The Worship Scandal
by Ed Vasicek
Highland Park Church is not perfect, but I am very proud of our music ministry. By that I mean not only do we have excellent musicians, but that our excellent musicians have excellent walks with the Lord. They also evidence spiritual depth, and a hunger for the Word of God. Such is not the case in many congregations. This paper is addressed to the broader evangelical community, and I want to state beforehand that our musicians exemplify an attitude toward spiritual maturity that is an example of the solution. It is my desire that our perspective is multiplied.
I think it is important to be honestsometimes brutally honest. Hopefully, my attempt at such honesty is tempered by love as I write about the subject that divides more evangelical Christians in our day than any other, namely, worship. It is a theme about which I have much passion. Much of what I say is backed up clearly by Scripture; other thoughts are opinions based on my observation. I acknowledge this beforehand. Although this paper will only touch upon the many Scriptures addressing why the church gathers,1 such a study would help the reader better understand where worship fits within a church gathering.2
Part I: Unlearning and Removing Mental Blocks
In the past I have been so utterly frustrated with the undefined use of the word "worship" that I fasted from using it in my vocabulary, using words like "praise" or "focusing upon God" as alternatives. The word "worship" often gets used in a wide variety of ways. Some people mean "anything religious or churchlike." Others equate the term with glorifying God. I do not. To my way of thinking, I can "eat or drink" or do whatever I do to the glory of God, so I understand glorifying God to be broader than worshipping God. Glorifying God includes worship, but it also includes a whole lot more. Perhaps the most frustrating definition of worship to me is the exaltation of music by calling it "worship." In many discussions, the word worship is used to sanctify the love of music. But if these definitions are incorrect or incomplete, how then should worship be defined?
A broad definition of worship in general might be "to honor as
deity." This would encompass idol worship such as in
Israelites created an idol in the shape of a calf and bowed down to worship it.
It also includes pagan worship of nature, such as in Romans 1:25, "They
exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things
rather than the Creatorwho is forever praised." However, when we
discuss biblical worship, the broadest definition to my mind is "focusing
on the person, works, or attributes of God, mentally and often verbally
expressing what impresses us about God with sincerity and understanding."
Christian worship involves sincerity, honesty, understanding, and spiritual depth. It is truth-loving and does not remain ignorant, for it is impossible to truly worship God and yet choose to remain in ignorance, to not be a lover of truth. The Old Testament warns us, "...my people are destroyed from lack of knowledge..." (Hosea 4:6). Christian worship deals not only with contemplating God, but doing so "....in spirit and truth." (John 4:24). "In spirit" may refer to the Holy Spirit or to our attitude (sincerity, using all our heart, our spirit). This is not the same as an emotional lift but rather an intense seeking of God with all we are. Letting go of inhibitions, often the result of what is falsely called worship, should not be equated with the work of the Holy Spirit, whose fruit is self-control and moderation.
Worship is not an emotion, it is a focus. Emotions can, and sometimes should, accompany worship, but emotions in themselves are not worship. Emotions are often a by-product of worship and can result from true worship or from psychological manipulation. Let me state this clearly: feelings and emotions are not evil; they are welcome if submitted to and regulated by the truth of God's Word. Unfortunately, the growing trend is to seek emotional experiences but not genuine opportunities for worship. And many do not discern the difference.
Worship is not music either. Worship is not a church service, not a sermon, not a prayerthough all of these can be used as vehicles of worship. Worship, like genuine revival, cannot be planned. We plan services and provide opportunities for worship, but we cannot make people contemplate God and his ways.
In our day, many people claim they want a certain "worship style." I don't believe most of these claims. I think they want a certain musical style, a certain environment. Those who fancy a church at which they can have a good time hunger for excitement; they want sanctified fun. Those who want a very traditional service are often concerned about preserving memories; they want the comfort of routine. Whether they want an emotional high or an emotional calm, I am convinced that most of these cravings have nothing to do with God and everything to do with feelings. Only a minority, I am convinced, are really that concerned about God. He might be in the picture, but he is not the main issue.3
If God were the issue, the participants would be more prone to argue about theology than about service structure. They would be concerned about worshipping God "in truth." They would be jealous for an accurate understanding of the one they adore and be repulsed at misrepresentations of him. However, like the Samaritan woman, so many worship "what they know not." I contend that many people "worship" the feeling they get from music or a church meeting but have very little actual concern for the supposed object of their worship: God himself.
