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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Worship and Discipleship

Recently, through some books I have been reading, lectures, and a mission trip to Cuba, the Lord began to work in my heart the importance of worship and discipleship.  I had been  listening to some lectures that Marva Dawn gave at Gordon Conwell Seminary some time back and began to process her comments. While in Cuba I had the privilege of teaching to a group of leaders whose ministries could only be described as miraculous.   The following comments reflect much of what I heard and saw and pray can be of help.

One of the questions Marva Dawn asked stuck in my memory:  "Are we asking the write questions when we talk about worship? If we have the wrong diagnosis, the medicine given will not be the treatment necessary to cure the disease."  We have diagnosed the problem as a style of music, when the real problem was we don't really have a biblical understanding of worship.  We focus on what is the correct style, when the real focus should be Who is the center of worship. Until we really begin to work on this problem, we will be treating symptoms, and not the disease.

Biblical worship is centered around God.  Biblical worship will be evangelistic, but the focus is not evangelism. As Marva Dawn has said, "To make evangelism the focus of worship  is to place a responsibility on worship that it was never intended to have."  For sure there are evangelistic services, whose main focus is reaching the lost, but these by definition are not "worship services."  The problem is that we have shifted the biblical responsibility of evangelism from people sharing with people to a "worship service."  The biblical model is people sharing Christ with people.  An example I remember from Dr. Roy Fish's class on evangelism when I was in seminary classically shows how we have shifted the great commission to conform to our personal disobedience. Dr. Fish would say, "rather than going out to where the fish are and throwing out our fishing lines, we are building big beautiful fish tanks and hoping they will just jump in." We shift the great commission from "Go tell" to "ya'll come."

When Paul warned the Corinthian church to avoid unknown languages when they met for worship unless there was someone there to interpret, he was laying down an important principle that worship must be intelligible, but not that it's focus would change from God to the lost.  When the church really begins to realize that they must carry the gospel everywhere they go during the week and focus on the goodness and greatness of God in worship, the lost will come. When the lost come and see a community of faith that loves each other and is unified by their love and worship of God, they will want it for themselves.

By now you may be wondering, "What does all this have to do with worship and discipleship?"  Great question. First,  there was a need to establish a correct base, or foundation from which the rest is built.  So please continue.  Once someone comes to Christ, part of the process of becoming a disciple is learning what worship is and practicing what worship is.  We then need to ask the question, "What is our worship teaching these new converts?"

In Alexis Abernethy's book, "Worship that Changes Lives," book,  John Witvliet shared an important insight:   We are aware of the workings of the Holy Spirit when something unusual occurs in a particular worship service, but often we forget that the Spirit of God is working in us week by week as we gather to worship.  These are the long term effects of corporate worship.   Weekly worship is key to spiritual formation.  Since that is true, what are we teaching?  Marva Dawn asked a group of students at Gordon Conwell Seminary :  " What kind of believers are we forming by what we do in worship?" [Marva Dawn: Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, ITunes University]

 If our songs center around our own feelings, what are we teaching the congregation? Does the emphasis lie in how moved we are in the presence of God or in the truth of who God is in the first place.  Biblical praise is centered in the objective nature of God, not how we might feel about it.  God is all powerful, whether or not I recognize His greatness. God is loving, whether I feel that love or am totally indifferent to all that He has done.  We need to be careful that the truth of God's nature and character is preeminent, not our feelings or response to it.   For example, if we sing about how much we love Jesus because of what He has done for me by answering my prayer, someone who is going through a difficult time  because God didn't answer prayer  the manner desired cannot relate. However, if we can share the truth that God promises to be with us in both good times and bad, the focus shifts back to the truth of who God is and His promise.

If our songs center on celebration, what are we learning? There are numerous examples of celebratory worship in Scripture, however, over one-third of the Psalms are of lament. To ignore the fact that we will pass through difficulties and experience times of doubt, frustration, hurt, anger, and confusion is presenting an incomplete picture of the Christian life. How much stronger it is to be able to identify with the psalmist in worship that we are hurting and   confused, that we need help to trust in the midst of problems, than it is to have members attend services where the only music they hear is of celebration and they leave feeling guilty that they are having difficulty.

If everything in the worship is centered around the likes and tastes of a specific group, when do they learn that the Christian life is not centered around their likes and dislikes, but of learning to become a servant? One of the greatest examples of the unity in diversity that exists is biblical worship. In heaven, Scripture records that people from every tribe and nation are gathered around the throne worshiping the Lamb on the throne. There are no divisions for age, race, style, or generation, just the Body of Christ with its many members submissive to the Head.  If there ever was a time when we needed a biblical model for our worship, it is now and this is it.

What can we do? There are many things and I am not saying that the following are the only ones, or are even the best, but they are at least a start:
1. Begin to shift our focus from worship centered on individual tastes to focusing on the nature and character of God. Ask God for a small group of like-minded people to join you in praying about how to make the transition.
2. We need to train the members in our churches not just the content about what is  biblical worship, but how to apply it to their personal lives and corporate worship.
3. We need to shift our mindset from "going to church" to "being the church" in our daily lives through the week, sharing Christ in as many ways as opportunities arise.  As Francis of Assisi once said, "Share the gospel with everyone, use words when necessary."
4. Train members to understand that worship is something that everyone does, not just those on the platform. The shift from entertainment oriented worship to congregational response is difficult and slow. Nothing in modern culture works to reinforce the biblical model.  Training must start with the children and move throughout the various age groups.
5. Analyze what is being taught through the music that is being used.  Take the last 4-6 months of services and categorize the texts of the songs in this format:
    a. List the doctrines or truths taught
    b. List the focus of text: God's nature and Character,  personal response to God
    c. Describe the focus of music:  celebratory, meditative
    d. Were the the full realities of the Christian life share, or just the "joyful" times?
    e. How much of Scripture was read and used?
6. Use the data to see what has been taught, and develop a plan to bring balance to those areas that are weak.

It is my heart cry that the Church become the church that Christ desires, and that we worship in spirit and truth. We must remember that how we worship is critical to our growth as disciples.