Your Worship Service is Not the Super Bowl

Chargers Seahawks FootballThe freezing forecast for Super Bowl 2014 is less than favorable for players, ticket holders and media. No doubt there will be abundant commentary throughout, noting the devotion of fans, bundled and camped in their seats for hours. It’s the perfect opportunity for pastors to highlight the commitment of sports fans in contrast with the lesser commitment of congregants to worship God in warm, dry sanctuaries for only an hour. Some might even draw comparisons between the amount of cheering and clapping, hinting that God deserves more enthusiasm than the Broncos.

Christians are certainly guilty of worshipping lesser gods. Sporting events are one of the easiest to pick on because of the similarities shared with worship services (a few leading many to celebrate a mutual love). It’s possible, however, that this comparison has run its course.

The enthusiasm at sporting events is easy to understand. You are gathered with thousands of people who share an affinity for a team and game to enjoy a singular event. There’s music, cheers and the possibility of victory. Win or lose, everyone goes home and life goes on. We do not live our lives under the umbrella of sports. We don’t spend time contemplating how our decisions impact our devotion to them. We do not study the lives of players and coaches, searching for direction and wisdom. We do not truly love them with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. We don’t look to sports for meaning and purpose; we look to them for enjoyment.

I’ve heard several pastors, worship leaders and speakers rebuke Christians for loving sports more than Jesus because their reserved worship countenance was no match for their mayhem at Friday’s game.  I sometimes sense the temptation in my own heart to turn and glare at the hollow, bored faces during worship and scold them for their apathy. Are they listening to the lyrics? Do they realize how blessed they are to gather freely and worship the risen Christ? In spite of this, I fear that soliciting amens, claps and smiles yields confusion and fakeness. Here are six reasons why worship doesn’t look like a sporting event:

Not everyone understands. I sat behind a woman at a football game once who spent the entire time looking at her phone. I heard her husband say things like, “Now that is the end zone.” She never cheered once. Why? She didn’t understand football. Worship services are filled with non-Christians and some Christians who have forgotten the gospel. They are present and singing (have been for years), but they don’t really get the cross. They don’t truly understand their sinfulness, God’s character and His gift of salvation. They aren’t going to be outwardly excited because they have no reason to be.

Some people are sad. A woman shared with me that two weeks after her husband of 40 years died, she walked into worship and the pastor asked, “Where’s that smile? Aren’t you glad to be here?”It stung. Sanctuaries are filled with the sick, abused, divorced, addicted, abandoned, mourning, infertile and many other hurts. However, sadness isn’t always personal. Tim Keller once said Christianity makes you a sadder person; as we mature in Christ, everything that makes God sad (worldwide tragedy, sin and consequences) will sadden us. These realities do not stop on Sunday. The saddest people can have joy in Christ and worship God without excitement. Sometimes, a joyful noise is a tear hitting a lapel.

There’s more than one worship expression. It’s difficult to claim worship must always include visible enthusiasm because the Bible never commands it. Scripture is full of different worship expressions.  Sometimes people are silent and turned away from God’s face; other times they are kneeling before Him and crying. Others are dancing, singing and shouting. Elevating one visible response over another is irresponsible. Worship is expressed many ways.

The Bible describes corporate worship. Paul took great care explaining rightful worship to the Corinthians. When his instructions are boiled down, he had one basic message: there is right, orderly way to worship God corporately. Must a worship service match the energy of a sporting event? Paul didn’t say one way or another.  His instructions do not forbid exuberant worship, but they do not demand it. The Psalms describe both jovial and reverent worship, but do not command either.

God is holy. God has zero sin, I have lots of it and I sometimes fail to confess it prior to Sunday. If God reveals my sin alongside His holiness, I will not be excited about it. I will be broken. My worship activity will reflect this. I will not throw Him the casual cheers I gave my team a day earlier. I will most likely worship silently with reverent fear. The Israelites feared God’s presence would kill someone if they entered it wrongfully. Even though we have the benefit of a torn veil, we must think on how we march through it.  

