Someone once said the unexamined life is not worth living. I imagine that’s right. In the same vein, I would like to propose that the unexamined worship is not worth offering.
Worship that is not examined tends to sink to the lowest common denominator.
Being retired now and in a different church almost every Sunday, I see every kind of worship service you can imagine. Some give evidence of much thought, serious planning, and loving attention. Others appear to be the same form that congregation has followed since the Second World War, with even the hymns being unchanged.
Once or twice the thought has popped into my mind that it would be interesting to stop that deacon in the middle of his prayer or the song-leader in the midst of his/her exercise and say, “Hey! What is this all about? Why are you doing this?”
Those are good questions. I suggest anyone involved in worship leadership pose them (and a few others) to himself.
Why are we doing church this way? Why do we sing these hymns and not those? Why do our prayers sound the same week after week? What would happen if we changed the format? Why would I want to do that? What are we doing here on Sunday mornings? What is our purpose? What do we expect to get out of this?
Worship that is not examined tends to become routine quickly.
By “routine,” I mean the worship service is characterized by a sameness in form, a dullness in expression, a pointlessness in purpose.
C. S. Lewis once said something to the effect that he could worship in any kind of format so long as it was unchanging and unvarying from week to week. He clearly liked the sameness and predictability of his worship service. I expect he has plenty of company, but I’m equally certain this is not good.
The human mind needs to be awakened and challenged in church, not sedated. It needs to be redeemed and focused, not lulled into a lethargy.
When Hosea and later Jeremiah called on God’s people to “break up the fallow ground,” they were calling for a personal humbling and repentance before a Holy God. However, that command pertains to worship also. So easily do we fall into our ruts, offering up hymns and prayers mindlessly, giving offerings thoughtlessly, hearing sermons passively.
Worship that is not examined soon ceases to focus on God and turns its attention to man.
Listen to the congregation as they exit the worship facility. “I got a lot out of that today.” “I didn’t get anything out of that sermon today.”
Man-centered. The object of worship deteriorated into meeting the needs of the worshipers, a task no human agency on earth (the pastor, the staff, the choir) can meet. Only God can meet people’s needs at the deepest level. And those needs are met best through worship.
Recently, in an article on this website, I suggested many in our churches are going about worship all wrong. They go to church for what they can get out of it, rather than to “give unto the Lord the glory due to His name” (Ps. 29:2).
The reaction to that article was divided. Some sent notes of appreciation for awakening them to how they had been worshiping wrongly–coming to ‘get’ instead of to ‘give,’ putting too great a burden on their minister, and then blaming him when they were not fed adequately.
Others treated that line of thought as though it were blasphemy. One person (who did not write me; I found his blog accidentally) called it “utter nonsense.” The very idea that we do not “go to church to be fed spiritually.” I left a response, but have had no communication from him.
At no point did I suggest that we do not need to be spiritually fed. We all need to have our minds awakened and our hearts moved in worship. We all want to leave church different from the way we entered. However–and this is the point–it should be something God did, not the preacher. Something God gave us, not something we worked up. Something God chose to bless us with of His own will and for His own pleasure, not some kind of bargain we made with Him.
Examining our worship means to ask the right questions of ourselves.
1. Why am I here?
Today, as we enter God’s house for the umpteenth time, we will be doing much the same things we have done all those other times. We will sing the same songs, voice prayers similar to countless others we have offered, give offerings, hear sermons–most of them undistinguishable from thousands of others throughout our lifetime. Why?
How we answer that tells worlds about us.
If our answer does not center in God (the Father, the Lord Jesus, the Holy Spirit), then we are giving the wrong answer.
Here are three wrong answers to the question “Why am I in God’s house today?”
- “I’m going through a hard time and need the Lord.” (So, once you get through this and back on easy street, you’ll not need Him any more, right? And we’ll miss you in church.)
- “I’m facing a tough decision and need some guidance.” (The Lord is your counselor? That’s good. But when do you NOT need guidance?)
- “I feel bad over what I’ve done and need God’s forgiveness.” (That’s good, too, as far as it goes. It’s just not enough. You’re treating the Lord like a confessional: get forgiveness, then you’re off to sin again?)
Any answer to the question “Why am I in church today?” that does not center in God Himself is inadequate.
