jasonbwatson

September 10, 2015

Integrity in Worship

With this post I want us to think about the matter of integrity. When I say integrity, what do you think about? If you say someone is a person of integrity, what does that mean? The dictionary defines integrity like this: “adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty; a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition” such as structural integrity.
I want to get even more specific, though. What does it mean to worship God with integrity? Along those lines, how do we keep familiar acts of worship meaningful–how do we make sure that we are not just going through the motions? Integrity of worship, I think, includes worshiping God sincerely and not for self-serving reasons. It means ensuring that there is not a disconnect between what we do at church and what we do away from church. It means making sure that what we profess and what we practice are consistent. It means that when we are here at church to worship God, we are here. Our minds are not elsewhere, we are not checking the clock or our watch, we are not just putting in our time. No, we are focused on worshiping God.

I would love to tell you I have this down, but I don’t. I would love to tell you that my mind is always fully engaged and focused on the hymns we are singing or the message I am hearing when I am in church, but it’s not true. I say that partially so you know that I am not telling you I have this all figured out and you need to get with it. I say it also partly to assure that if you’re thinking, “Sometimes I struggle with that,” you are not also thinking, “I really messed up. God is so disappointed in me!” We will all mess up at times. There will be moments when each of us will slip or get distracted or even, dare I say, fall asleep in church! That’s not the end of the world but it should not be something we are comfortable with, either. God wants us to prepare ourselves for worship and to commit ourselves to worship with integrity.

To consider this subject, I would like to draw your attention to Zechariah 7. I’ll wait a few minutes if you would like to read the passage.

Shall we continue? Here’s the setting: Zechariah has been ministering to the people of Judah in Jerusalem for approximately two years now when God gives him the messages that we have recorded in chapters 7 and 8. The rebuilding of the temple is half finished; there will be another two years. A delegation of men from Bethel arrive and ask the priests and the prophets whether or not they should continue some of the fasts they began during their time of Babylonian exile. In response, God asks whether they were keeping those fasts for the Lord…or for themselves. This delegation had come about 12 miles from Bethel, and their names suggest that they were born in Babylon and were given Babylonian names. Now that they are back in Israel, they want to know if they should continue to keep the fasts that they practiced during the time of captivity. They were seeking God’s will in the matter.

These men ask specifically about one of the fasts that the people had been keeping. There are others, though. The Day of Atonement was an annual fast that God clearly required of the people–you can find that in Leviticus 23:27. We also know from other Old Testament passages that God sometimes called for other fasts at specific times and for specific reasons. The fall of Jerusalem was actually remembered by four different fasts, held in the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months of the year. Because the temple fell in the fifth month, that fifth month fast was considered the most serious one, so these men from Bethel use it specifically as a test case to find out whether or not they need to continue with this practice. They had been keeping this fast for many years–they were in captivity for seventy years–and in their situation at this time, now that they are back in Israel, the temple is being rebuilt in Jerusalem, it seemed that perhaps it was no longer necessary.

God answers, through Zechariah, beginning in verse 5. He refers to the fast of the fifth month and the fast of the seventh month, the one that mourned the death of Gedaliah, the governor appointed by Nebuchadnezzar. But from His response, we see that God was questioning the sincerity–the integrity–of the people’s fast. Were they fasting for God or fasting for themselves, out of self-pity rather than out of repentance and sorrow? Remember, the temple was destroyed because the Israelites had not obeyed God. When they fasted, were they mourning their sin and disobedience or were they mourning the fall of the temple and the punishment of God?

