Search This Blog

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What is Congregational Worship?

I realize that the question may seem obvious or perhaps even not worth considering, but Mark Galli, Senior Editor for Christianity Today addresses this issue in part in his article, “The End of Christianity as We Know It.”  []   If you will allow me just a few moments, I would like to just briefly touch on some aspects that might help us reconsider what it means when we gather together for “church.”

What is congregational worship? I will throw out my 2 cents worth and realize that it may not be worth even that, but perhaps it will at least get the conversation started.

    Congregational worship is more than just a group of individuals having quiet times in the same place. It is the Body of Christ gathered together in unity and diversity centering adoration on the King of kings and Lord of lords and responding in obedience to Him. The emphasis is not on "my personal experience," but "our obedient response" to His revealed nature and character.

To understand where all of this started, I must go back to an email from Eric Benoy, our librarian at the Seminary, who really helped me begin to start thinking about “congregational worship.”

    We gather together for corporate worship; a group of people to do something in one accord.  If that is the case, then why do some worship leaders today want to make corporate worship a personal experience?  It is oxymoronic in a way.  If we have gathered intentionally for corporate worship, then should we not then be striving for a corporate offering of praise, adoration, et al and hear from God as a body of believers?  We have come together specifically to be the church gathered; to worship and become equipped to be the church scattered.    [4/16/2010, used by permission]  

Besides being our librarian, and a fine one at that, Eric is a pastor and a dear godly friend whose opinion is worth the time to ponder. I’m not sure I had spent much time thinking about the efforts being made to make “corporate worship” a “personal experience,” but the more I began to mull over the idea in my mind, the more I began to see some of the possible ramifications of the idea.

Biblical worship is God-centered. Scripture describes it as “in Him, through Him, by Him, to Him, and about Him,” that is, the focus of worship is Christ, not our tastes, style, opinions, etc.  If we look at the Isaiah 6 model, as God takes the initiative and reveals Himself, the prophet not only sees the revealed nature of God, but sees himself as God sees him, sinful and unclean. He confesses and is forgiven and the prophet is able to hear God’s voice: “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”  Worship then completes itself in obedient response as Isaiah responds, “Here am I, Lord, send me!”  

How does all that fit into a congregational setting?  A great question.  The idea of the “congregation” is in reference to the “church,” not the church building, but the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ. This body, whose Head is Christ, Himself, is seen in worship in the book of Revelation as thousands upon thousands are gathered around the Lamb on His throne. He is the one central and only focus. Angelic beings circle around Him declaring His nature and glory, hallowed saints cast their crowns toward the One who is worthy. If we could look around at the worshipers in heaven, we would notice that it is multi-generational worship: Not only are there throngs of believers from all the ages, generation after generation, but old and young. It is also multi-cultural worship: tribes from every tongue and nation lifting praise and adoration to God.    

In Acts 2:42 we read that “They were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” [NET] There may be discussion as to what exactly is meant by each of these four activities, but central to each is the fact that they were done corporately. Paul deals with the abuses of the agape feast and the Lord’s Supper in I Corinthians 11, emphasizing the need for self examination, so that when they came together they would not be condemned. It is not by accident that he then deals with spiritual gifts and explains that they are each members of Christ’s body, each with different gifts for the building of the body. In I Corinthians 14, Paul deals with the fact that worship was participatory: “When you come together, each one has a song, has a lesson, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all these things be done for the strengthening of the church.” [14:26 NET] The focus was not on building up the individual participating, but the body as a whole.

A simple focus on the pronouns in the Model Prayer that Jesus left us in Matthew 6:9-13 will also help us see that the corporate emphasis:
This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
[bold type added]

It may be that because we live in a culture that prizes individualism we look at Scripture with “individualistic” lenses. While it is true that we come to Christ as individuals, our “cultural lenses” may filter the importance of seeing ourselves as the Body with Christ as its Head and as the Bride preparing herself for the Bridegroom. Though we are aware that this theme is central to the New Testament idea of the church, what implications are there to worship? Where does the church “see” itself as a the “Body of Christ” and not just a group of individuals? Is it not as believers gather for worship and join together unifying their focus on the Risen Lord?

