By Dr. L. Lavon Gray and Dr. Frank S. Page
Excerpted from Hungry for Worship: Challenges and Solutions for Today’s Church (New Hope Publishing, 2014)
Imagine for a moment you arrive at the church house this Sunday, Bible in hand and family in tow, ready for a great day of worship. As you enter the worship center things look like any other Sunday: pre-service music is playing, people are greeting one another, the worship band is ready to go. At the appointed hour, however, things get weird. The worship leader steps into position carrying a statue, a golden calf just like the one you learned about as a child in Sunday School, and places it in the center of the platform. As the congregation audibly gasps, the worship leader invites the congregation to stand and worship this “thing,” this inanimate object that carries no power or hope. Two things then happen: First, several deacons rush the platform, remove the idol, and chase the worship leader out the front door. Second, a medical team rushes to the pastor with a defibrillator unit to resuscitate him following cardiac arrest!
While this situation may seem ludicrous, it is closer to reality than we might want to believe. In truth, we live in a land of idol worshipers. Over the past thirty years, a monumental shift of focus has placed a growing emphasis on the topic of worship, giving rise to countless books and articles, a plethora of conferences and training events, a new genre of “worship” consultants, as well as parachurch organizations and entire publishing houses singularly dedicated to the subject. Colleges and seminaries now offer degrees in worship studies/leadership. The subject of worship, almost without fail, surfaces in any church-related discussion.
While at first glance this is not bad, after all God instructed us to worship Him, it is theologically problematic when our approach to worship displaces the object of worship. Unfortunately, this is exactly where we find ourselves today. While we have not collected gold from our church members to use in forging literal idols, far too many of us have elevated our methodology of worship to “golden calf” status, sanctimoniously placing it on the altars of our churches. Our intentions may be honorable, but an idol is still an idol and the end result is exactly the same!
When did we become idol worshipers? It happened when the method of worship became THE priority of our churches. Many spend much more time promoting a style of worship than encouraging people to stand in the presence of God. And a lot of us have bought into the idea! This coming weekend countless people will leave our worship services and comment, “I loved the worship today,” when they really mean they loved the music. Therein lies the problem: our churches are filled with people hungry for a specific worship style (traditional, contemporary, modern, alternative, coffeehouse, or whatever else) rather than a life-changing dialogue with God. In elevating musical styles, our churches have polarized the Bride of Christ and there is no one to blame but ourselves.
We’re Not the First
Our generation is not the first to struggle with idolatry. Throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites weaved back and forth between worship of Jehovah and worship of pagan gods. In each of these instances, the end result never was good. Christians must understand there are always significant consequences for displacing God as the object of worship.
On Mt. Sinai God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, as well as additional laws to guide the lives and worship practices of the Children of Israel. During these Sinai encounters, God described in detail the specifics for building the Tabernacle and its surrounding courtyard and outlined the entire sacrificial system. No detail was left to chance, with colors, types of cloth and metals all intricately detailed by God. In these twelve chapters, God defined and prescribed the worship practice of the Israelites leaving no margin of error. Finally, in Exodus 31:18, God gave Moses two stone tablets containing His laws, written by the His own finger. Moses was in the midst of the ultimate mountain-top experience. Too bad all was not well below!
The Israelites became impatient waiting on their leader. After all, forty days and nights was a long time. While Moses worshiped in God’s presence, life in the camp continued. With no direction, the people began to lose faith.
When the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who will go before us because this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt—we don’t know what has happened to him!” Then Aaron replied to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings that were on their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from their hands, fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made it into an image of a calf. Then they said, “Israel, this is your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt! (Exodus 32:1-4, HCSB)
We do not know all the circumstances surrounding this shift in attitude, but Scripture clearly records the devastating outcome: God was not happy! Upon coming down from the mountain, Moses ground the idol into powder and forced the people to drink it. In the end, the Levites killed three-thousand Israelites, and God inflicted a plague on the entire nation because they sinned against Him. The Israelites faced very significant consequences for focusing on an incorrect object of worship. The same is true for us today.
A Biblical Response
In Exodus 20:3 when God said, “You shall have no other gods before me,” He meant it! This literally means nothing should take importance over the One True God. God so desires to have communion with us that He never allows anything to be placed above Him. When outlining the requirements of the Covenant to Moses, God made this strikingly clear: “You are never to bow down to another god because Yahweh, being jealous by nature, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14, HCSB).
Jesus, in the New Testament, underscored God’s requirement that He not be displaced from His throne. In Matthew we find the Pharisees approaching Jesus and asking, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?” His response is consistent with the theme of the Old Testament when He replies, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command” (Matthew 22:34, HCSB). The word “greatest,” translated from the original Greek superlative megalh, literally means “first in importance.” In Jesus’ response to the Pharisees, He affirms worship as our first priority.
In reality, however, many of us get the cart ahead of the horse. Scripture clearly teaches there is an order of priorities for the church, and Jesus placed loving God at the top of that list. This order, while not devaluing the importance of missions and discipleship laid out in the Great Commission, does highlight what comes first. In our effort to be “good Christians,” many of us try to carry out the functions of the church but end up failing miserably. For example, as church leaders we have tried using guilt, the latest witness training methods, gimmicky outreach approaches such as “Bring a Friend Day,” and every other imaginable approach to force people to share their faith. How many churches using these tactics are actually reaching their communities for Christ? While all these tools have a place in training and inspiring us to share our faith, they tend to address the symptoms rather than the root problem.
Worship serves as our lifeline to God. Without it we have no power to accomplish these tasks. Worship is similar to the lamp on your table. When plugged in to the power source, the lamp gives off light and fulfills the functions for which it was created. When the flow of electricity is cut off, however, it fails to function as designed.
In order for us to love people as ourselves, which Jesus established as the second and great commandment, we must see them through the eyes and heart of our Lord by having a heart like His. That only happens when we connect to Him through worship. Churches struggling with low or non-existent conversions, lack of passion for missions and evangelism, and weak commitment to ministry should look first at their passion for worship. The reason there is no power: we are not connected to the Power Source.
Several years ago the authors led a team on a mission project to Chang Mai, Thailand. There they visited a Buddhist Temple on the outskirts of the city. As the team walked through the ornate structure, overlaid with gold and fine jewels and sitting high on a mountain, all around were people burning incense and bowing down before statues of Buddha. These people were sincere, energetic and passionate…but the object of their worship had no power. It was an idol.
As Christians we must be hungry for worship! This means the passion of our lives must be the development of a love relationship with God through Jesus Christ. This is done first and foremost through our daily walk with Him in prayer, the study of His word and personal worship. Second, our corporate worship must become an overflow of our personal worship experiences where the primary focus is meeting with God. Third, our approach to worship must simply be a tool that allows us to experience the presence of God and grow in our relationship with Him. While our approach is important, it cannot be the primary focus of worship. That place is reserved for God Himself!