What Should Worship Look Like?


What should worship look like? Hymns or choruses? High liturgy or free-flowing? Electric or acoustic? Contemporary or traditional? Energetic or reflective? These questions have caused the fracture of many churches, and the battles fought have left many wounded and disenchanted with ministry. They are also questions which I do not address in my recent book, The Divine Commodity.

Apparently there is an excerpt from the book floating around the web from which people have wrongly concluding that I favor a particular style of worship over another, or that I am somehow anti-contemporary worship and much prefer sedate forms of ecclesiastical gathering and would even go so far as to judge one style as “wrong.” (The very idea that a style can be wrong is funny to begin with. That’s like saying the Spanish language is better at communicating a mother’s love than Italian.)

For those who’ve not read The Divine Commodity, I’d like to clarify my views on worship in two ways. First, I am not anti-attractional church or a militant missional guy either. In fact the concept of “missional versus attractional” doesn’t even occur in my book. Like many in ministry, I recognize that we are both sent on mission and that God has made us to be a light that attracts the attention of a lost and broken world. Our gatherings should also embody both of these elements. After all, what could possibly be more attractive (or attractional) than the beauty of our God, the resurrection of his Son, and the Good News he has announced to the cosmos?

Secondly, I’d like to offer some context to the excerpt that’s already been posted elsewhere. The examples of contemporary “entertainment-driven” worship cited in chapter 4 of The Divine Commodity are followed immediately by this sentence: “To be fair, there is nothing new or innovative about entertainment-driven worship. American Christianity, going back to the 19th Century revivals of Charles Finney, has employed staged experiences as a tool of spiritual transformation” (page 75).

This statement beings a 500 word segment about the use of music and performance in churches dating back to the 1830s to reach the lost. And I don’t know anyone who would call the worship styles employed by Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday, or Charles Finney “contemporary” as that word is currently understood. They were driven by hymns and other traditional forms. In other words, the chapter is not critiquing contemporary style worship, but rather the widely held assumption that external experiences (whether contemporary or traditional) result in lasting transformation. This belief is just as likely to be found in a Roman Catholic church with a high mass as a contemporary evangelical church with a worship band. Style has nothing to do with it.

Finally, again for the sake of context, here is a longer excerpt from chapter 4 that should explain more fully the issue at hand. Keep in mind, this is not the conclusion of the chapter. It does continue by proposing a means of communing with God in conjunction with corporate worship–namely prayer.

Coming down the mountain

In 1515, Michelangelo completed a sculpture of Moses. The marble figure depicts an old but very muscular Moses seated with the Ten Commandments under his arm and a billowing beard. But tourists are often shocked to see what appear to be horns protruding from Moses’ head. The figure looks more like the Devil than Israel’s deliverer.

The presence of horns on Michelangelo’s Moses can be traced to a mistranslation of the Bible in the 5th Century. The story from Exodus 34 says that after meeting with the Lord on Mount Sinai, Moses came down the mountain with the Ten Commandments. When the people saw him they were afraid because, “the skin of his face shone.”[i] It seems standing in God’s glory somehow transfigured Moses’ appearance. His face was literally radiant. The Hebrew word refers to a beam or ray of light. But when St. Jerome converted the ancient Scriptures into Latin he mistranslated the word as “horns.” So, when Michelangelo read his Bible he believed the people were frightened by Moses’ appearance because he had grown horns while meeting with God on the mountain.

St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, had been used for nearly 1,000 years before Michelangelo’s sculpture was made. The erroneously-horned Moses reminds us that questioning popular assumptions is important. But unfortunately Moses’ experience with God on the mountain is still widely misunderstood, and largely unquestioned, today. We no longer foolishly depict Moses with horns, but our misunderstanding of his mountaintop experience is still embarrassingly displayed every Sunday.

In Exodus 34 we are told that Moses covered his face with a veil so that the people would not be frightened by his appearance. In truth, according to the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, Moses covered himself with a veil so the people couldn’t see that the glory was fading away. Whatever transformation Moses experienced in God’s presence on the mountain was temporary, and the veil hid the transient nature of this glory from the people. His mountaintop experience was genuine, glorious, and full of God’s presence-but it did not bring lasting transformation. This is the critical part of the story we seem to have forgotten.

Moses’ experience is all too common among Christians today. Through the influence of our consumer culture we’ve come to believe that transformation is attained through external experiences. And, as we’ve already seen, many churches have engineered their ministries to manufacture these experiences for crowds of religious consumers. We’ve come to regard our church buildings, with their multi-media theatrical equipment, as mountaintops where God’s glory may be encountered. One pastor, explaining why his church opened another location across town, said “We decided, if you can’t get the people to the mountain, bring the mountain to the people.”