God is complex. The story of God and His redemption isn’t one dimensional like sports (“We win and Satan loses!”). Christians do not worship God only because Jesus died and rose again. The previous week’s happenings may cause us to focus on God’s power and provision. Other times, our Bible study may force us to wrestle with difficult truths about God’s sovereignty. Hymns and sermons inspire worship, reminding us of temptation, eternity, a forgotten aspect of God’s character, etc. The Christian will worship God for different reasons in different ways, depending on what God is doing in their circumstances, hearts and minds.

Our actions in a worship service are different than those at a football game because our objectives are different. We attend sporting events to enjoy them; it is okay to jump, yell and cheer. We attend worship services to know and worship God. Sometimes, there will be cheering. Other times, there will be silence.  My point is not that Christians should never be visibly excited in worship. My point is Christians can rightly worship God without visible excitement as our culture measures it.

If you’re sanctuary doesn’t look like a stadium, no need to worry. There’s probably more worship taking place than meets the eye. Truth over time planted in the hearts of Christians will yield authentic worship, expressed authentically. There will be tears, stillness, raised hands, bowed heads, giant grins, soft voices and loud shouts. Instead of wishing your church was more excited, exalt the One who inspires eternal excitement (and it’s not Peyton Manning).


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Ruled by Machines? The Church’s Love of Technology

Calvin-worship-TVI want to challenge an assumption – that all technology is good and should be uncritically embraced by the church.

In the movie Jurassic Park, scientists discovered a way to clone dinosaurs using DNA found inside fossilized mosquitoes. They turned this discovery into a theme park based on their new creations. In a tour of the park, mathematician Ian Malcolm – played by Jeff Goldblum – remarks:

“…your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

While the church’s uncritical use of technology won’t result in giant lizards snacking on humans as it did in Jurassic Park, the same critique leveled by Malcolm against the scientists could be leveled at the church. In our American love affair with technology we simply don’t pause in our rush to adapt every new advance to our lives and the church.

Is replacing physical Bibles with Bible apps always a good idea? Will a generation that only types Bible references into a search bar understand the context as well as generations who turned its pages? How are worship services changed by video screens ever increasing in size, clarity and centrality? Are congregations taught by a video preacher worse, the same, or better than those with a flesh and blood preacher? Is something lost or gained when giving is done online instead of as part of the liturgy? Can lights, sound, and production reach the point of distraction or is more always better? Does the use of technology to connect the church to the culture become so successful that the church only feels like an extension of that culture?

Just asking these questions can be dangerous. One might be labeled a “dinosaur”, lampooned as “irrelevant”, or accused of not caring about “reaching people.” Two weeks ago Matthew Barrett at The Gospel Coalition questioned the wisdom of bringing an iPad into the pulpit. It generated 226 comments that contained such ire you would think he suggested women should only wear dresses. He was accused of bibliolatry, legalism, and setting back the church.

Yet, how did we end up in a place where it’s okay to question the Bible’s teachings but not the medium through which we communicate those teachings? Have we unwittingly embraced America’s technology idolatry? In our culture, we trade in our phone for a newer one every few months, take on debt to finance our flatter and wider television, and calm our toddlers with Sesame Street on the tablet. We are in trouble when worship services, churches, and Christian lives become about adapting God to technology instead of the other way around.

In 2005, Passion Conferences hosted a gathering of over ten thousand college students in Nashville, Tennessee. I was there for the final night of the conference which featured a late night worship service, one of the centerpieces of which was a giant LED wall that had the capability to display bright, stunning images and split into four moving parts. It was an awe-inspiring addition to the worship. However, the next morning at the closing session, speaker Louie Giglio made this confession:

All of a sudden I realized from the Spirit of God that I’m enthralled by the wall. I’m just in awe of it. I’m almost worshiping the wall. I turned around and walked under the stands and said, ‘Jesus, wall or no wall, I’m worshiping you. I am not interested in something that’s moving and how big it is. I love it and its helping me and encouraging my soul, but I think for a minute there I was more interested in it than I am in You.’

Could this same thing be playing out in our hearts week after week? Could it be the reason we are so unwilling to question the use of technology in the church? Is Jesus winning this struggle for affection in our hearts or is our Samsung Galaxy?

