Returning to the Heart of Worship 1

In about February this year, the worship director of our campus ministry asked me to share at their worship team retreat about the Heart of Worship.

When I crafted the message for the retreat, I prayerfully considered what God would have me say to this group, without thinking much more about the impact of that message.

Since then, I have now shared the Heart of Worship message three times. The one which I have recorded and which you can listen to in this post was the most recent, which was shared during our main service Worship Team Night on 26 April 2016.

The second time I shared the message (in a modified form) was during our leaders’ meeting. After I shared the message, I saw our worship pastor Dave cry. This was quite an achievement (or perhaps more correctly, something which the Holy Spirit achieved). I have walked with Dave for the past nearly four years, and until that moment, had never seen him cry. He has gone through difficult challenges, criticisms and conflict, but he has always taken them in his stride. Occasionally, I wondered if he had any emotion at all.

So it is quite an honour and a privilege to serve with a leader who, when he cries, cries about the things of God.

Dave and I took over the leadership of our church’s ministry in July 2013. Since then, we have put a lot of effort into honing our craft and building teamwork. These initiatives have increased our skill level significantly to the point that if you visited our church, the level of “delivery” in our worship sets is pretty consistent each week.

But we realised that, at least in a public setting, not once in that time did we ever address our team about the heart of worship.

So this message on the Heart of Worship has become a necessary mid-course correction for our team. Not so much that what we have been doing so far has been wrong. In fact, what we have been doing has been very good and should be celebrated and improved upon. But we also need to balance our focus.

This is because we cannot talk about the excellencies of worship without addressing the heart. Primarily, the task o the worship team is to lead people into encounter with God through music and song. “Leading people to encounter God” is the key task. Music and song is the vehicle.

Jesus tells the Samaritan woman in John 4:23-24 that the Father is seeking worshippers who will worship in spirit and in truth. What is conspicuously missing in His description of worship is any mention of click tracks, guitar riffs or, for that matter, music and song.

Put simply, worship in spirit and truth is worship that emanates from the heart, guided and transformed by the truth of God’s word. True worship happens when we encounter God in our heart.

Many people have now asked me to put my message on the web, so here it is. It probably wasn’t the best delivered message – I was pretty tired that night – but I pray that as you listen to it, God will really minister to you.

Over the next few posts, I will include and amplify on some of the main points.

Be blessed!

 

The Lord Gives and the Lord Takes: Approaching Worship With Sincerity

When many worship songs written these days verge on being lyrically flakey, Matt Redman continues to buck the trend in writing singable melodies paired with rich theological meaning.

I love Redman’s song “Blessed Be Your Name” for those reasons. It is poetic, using contrasting imagery in each couplet, and yet forcefully reiterating a truth that in every season of our lives, our response should be to bless the name of the Lord.

Today, I heard someone say that we shouldn’t sing this song in church because it is theologically incorrect. This is the second time I have heard someone say this. The argument goes that God is a God who gives – not one who takes away. There are scriptural underpinnings for this. For example, Romans 11:29 says that God’s gifts “are irrevocable”. And James 1:16 says this:

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

So I’m not arguing with that premise. The issue here is whether we should be singing a song like “Blessed Be Your Name“, which itself has a scriptural source in Job 1:20-22:

At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said:

“Naked I came from my mothers womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”

In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.

If we accept that God is a God who gives (and who therefore does not take away), this passage reveals two interesting thoughts:

Firstly, the writer of the book affirms what appears to be contradictory: that despite saying that God is a God who takes away, Job was not charging God with wrongdoing. This goes to the theological issue because if God is a God who doesn’t take way, then surely Job was charging God with doing something inconsistent with His character.

Secondly (and more importantly), even if Job has expressed a theological mistruth, this did not affect the acceptability of his worship to God.

And this goes to the core of the issue of why we should continue to sing songs like “Blessed Be Your Name“. Whilst our worship should be grounded in theological truths, sometimes we need to express our worship in raw honesty and choose to praise despite of our circumstances.

Wasn’t this how the Psalmists worshipped? In Psalm 22, David laments about how God who had forsaken him and failed to answer his cries. But then David says “Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the praise of Israel”. In Psalm 42, the Psalmist laments about why God had forgotten him in the midst of the enemy’s taunts. And he concludes in v 11:

Why are you so downcast, O my soul? … Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.

Approaching God with honesty and sincerity is a protocol for acceptable worship.

John 4:22-23 tells us that God is seeking worshippers who worship “in spirit and in truth”. The word “truth” is from the Greek “aletheia“, which means (Strongs 225):

  1. objectively the reality lying at the basis of an appearance; the manifested veritable essence of a matter;
  2. subjectively “truthfulness”, not merely verbal, but sincerity and integrity of character.

It is one thing to verbally declare God’s truth in worship and yet not mean it. (Jesus condemned the Pharisees for doing so as people who worshipped with their lips, yet their hearts were far away.) It is another thing to worship sincerely and with integrity. This might mean verbally lamenting that God has given and God has taken away, as long as our direction of worship has God at its endpoint. This is the type of worship that is not only acceptable to God, but which God is actively seeking.