Seeing ourselves as the Body of Christ is not to demean personal experience, but a help to guard against allowing our focus to shift to “our” personal experience rather than on who Christ is and what He as done.  If we are not careful the desire to achieve a “personal” worship experience becomes a goal in and of itself and misses the object for which the worship should have been directed. We can begin to desire the “experience” more than the “Savior.”   Brian Wren put it this way in book, Praying Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song:

    Oh, I’m thinking of me praising Jesus, and loving the feeling I feel.
    When I think of his touch I am feeling so much
    that tomorrow I’ll praise him for real.
[page 225]

Corporate worship can help us avoid the “me and mine” mentality and can help us see ourselves as Christ sees us. Being mindful that we are part of the Body can also help us avoid delusions of our own importance before God. This is especially needful for those who are in positions of leadership in worship; it is just too easy to fall into the trap of self engrandizement. When our focus is on worshiping as the Body of Christ, we are less likely to define our worship experience by the limited standards of our own experience. Personal preference is surrendered for the good of the whole.

What is the role of personal experience? The responsibility of every believer is to maintain a right relationship with the Father, to confess known sin, receive forgiveness and continue to grow and deepen the relationship.  As we come together in worship, we then come prepared to meet with Him who loved us enough to die to restore the relationship that He knew we so desperately needed. We come together as members of the Body of Christ, different in gifts and abilities, but all functioning for the good of the Body. As we worship, we reflect the “unity in diversity” that is His body.

In corporate worship can we see the unity of focusing everything on Christ. In the same way that a wheel is  recognizable as a wheel when each of its spokes is rightly related to the hub, so the members of the Body are recognizable when rightly related to Christ. Just as a wheel is more than a collection of spokes hub and rims, corporate worship is more than a group of believers in the same room at the same time.

So now what?  What difference does all this mean in relation to what should happen on Sunday morning as we gather together? Glad you asked. For a start, let’s consider the following:

    1. We must teach what biblical worship is and isn’t. There are still many people that believe that “the music is the worship...”
    2. Personal worship is indispensable. We must feed daily on God’s Word; we must immerse ourselves in His presence in prayer. There are no substitutes for personal time with the Father.    
    3. Personal worship is not a substitute for corporate worship. We are baptized into the Body of Christ and are members of His body. There is no biblical idea of a member of the body existing apart from the body.
    4. Corporate worship must facilitate worship that centers itself around Jesus Christ as His Body. The focus of corporate worship is not a focus on personal experience.
    5. We must begin to learn what it means to live and worship as the Body of Christ. Personal preference is willingly subjugated for the good of the whole body.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Worship and Reconciliation

 Worship demands that we be reconciled one to another. Perhaps this is just a reminder to some and perhaps to some, since it is something that seems logical, but not anything that has been cause for contemplation. Reconciliation encompasses an enormous amount of material, but our focus here will just be its relation to worship.
Remember that Matthew 5, 6, and 7 comprise what is known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Chapter 5, verses 3-12 are referred to as the Beatitudes, and afterwards Jesus gives commentary on how our relationship to God and others is to be lived out in the real world. Verses 13-20 deal with living out God’s commandments in a way that was not being done previously. In verses 21 and following, Jesus begins several sections citing Old Testament law and tradition and then explains how the people of his day had mis-applied God’s intention. It is in this context that Jesus deals with relationships and more specifically touches on reconciliation and worship in verses 23-24.

    "Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. [Matthew 5:23-24 NIV]

At first, the connection may not seem very obvious, but as we begin to study, the implications begin to come to light. The “therefore” refers directly to the previous two verses:

    You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell. [Matt. 5:21-22, NIV]

Jesus is stressing how important relationships are and that our attitudes toward others is just as important as our actions. In that context, Jesus goes on to say, “therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar...” Here is where the direct tie to worship begins. The offering referred to here was not the round plate to receive offerings with which we are familiar, but “offering” in this context was that which was being offered to God, whether for the forgiveness of sin, or as a thank offering, regardless, it was an act of worship to Jehovah. So, Jesus tells the hillside multitude that even if they are in the very act of worship and there remember that they have offended someone, to stop the offering and be reconciled to that person, because worship cannot happen until reconciliation takes place. These are strong words indeed, so strong in fact, that I am concerned that we have done more to ignore them, than obey them.

What does it mean to be “reconciled?” Perhaps the simplest way to understand the term is to think of reconciliation as “restored relationship.” Christ provided the way that we might be “reconciled,” to God, that is, that the relationship between God and man might be restored. In a similar way, when we seek to be reconciled with another person, we are seeking to restore a relationship. In our relationship with God, we confess to God that we have broken the relationship through sin and ask for His forgiveness. We were totally helpless to change the situation; we could provide no restitution or pay the debt owed to restore the relationship: Christ did it all. Confession carries the idea of “coming to agreement with,” that is, when we confess our sin we agree with God in how He sees sin and that we have broken the relationship. Again, there is much more that could be said, but for right now let’s continue to apply our basic knowledge to the passage.