The purpose of a fast, throughout Scripture, is to help a person have a deeper experience with God. It is to be a time of confessing, of praying, of seeking God. Those things that can easily become routine and time-consuming parts of our day, and that can perhaps cause us to be comfortable, like eating food for example, are eliminated temporarily and instead we focus on God. The Hebrew word for fast literally means “to cover the mouth” and fasting does most often refer to abstaining from food for a time. We see it referenced many times in Scripture and I think fasting has a place in the life of a Christian for a specific purpose and time. I am not convinced that it needs to be a regular practice. If you fast regularly, and you do it for the right reasons, I think that’s fine. If, however, someone fasts because they think God expects it, or because they think somehow God approves of it and it earns them favor with God, that is wrong. The motives are not pure. There is no integrity there. I also, by the way, am skeptical of someone who wants to make sure everyone knows they are fasting. There may be times when a corporate, organized fast is appropriate (i.e. Esther asking the Jews to fast and pray before she went before the king), but generally speaking I think fasting is a personal matter between an individual and God. If you are wanting everyone to know about it, it more than likely means that you are seeking some kind of approval or recognition for what you are doing. That does not come from pure motives. There is no integrity there.

God then asks the people about other practices, the eating and drinking that would accompany some of the Jewish festivals such as the feast of the Tabernacles. Were the people at those times focusing on the meaning and purpose of the festivals or were they just eating and drinking for the fun of it, enjoying the fast and the celebration and all of the pleasure of the occasion? The answer that is implied in these questions is that the people were doing these things for themselves, not for the Lord. The implication is that their worship was not sincere.

We do not have anything really that equates to these fasts and feasts in the church today. We celebrate the Lord’s supper, and that is good and I think it is biblical. And while someone certainly may do that and just be going through the motions, I do not think many people celebrate the Lord’s supper purely for themselves. I think perhaps a better comparison would be Thanksgiving. Now Thanksgiving is not commanded in the Bible, we see no specific biblical example of it, but I think the example works. Thanksgiving was originally intended to be a day of feasting but along with that a day of focusing on God and His provision for the people–of thanking Him for His blessings. How often is that really what we do not? Other than a quick prayer before the meal, how much time do we really spend on Thanksgiving thinking about God, thanking Him for what He has done? Instead, we get caught up in the food, the fellowship, the football…. Thanksgiving today, for many people, is much more about the pleasure and enjoyment they get out of it personally than it is about truly giving thanks and worshiping God. That’s what God is getting at there with what He says through Zechariah.

In verse 7 of chapter 7 God asks the people about their obedience. God is basically here saying, “I asked your ancestors the same question before I sent them into Babylonian exile.” Indeed, their ancestors were exiled primarily because they were no longer obeying God. It was obedience to God that brought peace, prosperity, joy and blessing to the people of God for a time, but once their obedience was replaced with ritual accompanied by doing whatever they wanted, God judged that. And He is telling the people here that the same thing will happen to them if they get focused on ritual.

I think there are some sincere and pious Catholics. I think there are some Catholics who are saved. But I think there are a lot of Catholics who are doing exactly what is being addressed here. I have known some of them. As long as they went to confession and went to mass–as long as, in other words, they checked the right boxes and fulfilled the right rituals–they could do whatever they wanted, live however they wanted in the in-between times. That is not worshiping God in spirit and in truth. That is not worshiping God with integrity. It is not only Catholics who do that, though. There are plenty of other folks sitting in churches on Sunday mornings thinking they are doing their duty for God and as soon as the final Amen has been said they can live however they want until the next Sunday morning.

In verses 8-10 God provides instruction on what it means, what it looks like, to express or live out the integrity He is telling the people He wants. When we examine the messages delivered by some of the earlier prophets like Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah we see that God wanted the people to practice what they professed. Acts of worship become empty, ritualistic and meaningless when they are not accompanied actions. This is what James emphasizes, right? Faith without deeds is dead!