Many folks who have strong opinions about what they call "worship" are simply people who love music and the feelings it gives. The word "worship" becomes a religious justification for the love of music, no matter what the style. This thought needs to be contemplated for it is the root of much current debate. Music has been scientifically shown to stir the emotions, and in the Christian realm this stirring of the emotions is almost always called the work of the Holy Spirit. Whereas the Holy Spirit may use a godly song to stir our emotions, we need to be careful in distinguishing the spiritual from the emotional, something rarely done. Most people know what kind of music they like, and that's the bottom line. What they like becomes the criteria for what good "worship" is.
Even John Calvin saw this problem in his time and demanded no instruments and no songs other than psalms. I do not agree with Calvin's solution, but I do agree with his diagnosis. Even in the 16th century, the debate was over what people liked and not about God. If God is what worship is about, why do we let sloppy theology slide but fight over music styles?
I am an art lover, and I believe God can and does use music ministry, drama, or my particular art form, oration. But note this: the art form is not sacred unless it accomplishes a sacred task.
My concern is not with the concept of music ministry: I think it is crucial for a healthy church to sing praises to God. My concern is not drama, creativity, nor styles. I personally enjoy variety. My concern is the displacement of the Word of God. It is not what is added that troubles me, but what is taken away. The trend is more and more music and less and less Bible, particularly Bible teaching. There is less emphasis on Bible reading, no instruction or concern about Bible interpretation or application, and, as Os Guiness puts it, "the promoting of an 'idiot culture' and mindless Christianity."4
Twenty years ago, mainstream evangelical Christians looking for a church would begin with truth issues: doctrine and positions on moral issues. Now church shoppers begin with music. Finding a "good worship experience" has replaced taking up the cross and being trained to do the work of ministry. Even though the world no longer believes in absolute truth, evangelical believers are still supposed to be lovers of truth. The reality is that few do. Indeed, the posture of many evangelical church shoppers is that of a philosophy called "existentialism" (truth does not matter, but what works for me, what makes me feel good, is what is valid).
When the purpose of a church gathering is declared to be "worship," and neither Bible study nor prayer are considered "worship" (or inferior forms of it), then what is viewed as important? Music and feelings. Music then becomes untouchable and of greatest importance. That is the subtle message. Truth or intense study is for spiritual squares. Yet this is so far from the New Testament's teaching, with its constant emphasis on teaching and doctrine.
Additionally, the growing "worship" philosophy overtaking evangelical churches is being developed into a science with its own terminology and follows tangents far from the simplicity of Scripture. Here's a quotation that demonstrates the very gobbledygook I am against.
"Worshippers tend to have a handle on enjoying the presence of God. They understand the deep love He has for His people. When in His presence, they revel in the power and strength of God's character. Worshippers put aside time to enjoy the romance of an intimate relationship with the Lord." (Pray Magazine, Jul/Aug 2000).5
I cannot imagine Paul the Apostle preaching such nonsense. I think this is indicative of the self-delusion going on. The need to create an aura, an atmosphere, for meaningful Christian meetings is totally foreign to Scripture.
Acts 2:42 describes the four elements common in the earliest meetings of the church, "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." Note what is conspicuously absent from this description: preaching, worship, and music. None of those three are mentioned here. This is significant. I think it indicates that music and preaching are means to help further the four ends mentioned above, not ends in themselves.
Teaching is foundational to a church meeting. Doctrinal and moral truth are key to the Christian life. Besides direct teaching (something most churches neglect), preaching can help instruct and foster learning. Music can be a teaching tool, especially music that is sung and has meaningful lyrics. Fellowship can be enhanced by music, for example. Music is not only to be directed vertically toward God, but also horizontally, to one another as taught in Ephesians 5:19: "Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs..." The Lord's Supper can be enhanced by preaching, teaching, sharing, and music that leads us to contemplate the cross.
Prayer, in my view, is most likely to lead people into real worship. Songs that are prayers are useful this way, but in spoken prayer we are talking directly and simply to God. Prayers that are filled with praise, in my judgment, have the best chance of leading a good number of a group into pure worship.
Of any approach, prayers of praise should be our top priority if we want to bring people into the likelihood of genuine worship. Talking to God, telling him who he is, how we are impressed with him, how we want to honor himit can't get more worshipful than that. Yet there is so little interest in prayer, particularly prayers of praise. In my mind, this reinforces my conclusion that most of the "worship" debates are not about worshipping God, but are idolatrous attempts to worship procedures or art forms that the debaters enjoy. If people enjoy songs of praise only but not prayers of praise, it seems logical that music, not the actual praise, is what is truly enjoyed. It is my personal litmus test of sincerity. What we seem to have in most cases is a worship of music, a worship of feeling, a worship of "worship" that is replacing true worship of God.
