? The time we take for something is a strong indicator of importance we place on it.
10. Make the Lord’s Supper an integral part of your service. Most of us under-use this God-given means of responding to the revelation of God. A few ideas on how to make communion more meaningful:
- Think of communion as drama. Communion is a re-enactment of Jesus’ sacrifice, designed for those of us who need more than just words in our worship experience.
- Think of the role of hospitality in communion. It is a time to invite people to enter into the presence of Christ, to sit with Him at his table and have fellowship with Him.
- Weave the meaning and theme of communion into the whole service – instead of just tacking it on to the end of the service.
- Thoughtfully change how you conduct the distribution of the bread and wine. If your congregation always sits to receive communion, have them come forward instead.
- Using a loaf of fresh baked bread can be very meaningful, especially if it is broken in front of everyone. The smell can also remind us that, “Jesus is the bread of life.”
For those of us concerned about immorality, injustice, poverty, and other issues, the most important thing we can do is lead people into worship of Jesus Christ. Why? Because, like Isaiah, when we meet the Lord Almighty we are changed. We will be renewed, deeply aware of our brokenness as well as the Holy God who has declared us clean and forgiven.
The Gospel, not Moralism, is what will change us, and the world. Lord, have mercy.
Related Resources on the Web
- Videos: http://www.sermonspice.com/ has low priced (some free) downloadable clips
- Images (huge selection available free of charge) go to http://www.google.com/
click on “images” and enter a search word of your choice such as “communion” or “cross.”
- Here is a link to an article describing one evangelical pastor's position on how the church should relate to country and politics: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/30/us/30pastor.html?ex=1154664000&en=304c373abd2cc406&ei=5087%0A/