God, here, is telling the people that He wants them to produce fruits of righteousness. Basically, God is saying the rituals, the fasts, the feasts, in and of themselves mean nothing. “I want you and I want you to live your life in a way that reflects your relationship with Me, that demonstrates that to others,” He is saying. Justice, mercy and compassion should be character traits of true followers of Christ. The widow, the orphan, the stranger and the poor are people who are vulnerable and who have no ability to repay acts of kindness. Because of that these individuals become easy prey for those who are unscrupulous. Followers of God who worship with integrity, however, do not oppress or defraud or take advantage of those who cannot defend themselves. Again, this is exactly what James says in 1:27, writing, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”

Finally, in verses 11-14, God instructs the people to learn from the past. We can learn a lot from the experiences of others, from the lives of those who have gone before us. It is not necessary for us to experience everything for ourselves in order to learn! Here, God says that “they”–the Israelites addressed by the earlier prophets before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity–refused to listen to God. God gives five specific responses of the ancestors toward His commands to treat each other with truth, justice, love, compassion and fairness. What were those responses?

1. They refused to pay attention (v 11)
2. They turned a stubborn shoulder (v 11) – this pictures an oxen that will not let its owner put a yoke on its shoulders
3. They closed their ears (v 11)
4. They made their hearts like a rock (v 12) – God wants pliable, open, yielded hearts
5. They would not obey the law or the words of the prophets (vv 12 and 13)

What was the result of this? In verse 13, God says because of their hardness, their disobedience, their rebellion, when they called, He did not listen. Not until the invasion finally came did the people call out to God and by then it was too late. Even then, in fact, they called out to God primarily for physical deliverance, not out of repentance and confession.

The last sentence of verse 14 is important. No doubt there were some people among those in Judah who blamed Babylon for what had happened to Jerusalem and the surrounding land. No, God says; it was the ancestors, the unbelief and disobedience of the people that caused the downfall. Sin has consequences.

Like the people of Judah, we need to examine our worship. Are we worshiping God with sincerity? Are we worshiping Him with integrity?

June 19, 2015

Exciting Worship

A few days ago Bob Kauflin, Director of Sovereign Grace Music, wrote a post on his blog Worship Matters entitled, “How Exciting Should Our Sunday Meetings Be?” He began his post by sharing a comment from a friend, who told him that his pastor “wanted their meetings to be more exciting.” Kauflin then proceeded to expound upon why striving for excitement in our church services–at least excitement as our culture defines it–is not what we should be pursuing. If you look at the definition of “exciting”, as Kauflin does, then you would no doubt agree with his conclusion that anytime the body of Christ is gathered together should be a time of excitement purely because of the very nature of the gathering. Kauflin writes,

Certainly, nothing should cause greater enthusiasm and eagerness than meeting with the church to recount what God has done to save us from his wrath through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. All our sins are forgiven! We have been adopted into God’s family! Jesus has triumphed over sin, death, and hell! We are new creations! We are part of God’s unstoppable, unchangeable, unrelenting plan to have a people on earth who will display his glory, truth, righteousness, love, and compassion!

What can be more earth-shattering, soul-shaking, and EXCITING than rehearsing and reveling in those realities?

To that I would say a hearty Amen! However, I would also agree with Kauflin that that is almost certainly not what his friend’s pastor had in mind, nor is it what many people in church leadership, worship ministry and the schools who train those individuals likely have in mind. When we think about the things in our lives that we might describe as exciting we probably think about things that get our juices flowing, that get our heart beating, that bring a smile to our face and a twinkle to our eyes–things that we enjoy in the moment and think back on fondly after the fact. Depending on who you are and what your interests are, “exciting” for you could be a theme park roller coaster ride, a deep sea fishing excursion, a professional sporting event, a classical music concert in a world class venue or a hike in the Rockies. All of those things are fine and good–there is nothing wrong with any of them. Rarely do any of us think about church the same way we would think about one of those activities, though. I think that is interesting for several reasons, and I see some similarities and some differences.

