Pressing In

Wow, it’s been a number of days since my last post. I’ve had a pretty busy week leading up to a trial last Friday. I haven’t conducted a trial in ages so I was a bit nervous, but I’m glad to say that God is good and we won the case, with the Tribunal giving its decision right there on the spot. My client was so happy, he cried! So I thank God for his wisdom and guidance, and now, I can go back to finding some more time to write.

In an earlier post (Encountering Grace), I shared on how re-encountering the grace of God transformed my perspective on, and approach to, worship. In another post (Holy Worship Team, Batman), I shared on how this puts into question how we qualify people in terms of whether they can serve on the worship team.

In this post, I want to explore, in the context of the transforming grace of worship, the concept of “pressing in”.

So, here’s the scene. The service is about to start and the worship leader says something like this: “This morning, let’s not stay on the outside, let’s press in to God in worship.”

Or maybe, halfway through the set, the worship has been a bit “heavy going” and the worship leader says this: “The presence of God is here. Don’t miss out. I want to encourage you to really press in and encounter Him”.

At its most innocent and legitimate, the idea of “pressing in” to God is a picture of our posture and attitude towards God in worship: an individual approaches worship by focussing all of their attention on God and the process of expressing praise to Him. Viewed in this way, it is a legitimate exhortation for every member of the congregation to adopt such a posture.

But more often than not, the worship leader tells you to “press in” because they are frustrated. I say this from my own experience. I don’t know how many times I’ve led worship and the congregation just seems flat. I would start with some gentle cajoling, such as “let’s sing that again from our hearts” to something a bit more forceful: “let’s lift up our praise, let’s really worship Him”. And then, when all else fails, I resort to “*small sigh*, C’mon guys. We have a great privilege of accessing God’s presence today. Let’s not miss this moment. We’ve got to press in….”

In such a context, “pressing in” is another piece in the worship leader’s armoury to try to “guilt” the congregation into worship.

The idea of “pressing in” can be traced to the Old Testament approach to, and progression of, worship. The OT pattern was based on going from the “outer courts”, to the “inner courts” (or holy place) and finally, finishing up at in the “Holy of Holies”. Theologians have suggested that the outer courts represent the flesh (which we can appeal to using “rah-rah” fast songs); the inner courts represents the soul (songs which appeal to the emotion); and the Holy of Holies is where our spirit engages with God.

As a model and theory, this has its limitations.

Firstly, I believe the Old Testament Tabernacle of Moses has been well and truly supplanted by the New Testament pattern. When the Samaritan woman tried to engage Jesus on the correct mode and site for worship, Jesus’ response was startling: in effect, Jesus said that worship wasn’t going to happen at this temple or that temple, using this ritual or that ritual. Rather, He said in verse 24: “God is a Spirit (a spiritual Being) and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth (reality)”.

Secondly, the equating of “fast songs” with the “flesh” seems to suggest that fast songs are less spiritual than “slow songs”. That definitely was the way I used to think. In fact, the first few times I led worship on a Sunday, I used to eschew fast songs because they were carnal songs. If you really want to worship, you should use slow songs. But I don’t think that delineation is fair, nor is it scriptural. If worship involves all that we are, dancing and clapping in a fast song is just as spiritual an expression as bowing in a slow song.

Thirdly, the concept of born-again believers being on the outside is clearly no longer the New Testament norm. Hebrews 10:19-22 says:

Therefore, brethren, since we have full freedom and confidence to enter into the [Holy of] Holies [by the power and virtue] in the blood of Jesus,

By this fresh (new) and living way which He initiated and dedicated and opened for us through the separating curtain (veil of the Holy of Holies), that is, through His flesh,

And since we have [such] a great and wonderful and noble Priest [Who rules] over the house of God,

Let us all come forward and draw near with true (honest and sincere) hearts in unqualified assurance and absolute conviction engendered by faith (by that leaning of the entire human personality on God in absolute trust and confidence in His power, wisdom, and goodness), having our hearts sprinkled and purified from a guilty (evil) conscience and our bodies cleansed with pure water.

