Wheaton College Conservatory of Music


Permit me to approach this subject from the rather odd perspective of the design of an airplane, let's say the successor to the still-new Boeing 777. This airplane--let's call it the 787--will, of course be a larger, faster, safer, quieter, and more fuel-efficient version of any of its predecessors. Its designers will be uncommonly aware of the gastronomic and ergonomic well-being of the passenger. No longer will the lasagna taste like oregano-flavored silly putty. No longer will the passenger have to assume and maintain a fetal position while using the lavatories. There will be quadruple redundancies in every mechanical, hydraulic, electrical, navigational, and flight control system. State-of-the-art automation will make present-day hands-off flying seem primitive by comparison. The latest structural concepts will be employed: light-weight, resilient, and super-tough composites will be used.

A wonderful airplane so far, yes? But only so far, for one strategic question remains. Without a satisfactory answer, the project is nothing more than second-level busyness and group-think. The question is this: What makes airplanes fly? What will hold this new 787 up there? Oh yes, wings. No problem. And, of course, tail surfaces, for all airplanes must look not only like airplanes, they must be controlled in the usual way. Right. But what makes airplanes fly? Wings. Right. But how do wings work and how should this particular wing work to lift this particular aircraft?

There is a fundamental law which lies at the heart of these questions: Bernoulli's law. To violate it is to invite abject disaster. It is one of the laws established by the Creator and for as long as this creation endures this Creator will see to it that the airplanes that have been designed to obey this law will certainly fly. Thus, we can rest assured that, once this new 787 reaches a certain ground speed, and once the pilot pulls back on the yoke; once the aircraft rotates on its axis by reason of the down forces acting on the elevators; and once this rotational angle is correct, the partial vacuum created by pressure differentials on both sides of the wing will literally be enough to lift this shining and comfortable leviathan from the ground. It's not that this aircraft decides to fly, because it feels like it or because the pilot wants it to. It simply has to fly by reason of adherence to this fundamental common ground law.

Now how does this talk about designing an imaginary airplane and obeying Bernoulli's law relate to the subject of worship? In this way, I believe: We can make the mistake of coming at the subject of worship in the same way the airplane was designed. That is, instead of first of all delving into that elemental, fundamentally simple, and understandable principle of worship--its Bernoulli's law--we may be more likely to go into extended detail about the works that comprise worship, studying up, consulting texts, attending seminars, brainstorming here and planning there, locating all of the amenities, techniques and technologies, delving into options, searching out the histories and selecting among the diversity. Instead of asking what worship is, we concentrate on what worship does, striving to make worship work, hoping that the works of worship get the job done. If they don't we are compelled to call our methods into question, consult culture for its latest advice, attend another conference, or read another book, each of which adds detail to detail, option to option, diffusion to diffusion and--oftentimes--come-on to come-on.

Think of the ways we have of late made worship into such a self-conscious flurry: cutting it up into styles; segregating it away from other spiritual activities; idealizing or Utopianizing it; thinking of worship as an end point or a high point--an event instead of a process; making worship so heavily dependent on--overly consumed by-- music; music as the fulcrum, the catapult, the lubricant; separating worship away from witness and evangelism; making worship either into the emotional and experiential antidote to formalism or the formalized answer to emotion and spontaneity. We see worship as denominationally determined; worship as ethnocentrism or cultural separateness; worship this, worship that, conferences here, symposia there; source books, methodologies, cue sheets and, sadly enough, worship styles as litmus tests for spirituality. It just may be that, instead of worshipping, we have come to the dangerous condition of worshipping about worship or even worshipping worship.

