“That’s not worship!”
The person saying this to me was sitting across the table from me, while we were having a worship meeting in our church conference room. The person was a long-time member of the church, and they were upset. We had been experimenting with worship, and they declared that one of the experiments was not worship.
What did we do?
This week we have been studying Ezekiel 6, observing God’s anguished cry to the Israelites because of their practice of ritual idol worship. Maybe the person accusing Faith Church’s worship experiment felt that we doing something akin to idol worship?
I don’t know if this will be shocking to you, but I have seen false worship happen in my Faith Church family. Maybe you have seen it happen in your church too. What I am talking about is when people say they have to have a certain kind of worship service in order to worship. Let me explain.
Years ago, we sought to improve the life and ministry of our church family, so we took a survey to help guide us. The idea of the survey was that it would receive input from 30 people in the congregation, compile their feedback, and give us a ranking in each of eight key areas of church life. The goal would be to work on the weakest area, then in 6-12 months, we’d perform the survey again to see if we had improved that weak area. If not, we’d keep working on it. If we had a new weak area, we’d work on that one. Theoretically, if you keep strengthening the weakest link, your church will become healthier and stronger. Our weakest link was worship. So we began experimenting with ways to improve worship.
In our building our sanctuary is situated next to our Fellowship Hall, and the two rooms are separated by an accordion divider. It is a wise design choice. If the sanctuary fills up to standing room only, we can open the divider, seat people in the Fellowship Hall and they can participate in the worship service. Normally the divider was closed every Sunday, because we had enough space in our sanctuary to seat everyone comfortably. But as we brainstormed how to improve our worship service, we talked about how our current sanctuary set-up is fairly rigid, given our rows of pews. We wondered if some people would feel more free to worship if they could sit in the Fellowship Hall at tables. For a month of Sundays, the divider was open, and some people sat back there.
After one month of having the divider open, our worship committee met to review the experiments we had implemented. That’s why I was in our conference seated across from the person who was extremely upset about it. Commenting on the divider being open, they said forcefully, “That’s not worship!”
Really? Do the dividers have to be closed in order for us to worship God? Of course not. What that person revealed was not some special insight about worship, but instead what the person revealed was a spirit of false worship in their heart and mind. That is idolatry. How so? They were worshiping a specific version of worship services, their version of worship, which they had allowed to take root in their heart and mind. They elevated their opinion to the level of God’s truth.
We can all have opinions. We DO all have opinions. Opinions are not wrong. You probably like one style of worship better than others. Over my 19 years being a part of Faith Church, I’ve heard all sorts of opinions. Some tell me they want more hymns. We have some who tell me they want more contemporary worship. Those are opinions. But when those opinions take hold of our hearts and minds to the point where we are unhappy or unwilling to worship any other way, then we have fashioned worship after our own image, and not after God’s heart. That is idolatry.
We can do this with the kind of seating we have in our worship spaces. I’ve had people tell me that a church’s worship space should have pews. They can’t support that viewpoint from the Bible, because God’s word says nothing like that, but they still try to make a case for it. Do you know what they are doing? They are elevating their opinion to a place it should not go.
We Christians should strive hard to identify opinions that we have elevated inappropriately. Instead we strive to worship God as he is, him alone, who he truly is. We do not need a building, a room called a sanctuary, with pews and a sound system. When we were on Covid lockdown last year, we worshiped without any of that. In fact, we couldn’t even be together!
We had a realization a few weeks ago when we took communion. We opened the communion rails for the first time since February 9th, 2020. Kneeling at the communion rail is the traditional way Faith Church has practiced communion since before my time. Over the years, we have added different methods because we feel it is important to have variety and experiment. During Covid we learned a couple new ways to partake of communion, didn’t we? At home communion, bring your own communion, and of course pre-packaged communion. A couple weeks ago before worship, we were having our prayer time before worship like we always do. Me, our worship leader, the host, and singers. We prayed and then we talked about the worship service, to make sure we’re all on the same page. As we talked about having communion up front kneeling at the communion rails, our worship asked how it works. Initially in my mind, I was a bit confused. Why would our worship leader ask how communion works? Then it hit me. He had never been part of a Faith Church worship service that had anything other than at home communion, bring your own communion, or pre-packaged cups. His first day as worship leader was the first Sunday of lockdown! I had forgotten about that. So I quickly gave him an overview about how we were going to celebrate communion that morning.
My point in sharing this story is that while we wish we never had Covid, we can learn from it. The Covid lockdown reminded to us that we should be careful that our opinions about a particular style of worship stay as opinions. We can allow our opinions and preferences to rule to us, to get out of control, and worse, to become a law that we bind on others saying that everyone should believe like us, or they are wrong. When we allow our hearts to be captured like that, we are idolaters.