Soundings

HOLLOW WORSHIP

Jul 2004    

PART 10 OF THE SERIES OF MEDITATIONS ON ‘WISDOM TO LIVE BY: MODERN REFLECTIONS ON AN ANCIENT TEXT’


Ecclesiastes 5:1-7

“Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.” (5:1).

IN RECENT years, a number of Christian writers have commented on the erosion of the worship of the evangeli-cal churches. Be it the superficiality of our modern choruses, the casualness of our praying or the lack of reverence in our ap-proach, worship in the modern evangelical churches, these writers maintain, has lost its theological and liturgical depth. Evangelicalism has long protested against formalism and ritualism in worship, and there is much to be said about this cri-tique. But has evangelical worship not also in many ways become formalised and ritu-alised? We have escaped the formalism of read prayers from the Prayer Book only to find ourselves entangled in the ritually pre-dictable “spontaneous” or extempore prayers which are never nearly as profound as those crafted by liturgists.

But the most serious weak-ness in the worship of some evan-gelical churches is the loss of the sense of awe and reverence before a holy God. Reverence is replaced by casualness, and mystery is re-placed by crass and flippant infor-mality and by a disrespectful fa-miliarity. St Symeon the Theolo-gian maintains that as man ap-proaches God, he speaks to Him as friend, and yet he stands before the “One who dwells in light un-approachable”. In our worship, we often emphasise the former, but we completely lose sight of the latter.

For the Preacher, to be casual with God is an evil (v 1), a sin (v 6), which will not go unpunished (6b). He admonishes his readers to “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.” In worship we stand before the presence of a holy and righteous God, who demands our all, and who should be approached with fear and reverence.

Worship is therefore not entertainment – it is not about enjoying ourselves. Wor-ship is not like going to a concert where we are inspired by the great music and come away feeling uplifted. Worship is not about meeting one’s emotional or even one’s spiritual need – it is not spiritual self-indulgence. Worship has to do with encoun-tering a holy God. It has to do with listening and obeying His Word, submitting our wills to His, and surrendering to Him.

The psalmist echoes the emphasis of the Preacher when he exclaims “Holiness adorns your house. In reverence will I bow down toward your holy temple.” (Psalm 93:5). Worship is, in the final analysis, the attitude of the heart. The reverent approach, the quietness of a repentant and grateful heart, the expectancy of prayer, the aban-donment of praise, the sure “amens” of the soul – these are the stuff that characterise true worship. It is not the form that defines true worship – the extravagant music of the Baroque church (and this is coming from someone who adores Bach!) and the repeti-tive singing of choruses can be equally vacuous without the proper attitude. With-out a become the “sacrifices of fools”.

The reverent worshipper will be meas-ured and careful with his words. It is not that silence is preferred. Rather the Preach-er’s emphasis is propriety and care. The worship leader, pastor, prayer leader, or any person in worship who is in the habit of rambling from off the top of his or her head must take heed. Far from bringing us closer to God, words can sometimes act as obsta-cles between God and us. Sometimes our worship services are so full of chatter as we verbalise our prayers in the usual cant phrases.

The wordiness of our worship betrays a worrying condition. We sometimes rush into worship so full of ourselves. Mentally (and therefore verbally also) we still at the centre of the universe. As Derek Tidball has put it so well, “if worship is to be genuine we must learn to cut out the background noise, to stop the chatter, to switch off from ourselves and to tune in to God”.

This does not mean that silence is the ultimate “language” of worship, as have been argued by some Christian mystics. Silence cannot be the ultimate “expression” of worship simply because the God we worship is the God who speaks. Ours is a talkative God, as theologian Robert Jenson has put it so memorably. In the beginning was the Word, not silence.

Because God has spoken, and because His speech is always revelation, command, and summon, we, His people, cannot be silent in worship. This is not to suggest that silence does not have a place in Christian worship. It has, and it is the weak-ness of Protestant (especially evan-gelical) worship, that this is not recognised. But, to quote Jenson again, in worship “silence occurs insofar as silence belongs to dis-course, insofar as in any authentic conversation no participants talks all the time or without pausing to think”. To return to the point of the Preacher, because it is to God or about Jim that we speak in worship, we must be careful with our words.

Worship is more than words. These verses stress that worship is the reverent praise of God that translates to obedience. Formalis-tic religion is meaningless to God, as is a religion characterised by mindless enthusiasm. “Much dreaming and much words are meaning-less”, the Preacher reminds us. Let us be honest with ourselves. When we look honestly and probingly beneath the pomp and the noise, the well-rehearsed phrases and clichés of our worship, do we not find disobedience instead of obedience, self instead of God? And is not such “worship” also but a chasing after the wind?

Dr Roland Chia, Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at Trinity Theological College, worships at Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.

 

 

WORSHIP IS NOT ENTERTAINMENT

‘Worship is therefore not entertainment – it is not about enjoying ourselves. Worship is not like going to a concert where we are inspired by the great music and come away feeling uplifted. Worship is not about meeting one’s emotional or even one’s spiritual need – it is not spiritual self-indulgence. Worship has to do with encountering a holy God. It has to do with listening and obeying His Word, submitting our wills to His, and surrendering to Him.’

REACH OUT

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