I realize that Robert Webber likes to say that worship is a verb. This is a very important concept, for sure. Worship is action, but before we get to the action part, the verb part, we have to re-discover what's in the noun that drives the verb. There is an old adage that we use without realizing how fundamentally flawed it is: so-and-so is as so-and-so does, or more to the subject: worship is as worship does. This is the verb driving the noun, doing leading to being: the root of legalism, pure, simple, in all of its fallen nakedness. If we are sworn to the principle of justification by faith, we must correct this adage and say that so-and-so does as so-and-so is. Therefore worship does as worship is. This is-ness, this spiritual Bernoulli's law, is so easily overlooked, especially in our buzzing, driven, and pragmatic churches, chock full of achievers and doers. We must discover how easy it is to fall backwards into this trap of legalism, doing the deeds of worship in order to worship. So this question: When is worship worship? Strangely enough, it can only be answered in a circular way: There is no worship of any kind, anywhere in this world, that is not worship. We can put this even more bluntly: There is no one in this world who is not, at this moment, at worship in one way or another, consciously or unconsciously, formally or informally, passively or passionately. There is a law of worship fully at work which cannot be understood without a double inquiry into how God originally created us and how the darksome mystery of the Fall cut into the beauty of His work. For there is a Bernoulli's law of worship, a common ground law of worship, authored by the Creator Himself from the eternities. This law was then turned upside down and into a lie by the Satan, but thanks to the indomitable force of Truth and the finished work of Christ, this law can once again be turned right side up. This law can issue in two kinds of worship: that of death unto eternal death or life unto everlasting life. For the question is not, When do we worship, or with what degree of intensity do we worship? Instead, it is, Whom do we worship and with what condition of heart? The answer to this second question constitutes the difference, quite literally, between heaven and hell, for worship will be fulfilled in both places.

For, you see, the desire to worship was created in us, not as an add-on, but as an intrinsic part of our very nature. We were created to live worshipfully, to be in adoring submission--celebrating the One whom we cannot help but adore and being adored by the One to whom we cannot help but submit. This relationship, unique in all creation, is based on the utter mystery of being related to God by being created in His image. Hence, worship cannot be a one-sided, apples-oranges affair, the sovereign One getting, the submissive one giving. This relationship is really a continuous exchange of gifts, because both the Creator and the worshipper are givers. Worship is a marriage of willingness: the willingness of all-sufficiency bonded to the willingness of dependence; the willingness of sovereignty bonded to that of submission, prevenient love bonded to responding love, transcendental worthiness bonded to created worth. We risk this paradox: while the Creator calls for worship, the worshipper would rush to worship even if the Creator did not call.

I cannot find a way to say these things right. I wish there were a word in English which would at once mean both living and worshipping in an indivisible union, because that's what God originally intended. This was how Jesus lived--thirty three years as a living sacrifice--no moment spent not worshipping. It is His life that showed us what all the Law and Prophets were trying to say to us, namely that we were created continuously to adore. We were created as naturally to do this as to breath in and out, to honor, to submit, to depend on, to fellowship, with our Maker. Thus, it is quite easy to see how Adam and Eve were continually at worship in whatever they did--not once in seven days--but continuously: moment by moment, action by action, breath after breath; in speechless quiet, in ecstasy, in words, in deed, in supplication, in praise, in laughter, at rest, asleep, in sexual intimacy, in the simple things and the imponderable things, at table, and in thanksgiving. It is in this primordial and complete sense that worship was simple, normal, and lively. And as we shall see in a few minutes, it can still be that way.

However, just as the original creation is all about worship, so is the Fall. There is such a thing as evil genius and Satan used every bit of it to accomplish his purpose. This genius lay in turning Adam and Eve from the complete Truth to the complete Lie while leaving the desire to serve and to worship completely undisturbed. Adam and Eve were so completely turned upside down by their decision to disobey that, while being kept alive as worshippers they exchanged gods from Creator to creature. Having done this, they had no choice but to fall under the dominion of creature and handiwork--the only things left--for worship and serve they must. Consequently, falling under the dominion of that over which they were initially given dominion spells the fundamental difference between idolatry in all of its epiphanies and the worship of God in all of its diversity.

