Wednesday, April 15, 2015

In Spirit and in Truth

For a few weeks, the topic of worship has been hot, hot, hot around Providence. For some, that’s made for a great opportunity to think about how we as leaders can facilitate a more active and purposeful worship in our services. For others, it’s been a source of confusion and even hurt feelings.

"Does the Bible require that I sing in church?"
"Does raising my hands make me a better worshipper?"
"Why does the pastor invite folks to come forward and pray at the front of the church, anyway?"

These are just some of the questions I and others at the church have been asked in recent weeks.  But while there are surely some specific answers to those questions that could be given, I'd like instead to explore from a more high-level perspective what the Bible teaches about worship that is acceptable to God.  I genuinely believe that when we understand the big picture of acceptable worship, these more specific questions will fall away as less interesting.

Framing the Question

John 4 tells us of a unique encounter that Jesus had with a Samaritan woman he meets at a well.  He impresses this woman with His supernatural perception and insight into her personal life and failures.  So she does what many of us would do:  she tries to change the topic away from her own sin and onto something else — in this case, she chooses some religious debate the Jews and Samaritans have been having.
We’ll pick up the text in verse 19.
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

What’s going on here?  Jesus is deflecting the woman’s question by indicating that it’s essentially no longer relevant.  He’s saying that the old questions about worship style no longer apply — a new worship paradigm has been introduced.

Worship in Jesus' day was, at its core, much the same as it had been since the days of Moses:  as proscribed by Mosaic Law.  This worship was primarily about specifically prescribed activities at specific geographical locations — sacrifices, festivals, ritual cleanliness, at the Tabernacle, Tent of Meeting, Holy of Holies, etc.)  Jesus’ own family would have been bound to these same rituals.  (Luke 2 tells us how Mary and Joseph had to go to Jerusalem to offer the prescribed sacrifice for a first-born son.)

Our text describes a move away from Mosaic worship and into something else. Moreover, Jesus indicates that this transition “is coming and has now come”.  Well, if the change has now come, what ushered in the change?  What happened in the world that would permit worship to deviate from the strict patterns of Mosaic Law?  Put simply, Jesus happened.  He’s the difference.  Jesus changes the game.  Elsewhere in the Bible we are taught that He is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices; the High Priest to eliminate the need for all other high priests; and that the body of the believer is the new temple of the Holy Spirit.  Worship as prescribed by Mosaic law appears to have received an update.

So what’s the new worship paradigm?  If it’s no longer about being at the right place at the right time with the right ritual, then what is it about?  According to the text, it’s about worship "in the Spirit and in truth".

In Truth

Worship that honors God must be true.  This worship must be educated and informed, and must not behave contrary to what it knows to be true.  True worship is:
  • true to Who God is and what He's done (and doing).
  • true to who God designed you to be.
  • true to the Gospel, grateful for the gift of Jesus (“the Way, the Truth, and the Life…”).
In true worship, there is no room for anything artificial, manufactured, manipulated, or fake.  There is no room for anything that’s uninformed and unbiblical.  We are compelled, then, to grow in our knowledge of and relationship with God.  In doing so, our worship can more fully align with His truth.  Without that, our worship will always fall short.

In the Spirit

John 3:16 is arguably the most popular verse in the Bible, but do you know the context in which it appears?  In John 3, a prominent religious leader named Nicodemus is visiting Jesus under cover of night to question the Rabbi about His teachings.  They enjoy an almost comical (if understandable) exchange in which Jesus coins the phrase "born again" and Nicodemus misses the metaphor.  But then Jesus explains this second birth in verse 6:
6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

As Christians, we are (re)born of the Spirit, therefore we have a spirit component to our existence.  The life of our spirit flows from God's Spirit.  Our entire identity is rewritten in light of God becoming our spiritual Father.

We are given the gift of the Holy Spirit at the time of salvation.  The Holy Spirit’s jobs are many:  to act as our Counselor, our Guide, our Comforter; to help us understand God’s Word and His revelation (past and present, written or otherwise); etc.  These are all very real-time activities.  The Holy Spirit is a person, alive within us, actively working right now to help us make sense of God and His Word and the world He created.

So this new worship is not just physical — right place, right time, right ritual.  It flows from the Spirit, which means:
  • it can only be embraced by those born of the Spirit (Christians).
  • it involves our whole re-born being.
  • it carries the characteristics of the Holy spirit — it’s alive and interactive.