This verse actually addresses the issue: we are on the “outside” only because we believe we are. In fact, however, we are under a new covenant with a new priest whose blood (not the blood of goats and bulls that cleanses temporarily) has made us holy so that we may approach God with utter confidence and (as the author of Hebrews puts it) with “unqualified assurance”.

Fourth, and this flows on from the previous point, our sins have been dealt with – fully! Our sins are no longer a barrier between us and God. I used to be taught that my sins separate me from God, so I should always confess my sins and “keep a short account”. There’s nothing wrong with that practice (in fact it is a good practice, but I now believe that our sins don’t separate us from God because He has already imputed into us Christ’s righteousness. So as worship leaders, we used to say, “let’s examine our hearts before we approach God in worship”. But I believe the paradigm should now be the opposite: as we worship, we are transformed.

In Isaiah 6, the prophet said that “he saw the Lord” in worship. The result of that was that he became acutely aware of his shortcomings and the angel came and touched his lips with the coal. He saw God and was transformed. Similarly, in Luke 7, Jesus was anointed by “the sinful woman” in the house of Simon the Pharisee. When you read that passage, you will note that Jesus never stopped the woman from approaching Him in worship. Ironically, it was established religion that said “does Jesus know who is approaching him?” The result of that woman’s worship was Jesus’ saying to her “Your sins are forgiven”.

We don’t cleanse ourselves in order to approach God; we worship and then we are transformed!

How then do we approach God? And how do worship leaders encourage the congregation to engage? I believe the key is in what Matt Redman used to say: “revelation demands a response”. A revelation of the greatness and goodness and faithfulness of God naturally causes our hearts to stir up in a praise response.

Worship leaders should encourage worshippers to focus on the bigness of God, rather than on a person’s own actions and expressions. The latter is a response in works and human effort, the former is a response to the grace of God.

Let’s approach God with a confident expectation of his goodness and grace. Should we still “press in”? By all means. But like the author of Hebrews says, this has nothing to do with our position in Christ and our place in the progression of worship. “Pressing in” should all be about “the leaning of our entire human personality on God in absolute trust and confidence in His power, wisdom, and goodness” because we know we are already forgiven and cleansed and that there is no longer any barrier to His presence. Let us draw near to Him with the full assurance of faith!

Holy Worship Team, Batman

In a previous post, I talked about how an apprehension and understanding of the grace of God will transform the way we approach Him in worship.

In this context, I want to pose the question: who is qualified to serve on the worship team?

In the olden days, we used to impose a high requirement of “holiness” (I’ll explain later why I’ve put this in quotation marks). Generally, a person wanting to join the worship team had to show some proficiency in music, although ultimately, it was mostly about character, faithfulness and a proven “track record”. One of the things we used to do to test a new recruit’s suitability was to put them on a “lesser” duty (it should be apparent why I’ve used quotation marks here) such as operating the AV and see if they stick it out. This is even if the person was a complete tech-nube.

This created a couple of unexpected problems. Usually, the people on the worship team were seen as “a cut above” every one else, creating a culture of exclusivity, thereby breeding resentment amongst the rest of the congregation who were obviously second-rate in holiness stakes. The second problem was that some people on the worship team, whilst exhibiting loads of character, had very little musical or vocal skill. The lesser skilled people invariable dragged down the musical quality as the team played to the lowest common denominator.

Yet, there is a third problem. And that is that those who were on the worship team felt a keen pressure to keep up appearances of holiness, making it difficult for them to live transparently and authentically.

An understanding of transforming grace changes the way we look at who is qualified to serve.

My former pastor used to say this: “No one is good enough to serve”. What he means is that, of ourselves, we are not worthy but we are made worthy through Christ. I prefer to look at it from the opposite angle and say “everyone is qualified to serve by the grace of God!”

If we look at it this way, standards of holiness should no longer be a measure of whether a person is good enough to be on the worship team. Rather, musical skill and ability become the main qualifying criteria.