Ascending the mountain every Sunday morning, millions of Christians want to have an experience with God and this is precisely what churches promise. And not disappointed, many leave these experiences with a sense of transformation or inspiration. They feel “pumped up,” “fed,” or “on fire for the Lord.” No doubt many people, like Moses, have authentic experiences of God through these events. Others may simply be carried along by the music, crowd, and energy of the room. Whether a result of God or group, what is beyond question is that many people depart feeling spiritually rejuvenated and capable of taking on life for another six days.

The problem with these external experiences, as Moses discovered, is that the transformation doesn’t last. In a few days time, or maybe as early as lunch on Sunday, the glory begins to fade. The mountaintop experience with God, the event you were certain would change your life forever, turns out to be another fleeting spiritual high. And to hide the lack of genuine transformation we mask the inglorious truth of our lives behind a veil, a façade of Christian piety, until we can ascend the mountain again and be recharged.

This philosophy of spiritual formation through the consumption of external experiences creates worship junkies-Christians who leap from one mountaintop to another, one spiritual high to another, in search of a glory that does not fade. In response, churches and Christian conferences are driven to create ever-grander experiences and more elaborate productions to satisfy expectations. Ironically, these worship spectacles, according to Sally Morgenthaler, are failing to produce real worshippers. She writes:

We are not producing worshippers in this country. Rather we are producing a generation of spectators, religious onlookers lacking, in many cases, any memory of a true encounter with God, deprived of both the tangible sense of God’s presence and the supernatural relationship their inmost spirits crave.

Ministries that focus on manufacturing spiritual experiences, despite their laudable intentions, may actually be retarding spiritual growth by making people experience-dependent. Like caged animals, consumer Christians lose the ability to do what they were designed by God to do-have a vibrant self-generating relationship with Christ. Instead, they become dependent upon their zookeepers for life and nourishment. This captive/captor relationship is unlikely to change as long as both the church member and leader are satisfied with the arrangement. But is this what the Christian life is supposed to be? What about the tangible sense of God’s presence we crave in

our inmost spirits that Morgenthaler writes about?

In the New Testament, Jesus and his Apostles do not emphasize external experiences as the means of encountering God. Instead, the focus is upon a mysterious communion with God made possible through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Contrasting the fading glory that Moses experienced on Sinai, the Apostle Paul says that we are being transformed “from one degree of glory to another,” and that this comes from the Spirit. This transformation is not from the outside working in, but from the inside working out. What Jesus spoke of in John 4 has come to pass. We no longer worship the Father on a mountain nor in Jerusalem, but in spirit and truth. To encounter the glory of God no longer require ascending a mountain, but learning to embrace a divine mystery-”Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

When we expect transformation to occur through external experiences we are opting for an inferior model of spiritual formation. As a result, many consumer churches have inadvertently dismissed the new covenant in Christ and returned to the shadows of the old covenant-building temples and climbing mountains to catch glimpses of a fading glory. The reason for this regression is simple-New Testament spirituality, properly understood, is immune to the forces of consumerism. An internal communion with God through the Spirit cannot be packaged, commoditized, and marketed to religious consumers. It cannot be bundled, branded, or put on display to draw a crowd.

We should be careful to not assume worship gatherings are the problem. The early Christians gathered regularly for worship, and the writer of Hebrews even commands his readers to not neglect meeting together as some were in the habit of doing. The problem is not our gatherings, but what we expect from them. If corporate worship is an external display of an internal reality, the glory of Christ that abides within, then these gatherings will not be full of passive spectators. These events will be where Christians gather to show a watching world the continual worship that marks their lives-whether it is celebratory, reflective, or even repentant.

However, if people have no sustainable communion with Christ through his indwelling Spirit, they will come to worship seeking a temporary filling; a transient dose of glory to carry them along. And rather than reflecting the full spectrum of the human-divine relationship as revealed in Scripture (particularly the Psalms), these gatherings will fixate on only one element-the celebratory. Over time as the familiar experience offers a diminishing return, religious consumers will either demand more energy through innovation, or they will shift to another church looking for a “new” experience. They will be drawn by promises of transformation and a genuine encounter with God, but we must ask whether people leave these experiences radiating the unfading glory of the Lord, or merely sprouting the horns of consumerism.

Excerpted from The Divine Commodity (Zondervan 2009)

© Skye Jethani





  • http://bedeviant.com Justin Wise

    Skye …. Thanks for this clarifying post. It is crucial that people understand the heart of what you’re getting at. It is pivotal as we move forward as the North American Church.

