With so many different styles, understandings, expectations and experiences of Christian worship, it’s hard to nail down a simple description of it. But a couple of weeks ago I had an eye-opening experience that revealed something I’d never considered: there are really only two choices in worship—and these aren’t the obvious categories of “traditional” or “contemporary” that many of us spend so much time fretting about. The essential truth about modern American worship is that it’s either man-focused or God-centered.
Here’s what happened. I attended a conference in Nashville, Tennessee that focused on expanding church worship and ministry through media and technology. Two worship services were the centerpieces of the three-day meeting.
The first day’s service was led by a new Christian rock band that a major Christian media company was promoting. They were quite good, and the lead singer knew how to connect with the crowd. I’m a fan of much modern worship music and the style of their music wasn’t a problem. The technology the band used was stunning and included the highest quality projectors and the latest in moving backgrounds on the screens and on the stage. The sound system would blow you away.
The lyrics of the worship songs were a different story. Not that they were immoral or unchristian or anything like that. It was just that none of the songs mentioned Jesus. At first I thought I must be mistaken, but as I continued to listen it was obvious the name of Jesus wasn’t in any of them. The closest the band came was when a video played during one of their songs that included bright red cruciform images against a black and white palette. I guess that was meant to be a nuanced statement about the cross. It came across more as an afterthought.
The songs’ lyrics revolved around how good God is and how good it feels to know how good God is and how good God feels knowing we feel good about his goodness. The worship service had little to do with the triune God of biblical revelation and everything to do with assuring the worshipers that our greatest need was to have more pretty God thoughts that would help us feel better about ourselves. It was a profoundly man-focused service of worship.
The Bible tells a different story. Among many passages that describe God-centered worship as opposed to a man-focused approach, the sixth chapter of Isaiah stands out. It describes a worship service that has little to do with emotions either good or bad; even less to do with building up some artificial sense of self-image; and everything to do with the reality of a holy God who calls us to account, and, ultimately, to healing.
The prophet Isaiah, in the time of national confusion and instability following the death of King Uzziah, receives a spiritual revelation that rocks his world. Despite all his previous experience as professional priest, religious leader and paragon of respectability and integrity, he was not prepared for the sight he was given of God on his throne. And when the angels’ voices began resounding through heaven with their confession of God’s divine nature—“Holy, holy holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory”—Isaiah found himself “undone.” In other words, the life he had built for himself, his sense of identity and destiny, was shattered by the reality of God’s presence.
His experience in worship, instead of providing some artificial sense that all was right in his world had the opposite effect, at least at first. A great gap opened in his heart between the carefully constructed sense of self he had achieved in his life and the reality of a holy God who was so far beyond Isaiah’s best efforts at morality that all he could do was fall on his knees and cry, “Woe is me, for I am undone. Because I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” (Isaiah 6:5)
God-centered worship always begins at that gap, the distance between sinful humanity and holy God. The purpose in exposing the distance isn’t to make us feel bad about ourselves but to remind us of reality. Worship isn’t something we do to exalt ourselves. It’s the alignment of our lives with the Person and Purposes of God.
Later in the passage God himself closes that gap and bridges the chasm between himself and Isaiah. One of the angels removes a coal from the heavenly altar and places it on Isaiah’s lips. “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin is forgiven,” the angel says (Isaiah 6:7). God initiates the action that results in bringing a sinful man into his holy presence.
The paradox and the miracle of Christian worship is how the eternal, holy God invites sinful, broken people into his presence. The beginning of worship—in any biblical understanding—is when we recognize we’re not worthy to be in God’s presence. The great miracle is how God himself makes provision for us to come to him anyway. What Isaiah saw in part, Jesus revealed in full, because it’s through the cross that the gap is finally removed. “Approach the throne of grace with confidence,” the book of Hebrews says, only through the shed blood of Jesus.
Back to the conference. The second day’s worship service corrected everything the first day got wrong. So much so, in fact, that I could hardly find words to describe what happened.
The second day’s worship service was led by a choir from a nearby Christian college, with a guest worship leader in front. Media and technology were still used, and to great effect. It was just that the message wasn’t lost in the medium.
The worship was driven by several songs that integrated all different styles of music—modern, hymns, classical, jazz, black gospel. But the song that got to me was “Until that Day Comes,” and, to be honest, I don’t remember whether it was modern or traditional or loud or soft. All I remember is how it grabbed my heart. The lyrics said, in part:
There will come a day when God will be our light
And the dark of night will be sent to its grave
And there will come a time when we will live forever In a city that will never pass away
Oh how my soul yearns and even faints
But until that day comes I will go and warn the darkness
That the light of Jesus Christ has overcome
And until that day comes I will speak to all injustice That the moment of its ending is sure to come
Oh the day will surely come
You can watch the full song here
The song itself was moving and challenging in ways few songs are. But then as we sang something else happened. On the screens to either side of the stage an image came up that took the worship experience to a different level altogether. It was of a new icon—icons are the stylized representations of faithful people through the ages beloved in Orthodox churches—showing the twenty-one Christian martyrs of Libya, those men wearing orange jumpsuits who were beheaded along the beach of the Mediterranean Sea last winter. That’s the icon at the top of the blog.
The twenty-one men are looking up to Jesus in the top left corner of the image. He’s waiting to receive them, just as he was for Stephen in Acts 7:55-56. Angels are hovering over the men at the moment of their death, raining down upon them the victor’s crowns their faithfulness has earned.
I have to say that I was so moved by it all that I hardly knew what to do with myself. The simple, beautiful music, the power of the lyrics, the authenticity of the worship leaders and the reality of martyrdom in our world, of men and women surrendering even their lives to the Lordship of Jesus. The gap, the gulf, the distance between where I am in my comfortable, predictable and safe religious life and a holy God who calls us to lay all that we are and have on his altar was clear and compelling, and I was undone. At the same time, I was invited through the gospel into the same faith of those martyrs through the cross.
What I experienced in Nashville was God-centered worship, and of a high order.
Not all worship services will be so compelling—I get that. At the same time, the principle of orientation between man-focused and God-centered is basic to all worship. The more we in church leadership shift our perspective from the one to the other, the more our people will move into a deeper—and truer—experience of worship.