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!