Part II: Music as a Music Ministry
Martin Luther believed that, for practical purposes, outside of preaching and
teaching the Word of God, music was the next most important element in a church
service. Luther's comments were not based on Scripture, but on his
personal observation. I strongly agree with Luther's view that the Word is
number one, a thought no longer believed, in the sense of actual practice, by
most of evangelicalism today.
I also agree that music ministry is quite important. When music becomes ministry rather than bearing a constant burden to create a "worship experience," wonderful possibilities emerge. Once a soloist or group feels no pressure to create a feeling, such persons can help further the biblical purposes for church gatherings: edification, training for ministry, stimulating to love and good works, or simply sharing a time when those with talents or gifts minister to others.
Music can now be used to encourage believers to love one another, evangelize the lost, promote missions, remind us of the judgment seat of Christ, or make family a priority. Just as only a portion of the Bible focuses directly on the nature, person, or works of God, so Christian music can help further any of the goals God has for the church. Of course, an important goal is to provide worship opportunitiesand to do this quite often. With all my reservations, I still must admit that, in my opinion, music provides some of the best opportunities for worship (right after prayer in my book). But church music should not be restricted to only providing worship opportunities.
Music is an emotional medium. But emotions should not be the goal of true worship, rather, a by-product of the same (see part three for more about the goal of worship). Sometimes preaching is also emotional or at least occasionally passionate. The most important of many questions to ask in evaluating a sermon are: (1) Was it true to and grounded in the Word? (2) Were people built up, encouraged, reminded, motivated, or educated in some way that will affect them for the Kingdom of God? (3) Does the speaker's life lend credibility to the message he preaches? These same questions should be asked of a musical number. While a musical number may have a simpler message than a sermon, sometimes that message can be potent. More than one song has socked me between the eyes over the years. Sermons often break new ground, whereas songs often remind us of neglected old ground. It is great when they work together.
The differences between preaching and music ministry are legion; but they do converge in these key areas. Having said all this, it is important to note that teaching and preaching are constantly emphasized in the epistles written to church leaders (I and II Timothy and Titus); they cannot be sacrificed. But whereas teaching and preaching are the bare bones necessity of spiritual growth and depth, and music apart from solid preaching/teaching will accomplish little genuine growth in spiritual maturity, it is, in my view, the ministry of music that adds a richness to ministry about which the Scriptures only hint, even apart from the teaching music may sometimes provide. Whether that ministry is simple or complex, it should be freed up to be ministry and not mandated to evoke "worship" emotions. Those who minister in music should aim to do just that: minister. Much of that ministry will be providing worship opportunities. But worship opportunities need to be viewed as only a part of what music ministry is about.
Part III: A Model for Genuine Worship
As a pastor who has expressed no reservations about adapting to current culture,
who enjoys a variety of musical styles, who advocated contemporary music even
when it was unpopular to do so, who has done drama himself, and who enjoys the
arts in general, I am not writing from the position of one who by nature is out
to maintain traditionalism. I write, instead, as a student of the Word and
an observer of people.
When it comes to what church is about, few seem to wrestle with the Scriptures; instead, personal preference most often steers the course. To my way of thinking, following Jesus Christ means taking direction from him, submitting our preferences to convictions developed from a sincere and deep study of his Word. Our preferences must be forsaken for his will.
One such conviction I have is the basis for part three of this study. Here is my proposition up front: God's Word is central to true worship; real worship flows from devotion to Scripture. If this is true, then those who are not devoted to Scripture are not serious about real worship or are at best misguided about worshipping God in spirit and truth.
I was chatting with a metropolitan evangelical pastor at a conference.
We were talking about youth, and he mentioned that ten years ago when the youth
planned a service, it was a rock 'n' roll time. Now it was a time of
silent meditation and chants. Then I put in my two cents, "You know,
the aggravating thing in all this is that in both instances the Word of God gets
the shaft." He agreed without hesitation. Anything except Bible
study, especially study that makes you think, that requires use of the mind.
Romans 12:1-2 says, "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's
mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to Godthis
is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern
of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you
will be able to test and approve what God's will ishis good, pleasing and
What does God want from us? Our obedience, all of us. How are our lives transformed? By renewing our minds. The current posture of many churches today is that feeling (the heart or spirit) is what matters and using the mind is cold and calculating. Is it any wonder that lives are not being transformed? If we despise using our minds, how can we begin to be renewed? When we use our renewed minds and examine Scripture without a pre-existing agenda, we may come to conclusions that differ from those based upon our own preferences. So we must turn to the Scriptures.