You might ask: “doesn’t that create its own exclusivity problem?” And the answer is “yes”, but no different a problem to any other ministry. An usher in the welcome ministry should have a personality that draws people in and have a winning smile. That’s the usher’s gift. A preacher should be good at preaching. A teacher should be good at teaching. And a worship musician should be good at musicking.

Rather than elevate worship ministry above other more “menial” ministries (and in fact, in my view, no ministry is “menial”, it’s just that we have to change our perceptions a bit), we should elevate all ministry to its rightful place of worth. In that sense, I think that we should want worthy and holy people serving in all our ministries at church.

That leads me to the question of what it means to be “holy”.

Some people argue that the worship ministry, following the Old Testament model, requires a particular level of holiness. They point to the fact that the presence of God is so holy that the High Priest who has even a trace of sin will be struck dead in the Holy of Holies. They point to the story of Uzzah, who was struck down when he touched the Ark in 1 Sam 16 and the fact that David was only able to bring back the Ark when it was lifted on the shoulders of the Levites.

The way I see it, the new covenant of grace changes the system. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says that where there is a change of the law, a change in covenant, there is also a change in the priesthood.

First Peter 2:9 tells us that all of us are now “a royal priesthood, a holy nation”. This means that all of us are now holy. All of us are priests and ministers before God.

This brings me to the question of what it means to be holy. Holy as I understand it means “set apart” (“hagios” in the Greek). It is a particular posture and status, not a set of behaviours and actions.

That means we are all holy, no matter what we’ve done.

Think about it this way: if holiness consists of actions, then we had better make sure that all who serve on the worship team are 100% pure and without sin. We all know this is impossible. If this is in fact the requirement, no one would achieve it. This means that God will not inhabit the praises of His people; the unholiness will hinder the flow of the Spirit; worse still, those who purport to touch the Ark (the presence of God) will risk a sudden and untimely demise!

Holiness as a status is a different concept. We have done nothing of ourselves to attain that state. Rather, Jesus the Lamb without blemish took our place and his righteousness was imputed to us. So irrespective of anything we do, we are holy not by our own works but because of what Jesus has done.

What about the verse that says “Be ye holy, as I am holy”? Well, I think that is saying that as God is set apart, and as we are set apart, let us live up to the standard of being set apart. But that doesn’t change the fact that we are already holy. We just need to act it out.

There’s a verse in Exodus when God struck down the Egyptians with a plague (I can’t remember which one). But the Bible says that the Israelites were spared and it says that God distinguished between his people and the unholy. Did Israel do anything to receive that protection or was it simply by virtue of their being God’s chosen people?

In the same way then, I want to suggest that all those who serve on the worship ministry are already holy. This is so even if they are still struggling with some very overt sins. (My only qualification to this is the verse where Paul warns us not to stumble others; so for that reason, I might not let everyone join the team. Even then, there are those who sing badly and they are very stumbling indeed!)

Going to even greater extremes, the modern worship movement has several stories of now prominent worship leaders who began serving in worship ministry even before they had formally crossed the line to become Christians (that concept of when a person crosses the line is of itself worthy of exploration. I believe however that these people, by becoming part of the worship ministry, were already on the “way”). Lincoln Brewster and Henry Seeley come to mind.

I have heard Henry Seeley share on a number of occasions how he used to sit in the back of youth group utterly disinterested until Russell Evans got him to start playing the keyboard.

In one church I visited in Japan, they used to get the unchurched in to perform the music as a means of outreach!

I couldn’t say that in any of those cases, God’s presence was diminished because of the make-up of the worship team!

So then, what qualifications should we set? I think the only distinction remains one of musical ability. Let’s face it. The worship team is not more special than the rest of the congregation. Everyone should be worshipping anyway. The only difference is that they can play music, sing well or dance beautifully. When that becomes the defining qualification, then the quality, the excellence of the musicianship will begin to improve dramatically. Excellence will be the hallmark of the music team, coupled with the powerful sense of God’s sovereign presence responding to the praises of a group of holy people gathered to worship.