So should we be singing songs like “Blessed Be Your Name“? Absolutely! Because it expresses a thought we have all (if we were honest with ourselves) entertained, especially when we have experienced challenges in our lives. In the same song, we express our sincere disappointment (“You give and take away“), yet in faith we declare that our “heart will choose to say, Lord, blessed be Your name“. This is what it means to worship in spirit and in truth.

 

 

Worship: The Centre of Existence

It’s been a while since I last posted. Life has just gotten really busy. But I recently had to do some assignments for Metro Worship Academy. I haven’t written assignments in years! My friend Kelwin says that they should call them “adventures”, rather than “assignments”. We will see…

In an interview with the Canberra Times[1], former lead singer of KISS, Gene Simmons, professing to once being religious, reveals his objection to the worship of the Christian God. “Why,” he asks, “would this God who is very non-human want to hear his name repeated? … Now that’s a really frail characteristic.”

Simmons view discloses a perverted understanding of worship by projecting a human trait on a Being who is beyond and before created things. God’s passion for His own glory is in fact at the very core what it means to worship.

Harold Best calls it the “centre of existence”:

Worship is at once about who we are, about who or what our god is and about how we choose to live…. [A]t this very moment, and for as long as this world endures, everybody inhabiting it is bowing down and serving something or someone.[2]

The question then is: who or what do we choose to worship? Simmons failed to understand that, by virtue of His being God, God necessarily must exalt His name and glory above anything else and that “His first and central love is Himself”.[3] This singular fact is the foundation and fountainhead of created order: for the individual, society, the nations and the cosmos.  Giglio observes:

When God makes His glory the centre of all things and the center of our affections, he gives us Himself – the very best gift He could give us, and the ultimate expression of His love.[4]

In other words, it is only when we understand the centrality of God in our universe that we can fully realise our personal destiny and the destiny of our cities and nations, undergirded by the love and generosity of God in His divine mission to reconcile all things to Himself.[5]

God’s desire and passion for His own glory, manifested in His goal of reconciling all things to Himself led to Jesus’ death on the cross, which is also for Christians, the starting point of our worship.  Paul says this:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.[6]

To offer our bodies suggests that worship must be an all-consuming, continuous act (in other words, “worship as a lifestyle”) but the use of the word “offer” (in the present continuous tense) requires a direct act, a sacrifice. In one sense, whole-life worship can be very much an unconscious reflection of the way we have chosen to live, manifested in our daily choices and actions. But there is also a place for direct, intense adoration and praise.  James Macdonald observes:

We are frequently told that making a meal for your family or cleaning your car or helping your neighbour are all acts of worship. When these acts are the outgrowth of our love for God and done to demonstrate that love, I would agree that they are “worshipful”…. Worship is the actual act of ascribing worthy directly to God. Worshipful actions may do this indirectly, but when the Bible commands and commends worship as our highest expression, it is not talking about anything other than direct, intention, Vertical outpouring of adoration.[7]

So in light of this, the question we ask is: how do we worship? We must understand that worship begins with the heart, from our affections. God is not focussed on “outward appearance … but the Lord looks at the heart”[8]. Jesus puts it another way: God is seeking worship that is “in spirit and truth”[9], that is, worship that is initiated within our spirit by the Holy Spirit, and worship that expresses (and is consistent with) an inner reality.[10]  That does not mean that outward expressions are not important, for indeed the actions of worship themselves (singing, kneeling, bowing, raised hands, clapping, shouting) hold great spiritual significance[11]. The point is that outward expressions originate in inward attitude.

The result? Worship transforms us. We become like what we worship.  The Psalmist says that “those who make [idols] will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.”[12]  Hibbert observes that “worship not only changes our inner lives, it also affects the expression of our faith and service to God in the world around us”.[13] God uses us to change our community and cities, but in the midst of worship, God also supernaturally and metaphysically brings about transformation on the earth.

In Revelations 5, John has a vision of the Lamb who was slain, encircled by the 24 elders, standing as the answer to the question: who is worthy to open the scroll? As the elders worshipped with the harp and the bowl of incense (signifying prayer), the Lamb began to open the seals of the scroll. The scroll represents a will and testament, by which God bequeaths His divine destiny to the earth and all creation.  Through the means of worship therefore, God ultimately reconciles all things to Himself to the praise of His jealously-guarded glory.

 

[1] Peter Karp, Untitled Article, Canberra Times, 12 September 1999.

[2] Harold Best Unceasing Worship (Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2003) p 17.

[3] Louie Giglio I Am Not But I Know I Am (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2005) p 162.

[4] Id, p 165.

[5] Paul states in Colossians 1:19, 20 (NIV) that “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Note: all Scripture references are to the New International Version unless otherwise stated).

[6] Romans 12:1.

[7] James MacDonald Vertical Church (Colorado Springs: David C Cook, 2012) p 168-169.

[8] 1 Samuel 16:7.

[9] John 4:23,24.

[10] Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance #225: “alethia”. The word translated as “truth”, according to Strong, means “signifying the realty lying at the basis of an appearance” and also “sincerity and integrity of character”.

[11] An analysis of the various expressions of worship and their significance are beyond the scope of this post.

[12] Psalm 135:18.

[13] Vivien Hibbert Prophetic Worship (Michigan: Baker Books, 1998) p 147.