Worship and Ecclesial Purity

This is the second in a five-part series on a theological framework for worship. I began with a post on theological integrity. This week we focus on ecclesial purity. My former students will note that I’ve changed the nomenclature for this part of the framework to be more all-inclusive of matters related to worship as the people of God.

“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord,” the psalmist asks, and, “Who shall stand in his holy place?” Psalm 24 poses this question and answers with a series of qualities that allow one to enter God’s presence: “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.”

In one sense this seems to me an assurance that no one can actually approach God because, sinners that we are, no one meets those qualifications. But the Psalmist seems to assume that we can in fact dwell with God (as the end of Psalm 23 reminds us), and calls us, as Psalm 24 puts it, to lift up our eyes to see the King of Glory, the One who makes it possible for us to worship God. He is the One, and He alone, who does meet the qualifications of Psalm 24, and He is the one who makes a way for sinners to approach God (Heb 10:19-22).

This is, as David Peterson so aptly puts it, worshiping God “on his terms and in the way he alone makes possible.” We sinners worship the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit. Any theology of worship needs to come to terms with this reality – that God initiates and makes possible man’s worship. While that is true, it is also true that the Scriptures instruct us about the need for a certain way of life that pleases God as we worship Him. These include, at least, (1) certain personal attitudes and motives, (2) our relationships to other believers, and (3) the relationship of God’s people with others in society.

Attitudes and Motives

Jesus quoted Isaiah to call into question the motives of religious figures who claimed to be worshipers of God: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain to they worship me . . .” (Matt 15:8-9). This is not the first reference to vain, meaningless worship in the Bible. King Saul managed to use worship as an excuse to directly disobey the command of God (1 Samuel 15). His motives were impure and he attempted to cover them with the pretense of worship.

His daughter Michal serves as another reminder of such things as she (described, by the way, as a “daughter of Saul” in 2 Samuel 6) criticizes David for his abandonment before God while she herself refused to join God’s people to celebrate His goodness to them. This issue of motive and attitude seems to be at the root of God’s refusal of Cain’s offering in Genesis 4 (Sorry, Dr. Ashford, I still can’t bring myself to say it’s about blood sacrifice since that’s not actually in the text, explicitly or implicitly), along with Cain’s refusal to offer the “firstfruits” of his harvest, in contradistinction to Abel who brought the “firstborn” of his flock.

So, ecclesial purity means we must examine our motives and attitudes, in order to ascertain what is in our hearts as we gather to worship God. To withhold ourselves from God is inconsistent with God’s invitation for us to worship him through Christ, whom God did not withhold from us.

Relationships to Other Believers

Jesus taught us that if one comes to the altar to make an offering, and there realizes that he has a broken relationship with another, he should leave the gift there and go first to be reconciled to his brother, returning only then to make his offering to God (Mat 5:23-24). I’ve often wondered what the church would look like that takes seriously this command on a given Sunday as it assembles to worship. Imagine people who would stop singing, or lay aside an offering plate, and go to a brother to be reconciled to him first.

Paul criticized the Corinthians for attempting to celebrate the Lord’s Supper while having little or no regard for the well being of others in the congregation (1 Cor 11:17ff). This is not a minor issue to Paul; it is one of grave seriousness. Some are even dying, he says, because of their failure to examine themselves with respect to their relationship to others as it relates to taking the bread and the cup. I realize that we like to make self-examination at the Table mainly about virtually any sin we can think of, but read the text. It’s mainly about our relationship to one another in the church, not about whether you’ve “gotten current” with your “sin checklist” this week. Getting current in such a way may be a good thing to do, but let’s not forsake the matter the text explicitly speaks about in order to do something the text doesn’t tell us to do.

Jesus said that the world would know that we are his disciples if we love one another (John 13:35). Apparently this matters to God quite a lot. And it matters for our worship. Factions in the church are inconsistent with worshiping the God who exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in perfect unity. We are to strive to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:3), and do so eagerly, because God is himself One. Our confession of faith is focused on this very truth: one faith, one Lord, one baptism, one God and Father of all . . . (Eph 4:4-6). So if you want to cultivate a healthy worship life in the congregation, cultivate love for one another. Stop bickering, stop fighting. Just stop it.

Relationship with Others

The prophets raise a common theme that has specific bearing on worship and the subject of ecclesial purity. They reminded the people of God that Yahweh hates injustice. And He particularly hates when his people cause injustice or when they see it and do nothing about it. We learn in a text like Amos 5 that God hates it even more when his people cause injustice or allow it to continue and then come to worship him as if nothing at all is wrong.

God’s displeasure over such could not be clearer: “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. . . . Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).

I believe God’s concern here is a kingdom concern. While the kingdom is not yet here, the people of God should do all that it can to establish justice and righteousness. Yes, Amos was prophesying to a people in the context of a theocracy, and we surely are not in that context. But the truth remains that his people are to promote God’s purposes for all the peoples at any time and place.