There is, in fact, a double evil in all of this. On the one hand, we have become enslaved to our own lordship; we enthrone and worship ourselves, but at the same time, we are both enslaved to ourselves and to the creation around us. Thus our self-worship and the lordship of the created order end up in a hellish and chaotic death dance. We end up neither servants nor masters, but confused and blinded slave-gods. This is the ultimate schizophrenia of fallenness. And horror upon horror, instead of leading only to degeneration and depravity, this schizophrenia has generated a world full of religions and blinded religiosity. With the true God absent, but with worship continuing, and with humankind enslaved to its own lordship, a near orgasm of false worship, self-made religion, manufactured righteousness, and self-justification has rushed into the vacuum. These characteristics and behaviors mark all worship but Christian worship, and it is only God who can take this chaotic mess, this maze of contradictions, lies, and confusion, sort them out, and, through the blood of Christ, bring back the worship of the one true God.

This is why the title of this message had to be answered in the way it was. All of life for all of humankind comprises some kind of worship, therefore worship is always worship. It's only the gods that change. All liturgy is liturgy, whether Christian or pagan, only the content and intent change. All actions are acts of worship, whether we are under the spell and dominion of Wall Street, scholarship, the arts, a snake in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, an evil spirit in the tenements of Hong Kong, a rock pile in Zimbabwe, a frog in the rain forests of South America, or a guru in Waco, Texas.

So we need another title, transformed by one adjective: When is Worship Christian Worship? This one word spells the difference between true worship and false worship, best summarized in Romans 12:1 ("Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship") and Romans 12:2 ("Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is - his good, pleasing and perfect will"). In these verses, two diametrically opposed systems are spoken of, namely worship as worship (Romans 12:2) and worship as Christian worship (12:1). We must remember that being conformed to this world, as mentioned in 12:2, is more than what we generally think of as worldliness, that is, the adulteration of a basically Christian walk with activities that are perceived to be less Christian and more worldly--as circular as that sounds. Worldliness in the biblical sense is as far reaching as the Fall is. It is a complete way of life, a complete world view, integrating itself with itself so completely that, compared to the whole truth of God, it is a complete falsehood, the inversion of Truth. Beyond an ambiguous miscellany of sins, worldliness is the arena where the alien and falsified mind is bred, born, and nurtured in the exceeding sinfulness of sin. It should not surprise us, therefore, that, because we are fallen, the fallen side of worship may seem quite natural to us even as Christians. It may even be safe to say that non-Christians are more consistent in their worship than we, because they live more completely in the darkness while we see the light through a darkened glass. There is no war of worship going on with them, no battle between Romans 7 and Romans 8, as there is with us. There is little need for research into the nature of worship, little need for methodologies or seminars, symposia, or syllabi. Worship just happens; it is more commonplace, more ongoing, less self conscious, less theoretical, less contrived, and, in a peculiar way, more integrated. Non-Christians just worship, given over to the gods of this world, following hard after the instincts and promptings of fallenness, worshipping creature in some form or other. They can take their pick; they can shop among the worlds and works of this creation, among the greater and lesser gods of the inversion and they will find their god or pantheon of gods, and will submit, fall down and worship. And as just suggested, salvation does not always solve this dilemma, for Christians may be prone to carry their gods with them into the worship of God, as they are to leave them at the door, finding ways to spiritualize or christianize them. But of course, underneath the trappings, the aroma of death still lurks and lulls. Consequently, we have to go back over some very old and true things in order to offset the darkness.

Here's the first fundamental old and true thing: The just shall live by faith. Put another way and just as correct: Faith is the ONLY thing the just shall live by. Whatever we do, all is by faith--faith unto yet more faith, not faith unto something else. Faith is its own stepping stone into more faith. Consequently, it is not just that art or music or preaching or worship is commenced by faith, as if we pushed the faith button, or stepped into faith, in order to do or empower these actions. On the contrary, it is in the midst of completely and continuously living by faith that we can call worship Christian worship, and discern between the activities of worship and the faith-full condition which makes them into a pleasant aroma. First of all, then, all worship is by faith and unto more faith. There is no other option for the professing Christian.

