Speaking with various leaders about music and the worship service, people kept saying “something’s missing.” Maybe we can’t put our finger on it, but we know that what we have isn’t everything we’re supposed to have—something’s missing. We know the answer isn’t to go the way of Hillsong and the Praise & Worship Movement, but we also know that we don’t have it… whatever “it” is, we don’t have it.

On one side you have church becoming one big rock concert—pounding music, dancing, the lot. That’s not real worship. On the other side you have a worship service that is dry, boring, and void of excitement. That’s not real worship either. If it’s not going to be real, the other “not real” is more fun! Of course that’s not the answer. If conservative music is right, then we need to deal with this issue. Sometimes the problem can be a poor understanding of the purpose of music or a distracting style of music, but often the problem is in the worship itself.

Real worship

Various definitions of worship have been put forward, but a quick word study suggests that worship is a humble response of esteem and admiration when confronted with the excellence of something or someone. When young people idolise a sports figure, they don’t worship the player who never made the team. They worship the athlete who has demonstrated excellence in his sport. It’s the excellence that elicits admiration and esteem. The humility comes when you compare your game to his!

Consider this definition in light of the dedication service for Solomon’s Temple. The worship service started with the musicians singing a song of praise that included the text “For he is good, for his mercy endureth forever” (2 Chronicles 5:13). The Bible says that while they were “as one, to make one sound” that God came down with such power that they “could not stand to minister… for the glory of the LORD had filled the house of God.” Next, Solomon gave the sermon which was then followed by a prayer of dedication. Following the prayer, once again the glory of God descended on the temple:

And when all the children of Israel saw how the fire came down, and the glory of the LORD upon the house, they bowed themselves with their faces to the ground upon the pavement, and worshipped, and praised the LORD, saying, For he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever. 2 Chronicles 7:3

When the Israelites were confronted with the excellence of their God, the result was that they humbly bowed down right there on the pavement to show their esteem and admiration for this great God. Real worship will only exist when we are confronted with the excellence of our God. It is the excellence of our God that causes our faces to lift in admiration and esteem for him. It is when we compare our “game” to his that our hearts are bowed in humility before this great God.

The need of the hour

The need of the hour is illuminated worship. The word of God explains it this way: “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). The Bible teaches that spiritual truths do not come naturally for sinful people. The Holy Spirit must teach them to us. As believers, we have the Spirit dwelling in us to teach us all things (2 Corinthians 3:18), but that does not mean that all truth has been taught to us yet. Jim Berg, in his book Changed Into His Image, puts it like this: “We must not think that reading the Bible alone changes a man. God’s Spirit must personally show the realities of God to that man as he ponders the Scriptures. This divine work is called ‘illumination'” (144). This is what the hymn writer meant when he penned the words “Loved with everlasting love, Led by grace that love to know, Spirit breathing from above, Thou hast taught me it is so.” It is the responsibility of the church to disciple and equip believers so that they can be taught the deep things of God by the Holy Spirit in their own devotional times (Matthew 28:19-20).

When our congregation rises early on Sunday morning to spend some serious time gazing into the glory of God in his word, when our congregation knows how to receive the illumination of the Spirit, when the reality of our God breaks vibrantly on our souls every day, then—and only then—our worship will be real.

When the unsaved person or the un-illuminated believer sees the worship of an illuminated believer, sometimes he thinks it’s just emotionalism. Jim Berg explains:

The lump in his throat and the tears in his eyes as the illuminated believer sings are not the result of having worked himself into an emotional high… Rather, the truly illuminated believer can hardly contain himself as he sings because the words of the hymn have reminded him of the truths he has previously seen from the Word when the Holy Spirit showed him the glory of God. The sight of God is as stunning to him at the time of this new reflection—when he is thinking about what he is singing—as it was at the moment of the initial illumination of that truth as he studied his Bible. He has never recovered from the experience of seeing God in His Word, and he hopes he never will. (Italics in original, Changed 150)

Pretending that we like it

We were getting out of the car after eating at the home of some friends. My brother had just finished explaining to his children that it is inconsiderate to complain about the food when eating at someone else’s house, when my niece (who was six at the time) made this comment. “It smelled horrible,” she said, “but we were pretending that we liked it.”

How often do we sit in a worship service and do the same thing? We know that “they” are wrong to use all that pop/rock music, but often we really don’t see what’s so good about our music either. Every now and again someone gets excited about something in a song service and we wonder what’s wrong with them because we’re looking at the same hymn book and we don’t see anything to get excited about. We know all of this is good and true, and we agree with it, but frankly, we’re bored—but we’re pretending that we like it.

