Thursday, March 27, 2008

Trouble In Paradise

It sure would be nice if the worship wars would just go away.

Disagreement over styles and techniques of worship has brought wrenching conflict to a lot of congregations. Usually, but not always, the tension and divide has been between different generations. Opposing views on types of music and instruments and order of service and whether or not to clap hands and lift hands and whether to stay traditional or go contemporary or try a blended approach have all sometimes brought serious turmoil in some churches and even resulted in fractures and splits. At the very least, unity is often jeopardized.

It seems so surreal that local fellowships whose high calling and chief purpose is to praise and adore the living God can't come together and cooperate in how to do it.

Two events in the life of Old Testament king David, both recorded in 2 Samuel 6, may provide some insight and guidance on this subject.

In the first half of the chapter we find this relatively new monarch attempting to transport the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. This box symbolized the presence and power of the Lord and the spiritually sensitive king wanted it known that God reigned in the capital city. He leads an exuberant, festal procession as the ark is moved. But in his exhilaration and sincere passion he makes a terrible mistake. Instead of having the ark carried by the Kohathites with poles on their shoulders, as the OT law prescribed, David mounted it on a new cart pulled by oxen for the journey. At some point, the animals stumbled and it appeared that the sacred chest was about to slide off the cart. A man by the name of Uzzah, with the very best of intentions, quickly reaches out to steady the ark and is instantly struck dead in an act of God's judgement. Despite his innocence and benevolence, he had violated God's requirement that this special box not be touched because it was a symbol of the Lord's holiness and because adequate preparation must be made before approaching Him. David was angry and then confused and then fearful at this tragic incident, but as he reflected he got the message!

We can learn something here. God values His holiness. He is concerned about the details. It matters to Him in what manner we draw close to Him. If our worship is just shallow emotionalism or just continual efforts to try something new or just going through the motions without genuine heart conditioning we may end up actually displeasing the Lord. Changing our methods simply to attract the culture around us or to make church more suitable to our evolving tastes will not necessarily honor the God we profess to love. We dare not forget that true worship is work. It takes discipline and focus.It must not be done in a flippant, cavalier way and it certainly should never turn into mere entertainment for ourselves. It's serious business because it's directed toward a lofty, majestic, transcendant God.

There is a flip side, however. In the second half of the chapter, David, after a few months, gets his act together. He resumes the delivery of the ark to Jerusalem. This time he does it right.
Now he is even more passionate and excited. There's not only music and a parade, but dancing(he couldn't have been Baptist!) before the Lord. Another problem surfaces, though. The king's wife, Michal, is awaiting his arrival back in Jerusalem and watching for him from a window. When she sees his joyful, unbridled dancing she is repulsed. She impugns his motives, criticizes his actions, and labels them as undignified and improper. David tries to explain that his jubilant movements were spiritually, not sensually, inspired, and that he planned to continue with even greater intensity. The story ends with the statement that Michal remained childless the rest of her life. Either their marital intimacy died that day or else God judged her cold, negative heart in this area.

Again lessons emerge. We can get so stiff and staid in our worship that the joy evaporates. We can allow ourselves to get locked into the same old traditional patterns of offering praise and we lose the life and the vibrancy. We might even catch ourselves becoming critical of those who desire to yield their worship in fresh, creative ways. If our worship becomes stale and halfhearted and routine we could potentially lose our sensitivity to the voice of the Lord. Churches are dying because they insist on keeping everything the same. But if God is always on the move, we've got to be willing to explore and experiment. We've got to be open to varying styles and expressions so that a new generation coming behind us can feel included, too. Dazzling creativity and celebration should characterize our church praise gatherings as we mix different musical genres and utilize the arts and diverse instruments and even, like the ancient king, sometimes incorporate sacred dance into our worship. But the key, as in David's case, is to do what we do from the heart, a heart truly focused on glorifying Him and bringing Him delight.

I call for a truce in the worship battles. It's time we stop demanding what we've become comfortable with or what makes us feel good and start seeking God's pleasure and what will build up the whole congregation.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Mixed Reviews

Two events in the reign of Old Testament king Hezekiah are instructive for church life today.

One was a decisive, positive, necessary action. The other was a harmful, selfish attitude.

In 2 Kings 18 we read of how this monarch came to power in Judah and instituted some needed religious reforms. In verse 4 it is mentioned that among these changes was the breaking into pieces of the bronze serpent that Moses had made centuries earlier. Bear in mind that this object had been a great help to the people at a critical time. Remember that it was God who had directed Moses to fashion it. Don't forget that at the time it was originally set up it was a powerful symbol and reminder of the Lord's presence and mercy and healing. And yet years down the road, here is Hezekiah destroying it?

To us it seems odd. It appears to be a sacrilegious act. That is, until we read a little further and discover that as time had elapsed the people had begun to worship this thing. A tool that had been designed to get individuals focused on God was now itself an object of veneration. It clearly had to go. It had become an idol. It needed immediate removal, regardless of its sentimental value or traditional feel, so that the people once again could concentrate on worshipping the living, invisible God who is not stationary or manageable. Hezekiah gets a thumbs up. He does what is right here.

There's a lesson for contemporary congregations in this. We sometimes set up policies and organizations and programs in our churches that are very useful and effective at the time of their launching but that may tend to lose their impact as the years roll by in terms of their drawing us closer to Christ and making us stronger disciples. Our tendency, though, is to hang on to these instruments and procedures because we've gotten comfortable with them. They make us feel safe and secure. We've used them for so long that we've gotten in a rut. When someone suggests that we tweak them or discard them to see if there might be a fresher, more up to date, more creative way to meet the same need, we often cling tenaciously to the familiar, to what worked in the past. We almost get to the point where we worship our traditions and our buildings and our order of service and our worship styles and our bylaws and even our same seats in church rather than the always moving and unpredictable and sovereign God. Frankly, we develop a church culture that can actually be out of step with, and opposed to, the ways of the Lord!

But wise, farsighted Hezekiah blunders a couple of chapters later. In 2 Kings 20 he makes a bad mistake and exhibits a wrong attitude.

On one occasion he unthinkingly shows all his treasures to some visiting Babylonians. The prophet Isaiah verbally chastises him for that and predicts that a day is coming when this eventual enemy will show up and seize all this material wealth from a future generation. Hezekiah's selfish response to that dire warning was to remark, in essence, that at least it wasn't going to happen in his time so he could just relax and enjoy the present. Sadly, many senior saints in our congregations today think similarly. Their position seems to be "we realize that our way of doing church will probably not draw younger people, but please leave us alone and let us maintain our established, comfortable ways of leadership and structure for now. Then after we're gone, the folks coming behind us can do whatever they want to. It'll just be more peaceful this way."

I gotta tell you that that is a prescription for losing time, momentum, and ground. It's a recipe for church failure and even death. It puts security above Kingdom business, ease before reaching a new generation for Jesus, coziness in place of doing the sometimes difficult work of finding out what God wants us to do in these challenging days of flux and fluidity. Each of us only gets one life, one shot at making a difference in the time period that the Lord has given us. We dare not waste or fritter away our opportunity! We can't afford to be so chained to the past and so settled in the present that we're not constantly dreaming and envisioning and reshaping for the future that is coming at us at breakneck speed.

Thanks, Hezekiah, for letting us learn from your successes and your errors.