POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 21, 2011:
Worship should be relevant to God in the context of culture
This is the first installment of a series of articles on the state of evangelical gathered worship in the West.
Everyone worships something. Worship is the default mode of the human heart. It is what we naturally do. But what we worship depends on what our supreme affection is.
The object of our worship always follows what we are most passionate about. Romans 12:1 makes it clear that our bodies have now become the "temple" in which our spiritual act of worship can take place. In other words, worship is not constrained by space. But the Bible does make it clear that it is appropriate to assemble together to remember God and be edified in our faith.
Yes, worship can happen anywhere, anytime but there is a time and place for spatial worship. In the Old Testament book of Daniel, we find the felt board story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abendego. King Nebuchadnezzar had made an image of gold, ninety feet high and nine feet wide and summoned all the provincial officials to come to the dedication of the image he had set up. These three young Jewish men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abendego, refused to bow down to the brazen image and in his fury, the king threw them in a furnace to meet their sure demise.
In the end, the three men of royal birth from the Kingdom of Judah were spared by God and because of their stalwart faith, the king himself exchanged his worship for an idol for the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abendego.
What were Shadrach, Meshach, and Abendego controlled by? Their fear of being the only ones who didn't bow down? Not even close. Their fear of being thrown into the fiery furnace? Nope. They were controlled by what the Bible calls the fear of the Lord.
See, the greater danger was not the lethal furnace. It was the issue of idolatry. In this story, these young men were able to distinguish between the lesser and the greater danger.
When so much is at stake in worship, we must confront the fear of being controlled by the wrong dangers. These dangers can put us into a cycle of narcolepsy, missing who should be the God of our worship. And this is not more evident that in the corporate worship found in the evangelical church today.
The pressure to be current or relevant is everywhere. No church or pastor wants to be seen as out of touch. We want to project the idea that we are in touch with the broader culture.
Relevance by definition isn't a bad thing. Jesus was the picture of relevance in His incarnation. At its purest, relevance is important. Our worship should be relevant in that it is authentic, contextual, accessible.
But when folks use the word relevance many times, they are really talking about hyper-relevance. They're not talking about those core issues of relevancy like accessibility and authenticity but rather going beyond that to talk about ways they can amp up the production side of things.
Usually the criteria for relevance in this respect is that we impose upon ourselves in the Christian subculture contemporary music, a slamming sound system, projection screens, lights, video and smooth transitions.
It's technology. It's speed. It's volume. It's very now.
And really, we are talking about something that is of benefit to us in worship which very well could mean it is of no benefit to God.
You see, the problem with our pursuit of hyper-relevance is that we have a tendency to divorce ourselves from this question: for whom should our worship be the most relevant to? If the answer is not God, we are misleading ourselves. In other words, if we put in place things that we think are going to help us worship God better, we are substituting better things for the Best Thing.
Harold Best, former dean of the conservatory of music at Wheaton says that when we talk about worshiping God, we are talking about our responding to God with all that we are for all that He is. So how do we do that? How do we access God?
In the Old Testament, from the sin of Adam in the garden, man's only access to God was through a priest. The holy man would enter into the Holy of Holies and make a sacrifice for the sins of the people, on behalf of the people. In essence, the priest was the mediator.
But in Jesus, the old sacrificial system was abolished when he became the mediator between us and God (1 Timothy 2:5). Hebrews 9:15 says, "For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance -- now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant."
What is the theme here? Mediation. Jesus Christ is now our mediator. When we make things like styles, technology, orders of service, the way we do communion, or the carpet in the sanctuary into our "mediators," we have missed it. If we give some sort of theological or moral meaning to these false mediators, you can't truly worship God. You are substituting artificial mediators for the Mediator.
The first step towards relevance for your church is to remember that when you talk about being relevant, make sure you are talking about being "culturally" relevant. The good news of Jesus -- the Gospel -- is always relevant in every time and culture. How you deliver that gospel may change from one generation to the next. The content stays the same but the expression may change depending on your context.
Ed Stetzer says, "The Gospel must always be delivered into a specific cultural context. To be culturally relevant is to take the unchanging Gospel into ever-changing cultures. We do that by listening to and understanding the culture, learning to speak their language, connecting the Gospel to the idols of the culture, and showing the beauty and supremacy of Jesus."
In doing so, we don't compromise the truth of the gospel -- we merely put it in forms that individuals can understand. Relevance is more about how we honor God and bring glory to His name. And be careful about what you call honoring God -- it could just be an aid or a help.
The false danger with relevance is to sidestep the truth that our worship should be relevant to God first and foremost, not to those around us. When we get this reality, what should be the object of our worship begins to become the supreme affection of our worship.
This is not obligatory worship. This is real, unadulterated extolling of the true King whom we strive to be most relevant to. It's worship that points to an eternity of celebrating God in spirit and truth. This is true worship.
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