…a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.
-John 4:23 (NIV)
In last week’s post, I suggested that the fellowship of churches known today as Churches of Christ have historically not left much room in our theology and practice for the Holy Spirit. We’ve seen him as a retired author, finished inspiring Scripture and no longer involved with us. While we wouldn’t always say it this way, our practice has betrayed our belief that once we had the Bible, we no longer needed the Spirit. Our rationalist perspective has taught us that all we need to do is read, study, and interpret the Scriptures rightly. I suggested that this impoverished understanding of the Spirit has affected us in at least three ways: our corporate worship and ministry, private devotional life, and understanding of unity. Last week I talked about how our understanding of unity has been characterized by an underemphasis on the Spirit’s work of creating unity, and our responsibility to maintain it, and an overemphasis on unity created by a uniform interpretation of Scripture on a bewildering array of issues.
This week, I want to make the case that the rationalist perspective which has characterized Churches of Christ has also affected the ways in which we worship and serve together. It has done so in several ways. First, and perhaps most fundamentally, it has created in us the idea that worship is more an act of the will than an expression of gratitude and adoration. Secondly, it is has placed the focus in worship squarely upon what we do, as opposed to what God does. Finally, it has exalted preaching as the central event of worship, while minimizing the importance of other acts, including communion.
In Churches of Christ, worship has historically been more about performing the proper acts in the proper ways. It has almost seemed that the entire point of worship has been to demonstrate to God that we know the “right” things to do and the “right” methodology for doing them. We have almost completely thought of worship as a pattern to be followed — or, at least, that’s what we’ve said about it. The pattern of worship that is pleasing to God has been revealed through Scripture, and we show our faithfulness by correctly interpreting the pattern and reproducing it: vocal music only, communion every Sunday, avoidance of the use of creeds and confessions, and so on. Above all, it is to be reserved and dignified, without overt displays of emotion.
It is not difficult to see how these emphases have arisen from the dominant rationalist stream in Churches of Christ. Neither is it difficult to see how the focus upon worship as an act of obedience to a pattern has left us with little expectation of any encounter with God in our worship. The focus is squarely upon what the worshiper does. God’s activity in worship is implicitly marginalized or explicitly denied. We don’t expect to be confronted with God’s holiness, or our own sinfulness — except maybe in the sermon.
Preaching has become the “big event” of worship, because, in our understanding, it is in preaching that we encounter God’s chosen vehicle for transformation – the words of Scripture. The text is explained, biblical information is imposed upon passive, waiting minds, and we go away to try to be what we’ve been told we are to be. We’re not the first to place this kind of emphasis on preaching, of course. But our emphasis on the rational, and de-emphasis of the work of God through the Holy Spirit, has made it a natural fit for us.
I have no desire to marginalize preaching, and am convinced that the Spirit often operates through preaching. I certainly have no desire to deny that the Holy Spirit works through and with the Scripture that he inspired. However, an approach to preaching and Scripture that emphasizes human understanding to the loss of the Spirit’s work is detrimental to spiritual formation. Once again, it has placed the emphasis upon what we do. The preacher prepares and delivers a sermon. The congregation listens, evaluates by comparing it to the Bible, and then goes home to live it out.
These emphases have failed to take seriously the biblical notion that when the church is assembled, “the power of our Lord Jesus is present.” (1 Corinthians 5:4) The Lord is present through the Holy Spirit, and not only as an observer. Jesus observed that true worship was not about the “right” place – and certainly not the “right” methods. True worshipers, he insists, “worship in Spirit and truth.” (John 4:21-24) They recognize the spiritual nature of God, and they recognize that worship is spiritual and genuine communion with him.
A more biblical understanding would recognize the place of the Holy Spirit in the assembled church. It would be seen in worship leaders emphasizing the real presence of God, and worship as an expression of gratitude and praise to him. It would be reflected in a liturgy that reflects the presence and power of the Spirit by leaving space in which worshipers can encounter God and feel his call upon their lives. It would give opportunity for believers to share with the church God’s work in their own lives. It would expect that every believer would use his or her spiritual gifts for the benefit of the church, taking seriously the biblical expectation that in the Messianic age “our sons and daughters prophesy, our young men see visions and our old men dream dreams,” as the Lord has poured out his Spirit on his servants, both men and women. (Acts 2:17-18) It would emphasize not only the acts of the worshiper in baptism, Communion, and worship, but also the activity of God in them in imparting grace to the worshiper. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me,” Jesus promised, “and I in them.” (John 6:56) It would express that in worship we act out the truth and implications of our being in Jesus, and his being in us, and that the presence of the Holy Spirit makes real the things we act out.