The absolute best worship service I have ever been to was in an Orthodox church in downtown Chicago. It was full of evangelical converts to Orthodoxy, and so it had the rich, historic liturgy and singing combined with evangelical fervor. I dare say I felt lifted into the presence of God, or better, that the presence of God had descended on us.
The absolute worst worship service I have ever attended was an Orthodox church in Philadelphia. The priests led the liturgy from behind the iconostasis—a screen of icons separating the sanctuary (where the altar sits) from the nave (where the congregation sits). The only response we in the congregation were called to make was the occasional “Amen.” We didn’t even join the priests in singing as I recall. My Protestant sensibilities were so offended, I walked out in the middle of the service.
I relate this experience to say that even though I believe that in general Orthodoxy exalts and glorifies God like no other Christian tradition, it is far from perfect. It also shows that even a tradition that has all the right “tools” for adoration can stumble.
For those following the Elusive Presence series, last week I concluded the four-part series that argued for a new way of thinking about the essence and ultimate purpose of the church. For the next few weeks, I want to explore what this might look like in the pew and pulpit. I’ll examine the ways in which we succumb all too often to the horizontal and suggest some ways, upward. I’ll look at the dynamics of preaching, Bible reading, and the sacraments/ordinance, in particular. Let me start, though, with the dynamics of evangelical worship, which has its own highs and lows.
Our understandable and often impressive yearning is to take the love of God into the world. Yet as I’ve argued, I believe Scripture is clear that our first call is to stand in the presence of our loving God and worship him. Again, as the Westminster Catechism puts it, our chief end is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” The framers of that well-known line were deeply influenced by the sweep of biblical history and the end toward which history moves.
You must not have any other god but me.
You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind.
You must not misuse the name of the Lord your God.
Remember to observe the Sabbath. (Ex. 20:3, 4, 7, 8, NLT throughout)
If that were not enough, add to that the many detailed laws prescribing how the Temple is to be built and adorned, and how worship is to be conducted. God apparently did not think that any detail was too small when it came to worship. Take, for example, the instructions regarding the table that is to hold the Bread of the Presence:
… make a table of acacia wood, 36 inches long, 18 inches wide, and 27 inches high. Overlay it with pure gold and run a gold molding around the edge. Decorate it with a 3-inch border all around, and run a gold molding along the border. Make four gold rings for the table and attach them at the four corners next to the four legs. Attach the rings near the border to hold the poles that are used to carry the table. (Ex. 25:23–28)
To be sure, in the Prophets, the Lord chastises his people for their overly fastidious worship, especially when their so-called devotion to God was not matched by the love of neighbor. And so we find God often saying, in one way or another, that true worship is to seek justice for the oppressed. But in the end, ethics never replaces adoration in the prophets but is seen as a necessary complement to true worship.
In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s house
will be the highest of all—
the most important place on earth.
It will be raised above the other hills,
and people from all over the world will stream there to worship. (4:1–2)
This vision of the end of history—meaning both its destination and its purpose—is hardly abandoned in the New Testament. From Paul’s vision of every knee bowing and every tongue confessing Jesus as Lord (Phil. 2) to John’s vision of the 24 elders glorying God (Rev. 4) and many places between, we see worship as the great and wondrous activity in the kingdom of heaven.
In the last decade or so, evangelical congregations have woken up to the centrality of praise and adoration as Scripture commands. One of the great developments of our time is how we worship. “Praise choruses” and contemporary worship music, for all their limitations, aim our hearts and minds in the direction of God. One does not even have to be taught to lift your face or raise your arms as you sing these songs, as the songs themselves often drive one upward to seek and praise God. One has to be a spiritual miser not to recognize how such music has helped the church worship God.
Yet the temptation of the horizontal is with us always, and it comes in many disguises in our worship. Worship leaders—as they themselves often admit—are tempted to take cues from Finney’s Lectures on Revivals. Every worship leader worth his or her salt knows how to manage the emotions of the congregation, moving them from quiet devotion to raucous praise or from bass-throbbing adulation to whisper-quiet meditation. We don’t have to deny that, despite sometimes obvious manipulation, we’ve been touched by God in such services. But it is a constant temptation to replace God with technique, to seek not the Holy of Holies but mostly devotional exhilaration.
That is to say, many weeks what we mostly want is for worship to give us a good spiritual feeling. I suspect that by our inattention to what we’re singing. We sing various choruses that say, “Bring down your glory” and “show us your face.” But we do not know what we’re asking for. People in the Bible who actually encountered God’s glory fall on the ground in fear. For example, after the miracle of the fishes, Peter knows he has seen glory and that he is in the presence of the Glorious One. He doesn’t give God an ovation. He doesn’t weep with joy. He falls on his knees, begging Jesus to depart from him. The glory of Jesus has made it clear to him that he is a sinful man (Luke 5).
The same thing happens to Isaiah in the Temple. When Isaiah is given but a glimpse of God’s glory, he doesn’t break into song, singing a praise chorus. He actually thinks he is about to die: “It’s all over! I am doomed, for I am a sinful man. I have filthy lips, and I live among a people with filthy lips. Yet I have seen the King, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies” (Isa. 6:5).
Even more disturbing is the connection that John’s gospel makes with divine glory. It’s certainly in part about the display of Jesus’ miraculous powers—but they weren’t so spectacular as to prevent some from unbelief. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ glory is a quiet, humble glory that is impossible to discern without faith. This also is glory: the humility of the incarnation and the degradation of crucifixion.
When we sing asking for God’s glory, we are not asking to know the fear of God and the humble suffering that life in him entails. No, if we’re honest with ourselves, we mostly want a good religious feeling. We really aren’t interested fully in what God’s glory is and what it might do to us.