2. Why am I doing what I’m doing?
Why sing these songs, pray these prayers, bring this offering, participate in this Lord’s Supper, hear this sermon? (Or, in the case of the pastor, why preach this sermon?)
Asking “why?” has a glorious tradition. God likes it when His children raise that question. Again and again He told Israel, “So it shall be when your son asks you in time to come ‘What is this?’ that you shall say to him, ‘By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.'” (Exodus 13:14)
(Other places where God says children will be asking these questions include Exodus 12:26; 13:8; Deuteronomy 6:20; and Joshua 4:6,21. You’d think we would figure it out by now, that it’s normal for them to ask and important for us to answer.)
Children have a way of asking pertinent questions. “Why do we have to go to church again this Sunday?” “Why is the sermon so long?” “Why is it so boring?” Rather than rebuking the little one, we should give a well-thought out answer.
If we have one.
The person participating in unexamined worship has no answer other than “this is how we do it in our family.” That sloppy response accounts for children growing up with a disrespect for the religious faith of their youth. They deserve an answer.
And that starts with your finding your own answer. Why do you bring offerings? Why do you sing hymns (and those particular ones)? Why do you sit and hear sermons? Why do the sermons last so long? And why is church pretty much the same every week?
3. What does our kind of worship say about God?
As a Southern Baptist living in New Orleans, I find myself wondering about people who pray so many “Hail Marys” every day. Bumper stickers urge worshipers to “Pray the Rosary.” What, I wonder, does this kind of mindless repetition say about God in the minds of those reciting such prayers? And does the Lord’s comment that “the heathen think they will be heard for their much speaking” (also called “vain repetitions”) apply here (Matthew 6:7)?
If it does, does that caution also apply to my prayers which have a way of sounding fairly like all the prayers of former days? Am I guilty of vain repetitions? And if so, what does that say about how I see God?
The Old Testament book of Malachi deals with this very issue. God in Heaven looked down at the sick offerings worshipers were bringing, the casual attitudes with which they went about His service, the boredom in their minds, and the impurities in their personal lives, and He announced He had just about enough of it. You have wearied the Lord with your words. (Mal. 2:17)
You priests despise my Name, God said (1:6). By offering defiled food on the altar, they were dishonoring the Almighty. When you offer the blind as a sacrifice, is it not evil? And when you offer the lame and sick, is it not evil? Offer it then to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? (1:8)
The overall thrust of Scripture from start to finish is that acceptable worshp to our God is not an interruption of our daily lives but a continuation of the holiness that characterized our daily walk. Here is the prophet Micah: With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before the High God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings? With calves a year old? Is that what God wants?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams? With ten thousand rivers of oil? A lot of people in that day thought so.
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? What could be a greater expression of devotion that offering up one’s own child as a sacrifice to God. That’s how pagans thought, and to their everlasting shame, a number of God’s own people bought into that heresy .
He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you,
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God? (Mal. 6:6-8)
Our worship activities should be an outgrowth of our daily life of devoted obedience to the Father, otherwise we are playing at worship and wasting our time.
When King Saul decided to do things his way instead of obeying the Lord–he was so sure that since he “meant well” the details did not matter–the Prophet Samuel announced, Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. (I Samuel 15:22)
A similar theme is sounded after David’s sin with Bathsheba and the forgiveness he received with the Prophet Nathan in the wonderful 51st Psalm. For you do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; you do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart–These, O God, you will not despise. (Ps. 51:16-17)
Does God want our hymns and offerings? Our prayers and our sermons? Does the Father in Heaven desire our worship? The answer is: He does, so long as these are expressions of our love and faithfulness. He does, so long as they are not attempts to buy His favor. He does, so long as we are making ourselves available to Him–for whatever His will may be–and not seeking His approval on our disobedience.
A well-known preacher of a previous generation used to tell of the time when he was ten years old and experimenting with smoking. On a downtown street, he was puffing on a cigar butt he had found. At that moment, he looked up and saw his father coming down the sidewalk toward him. Thinking quickly, he stashed the burning tobacco into his pocket and rushed forward. “Father,” he said, “Did you see the posters? The circus is coming to town? Can we go? Please?” His father said, “Son, never ask your father for a favor when you are hiding a smoldering disobedience from him.”
Dr. Joe McKeever is a retired Baptist pastor who lives in New Orleans. His articles and cartoons can be seen at joemckeever.com