Does God have an opinion about how we should worship Him? Yes, actually, He does. In fact, He has expressed Himself repeatedly on the subject. The first commandment tells us whom to worship: “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3) and the second tells us how to worship: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Exodus 20:4–6).
It matters to God how we worship Him. He even killed Nadab and Abihu for their unjustified antics in worship (Leviticus 10:1–4). As R.C. Sproul once remarked, we can all be grateful that the Lord was simply making a point and not establishing a pattern when He did this. But the fact that the Lord does not strike dead everyone who approaches Him inappropriately in worship should not lead us to conclude that He no longer cares about how He is approached. Nor should we think that worship in the new covenant is less important to the Lord than it was in the old.
Jesus told the woman at the well that “an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23–24). Spirit and truth—with internal devotion and external guidance. Since God’s Word is truth (John 17:17), should not the Bible at least be consulted before we plan what we intend to do in a service we call “worship”? Of course it should. In fact, it should govern our worship.
The progress of God’s revelation from old covenant to new is the progress from type, promise and shadow to antitype, fulfillment and reality. In worship it is a move from detailed prescriptions and ceremonies to simplicity that encourages full focus on Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 11:3). What we find, then, in New Testament instruction is the emphasis that worship is to be from the heart and according to the Word. The essential elements of worship (which we ascertain from the Word—public reading of Scripture, preaching, praying, giving, singing, observing baptism and the Lord’s Supper) must all be regulated by the Word.
This does not mean that every corporate worship service will look the same or have the same “feel” wherever or whenever it occurs. Rather, the contrary is true. This approach to worship safeguards it from cultural captivity. Word-regulated worship will seek to be authentically expressed within any culture while following God’s revealed will for how we are to approach Him. The elements of worship will remain the same while the heartfelt employment of them may vary widely from culture to culture.
A significant part of what is involved in worshiping “in spirit” is being authentic. This requires sincerity and honesty before God in acknowledging who we are and who we are not as we approach Him in worship. It also requires humility that refuses to allow individual preferences to undermine corporate expressions of worship.
Ken Puls, who directs the music ministries at Grace Baptist Church where I serve, has challenged me to think more clearly about this issue over the last few years. Specifically, his insights into a church “finding its voice” have helped me express what I mean by “authentic worship.” He shares those insights in the pages that follow.
Individual worshipers form a corporate body that approaches God together in our times of gathered worship. Who are those individuals? First and foremost, they are disciples of Jesus (others may be with us, but worship is the activity of believers). This reality trumps but does not obliterate all other distinctions. Race, ethnicity, age, education, understanding, experience, marital status, language, etc.—all these and more make individual worshipers unique, but none of them is more important than knowing Christ (which means that I have more in common with a believing Zambian than an unbelieving sibling). Each covenanted member of a church adds to the tone of the body’s “voice.”
Here is how I see that working itself out in practical ways. A village church in Zambia will sing songs not only in the official language of English but also in the tribal languages of that village. The cadence, harmonies, bodily movements (such as swaying) and instrumentation may be completely different from those that mark the singing of equally orthodox churches in Houston or Beijing. There may also be differences in the way the Scripture is read and preached in those congregations. Scripture can regulate worship in all three settings without the expectation that worship in the three churches will look or feel exactly the same.
In fact, if all three of the churches do look exactly the same in their gathered worship times then at least two of them (and maybe all three) are not being authentic. Why? Because Zambians, Chinese and Houstonians have natural differences that will inevitably cause their respectively indigenous churches to have different “voices” even while seeking to worship the same God in the same spirit and in the same truth.
In this issue of the Founders Journal we are privileged to have insights from leaders who are committed to leading their respective churches in authentic, God-honoring worship. What they have written can encourage our ongoing efforts to see our worship being reformed according the Word of God.