The notion of creating a little society that we call “church” as a safe place for refuge while ignoring the plight of those affected by injustice and unrighteousness in the world is an offense to God. Yes, the church should be a haven, but it should also be a place from which God righteousness and justice are heralded and enacted. So, the question arises: Can the church ignore the ills of society and appear to worship God as it pleases week after week? No, we cannot.

We cannot isolate ourselves from the misery and suffering rampant in this world. It is ours, as kingdom people, to do all we can to let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Apparently this is more significant than building fancy buildings and having cool music. Yes, I said that. And I mean it. The Bible tells us so.

So, if we are to worship God in a manner pleasing to him, we will recognize, first, that we can only approach God through Jesus by the Spirit. Attempts by sinners like us to come on our own are futile and bound to fail. And, second, we need to examine ourselves regarding our attitudes and motives, our relationships to one another, and our relation to others in society.

Fifteen Factors That Have Changed the SBC since 1979, Part 2

This is the second article in a (now) four-part series on fifteen factors that have changed the SBC since 1979. As I noted in my previous article, this list is not exhaustive, overlap exists between some factors, and I list them in no particular order of importance. You can read the first article in this series here.

6. Changing Paradigms in Education Ministry

Whatever happened to the old-fashioned education minister? There was a time when virtually every SBC church with at least 300 regular Sunday School attenders employed an education minister, even if that staff member also (often!) led the youth or music ministry as well.

Now some of you may be thinking, “We still have an education minister, and Bro. Joe does a great job on our staff.” Frankly, a couple of the strongest churches in my home association back in Southeast Georgia have education ministers who do a fine job, so I’m with you on that. But once I went off to college and then two different seminaries, I was struck with how many churches are dispensing with the education minister model-and much of what that paradigm entails. Fewer and fewer churches (especially outside the Deep South) are following the “evangelism through the Sunday School” strategy that dominated SBC life for three quarters of the 20th century. Fewer and fewer churches are using a strictly graded Sunday School model, at least at the adult level. And when was the last time you attended a Sunday School assembly? How many of you don’t even have a clue what I’m even talking about? (And I’m just focusing on Sunday School-we could discuss the myriad of other programs that education ministers help administer in medium-sized and large churches.)

The paradigm shift happening in education ministry is fascinating to me for a number of reasons. First, Southern Baptists pioneered “Christian education” in the local church. Southwestern and Southern seminaries in particular developed very specialized programs that were cutting edge for the better part of the last century. Second, the Christian education paradigm was at the heart of most of our churches’ evangelism and enlistment, and some of our most prominent denominational programs (particularly “A Million More in ’54”) were directly tied to this approach. Third, a great deal of the “Southern Baptist ethnicity” I discussed in my first article was cultivated through the church’s cradle-to-grave education program. Finally, most churches of which I am aware continue to prioritize Christian education, but they often call it something different (like “discipleship” or “spiritual formation”) and many have “tweaked” (and sometimes rejected) the earlier paradigm.

I could spend all my time on this one, but I have to move on.

7. The Decline of Revival Meetings

During the period between 1820 and 1840, one of the key differences between the “Missionary Baptists” who became the SBC and the Primitive Baptists was that the former generally approved of what was then called “protracted meetings.” (You may be interested to know that most Primitive Baptists did not embrace hyper-Calvinism until their movement’s second generation. But that’s another story for another day.) Today we call protracted meetings “revivals,” and when I was growing up, most churches had at least one-and sometimes two-a year. But things are gradually changing.

I see fewer and fewer churches, particularly non-rural churches, holding old-fashioned revival services. Many churches still have multi-day “preaching meetings,” but the emphasis is no longer on mass evangelism. A growing number of churches have Bible Conferences, Family Conferences, and special niche conferences. The vocational evangelists among us understand this trend, and it makes them very nervous. The last five years has seen a well-orchestrated campaign on the part of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists (and related state chapters) to try and convince Southern Baptists that old-fashioned revivals are still relevant and effective. The heroes of many conservative Southern Baptists of a previous generation were evangelists like Jess Hendley, Freddie Gage, Hyman Appleman, and Junior Hill (among many others). Today, a growing number of Southern Baptists have never heard a sermon from an evangelist-not once.

8. The Decline of Classical Dispensationalism and Keswick Holiness

Perhaps one reason that revival meetings are less popular than they once were is because the theology that is behind the revival culture is less dominant. During the 1950s and 1960s, most conservative Southern Baptists embraced dispensational theology, largely through the influence of W. A. Criswell, who was the first well-known and widely respected dispensational pastor in the SBC (J. Frank Norris was well-known, but not widely respected!). While I think it would be fair to say that a majority of our churches still hold to dispensational theology (at least it seems that way), a growing number of churches reject that schema. Furthermore, many younger dispensationalists have modified the system in some considerable ways, often dispensing with almost all of the older dispensationalism save a commitment to a pretribulational (or occasionally “mid-trib”) rapture. Dispensationalism, with its emphasis on the immanence of the rapture, lent a certain amount of urgency to evangelism-an urgency that fit neatly with regular revival meetings.