First, with the exception of hiking in the Rockies, each of the activities above occurs in a setting designed specifically for the purpose. (Yes, I realize the ocean is not a venue designed specifically for deep sea fishing, but the boat and equipment used would be specific to the activity). Similarly, church services are often–though, I realize, not always–held in facilities specifically designed for corporate worship or, if not designed for that purpose, at least set up accordingly. Second, excluding hiking again, each of those activities have personnel present for the specific purpose of aiding and assisting in your experience, whether to take tickets, provide directions, show you to your seats, explain the safety instructions, sell you food and beverages or ensure that you are outfitted appropriately for the event you are about to experience. Similarly, many churches have ushers, greeters, teachers, etc. to assist members and guests.

Here are a couple of differences I see, too. First, rarely does anyone engage in any of the activities I described above without planning and preparation beforehand. I realize that someone with easy access to the Rockies may decide on a whim to take a hike or someone in close proximity to an amusement part may decide to go spend the day there, but for many of us any of those activities will involve planning: buying tickets, getting direction, arranging our schedule, organizing our finances so that the necessary funds are available and so on. I would suggest that there are very few people–myself included–who put anywhere near that kind of preparation into going into the House of the Lord. I know I’m going to church on Sunday, so I do not plan anything else to do and I make sure I am up on time, but the intentionality, planning and preparation that goes into my attendance at church on Sunday is not even close to the level of preparation I would put into one of the activities above. Second, every one of the activities above would involve, for the vast majority of people, dressing in a manner specific to the occasion. Whether it means wearing the jersey of your favorite sports team, putting on a suit or dress for the concert, lacing up your hiking boots and strapping on your backpack for a hike in the Rockies, putting on your swim trunks and flip flops for the fishing trip or whatever the case may be, rarely do any of us engage in any of those activities wearing whatever we usually wear for our normal day-to-day activities. Many people do exactly that when it comes to going to church, but I have addressed that topic elsewhere, so I will leave it go at that.

Kauflin addresses the growing tendency in churches to make their services more exciting, more stimulating, more emotional. “[A]n increasing number of churches,” he writes, “have sought to add elements to their gatherings that will make them more ‘exciting.’ Meeting countdowns. Fast-paced videos. Engaging dramas. Creative humor. Breathless, energetic emcees. More upbeat songs. Smoke machines. Light shows. And a mindset that views dead space as the supreme excitement killer.” In other words, too many churches are trying to turn their services into a show that gets everyone’s adrenaline pumping and hands clapping. I am not suggesting that church services should be boring or sleep-inducing. I have defended the position that worship should be an emotional experience. (After all, how sincere can worship be if it has no connection to one’s emotions?) When we go to church and just go through the motions, God is not pleased by that. At the same time, when we go to church and get wrapped up in the show and the activities at the expense of why we are there in the first place and Who we are there to worship, God is not pleased by that either.

I have been to churches at both ends of that spectrum. I have been in churches where all the routines of a worship service were present but it seemed as if no one was engaged at all. There was no emotion, no energy, no excitement. Everyone was basically putting in their time. That is draining, let me tell you, and I would seriously question whether anyone was really worshiping. I rather doubt God was feeling worshiped! I have also been to churches where there are huge screens, massive choirs, full orchestras, live bands, “recognizable” personnel on stage and so on. It looks like, sounds like and feels like a major concert experience. There is a lot more emotion, energy and excitement but the question in that situation is, on what–or on whom–was that emotion, energy and excitement directed? If it was directed at the “worship leaders” then God is not pleased. If it was directed inwardly, at how it makes “me” feel, then God is not pleased with that, either.