    Missing Pieces: Where Things Go Wrong

    Worship in the Spirit and in truth is the recipe Jesus gives for successful worship approved by the Father (God).  But like most recipes, things go wrong when we are missing an ingredient.

    Worship that is sincere but not guided by the living, interactive Holy Spirit is incomplete and dry.  It removes the interactive element provided by the Holy Spirit’s on-the-fly, in-the-moment communication and revelation about the things of God.  As such, it tends to be emotionless, focused on rituals and patterns that run the same course regardless of what's happening in the worship environment.  This is very much like Mosaic worship.  It may not involve animal sacrifice, but the major components of Mosaic worship are still there.  This kind of worship tends to happen only in certain environments (such as a church building) and at certain times (such as on Sunday mornings), performing the same rituals every time (such as singing songs and listening to sermons without any genuine emotional or spiritual response to them).

    On the other hand, if you have worship that's emotional and interactive but lacks truth and sincerity, you have mere emotionalism.  Emotionalism in worship is, when it comes down to it, the result of making the hunt for a good feeling the point of worship.  Sadly, this is all too common in churches where worship is all about having “an experience”.  Don't be deceived!  Feelings and emotions are easy to manipulate.  I can feel joy, sorrow, excitement, anxiety, and a whole range of other emotions simply listening to instrumental classical music or opera in a foreign language.   (Actually, I can't tolerate opera music, so I mostly feel only pain and irritation when I listen to that!)  The service and retail industries have known for years how to use music to manipulate consumers.  You cannot have “an experience” with the Holy Spirit and the only effect be that you “feel better” for an hour or so.  Our God is a Universe-authoring God!  Nothing He touches remains the same!  If your worship leaves you with little more than an emotional high, is that anything more than you could pick up at a concert or a ball game?

    Worship in the Spirit and in Truth — How?

    Moving beyond ritualistic worship and into Spirit-led, interactive worship can be a challenge due to many reasons:  social pressures, ignorance, fear, doubt, and so on.  Certainly, it's much easier to just keep going with the flow, doing what you do, and not rocking the boat.  But that's pretty much never the course God calls us to take.  So how can we start to move past those challenges and into the fullness of the worship that God actually desires?

    First, we must be born of God’s Spirit.  You cannot worship God fully and completely and in a fashion that He will accept if you don't have a relationship with Him. You must be born again, in and of the Spirit.

    Secondly, we need to understand the relationship between obedience and faith — namely, that they go hand in hand.  Without obedience, there is no faith.  Faith without obedience is called "dead" in the Scripture.  I can say that I believe that God is worthy to be praised by all of my being, but if I withhold part of myself in worship (my emotions, my natural physical expressions, my vulnerability), then my actions tell the sad-but-true story of what I truly believe.  God's word is absolutely full of worship-related instructions, from prayer and fasting to singing and shouting and even various postures of worship.  When we ask God for faith regarding things he's already told us to do, his response is often, "My child, just obey me.  When you see how it all works out, faith won't be an issue for you".

    We also benefit from the support of our church family.  The first time we break from our established, ritualized worship patterns in public is always the hardest time.  We’re probably convinced that everyone is noticing that we’re doing something different and judging our sincerity.  This kind of free exploration of Spirit-led worship is so, so much easier when we’re surrounded by folks who we know are not judging us because they love us.  (This is also why we are often more free in our worship when we attend Christian conferences or concerts — we figure that the random folks we sit near in those venues and who we'll likely never see again aren't judging us, either.)

    Finally, I strongly suggest and beg (beseech!) you to take all of this and process it in your private worship time.  If you don’t have a private worship time, get one.   It will revolutionize your relationship with God.  In your private worship time, read your Bible, pray, sit silent and listen, “try out” the various biblical postures of worship, paint a picture inspired by Scripture, write a poem or a song.  It doesn't so much matter what you do specifically.  The idea is simply to commune with God, to expand the scope of what you consider "worship", and to learn to follow His lead regarding how He wants to spend that specific time with you.

    This post was adapted from a lesson I developed and taught to the Impact Student Ministry of Providence Baptist Church in Harrisburg, NC.  And, uh, my apologies to all the parents of teens that I irritated that night by running 30 minutes over my allotted speaking time.