Thursday, August 4, 2016

Unsafe Worship

So my old church surprised me by having the secular comedian Michael Junior showcase his talents during their morning services. I shared this fact with my wife and she just shrugged, not being particularly surprised. I shared it with my dad and he seemed to find the thing unremarkable. In fairness, nobody seemed very surprised at Andy Stanley's church opening their service with boy band songs either, so maybe it's just me. Nonetheless, I found the idea of having a secular comedian perform during service an absolutely ghastly idea. It seemed to me a judgment from God; the people craved entertainment rather than the faithful exposition of the Bible, so to punish them He would give them their wish.

Making The Case Against A Comedian In Service

If a worship service was something God designed to bring Himself glory (rather than express our feelings) would that change the way we hold service?
I don't mean this in the superficial sense, since any good Christian will agree that we must do all things to the glory of God. I mean, practically speaking, doesn't that constrain what we can and can't do during a church service? 

Yet it doesn't. And why not? Because we may pay lip service to the idea but deep down we don't believe it. We think worship is really "our public display of affections toward God." Or, "that which is done toward God in sincerity and passion." And there are a lot of problems with that. 

The first problem is that we must worship by filling ourselves with passion and sincerity, which means all things which bring passion must be pursued, and all things which don't stir the soul must be jettisoned. In music this means the lights go down, the songs get loud, and the voices go silent. In prayer this means confessions of sins are forgotten, long prayers become short prayers, or better yet, no prayers. The preaching moves from exegetical, to topical, to long form stories, then finally to uplifting homilies on personal improvement. 

The second consequence of working out of a man centric definition of worship is that there's now no firm, rational, or substantial basis with which to have a discussion on this issue, as it makes personal preference law. Criticizing a worship style or liturgy or decision is tantamount to asserting the way someone feels about Christ is wrong. It not only makes no sense, it's fighting words worthy of ex-communication. Thus people are prevented at the outset from having a discussion, being boxed out of it by the definition. All that remains is to assign a label like judgemental or hater, because that's all that can be done.

The third consequence of defining worship in terms of the feelings it produces is that God is made irrelevant. In creating an open space where anything goes during church under the guise of glorifying God, God ultimately stops mattering. Plays, skits, movies, television shows, comedy routines, boy bands--all of that makes sense if I feel it makes sense. If my talent is to do rhythmic gymnastics to the glory of God and people enjoy watching me, why shouldn't I do that during service? Because broadly speaking, whatever moves someone to God is good, whatever makes them less passionate about Him is bad. 

Now I don't mean to say there's no place for style or preference. Some churches might want to clap their hands and sing their songs in a gospel style. Others might want a guitar and a drums to be contemporary, others might want a cello and be contemplative. I don't care about that topic, I'm not interested in discussing it, and that's not what this blog post is about in any case. The point I'm trying to establish is that there's a boundary between acceptable and non-acceptable acts during church services. Unacceptable acts can go too far and cause God to say, "Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues." It is not the case that all things which moves our thoughts heavenward is good, and it's possible to conduct worship in a way that people think they are alive and pleasing to God while He says to them, "I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God."

Please, just for a moment consider what it would mean for us if church service wasn't our expression of love. If pursuing what makes us passionate and emotional wasn't worship.
God help us, what if that was actually the opposite of worship, and was something forbidden by God because He hates it? Doesn't the the second command forbid this very thing?
Now before you protest that idols represented demons and were never used to help people focus on God, consider that Israel made two bulls and bowed to them for hundreds of years in precisely this way. It was no less idolatry because it focused their thoughts on Him, and neither did their sincere desire to bring strange fire before Him endear them to Him. He stamped out the entire nation because of their offensive worship of Him.

Given then that both our ego-centric worship and their idolatry proceed from the same principles, isn't it possible that they amount to the same thing? Sure we don't fall down before metal or wooden figurines, but isn't it possible that in setting ourselves up as the most important figure in worship we've been disobedient to the second commandment? I hope you would agree it's at least possible to do this.

The Danger of it

Having established the existence of the second commandment, and the fact that we can break it, let's move to the next question--how would we know when we've broken it?

Here's my answer: I don't think we do, and that seeing the line is impossible. Consider Lot. He was a godly man and no fool, having risen to the status of a judge in the city. So why didn't he leave Sodom earlier? He stayed to minister and evangelize right up until it was burned to the ground, and lost everything. Why? Why stay when such a life leads you to a place where your daughters trick you into having your children? I think it's because being near to idolatry blinds you. Moving by inches and small steps into apostasy or heteropraxy happens so gradually, so gently, that it's almost impossible to see. Sin is a shutting of the eyes, a confusing of the mind, and a darkness that obscures what should be obvious. As the saying goes, the eye that looks outward sees the world, the eye that looks inward sees only blackness.

It reminds me of an anecdote in one of Philip Yancy's books. His friend was about to embrace the gay lifestyle and Philip warned him, begged him to turn back before it was too late. The response was a heartbreaking, carefree disregard for the necessity of holiness. "Oh don't worry, there's no sin I can commit that I can't be forgiven for. That's whats so amazing about grace isn't it, that it's always there for me? You don't deny I'll be forgiven do you? No? Then don't worry about me, I'll sin for awhile and just ask for forgiveness later."
Philip pointed out there was no guarantee he would want grace later. By being in, around, and among sin he would be fundamentally changed to shy away from God. Because that's how life is. It changes you.
You may think jumping into cool ocean water sounds nice now, but that's because you're in the triple digit heat. Go to the 50 degree overcast beach of the north coast and you'll stop wanting to get into the water. You may think when you're a kid that being an adult is going to be awesome because you could eat candy all the time, but when you get to be an adult you're different than you were, and it doesn't sound at all appealing.

How did the liberal churches fall into the pathetic state of unholiness they're in now? By small degrees. By being unable to see the big pictureThey moved into sin gradually, so imperceptibly, that the people who made a fuss about the next compromise seemed to be contentious troublemakers rather than faithful believers and were ignored. Each compromised deadened them a little more, lulled them to sleep a little more soundly than before. It habituated them to spiritual compromise little by little. The current sweeps you along without you even realizing it.
It's the same way with holiness too.
We're continually being made into the image of God by beholding His glory, but it's in such small increments that you have to read your diary from 10 years ago to notice it.

I may be wrong about that of course. There might be an obvious bright yellow line, a simple principle that if followed will let everyone see clearly no matter where they are or how committed to the subjective worship model they are. But I don't know what it is yet, and I don't think it even exists. I suspect therefore that the road to hell is not marked with signposts or sudden turns, but with one smooth gradual paved slope, and that by in large a people attending a church that's sliding downward will shrug and keep moving, no matter if it's a boy band or a comedian for service. "Doesn't look so bad from where I sit. What's the big deal?"

But what if it is? What if the sin that dwells in each of us causes blindness and the only safe thing to do is ask ourselves "what does the Scripture say?" rather than "what do I like?" What if serving God must be done in the way He's commanded and not with clowns, comedians, or secular boy bands?

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