“Strictly speaking,” Kauflin writes, “God never says the goal of the church gathering is excitement. It’s edification for God’s glory. We meet to stir up one another to love and good works, not simply to have an emotionally electrifying time. We meet to behold God’s glory in Christ through his Word, responding in ways appropriate to his self-revelation (Heb. 10:24; 2 Cor. 3:18).” Here is the rub. I do not believe God is displeased or dishonored by lights, bands, orchestras, mass choirs and recognizable people on stage. I believe any or even all of those things in combination can be used to worship the Lord and to lead a church service that is appropriate focused. To a certain extent, the focus of the service depends on the people sitting in the pews (or padded chairs). The person(s) leading the service can have their focus in the right place and the heart and mind of the folks in the congregation can be elsewhere. That is a personal matter between those individuals and God. What is not a personal matter is the heart, focus and intention of the pastor and other personnel leading the service. If the purpose is to generate excitement purely for excitement sake, that is wrong. If the intention is to sell more books or CDs, or to increase one’s Twitter following, that is wrong. If the purpose is to engage those in the congregation in order to help them grow in their knowledge and understanding of God, in order to stir them up for good works and to be doers rather than hearers only, then that is a good thing and God is pleased. Kauflin clearly sums up the purpose of a church service as follows:

Our greatest need when we gather is not simply to feel excited, but to encounter God: to engage with the certainty of his sovereignty, the reality of his authority, the comfort of his mercy in Christ, and the promise of his grace. We need to be strengthened for the battles against the world, our flesh, and the devil that will confront us the moment we wake up Monday morning, if not before. Mere emotional excitement, however it might be produced, won’t be sufficient. We need God’s Word clearly expounded, God’s gospel clearly presented, and God’s presence clearly experienced.

If that is what is happening in your church, then you are at a great church, regardless of whether you use hymnals or words projected on massive screens, whether you have an old upright piano or a live band, whether you have the local insurance salesman leading the singing or an internationally-recognized worship leader at the front. Ultimately, everything other than what is contained in Kauflin’s statement above is peripheral. Maybe that sounds harsh or oversimplistic, but that’s the truth. We could get into debates about all of those other elements of church services, and the odds are good that we may have very different opinions about what what we prefer or think is most effective. Since God does not give explicit instructions on the order or elements of a worship service, though, I think there is room for a variety so long as the focus and purpose remains where it needs to be. When he explains that church services are not to be rock concerts or pep rallies, Kauflin also explains, “They’re something much more mundane, and at the same time something much more eternally and cosmically significant. Our plans, lights, smooth transitions, technology, videos, sound systems, visual effects, and creativity don’t make it so. Christ dwelling in the midst of his people through his Holy Spirit makes it so. That’s why if we understand what’s going on, sharing the bread and cup during communion can be one of the highlights of our week, transcending the greatest of world championship sports rivalries in its effect on us.” That is where he hits the bulls eye. All of that extra “stuff” is, as I said, peripheral. None of it makes the church service successful from God’s viewpoint. At the same time, none of it prevents the service from being successful from God’s viewpoint when it is all used to accomplish the purpose of encountering God, growing in our knowledge of Him and truly worshiping Him, in spirit and in truth. So the real question is not, “Should our services be more exciting?” The real question is, “What are you trying to accomplish with that ‘excitement’?” If the purpose is excitement, then there is a real problem. If the purpose is to stir the hearts of the people to know and worship God, then go for it–so long as that focus never changes. Yes, church leaders need to carefully and prayerfully reflect on why they do what they do and why they want to do what they are considering. At the same time, each of us needs to carefully and prayerfully reflect, too. When we say we’re looking for something “more” from the services at church, what do we really mean? What do we really want–and why? If anything, and I mean anything, seems to be more exciting or desirable than the sovereignty, grace, mercy and love of God then we better check our definition of “exciting.”

November 20, 2014

The heart of worship

The music used in church worship services is a topic on which almost every Christian has an opinion, and the odds are pretty good that if you were to poll almost any group of Christians you would find a range of opinions and even convictions about what kinds of music should be used, what instruments should be used, how the music should be led and by whom, how loud the music should be, whether or not hymn books should be used or PowerPoint slides… The list of areas of possible contention is quite lengthy and certainly not exhausted here.