But we must go further. If, among faith, hope and love, love is considered the greatest of the three, and if loveless faith makes its practitioners nothing, then we must say this: If faith is the only thing the just can live by (Habbakuk and Romans), and if faith brings substance and evidence to everything done, said, and hoped for (Hebrews), then love raises the whole of faithful living and worship into a gracious, a celebrative, unfussed, giving, and sharing witness. This is the way of Jesus, the way of continued worship. This is what Paul was referring to when he said that we are to be living epistles. And this kind of living then authorizes us to say that the best witness is overheard worship. Christian worship is therefore to be undertaken as an act of love, undertaken by faith, architectured by hope, irrespective of content, context, time, place, or circumstance. Consequently, worshippers, along with those who work so hard trying to tell us how to worship, should free themselves of the assumption that things like music and art are tools of faith and worship, aesthetic overlays on faith and worship, and affective propellants into faith and worship. They should be relieved of the temptation to believe that if the music is just right, if the order of worship is just so, and the styles all patty-cake and blessing, faith will be bettered, more souls might be saved, or worship would be more "meaningful." Likewise, we musicians would be delivered from the opposite temptation of making musical quality more important than purity of heart, and pastors would be divested of the assumption that music is the great lead-in to the sermon and the sermon the high point. We should never confuse the power of faith and the power of work. Remember, worship is full of works and can therefore degenerate into a self-consciousness about the earning power of works. The expressive power of music and art, as well as any sequence of liturgical events should never be mistaken for the presence of God or the increase of faith. When it is, we are into just another kind of transubstantiation: now it's music--not bread and wine--which are Real Presence.

God is now here. Period. God is now here before, during, and after all the doing is done. Period. God is now here, from everlasting to everlasting. Period. God is now here; and when we try to enhance His presence with music, artistic action, device, and tool, we risk grieving the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete: the One who speaks transcendentally to God in our stead, and who, in sovereign power, is eternally both Means and End. Period. Despite the glamour, and the panoply of techniques at our disposal; despite the goose bumps and chills that can be raised with all of our steroided actions and overly-produced events, we are hopelessly unable to make God's presence any more manifest than He wills. Period. All of these actions, small and large, simple or complex, new or old, popular or classical, projected on a screen or printed in a book, must always be a celebration of His omnipresence and omnipotence, His unsearchable riches in Christ Jesus, and His pre-eminent worth and work. If the music deeply moves and pleases me, fine. I make a faith-driven offering of the music and my feelings. If I am not moved or pleased, fine. I am still obligated to make a faith-driven offering and to celebrate the One the worship of Whom is infinitely beyond my feelings. In all cases it is faith unto faith and love unto love, not faith or love conditioned by my response to music, art, preaching, or environment. All of us, musicians and preachers alike, know enough of the behavioral sciences to know how easy it is to get people to "sense the presence of God." We need only pull something familiar out of the bag--depending on the sub-culture--anything from J. S. Bach to Twyla Tharp. We also know how to bring on a numbed, sometimes angry, silence: We do something new. But, to the truly faithful, faith converts the familiar to the strange and the strange to the familiar, for it is the Giver and not the gift that has the pre-eminence. Thus, to the truly faithful, true worship is completely free of dependence on its works.