Closely tied to the older dispensationalism, at least among Southern Baptists, was a Keswick or “higher life” view of holiness. This understanding of holiness was popularized within the Convention by figures like Bertha Smith and Ron Dunn (among many others), was promulgated at regional conferences, and was embraced, to varying degrees, by many vocational evangelists and older megachurch pastors. Higher life theology, with its emphasis on the “Spirit-filled life,” radically affected how many conservative Southern Baptists understood sanctification and personal holiness. Yet it seems that this view of holiness is waning in favor of the older view of progressive sanctification as the fruit of justification. Concomitant with this trend is a return to a classic view of the perseverance or endurance of the saints (which is affirmed in the BF&M) versus the 20th century, Keswick-influenced doctrine of “once saved, always saved,” which too often opens the door to problems like antinomianism and cheap grace. I could also spend much more time here, but need to wrap this post up.

9. Changing Trends in Worship Music

Who hasn’t noticed this trend? Who doesn’t know a church that split because of this trend? Here’s the 30 second version of the back story. For the first three quarters of the 20th century Southern Baptist worship music was a mixture of pre-1800 Protestant hymnody (think Watts and Wesley), 19th and 20th century revivalistic gospel music (think Crosby and Gaither), and regional trends like the Sacred Harp and Southern Harmony traditions (think “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks” and “Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy”). Of course all of these are still present among us, but with some notable additions.

Between the 1970s and 1990s, a growing number of Southern Baptist churches embraced at least elements of the older “praise and worship” movement, a movement that was largely birthed by Charismatics and nurtured by Third Wave believers (think Maranatha and Vineyard). From the 1990s to the present, a growing number of Southern Baptist churches have embraced elements of the “modern worship” movement, a movement that is rock-driven and somewhat more theological than the older praise and worship music (think Chris Tomlin and David Crowder). In the last decade, a growing number of Southern Baptist churches have embraced the “modern hymnody” movement, a movement that is largely Reformed in its soteriology (think the Getty’s and Sovereign Grace). And of course there is some overlap between these movements. You can bet that these movements have influenced (and will continue to influence) our popular theology even as they’ve influenced (and will continue to influence) our worship services!

A Curmudgeon Weighs in on Evangelical Worship, Part 3

Disney-World Worship (Part 1)

Most of us are familiar with the words: “There is a place where dreams come true, where wishes big and small lead to happily ever after.” Such is the promise of Disney World. That it is Disney World is significant. Disney World is no mere amusement park; it is a place for a family to enter another “world” for a period of time. There one can leave this world behind for a few days, and enjoy the pleasures of another world, one of magic and fantasies, wonder and imagination.

There are some things to be learned by reflecting on Christian worship in relation to Disney World. There is one sense in which Christian worship should be like Disney World. When the faithful gather in worshiping assemblies there is the promise of another world, one beyond our dreams and wishes, a world with the happiest of endings. In the rhythm of Christian worship, as the church gathers (at least) on a weekly basis each Lord’s Day, we enjoy a respite from this world and anticipate the world to come. At least Christian worship should point us toward the world to come, since the assembly of believers is a gathering of people who worship in this age, anticipating the age to come. Sometimes, though, evangelical worship services point us not to another world, rather they point us back to the world in which we live, and too often point back to the least meaningful aspects of it.

Sitting in a worship service some time ago I observed some rather troubling similarities between the worshiping church and Disney World. That Sunday the music was led by an ensemble of singers accompanied by a group of instrumentalists. These days many call these groups “praise teams” and “praise bands,” but I can’t bring myself to refer to them in such fashion. In fact, I would be happy if I never heard the term “team” again except with reference to a group of athletes who play a sport together. But I digress – in curmudgeonly fashion, nonetheless.

The instrumentalists and singers were skillful folk, and it was obvious that they had rehearsed with care. Each member of the group held a microphone, and their presentation was polished. The musical selections were a mix of mediocre tunes unimaginatively arranged, and the texts (save one old hymn) were mundane and, well, “cheesy.” All of this taken together, along with the varied movements and gyrations of the singers and instrumentalists and their general deportment, reminded me of the kinds of groups that put on shows at amusement parks – it was “Disney World Worship.” (For those worried that this is the beginning of a screed against “contemporary Christian music”, fear not. I will rail against other kinds of music too before we’re done, not to mention other aspects of evangelical worship that bother me!).

I’ll admit this isn’t a flattering analysis, but it is one from which I hope we have the wisdom to learn better what it is to worship the living God. As I have thought through this, I recognize at least three ways in which such an approach to worship moves us away from, rather than toward, the development of a healthy worship life in the local congregation. We’ll look at these aspects of “Disney World Worship” in the next few posts.