Jim McClure
‘Where is the best place to worship?’ asks a concerned Christian.

Dr Jim McClure, noted theologian, responds:

There is a sense in which worship of God should be central to our lives as Christians regardless wherever we are or whatever we are doing. However, in this article I want to address what we do when we formally come together to worship God.

Jesus was asked this question by a Samaritan woman. She said, ‘Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem’ (John 4:20). He replied, ‘Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. … 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 the Father seeks’ (John 4:21 and 23).

Attitude matters, not the place
Take note of this – the place doesn’t matter, whether it is a majestic cathedral or a little wooden building, a paddock or a private home. Indeed, apart from the earliest days of Christianity, when some met from time to time in the Temple in Jerusalem, the early Christians primarily met for worship in people’s homes. Jesus made it clear that it is not the place that is important but the attitude of the heart and spirit.

Eventually some buildings were erected to provide a meeting place for Christians in a locality. There were various reasons for this. Certainly as the church grew, individual houses were too small to accommodate the numbers. (Also, a building has the added convenience of providing protection against the vagaries of the weather!).

Then church buildings began to develop architectural styles which, in combination with church furnishings, were used to symbolise or emphasise various aspects of the Christian faith and worship. I’ll give you an example. Before the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, the congregation faced an altar that was in a central position at the front of the church. The emphasis therefore was placed on Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The pulpit from which God’s word was preached was placed near the wall to the left of the altar.

Change of focus
With the Reformation came a change of focus and many Protestant churches, which emphasised the centrality of both word and sacrament, placed the pulpit (from which the word of God was preached) at the centre – often with the communion table in front of the pulpit. (Note that the phrase ‘communion table’ replaced the word ‘altar’ which suggested that Jesus was not being slain again and again and again …).

The placing of the pulpit at the centre was making a statement regarding what was considered to be of foremost significance – the word of God and its exposition. This placement of furniture is still evident in many church buildings today.

While there were theological reasons for the changes in the arrangement of furnishings, today changes in architectural style and furnishings have less to do with doctrine and more to do with performance. Indeed, especially in many newer churches, it is interesting to note where the emphasis is placed.

More frequently we are seeing platforms replacing pulpits and communion tables. So one is led to ask; ‘What is this telling us about the changing understanding concerning the nature of worship?’ (By ‘worship’ I do not mean just the ‘singing bit’ of a service. Reading of the scriptures, preaching, praying and giving of our offering are all aspects of the worship we offer to God. Unfortunately many people today mistakenly use the word ‘worship’ exclusively in reference to the singing of the songs).

As ‘worship’ is more and more seen in terms of performance, it is inevitable that the central act takes place on a stage and that is where the attention is focused.

Then follows attention to the equipment and techniques that are employed in the theatre – sophisticated stage lighting, strobe lights and smoke machines to enhance the musical performances and fix attention on the performers – all designed to stimulate the emotions. To enhance the effect, the lights are often dimmed in the main body to accentuate what is happening on the stage.

While ‘Christian words’ are used, thus lending a measure of Christian flavour to the proceedings, a radical and not-so-subtle transformation in focus has occurred – the congregation has become an audience to be entertained!

When ‘worship’ sets out to compete with the entertainment industry, it ceases to be worship! Rather it is intended to appeal to our carnal emotions rather than enabling our spirits to engage with God.

Principal concern
Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying…

  • I am not saying that all the things churches previously did were right and that all contemporary expressions of worship are wrong.
  • Nor am I in the brigade of those disliking modern worship songs (some of them are profound while others are extremely shallow and doctrinally unsound – but that is another topic!)
  • Nor am I opposed to loud music which at times is highly appropriate.

My principal concern is the degradation of the true nature of worship and its replacement by entertainment while sincere Christians have been betrayed by the quality and sophistication of the performances.

There is a troubling trend in understanding the nature of worship. The Samaritan woman asked Jesus about the right place to worship. Today the question often concerns the right way to worship. And here again Jesus’ comment about worshipping ‘in spirit and in truth’ is very relevant.

Sadly the word ‘worship’ is now increasingly understood as ‘entertaining and pleasing the audience’ rather than the age-old biblical concept of ‘humble surrendering to and adoring Almighty God.’ Paul made this appeal to the church in Rome, ‘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’ (Romans 12:1).

The phrase ‘pleasing to God’ is so significant. Worship is not for our benefit. It is not about making us feel good. It is not about giving us a ‘buzz.’ It is not about pleasing us. Worship is about pleasing God!

Some years ago I came across a couple of diagrams that clearly differentiate between these two positions. The first diagram depicts a room in which people have assembled to worship. In the first diagram the audience sits facing the stage while on the stage are the musicians, singers and preacher. In the little prompt box in front of the stage is God who is motivating and enabling those on the stage to perform at their highest level for the benefit of the congregation/audience.

The second diagram depicts the same room, but there is a major difference. Here God is the audience! And everyone else is on the stage – the musicians, singers, preacher and the congregation! All that takes place is for the pleasure of God!
Worship is all about pleasing God and not about pleasing us. Our delight in true worship is found not in the measure of how much we are or thrilled by or enjoy the entertainment aspect of the worship event but in our engagement with and adoration of Almighty God – and that experience may be joyful or painful, affirming or challenging, humbling or uplifting. And this is true regardless of whether we meet to worship in a more structured and formal way or in a more contemporary form.

Redirection is not a new problem!
But this is not a new problem. In 1857 the theologian JSB Hodges wrote:

‘How different … is the idea which many entertain of public worship. They regard it as having reference to man rather than to God; as having for its chief object the benefit and edification of the individual rather than of glorifying God. … The great design of all worship they take to be the edification of the worshipper.

‘And what are the natural results of such a view? Does it not lower the whole idea of divine service? Does it not make the creature and not the Creator its centre and chief object? … [Worship] does not begin and end in self. It does not seek merely to improve and exalt the human, but it holds ever prominent the Divine Being to whom it is addressed’

If the focus of our worship is redirected from God to ourselves, Satan has very effectively accomplished his purpose!

Dr Jim McClure is the author of Grace Revisited (See Resources), Overview of the Old and New Testaments and the Understanding… series. Orders/enquiries:

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