Once we get the faith/love/worship issue straightened out, only then we can say that just as love is unto more love and faith is unto increased faith, worship is unto continuing worship, and the more we truly understand that Christian worship can only be unto continued Christian worship, we will make the startling discovery that church-going, as we typically perceive and practice it, well might turn out to be redundant, maybe even irrelevant. However, if we truly understood worship as a seamless garment, comprising all of faithful living, made startlingly new by the Holy Spirit, then 11:00 Sunday morning in particular could be something radically different. Worship, prophecy, ecstasy, and overt witness would merge into oneness. And it would be in this difference that the seven day week and Sunday worship would meet on common ground, for church is not catch-up time. It is not the blessed alternative. It is not how-will-my-felt-needs-be-met time, nor is it what-kind-of-experience-will-I-have time. Worship is not what, at any perceptual or aesthetic level, just happens to feel good. It is not a fraction of Christian living. It is forthright, ongoing stuff, isometric stuff, striving, wrestling, hungering, thirsting stuff. It is not titillation. It is not show-off. It is not superficially emotive, sacramentally orgasmic stuff. Sunday worship is simply and powerfully the corporate synergy of all its moment-by-moment parts: a corporate summation of all those things we were to have been doing all week long.

So, what is there in Scripture that directly confirms and integrates all of these thoughts, turns the common ground of darkness into the common ground of light, and furnishes us with the assurance that Christian worship will always be Christian worship? All along, we must remember that the Scriptures include or allude to every approach to worship there is: organized, spontaneous, public, private, simple, complex, loud, quiet, silent, brief, or extended. It is sheer presumption for us to search for new ways under the guise of "creative" worship, whatever that is. There simply are none.

There are three passages which are at the heart of all Christian worship. The first passage has already been mentioned: Romans 12:1. Here, a clear, compact, and all-encompassing statement about our spiritual worship. The message is unequivocal: Whatever we do as Christians we do as worshippers. 12:1 makes it clear that our worship comprises the ongoing act of being a sacrifice for as long as we live. Preceded and clarified by the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ, it is no longer necessary for us to keep placing creatures and goods on the altar as symbols of our need for right standing. From now on, to use a phrase of Eric Routley, it is both our duty and our delight to become and remain once-for-all living sacrifices as a response to Christ's once-for-all sacrifice for us.

This stunning pronouncement means nothing other than a return to the kind of continued worship that God originally intended for us before Satan turned it all upside down. Christian worship, following hard after God's intention, is to be a continuum. This can only mean that there is but one call to true worship for the Christian, and this comes at the new birth, when in complete repentance we admit to having worshipped falsely, trapped by the Lie, and enslaved to false gods before whom, all along, we have offered ourselves as dying sacrifices. Since the call back to true worship comes but once, not every Sunday, we must understand that the carpenter, the surgeon, the garbage collector, and the engineer continue their worship of God almighty within the constructs and sequences of their daily work. It is more than coincidental that the word liturgy was originally a secular term signifying work to be done, an agreement to perform and complete a service: tile setting, carpentry, and the like. This certainly is what Paul meant when he said that being a sacrifice for as long as we are alive constitutes our agreement to be at work worshipping, as the people of God. Consequently, a liturgy is nothing other than the work of the people who, as living sacrifices, call all of their work worship. Corporate worship is therefore a special liturgy within the larger liturgy of the moment-by-moment Christian walk.

The second scripture is John 4:23-24: "Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers that the Father seeks. God is a spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and truth." Somehow, during the course of Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman, she turned away from what Jesus was pressing in on and onto the subject of worship. And why not? Given what we have already said about the all-pervasive nature of worship, the confusion of worship with religiosity, and the way we tend to think that worshipping is a form of self-justification, her tactic makes some sense. Furthermore, she reduced the issue of worship to one of location, place, time, and tradition, all very familiar to many of us today. In response to her query, Jesus subsumed the entire history of time, place, tradition, and protocol under a new paradigm: that of spirit and truth. Jesus, preparing the way for Romans 12:1, was reiterating the grand principle that goes clear back to the creation of Adam and Eve, namely that true worship is continual and location incidental. He was saying that Spirit and Truth are to be manifest as much in the workplace as in the grand sanctuary. He was talking about a worship that precedes, embraces, subordinates, and validates liturgies, systems, committees, techniques, manipulations, the arts, architecture, teamwork, preludes, postludes, and interludes. He was implying that dependence on such things violates the principle of spirit and truth, because both are the one continual domain in which all these take place, not as causes, but as evidences.