How are we any different from the children of Israel who “did flatter [God] with their mouth, and they lied unto him with their tongues. For their heart was not right with him” (Psalm 78:36-37). This isn’t really “our story” or “our song,” and we’re certainly not “praising [our] Saviour all the day long”! Grace is good and all, but “amazing”? And sure, we sing with our mouth, but “then sings my soul”?

In his book, Created for His Glory, Jim Berg uses the illustration of a dog listening to his master’s conversation with a friend. “The dog rests his head on his paws in front of him and appears ‘bored’ with the whole ordeal. He has no interest in the conversation because he has no ‘understanding’ of it” (99). Berg gives further insight:

If you are sitting under the sound preaching and teaching of the Word of God and find yourself bored, that is the time to recognize that the speaker is dealing with a truth for which you have never received any illumination. Rather than dismiss the whole presentation as boring, you should be praying “God, here is a truth for which I have not had illumination. “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law” (Psalm 119:18). Your boredom is the sign of your spiritual blindness to that truth.

Those in the audience who have experienced God’s enlightening work about that truth will find great delight to hear it again—even if the speaker is dreadfully uninteresting in his delivery and perhaps has never been illuminated about that truth himself. Enlightened truth retains it’s relish and delight. It is never boring no matter how many times a believer hears it. (Created 100)

For a more thorough coverage of the biblical passages on illumination, see chapter seven of Changed Into His Image and chapter five of Created for His Glory.

So what’s the answer?

What we really want is a complex answer so we can blame others or some doctrinal weakness for our poor worship, but what it really comes down to is laziness in worship—both personal worship and public worship. We have no thirst for God. The honest truth is that we haven’t spent enough time with God pleading for a Spirit-taught understanding of the truths of his word. We want real Christianity, but not that bad.

Worship is work. Worship costs something. Are we willing to discipline our minds to follow the texts of the hymns? Are we willing to spend the multiple hours a week that it takes to build a vibrant relationship with our God? Are we willing to be exhausted after our times of worship? We know that worship brings joy and fulfilment, but this isn’t about our joy and fulfilment, it’s about showing the excellence of someone else—our God! That’s worship.

The time when worship is most meaningful is after some tragedy or during a major trial. I’ll never forget the evening camp service the day that one of my fellow camp staff members was killed in an accident on the campsite. It’s times like this that we’re overwhelmed with thankfulness and relief because of God’s unchanging love and comfort. Hymns that we have sung thoughtlessly a hundred times, come alive.

Thru many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath bro’t me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

I’ll never forget the services I attended in the days following the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center. Why is the music so meaningful at these times? It’s because the world is crashing in on us and we’re desperately aware that we need God. Everything that is surface falls away and we grasp for the basic truths about our God—because we need him. At times of tragedy we stop, we think, we listen, and we search. No wonder our hearts overflow as we sing the simple text:

All the way my Saviour leads me—
What have I to ask beside?
Can I doubt his tender mercy,
Who through life has been my guide?
Heav’nly peace, divinest comfort,
Here by faith in him to dwell!
For I know whate’er befall me,
Jesus doeth all things well.

If we could learn to worship all the time the way we do at these times, our worship would be different. Singing a text like this after a tragedy is very meaningful. There’s nothing dead, nothing boring about it. The problem is that we are coming to church every Sunday spiritually asleep—satisfied with our spiritual condition, blind to the spiritual battle that rages in our own hearts, distracted by the world, and unaware of the vast excellences of our great God.

I wonder, if we could see the hearts of the congregations of our nation on the average Sunday morning, what would we see? We might see thousands of people who are holding a conservative line on music, but who are missing the primary point of that music—worship. We’ll never have real worship in our churches until we have illuminated worshippers in our churches. The answer will not be found solely in the music style, it will not be found solely in the leaders, and it will not be found solely in the methods. The answer will be found when God’s people live in the reality of the excellences of God. That’s the real thing.

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About Jason Harris

Dr Jason Harris is a writer, pastor, and academic. He has authored multiple books, articles, and papers including his book Theological Meditations on the Gospel. Jason has a PhD from James Cook University as well as degrees in theology, music, accounting, and research. Jason has lived in Cairns, Australia since 2007 and serves as pastor at CrossPoint Church. You can contact Jason at jason@jasonharris.com.au.

One Comment

  1. Jessie 24 November, 2006 at 9:43 pm - Reply

    Hey just letting you know i really agree with, enjoyed and appreciated you article. Praise God that there are people who feel the same way as me about worship and having passionate relationships with God!..and that are so doctrinally sound! Thanks man

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