    Thank you for Divine Commodity. I think it’s a game-changer.

    Peace.

  • http://catalystspace.com Jesse Phillips

    Skye, I appreciated your quote very much from Justin Wise’s blog. I didn’t mean to take it out of context and I tried to be balanced in my asking questions about it to promote discussion. I totally agree with you and think this is an important point for the Church to discuss!

    Also, I’d like to do a giveaway of your book on our blog? Would you be interested in giving us 4 copies to do a giveaway with? Good promotion for your book.

  • http://www.skyejethani.com Skye Jethani

    Hey Jesse. Believe it or not, I don’t have any copies of my book. Not one…not even for myself. You’ll want to contact Zondervan directly. I have no doubt they’ll be happy to get you as many copies as you need. Thanks.

    S

  • http://jaydubbs.com Jason Williams

    Great post Skye….that last paragraph rocked me. I’m often guilty of that indeed, promoting the celebration, in some regard towards reaching the proverbial “summit of the mountain”.

    Good thoughts to chew on this morning. Thanks…

  • http://catalystspace.com Jesse Phillips

    Ok, sweet. Do you have a contact at Zondervan I could ask about that? If so, please email me: jesse.phillips@catalystspace.com. For the record, this blog really piqued my interest in your book. It’s on my list and I’m excited to read it!

  • http://a TC

    I sense a bit of guilt.

  • http://leavethebuildingblog.com/ Ken Eastburn

    Skye,

    These are powerful, prophetic words for a Christian culture that is utterly addicted to the mountaintop experiences. I fear that the contemporary Church’s focus on helping people to experience God has overshadowed their responsibility to call people towards discipleship. Such rampant consumerism.

    Out of curiosity, was there a reason you did not also include something on the Transfiguration, here? I think that text may be helpful for this discussion as well.

  • http://www.bradruggles.com Brad Ruggles

    Skye, Thanks for clarifying your position on this topic. It’s such a sensitive topic and it’s easy I suppose for people to draw the wrong conclusions based on just an excerpt from your book.

    I think it’s challenging to walk the fine line between catering too much to the culture and then the opposite extreme where we completely disregard what our world is search for. I think we can be both attractional and missional in our approach. It just takes intentionality and purpose.

    Thanks for this post.

  • http://mstarchurch.org Mark Brague

    Skye,

    Enjoyed the excerpt here and am intrigued to read the rest of your book. I think the oversight of context, which lead to a misunderstanding of what you actually wrote, is an ironic byproduct of the consumerism that you addressed.

    Any marketer knows and understands well the impulsive nature of the comsumer. The split second POS decisions made through the course of one day at one Walmart are staggering.

    So, when a thoughtful excerpt of your book is posted without the benefit of context, it is troubling, but it is no wonder that people start forming instant opinions, and responding to things that they have no basis for.

    Keep your head up Skye. The consumeristic flap actually proves and makes your case for you.

  • John Cuthbert

    Not certain why you feel a need to clarify about the outward attempts to “assist” people in worship at church. Singing is merely a reflection of culture and taste, still not certain what the big deal is. Worship isn’t the music, nor the preaching, nor the offering, nor the Baptisms, we can never “force” worship, just like we can never “force” prayer on anyone. All are merely means to assist a person with their worship.

    I have a MDiv from Trinity and a ThM from Princeton, awhile ago I went to the Billy Sunday museum, it is OK, however, nearby, inside the Grace Seminary Library is a very small museum dedicated to Sunday’s music leader, trombone playing, Homer Rodeheaver. What is most telling is the letter he was writing that is still on his desk. He was lining up speakers for the Winona Lake Summer conferences. The letter was addressed to the head of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations which later merged with the American Federation of Labor to form the AFL-CIO) asking him to speak that summer.

    Wow, Evangelicalism and LABOR???? Together???? Worshipping???? And this was in the 1940′s!!! Could it happen today? Probably not, who moved? White, Suburban Evangelicalism with its attendant white collar constituency? Or Labor, my guess is the former.

    Forget the music, it changes, duh, look at the heart.

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  • Paul

    As a practicing Catholic, I have to say our daily and Sunday Mass along with practicing of the sacraments are the best forms of continual worship. In addition, we have a perpetual adoration chapel where we can worship 24/7 363 days a year in the presence of our Lord. The reason the Church gave us sacraments is best described by St. Thomas Aquinas; “O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of the passion is recalled, the soul is filled with grace, and a pledge of future life is given to us”.

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