In order to be reconciled to the one that we have offended, there must be a recognition that we have done or said something that resulted in broken fellowship and we “confess” to that person and ask for forgiveness.  It may be very possible that the other person might carry a portion of the blame, or that the offense was totally unintentional. Regardless, we must be obedient about our responsibility to take the initiative to reconcile the relationship. Even if the other party is 99% responsible in our opinion, God has commanded that we ask forgiveness to what we have done. Admitting that we have offended someone is difficult. Pride and stubbornness block our admission of guilt and sometimes restitution must be made, but the fruit of a restored relationship is worth the effort.

When we ask for forgiveness, we are not to imply guilt or responsibility of the other person by saying, “I was wrong to do such and such, but you hurt me as well..,” or “if this offended you...” Saying such things only makes things worse. However true, these comments imply that we are more interested in sharing or avoiding blame than restoring the relationship. The need is to confess the wrong and ask forgiveness; the fewer the words the better, because many times other things will be said that might be misinterpreted and cause more damage. Many times the other person will ask for forgiveness as well, knowing that it was a mutual offense. If that occurs, grant it humbly and in no way say anything that would imply that you expected that response.

Asking for forgiveness is more than just saying “I’m sorry.” As I heard a pastor growing up say, “they’re sorry about it too.” Sorrow is an emotion, and reflects the feeling about the situation, but forgiveness reaches down to the depths of the offense. This is why we must ask for forgiveness.

If the person forgives, express gratitude and go. If they do not, many times it is because there might be doubt that you understand the depth of the hurt or there may be doubt of the sincerity of the request. This is especially true if the offense is an often repeated one, as in the case between husbands and wives. Sometimes there may be a hesitation because there has been mutual offense and the other person is reluctant to forgive because to do so would mean asking forgiveness for their personal offenses. If the person cannot forgive, perhaps the most appropriate response would be to say something like, “I realize that this hurt you deeply and I hope and pray that one day you will be able to forgive me.” You must continue to respond in love the that person, regardless. In time, God will be working in their heart and hopefully there will be reconciliation.

Worship demands that we be reconciled. More than ever, I am convinced that the reason that worship doesn’t happen in some churches is precisely because God’s people are not willing to be obedient in this area. Sometime in the past someone said something, did something, etc., and those offended are still nursing the hurt or still trying to justify some right words spoken the wrong way. The Spirit of God is a Spirit of Unity and unity cannot happen with such division. The principle here is that we must seek forgiveness from those we have offended, or we really cannot worship as God intended.

What about those who have offended us? An equally interesting and related passage is found later in Matthew 18:
    Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. "Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. "The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. "But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded. "His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.' "But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. "Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart." [Matthew 18:21-35 NIV]

While the passage in Matthew 5 deals with seeking forgiveness when we have offended someone, here in Matthew 18 Jesus is teaching about forgiving those who offend us.  The purpose of these statements is not to provide full commentary, but underscore the fact that if we are to reflect the nature and character of God, then we must forgive. Remember that God has forgiven us, and no one will or could ever do to us what we have done in our sin against Holy God. Forgiveness is a releasing of the consequences of what should happen into the hands of the only One who knows all there is to know about the situation and circumstances and has the power to do something about it that is in line with His perfect will and plan.

We forgive by an act of the will, not whether we feel like doing so; it is an act of obedience, not a feeling. It has been said, “I can forgive, but I can’t forget.” The truth is you may never forget; but we cannot afford the cost of the continual nursing of an offense, lest it consume us. It is also something that we continually have to do, it is a part of dying to self. Remember, Jesus’ statement implied that it would be a repeated process. It may be that to be able to work through some situations you may need the assistance of a mentor or trained counselor. The important thing to remember is that as we approach the Lord in worship, we do so not clutching on to old hurts and unresolved offense. We must forgive those that offend us; we must release them to the Lord.

Some might ask, “It doesn’t seem fair, why should I have to go ask forgiveness and then also forgive? Isn’t part of that the responsibility of the other person as well?” The answer is, “yes,” it is a mutual responsibility. Reconciliation is a two-sided coin, we seek forgiveness and we forgive. Why? Because it is that important to God that we reflect the unity of who He is and the love that He has for us. Because Jesus and the Father are one. Because we cannot adequately worship God until be are reconciled one with another. Worship demands that we be reconciled.