We need the courage to let our theology drive our technology. We need the courage to ask questions about the way we use it. Is what we gain in adding technology greater than what we lose?  Does using a particular device help us treasure Christ and see His glory more clearly or does it make the church more consumer-driven and individualistic? When David and the Israelites were bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6, they used a cart instead of poles carried by four men to transport it. This was more technologically advanced and more convenient, but it also failed to honor God. When someone asks why we choose to use a certain piece of technology our answer should not be “because we can” but should flow out of Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 10:31 to do all to the glory of God.

I love using projectors to display song lyrics for worship. I think what we gain in artistic expression (Ex. 35:30-33) and in accessibility to the congregation (1 Cor. 14) overcome the loss of singing multiple parts and seeing on one page the unfolding arc of the hymn. I use a Bible and not an iPad when I preach because I fear my listeners may miss out on the depth of the biblical context (Acts 20:27, Jn. 10:35) if they follow my example and view only a few verses on a smartphone (2 Pet. 3:16). You might do differently. That’s fine; these decisions are not Bible imperatives. But know why you do – biblically, theologically, and for the glory of God. Don’t be so quick to rush ahead with what you “can” do that you fail to think about what you “should” do. It will shape not only you but the fruit you seek to grow for King Jesus.


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Friday’s Fantastic Five!

FridayFantasticFiveMay 17, 2013

Sifting through content on the internet can be a bit like drinking water from a fire hose. So is here to help! Each Friday we’ll share the best five items we’ve run into around the web. Each item is worth your time, so check them out!

Speech on Religious Liberty – R.R. Reno
This fantastic article takes a look at the forces eroding religious liberty in the United States and many of the emerging legal, political, and cultural trends that threaten to erode it further. A must read for any believer who values their free expression.

Rob Bell’s Ginormous Mirror – Mark Galli
This is not a review of Bell’s book, but is rather a look at how American Christianity’s fascination with “experience” has turned the faith into an empty, self-seeking quest. Read this and be encouraged and challenged.

FactChecker: Does ‘Abba’ Mean ‘Daddy’ – Glenn T. Stanton
A lot of us have said this before, but when Jesus says “abba” is He really referring to God as “daddy”? This is a helpful read that gives us insight into Jesus’ relationship with His heavenly Father and by extension, our relationship with Him as well.

Tragic Worship – Carl Trueman
What kind of reality do we portray in our worship services? Do they connect with the truth of our situation or paper over it? Carl Trueman applies his penetrating and blunt analysis to what is missing in much of the worship experience of today’s churches.

Kermit Gosnell’s America: What His Trial Really Reveals – Al Mohler
Gosnell’s trial has come to an end, but much of the nation is still unaware or indifferent to what happened in his abortion clinic. This story reveals the true nature of the abortion industry and forces us to wrestle with moral questions we thought were put to rest.

Missing the Point: On Pop Music in Christian Worship

Liquid Church is one of the fastest growing mega churches in the state of New Jersey. They recently made waves by announcing a new message series entitled “Pop God.” During this series the church’s worship band will be leading the congregation with songs by Adele, Bruno Mars, Cee-Lo, and the Foo Fighters. Anticipating some blowback from these selections, the church leaders announced some justification for this departure from the norm.

Lead pastor Tim Lucas claims the “heartbroken torture” of the Adele song Rolling in the Deep will allow his listeners to connect with the tone of the book of Hosea – which features the prophet Hosea’s tumultuous marriage to a prostitute named Gomer.

He went on to say churches can either reject the dominant culture or redeem it. The Christian sub-culture is disconnected from the broader world. By bringing these songs into worship the church is redeeming the dominant culture.

Ultimately, playing these songs is about connecting with a wider audience. Lucas says the church is trying, “to live in that tension of the weight of theology, but making it accessible to [as] wide [a] variety of audiences as possible.”

It would be interesting to have a further conversation with Lucas and find out how the “weight of theology” has influenced their worship. The desire to redeem culture and connect with a wider audience is certainly commendable. A passion for evangelism and relating God’s Word to the average American is necessary for any church. Yet, in the case of pop music in worship, it seems like cultural relevance is a bus and theology is the unlucky possum that crossed the road at the wrong time.

