A Popular New Word
No, the title does not contain an incorrect word or a spelling mistake. You might have assumed that the word should be “light” instead of “lite,” but not so. Lite has become a popular word over the last number of years. You will find it used on various food labels, on trailers and on a host of different products, all indicating that this item weighs less than normal or has fewer calories than it used to have.
Still, that is not quite the meaning that I had in mind in connection with worship. Rather I am thinking of one of the meanings that the latest edition of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary has for the word “lite” namely, “lacking in substance.” Much that passes for worship and worship services in Christendom today can be placed in this category.
Voices of Concern
On what basis do I say that? Is this a correct evaluation? For evidence I can point to a number of sources.
First, there is the media. Various Christian magazines, theological journals, books, computer websites, and television programs have been commenting on this for several years. Authors like D.G. Hart, Mark Noll and David Wells, among others, come to mind as critics of modern trends both in Christianity generally and worship in particular.
Second, there is personal investigation. A Reformed-Presbyterian missionary went on furlough for six months and took up residence in a Canadian city known for its many churches and even for its evangelical reputation. He decided that on his Sundays there he would visit as many churches as possible and take in their worship services.
What was his experience like? It was, he remarked, a great disappointment. What he found was very little solid, biblical preaching. The sermons were short, topical, clever, humorous, sometimes hi-tech, and geared to entertaining. Often the minister’s text was a pretext or a springboard. Sin was hardly mentioned. God was always and only a friend. Sometimes the Bible was not even opened.
As for the music, the songs varied from the traditional to the contemporary. And he expected that. What he did not expect was the popularity of so many new songs that in their words were superficial and biblically shallow and in their tunes had more in common with rock than with religion.
Of course, it is easy to dismiss the testimony of just one man. But there is a third man whose concern is not so easy to set aside, and that is the Rev. John R.W. Stott. He happens to be England’s leading evangelical Anglican church man and a Christian leader recognized around the world. He writes:
Even in the church we seem to have lost the vision of the majesty of God. There is so much shallowness and levity among us. Prophets and psalmists would probably say of us that “there is no fear of God before their eyes.” In public worship our habit is to slouch or squat; we no longer kneel, let alone prostrate ourselves in humility before God. It is more characteristic of us to clap our hands with joy than to blush with shame and tears. We saunter up to God to claim his patronage and friendship; it does not occur to us that he might send us away. We need to hear again the apostle Peter’s sobering words: “Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives in reverent fear.”
All of these comments and concerns, in turn, raise the question, “If so much that passes for worship today is lite and superficial, what does true worship look like?” To answer that it has to be said that biblical worship is characterized by at least the following principles:
a. A Sense of the Greatness of God
If you turn to the Holy Scriptures and ask, “how do they describe this God who is to be worshipped?” the answer lies in his greatness. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the Book of Psalms. Psalm 96:4 is a case in point when it states, “For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods.” Or what about Psalm 99:9, “Exalt the LORD our God and worship at his holy mountain for the LORD our God is holy”?
From these and so many other verses, it is obvious that the LORD our God was never viewed apart from his worthiness and holiness. Hebrew believers had a deep sense of his transcendence. They praise Him for his omnipotence, his omniscience, his omnipresence, even for his justice (see Psalm 139).
How different it is today wherein God’s holiness and transcendence often receives scant attention. It is his immanence that dominates. It is familiarity that rules. God as buddy is in. Only, that is not as it should be and we do well to go back to the Bible and worship our God for his greatness.
b. A Love and Hunger for Truth
If there is a current love and hunger in religious circles, it seems to be one filled with a desire to be affirmed, esteemed, assured and elevated. We want a God who conforms to our needs. And that is quite different from seeking the God of truth.
But again, is that not what Scripture teaches us. We should not seek after a God who conforms to us but we need to conform to God and to his will. His truth is what should shape our minds and hearts and attitudes. Is that not also what the Psalmist emphasizes so clearly in Psalm 119? There you will find one long discourse on God as a God of truth, on our need to know his will, love his will, and do his will. God’s truth is equated with life and blessing.