This is a topic I have thought about before, and one on which I certainly have my own opinions, but it is also one that I have been thinking about more lately. The CD player in my car died a while back, so any music in the car now comes via radio. Particularly when my children are in the car, that usually means a station that plays exclusively contemporary Christian music (because that is the station my kids want). While I appreciate some of the contemporary Christian music the station plays, I certainly do not like all of it. As with most radio stations, this one tends to play a relatively small number of songs over and over again. Beyond that, though, some of the songs make me feel almost anything but worshipful–like irritated, aggravated, agitated, frustrated… You get the idea. Some of them, in fact, are not at all what I would even consider “music.” But I digress…

Recently, as we were driving somewhere and this station was on, my wife looked at me, recognizing that I was not particularly fond of the selection airing at the moment, and asked, “Do you ever wonder what the worship in heaven will be like? Do you think we will all be surprised?” My wife generally shares my taste in Christian music, so she was not chiding me; rather, she was gently prompting me to consider whether or not I was allowing my own opinions and tastes to cloud my thinking or even to cause me to be judgmental. (I actually have no idea if any of that was her intention, but that was what struck me as I thought about it. I suppose I will find out if that is what she had in mind after she reads this!)

My thinking on this subject was stoked further as I was reading the preface to Douglas Bond’s book, The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts. Watts was an eighteenth-century hymn writer in England who wroye powerful hymns that are fmailiar to many Christians who grew up in church, most notably “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Bond was making the point that the Church needs the “voice” of Watts in our worship services today. He first referenced the relative lack of depth in many contemporary lyrics, commenting this way on his experience in a worship service he had attended: “Try as I might, I could find little in the various lyrics that required any degree of thought about anything.” Bond went on, however, to explain that even when the words of Watts’ most famous hymn had been sung in a service he was attending, he was not at all moved, despite the fact that “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” had previously caused “the gospel of grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone [to become] irrevocably real” to him. What was different this time, then? Here is Bond’s explanation…

[T]here were many elements in that worship that distracted me from taking the words on my lips and into my heart as my own and singing them. The swaying worship leaders and all the paraphernalia of the indie-rock band filled the stage, and the volume was cranked up so loud that I was eventually forced to take my seven-year-old out of the place, his hands clamped tightly over his ears. I watched rather than sang because in this kind of entertainment venue, it matters little whether the congregation participates in the singing. It’s fine if they do, of course, but it makes no difference to what one hears. The emotive vocal reflections and the pinched facial contortions of the well-meaning worhsip leader are difficult for most of us to emulate, and the occasional unexpected repetition of lines or addition of improvised lyrics leaves one singing something other than what the worship leader is singing. Not to worry, no one will hear you anyway.

I agree wholheartedly with Bond. As a result of my recent pondering about the worship we will experience in heaven, though, I caught myself, and had to admit that some people–difficult though it is for me to fathom–may be perfectly capable of focusing their attention on the Lord and worhsipping Him in the midst of the loud and unpredicatble style of music being used. And maybe, just maybe, God likes that kind of music on occasion, too. Scripture assures us that He is a God of order, so I cannot believe that He enjoys it when the music devolves in a cacophony of chaos. Most importantly, though, what I will always agree with Bond about, is that God is not pleased by a show loosely disguised as worship. Bond used the term “entertainment venue,” and when what purports to be a worship service becomes more a show, with the focus on the leader(s) of the music, the lights, the volume, the choreography or gyrations of the guitarists and drummers and singers, God is not pleased nor honored. Quite simply, bottom line, if the focus is on anything other than God, He is not pleased. We could debate the particulars of that. For example, could one of the worship leaders be focused on God even if he or she does not come across that way to me? Or could one of the audience members be focused on God even if the worship leader is not? The answer to both questions is certainly yes, meaning that we cannot judge anyone else in any worship service. God, we must recall, looks at the heart, not at the external.

I still have my own thoughts about what is and is not appropriate in a worship service, you no doubt do too, and I am sure neither of us is likely to change that anytime soon. Yet I do not think that is really what matters. What we need to concern ourselves with is the focus of our own hearts…because that is exactly what God is concerned with, too.

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