What would happen in our churches if our people would begin to reconcile one with another? Great revivals of the past were marked by men and women being reconciled both with God and one another. When our desire to worship God is greater than our pride, when our desire to be fully obedient to Him is greater than our hesitancy to be reconciled to one another, I believe we will see revival in our churches.

What can we do? The first time I began to seek reconciliation from those I had offended, I literally made out a list of the individuals I needed to go to ask forgiveness. I wrote out word for word what I needed to say and called them up. We can make another list of those that have offended us and forgive and release them by an act of will to God. There exists a host of great materials on this and so I will not try to duplicate it here, the important thing is that we do it. We seek forgiveness and forgive, because worship demands that we be reconciled one with another.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Prayer and Frustration

“We are praying for you.” I have several dear friends going through cancer and treatments right now and that’s a phrase I often use, because I really am praying. God has invited us to pray about all things, and though I may not know what His perfect will and plan is, I can still lift them to the Father in supplication. I can trust God because of Who He is and what He has done.

“We’re praying for you.” Yet words in the English language can’t seem to wrap around who God is and what He does when He hears those words. There are times in which I want to peel back part of the curtain and see what God does, especially when my prayers can’t comprehend His working. I identify with the father of the boy who said to Jesus, “I believe, help me in my unbelief.”  As the king prayed to God as the enemy approached, “…we don’t know what to do, but our eyes are one you.”     [2 Chronicles 20:12]

I know and believe that God hears our prayers. I have total confidence in the power and authority of God to speak into creation a universe so vast we can’t comprehend it. Yet, I am frustrated by my lack of faith; I am impatient to hear thunder, or to feel a tinkling in my skin; longing for something more than the sound of the words from my mouth falling on my ears when I pray.  I think if I could get a glimpse of the heavens moving, I might feel better. Are angels covering the earth at God’s bidding with every prayer Christian’s utter? In the midst of overwhelming tragedy and seemingly hopeless circumstances, we cry out to a God who loves us, who is more committed to our becoming like the nature of His Son than we are, and He does hear. Mentally, I know that. Emotionally, I want the reassurance as well, but realize that my emotions are not the basis for my faith.

In his book, A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis stated that sometimes we cry out to God so loud that we can’t hear Him speak to us. Perhaps that’s me, maybe I’m crying out too loud. We pray for the good of those for whom we pray, at least as we understand it from our limited viewpoint. We pray that God’s name and honor would not be minimized by negative results; that He would receive glory through the healing and draw men and women to Himself, for we know that it is His desire that all come to Him. Yet we cannot see what God sees, nor do we understand as He does.

When bombarded with negative and doubting thoughts, the Father gently leads me back to His Word. Job was a more righteous man than I am might ever be, pleading with God why the tragedies were assailing him so, yet God in His love and wisdom never tells him “why,” but only reveals more of “who” He is.  Job never was told about the dialogue between God and Satan, never heard God’s voice affirming his integrity. All God shares with Job is Himself. So, if I am to make application to the circumstances around me, I need to go back and affirm the “who” of the God I know: loving, compassionate, holy, righteous, all powerful, all knowing, everywhere present, unchangeable, eternal, etc.

Somehow I must overlay that with the fact that He will allow things in our lives that can reshape us into His image. Just as a diamond must be chipped away to reveal its beauty, I realize that I must be “chipped” away as well. I must be refined of the dross of those things which dull His reflection, yet this is a horribly painful process. The surgeon must inflict pain to remove the tumor. Not to do so would be considered uncaring, and harsh.  God does allow pain. Some no doubt, as a result of our sin, and some that serves the purpose of refining. God does allow pain. The ultimate pain inflicted on anyone was that of the Father allowed the Son to experience for the payment of our sin. It was certain not a lack of the Father’s love for the Son that permitted the cross. Neither can we doubt God’s love for us. Is there an example greater than Christ on Calvary to show the extent of God’s love?

What should I do?
•    I will continue to pray, asking God to heal according to His perfect will.
•    I will continue to trust, not because I know the outcome, but because I know the nature and character of the One who controls the outcome. He has shown Himself as faithful and true, righteous and just, loving and kind.
•    I will not try to bargain with God, for I have nothing to give and God does not bargain.
•    I will believe that based on His Word and testimony that He will not allow anything that will not be used for His ultimate glory and their ultimate good.
•    I will give thanks “in all things,” not for all things, as Scripture commands.