Often worship can be an exercise in which we enter a church building and want to hear what we think is important. Our agenda should prevail. Biblical worship, however, is different. It concentrates on God’s agenda and expects us to place our lives within its framework. God comes first and God’s truth comes first.
c. A Conviction of Human Unworthiness
But then if true biblical worship is all about God and truth, it is also about us as worshippers. Just how do we come before this Lord and God? With what sort of a mindset do we worship Him? What sort of hearts should be calling on Him?
The dominant answer these days seems to be – hearts that have little or no awareness of sin, humility or unworthiness.
Years ago Pierre Berton wrote a book called The Comfortable Pew. Well, not much has changed in the interim. As a matter of fact, a good case can be made for the fact that the pew has become even more comfortable, and padded. Words like sin, transgression, repentance, depravity have been all but banished from church pulpits and human vocabularies.
If Isaiah the prophet were living today he would have an exceedingly hard time getting people to take his “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (6:5) seriously. By and large, we do not consider ourselves “unclean.” We may have some spots and wrinkles here and there, but do not be too hard on us.
The biblical worshipper, however, dissents. He or she knows that it is a humble and contrite spirit that God esteems (see Isaiah 66:2)
d. An Attitude of Reverence and Awe
But then if a proper sense of sin should be there in every true worshipper, there should also be something else, namely a resultant attitude of reverence and awe. Now, that word “awe” has already been mentioned, but the word “reverence” has not, and yet it needs to be. For together these two words best describe how we need to approach our God always.
Of course, I realize that some view this as Old Testament religion. They claim that the God of the Old Testament is remote, intimidating and legalistic, whereas, the God of the New Testament is near, fun-loving and gracious. But such characterizations can not pass biblical scrutiny. One proof of that is to be found in those words “reverence and awe” and in their combination. They are written in Hebrews 12:28. In other words, it is a New Testament writer who formulates it in this way. Acceptable worship, he says, is always worship done out of a spirit of reverence and awe. And just in case we missed that, he quotes approvingly in verse 29 from Deuteronomy 4:24 – “our God is a consuming fire.”
Quite simply, our God has not changed. What He was in the Old Testament, He remains in the New Testament. In both testaments we are being reminded that worshipping Him is never to be relegated to the category of casualness.
And yet that is what we so often see today. Casualness is in!
Many professing Christians allow it to impact on the frequency of their worship. They worship when they feel like it. They allow it to impact on their dress. Suddenly God has become a God of the inside and here we had always thought that he was a God of both the outside and the inside. They allow it to impact on their offering. Whether or not I follow the principles Christian charity and first fruits is up to me.
Where is the reverence? Where is the awe?
e. A Need for Order
One biblical principle needs mention and it has to do with order. You can find it in 1 Corinthians 14:40, where the apostle Paul states, “But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” These words were written specifically about worship. In Corinth disorder prevailed. Worship was a free-for-all. This member had a favourite hymn that had to be sung, another had a word of instruction that needed to be heard by all, still another claimed to have received a revelation, and then there were those who uttered a tongue. In the midst of all of these believers jockeying for opportunity and attention, Paul calls for order.
It might help if he was heard more often making the same call today. Disorder is making a comeback. Worship having order, structure, flow, style and solemnity is frowned on. Everything has to be spontaneous, off the cuff, loose and free flowing.
Now, I know that too much order can lead to formalism. We need to be on guard against that too. Properly speaking our worship services need to strike a proper balance between being orderly and yet warm, corporate and yet personal. Nevertheless that hardly seems to be the overriding need at present. Today there is ample evidence to suggest that many churches need to rediscover what it means to worship “in a fitting and orderly way.”
In due time, I hope, the Lord willing, to come back to some of these matters in more detail. For now, however, let us reflect on these biblical principles, as well as on others that could be added, and strive to worship the Lord our God in a manner fitting to His person. Worship lite is, and always should be, for us a glaring contradiction.