Then Psalm 29:2 ("Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness."). The psalm begins with a commandment to ascribe glory to the Lord. This commandment is immediately followed by the one to worship God in the beauty of holiness. Once again we are brought face to face with the reality of worship as an ongoing state, simply because holiness itself is an ongoing state to which all Christians are called. The beauty of holiness is not an aesthetic beauty, but a state of purity, a condition brought on by cleansing, hungering, thirsting, panting after, and seeking out the things of God. Holiness is a beauty made apparent by the life of Christ at work in living sacrifices who continue to worship by working out their salvation daily (Philippians 2:12), a state outside of which no one can see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). This is the worshipful holiness of the twenty-four hour day, the state of being saved, of continuing as a living sacrifice, led by the Spirit in the arena of truth.

Only after we understand what true, God-centered worship is, are we free to understand how wrong we are to work so hard at trying to unlock the secret of worship with the works of worship, trying to come with just the right combination. Once we are free of these systems, we can understand that the most powerful visitation of God and the most articulate expressions of worship can take place in complete silence--in which the Giver shows himself to absolutely free of the gifts. Now here's the clincher. Once these principles become clear, once we understand what true, God-centered worship is, then we are free to return to the plethora of the works of worship, in all their beauty, completely free of them and now free to use them, to offer them; free to study and draw from them, and, I hope, free to thin them out, be more quiet, more at rest, less hurried. Only then are we free of the false Paracletes--the technologically overloaded and oft times manipulative systems which substitute for, or attempt to enhance the power and quietly loving presence of the Lord. Only then can we rid ourselves of our false and idolatrous dependencies on things--music among them--as if they were aids to worship. For how can that which has been commanded to be offered to God in faithful action, at the same time be an aid to that very action?

Only then are we free to become small, powerless, and weak again, knowing that the strength and power of the Lord are made perfect in our weakness. Only then are we free to understand that true worship generates and welcomes true diversity, not because diversity is trendy and with it, but because our worship is so cosmically boundless, so fundamentally simple, and so God-intoxicated that we have no choice but to reach for the thousand tongues, knowing that no single tongue, no single style, no single order of worship, no single anything can capture the glory and the grace. And I respectfully insist that this magnificent diversity should be practiced in all corporate worship instead of being divided up into alternative "experiences" for those who want it just one way, who are simply too lazy and too self-seeking, too provincial, to enter into the disciplined joy of seeking out God and wrestling in worship, newly, diversely, and strangely. "Not in my style," or "Not in my language," or "It doesn't meet my felt needs," is fallen worship through and through. These childish complaints miss the whole point of the Christian life, namely that we are on a journey, being called out, not knowing where we are going, living by faith without receiving the promises, all the while trusting God and being reckoned as righteous because of our rust rather than because of our works.

In summary, Christian worship is not the beginning of worship, but the glorious appearance of a brand new, right-side-up way of worship, brought about by a startlingly new birth, effected by the eternal washing of the eternal Christ, before whom we now stumblingly worship right side up, and before whom, one day, we will fall down in perfected worship, knowing as we are known and serving hilariously throughout all eternity. Once we surrender all our so-called tools and once we give ourselves over to a broken humility and unmitigated hunger for God to break in; once we get our structures and artifacts out of the way; once we take the burden off the gifts and lay it on to the Giver; once we fully realize that the gift is not responsible, but the Giver is; once we understand that God alone is both Means and End, Author and Finisher, Alpha and Omega; once these things become gradually clearer; and once we see and remain in the Light, we will find it shining on common ground, the common ground of godly worship, a continuum of action upon action, faithfully and knowingly made into offering after offering, straight through this life and on into eternity.

This is common ground. This is for the encampment of the faithful worshipper. This is for each of us. Come, let us surrender our shortsightedness, our idolatries, our contraptions, our systems, our faithless works, and our overworked faith to the Lord of Hosts, so that He can become All in all, Lord of all, and Lord of our worship.