Although many passages of Scripture are used to illustrate differing philosophies of "worship," I will base my paradigm upon Nehemiah 8 and 9. Nehemiah 9:1-6 describes a great time of worship:
Nehemiah 9:1-6 "On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads. Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers. They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the Ltheir God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshipping the L their God. Standing on the stairs were the Levites...who called with loud voices to the L their God. And the Levites...said: 'Stand up and praise the L your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise. You alone are the L . You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you.'"
How did the people get to that point of intense worship? Let's look at the steps they took and we can take.
Nehemiah 8:1-3 "All the people assembled as one man in the square before
the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law
of Moses, which the L
Nehemiah 8:7-8 "The Levites....instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read."
Nehemiah 8:9-10 "Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe,
and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, 'This day is
sacred to the L
The best definition of worship means to bow down to. When one worships
an idol, one incurs God's wrath: only God is to be bowed down to. Whether the bowing is physical or a submission of the soul, it is genuine if it
comes from facing the reality of who God is and who we are in comparison. God's Word declares who he is; when we are conscious of who he is, we are
The fruit of genuine worship is seen as follows: for a time, we have realigned our perspective as to who God is and who we are. However, it doesn't take long before we veer to the right or left, we increase and he decreases. When we have genuinely contemplated God, he increases in our evaluation and we decrease; hence the frequent need for worship.
Real worship flows from genuine devotion to God, not through the creation of an atmosphere. It has its prerequisites: individual believers who remember that Jesus is not only the way and the life, but also the truth and who contemplate the truth of God's Word. Real believers realize that truth is not to be left on a shelf, not given lip service but sought after and practiced. Such people often appreciate well-planned services and stirring music. Our church is especially blessed because in our particular congregation most of our musicians have a deep walk with God and a desire to minister musically with their hearts. And so do many of our members. But the truly devout could also truly worship God in a catacomb or before a river bank. Few of us would prefer to do so. But we could. Could you?
1 This paper is meant to replace a previous one I wrote titled, "Worship or Edification?" In my previous writing, I emphasized that the primary purpose of church meetings, as defined in the New Testament, is edification (strengthening or upbuilding of believers)* not worship. Though I stated emphatically that worship is important, I never addressed the positive side of what real worship is.
*(1 Corinthians 14:26b reads, "All of these must be done for the
strengthening (edification) of the church..." Some other interesting
Scriptures to look up that evidence that the main business of the gathered
church is edification include
1 Corinthians 8:1;
1 Corinthians 10:23;
1 Corinthians 14:3, 4, 5,
2 Corinthians 10:8;
2 Corinthians 12:19;
1 Thessalonians 5:11;
2 Gene Getz, Sharpening the Focus of the Church, Victor Books, 1984, pp. 319-359.
3 Dr. Joel Robertson, Natural Prozac, Harper San Francisco, 1997, p. 160 writes, "Most individual spiritual practices, such as prayer and meditation, and all meditative church, synagogue, and temple services boost serotonin levels. On the other hand, emotional preaching, singing, and arousing spiritual practice, such as those common in the Pentecostal faith, boost norepinephrine and dopamine....Obviously, individual prayer, meditation, and quiet services will appeal to Satiation types, while highly arousing singing and services will appeal to Arousal types...."
4 Os Guinness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds, Baker, 1994. Although the entire book is dedicated to this subject, see especially pp. 28-33.
5 Summarized in Current Trends and Thoughts, Oct. 2000 (Vol. 16, No. 10), p.3, from Pray Magazine, Jul/Aug 2000, Issue 19, pp. 14-17.
6 David H. Stern, Restoring the Jewishness of the Gospel, Jewish New Testament Publications, 1990, p. 21.
7 Dr. Ron Moseley, Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Jesus and the Original Church, Messianic Jewish Publishers, 1996, pp.7-14, 137-138.
8 This information is quoted in numerous sources, but George Barna's most up-to-date statistics are available on his home page, www.barna.org, or in his books, such as The Second Coming of the Church.
9 Brad H. Young, Jesus, The Jewish Theologian, Hendrickson, 1995, p.266.
10 See either Harrison, Archer, and Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Moody Press), Vol. II, p. 914 (word number 2360) or Strong's Exhaustive Concordance (Hebrew Word 7812).
Highland Park Church