Should churches use pop music in a worship service? Should they use non-Christian pop music? Should the congregation sing it? To answer these questions we must turn to a definition of the corporate worship of the church.

John Stott defines true worship as follows:

All true worship is a response to the self-revelation of God in Christ and Scripture and arises from our reflection on who He is and what He has done. The worship of God is evoked, informed and inspired by the vision of God.

Bob Kauflin defines the task of a worship leader in his book Worship Matters:

A faithful worship leader magnifies the greatness of God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit by skillfully combining God’s Word with music thereby motivating the gathered church to proclaim the gospel, to cherish God’s presence, and to live for God’s glory.

David Peterson depicts corporate worship in his book Engaging with God:

The gathering of the church is meant to be an anticipation of the heavenly or eschatological assembly of God’s people. It is to be characterized by worship or divine service in the form of prayer and praise directed to God and in the form of ministry to one another… We gather together to encourage one another to live out in everyday life the obedience that glorifies God and furthers His saving purposes in the world.

Corporate worship is founded on who God is and what He has done, is doing, and will do and on our response to Him (Ps. 21:13, 99:3, 105:2, 117:1-2). It is not only praise directed to God, but it is also the body of Christ building one another up by declaring and celebrating truth corporately (Eph 4:19).

Adele’s song Rolling in the Deep is about the heartbreak of a broken relationship, assigning blame to the other person for wrong doing and desiring to inflict pain on them. A number of things in the song encourage harmful and sinful approaches to relationships that run counter to what the Bible teaches (Matt. 5:44). Should a congregation be building one another up with the “truth” of Adele?

Furthermore, the song says nothing of the character of God, what He has done, or our response to Him. It doesn’t magnify the greatness of God in Jesus Christ. It doesn’t utilize the Word of God. It doesn’t proclaim the gospel or lead people into the presence of God. It doesn’t exalt the glory of God. So the song cannot be used to praise God – unless that god is ultimately oneself.

The problem with using pop music – and sometimes even Christian pop music – in worship is that it fails to conform to any of the purposes of worship. Worship is centered on God; the Billboard top 40 is not centered on God. That’s not to say it’s necessarily wrong to enjoy it, simply that it does not belong in the worship of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Some may object – isn’t evangelism a purpose of worship? Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:24-25:

…if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.

Evangelism is a purpose of worship. But notice when the outsider enters worship, the congregation convicts the person, calls them to account, and reveals God to them. This cannot be accomplished if worship is simply a reflection of the culture the outsider comes from. It is the discontinuity of our worship with the dominant culture that makes it convicting. Our words and worship should be intelligible to outsiders, but if worship blends in completely with the surrounding culture there will be nothing left to convict and call them to account. We don’t see outpourings of salvation and repentance at Foo Fighters’ concerts. Why would we expect the same songs to bring different results in a worship setting?

We worship God in response to who He is and what He has done. We worship God because of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We worship God through the power of His Holy Spirit at work in our lives. We worship God to build up our fellow Christians in the truth of His Word. This is why we gather to sing with the body of Christ.

Could we attract more people by singing Cee-Lo’s “Forget You” like Liquid Church? Maybe. But the New Testament never commands us to pack a church building; it commands us to glorify God by making disciples. I have a feeling God will be glorified and more disciples made as the church joins in singing “In Christ Alone” than a song that degrades those who may have wronged us in a relationship. Just sayin.


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The Arrogance of Ignorance: I Don’t Need That Doctrine-Theology Stuff

Why do Christians avoid doctrine? Fear, laziness and appeal.

In the years I’ve spent working, studying, serving and living with Christians, I see few consistencies. One of the most consistent, however, is the inconsistent approach to Christian doctrine and theology. If you asked five different Christians to explain the doctrine of the Trinity, you might get five very different explanations. Across denominational lines, and even within churches, the varying degrees of doctrinal knowledge are infinite among churchgoers. Why?

Each denomination has its own method of interpreting, teaching and understanding the Bible. Some champion doctrine while others focus on pragmatism. Pastors who teach sound doctrine are preaching both to those who listen and those who don’t. Church members who hunger for deep theological teaching might get only steps and videos on Sunday morning. In any event, it is every Christian’s personal responsibility to know the doctrines of their faith.

Some churchgoers would rather settle for a religious experience that offers comfortable choir numbers, scripted Sunday school and sweet devotional books rather than challenging themselves in the deep waters of theology and doctrine. Debates are a waste of time, I’m going to heaven anyway, so please take my offering and let me be. Fear: I might have to change my beliefs and I don’t want to.

Others take the same approach to knowing their faith as they do to flossing: it’s probably good if I pursue this, but I just don’t feel like it. Isn’t it enough that I don’t eat candy and I brush every day? Isn’t it enough that I like to serve on mission teams and I help clean up after events? I play the guitar in both services, I strike up conversations with the homeless…Jesus was all about loving and doing. I don’t have to be a stuffy, theological type to know and serve Him. Laziness: I really don’t want to work to know truth, so I’m going to pretend it’s a waste of time.

As the growing trend of casting off denominations gains steam, so is the idea of fuzzy doctrine. Since some churches have no history or parent-church, they don’t know what they believe, so most anything is okay. Existing churches (wanting to be relevant) are shedding theological poundage to better squeeze into the world while some church plants evade doctrine entirely. No one wants to scare off the lost with big words and divisive theology…they might not come back. Bring on the doughnuts and U2 music, but check that systematic theology book at the door. Appeal: to gain followers, we must bury the difficult things about Christianity and placate them with easy-to-swallow ideas.

Some Christians believe ignoring doctrine is the high road. If you want to discuss theology, you’re a know-it-all, cramming knowledge down throats at will and belittling those who don’t know as much. It’s an easy chip for any shoulder. In avoiding these things, the riches of God’s truth, character and purpose are missed. People don’t know why they believe things, resulting in a shallow faith they can’t explain and might abandon. Why don’t people evangelize? Why do people slide out of church? The Christian faith remains a mystery with a few familiar icons and parables tagged onto moral living and fun events. Can we blame the world for their cynicism?

To those who allow fear to keep them from doctrine and theology: out of right doctrine comes right worship.  Millions gather weekly for singing and preaching…why? It feels good? They’ve got the songs memorized? They like the speaker? Many stand and sing with no zeal because they don’t know what they are singing about. Many listen to heresy every Sunday but don’t realize it. How can you sing about His blood if you don’t know why only His blood would do? How are we to discern bad preaching if we don’t know sound doctrine? It is in our understanding of doctrine that our songs are actual worship and we discern truth from error. Yes, knowing doctrine will change our thinking and even some long-held beliefs, but as a result we offer true worship to the right God in the right manner.

To those who allow laziness to keep them from doctrine and theology: out of right theology and doctrine comes right works. Should we give to the needy? Yes. Does God want us to serve the local church? He does. Buy why? Do we do good things as atheists, because we know we should and like the feeling? What happens when we don’t feel it anymore? Are we trying to earn salvation? Are our works gospel centered? Understanding doctrine will bring a holy motivation, biblical confidence and eternal perspective to every task.

To those who allow appeal to keep them from doctrine and theology: out of right theology and doctrine comes right witness. Avoiding hard truths and peddling “God is Love” will not grow heathens into disciples. We must present the truth boldly and answer tough questions biblically. Blank stares, half answers and flashy distractions repel the lost. There will be debates, disagreements and unpleasant conversations (enter Jesus and the Pharisees) but we are called to grow in knowledge of Him (2 Peter 3:18) and love Him with all of our mind (Mark 12:30). With solid theological roots, Christians share their faith confidently and the lost are saved.  Our pews will not be filled with empty souls awaiting entertainment, but solid disciples of Christ who know the One they worship and why.

God is not impressed or glorified by those who avoid His truth to make their lives easier. Christians believe in the God of the Bible and His Son Jesus Christ. Jesus believed that the Bible was God’s Word and that its teaching was profitable, therefore so should His followers. Doctrines are not hand grenades, de-pinned and hurled across the sanctuary aisle. They are the foundational bricks of our faith, from God and for our good. Rejecting them is to despise Him, embracing them is to worship Him.


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