Sunday, September 29, 2013

Gospel-Centered Worship: Seek And Celebrate God

Colossians 3:11-17: 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility,gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. 15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Sermon podcast is available for download here

The first church that I attended after becoming a Christian was a Cantonese speaking Methodist church in Ipoh. It was around 1990’s: And soon I found myself part of a youth group caught up in the charismatic renewal that was sweeping across many churches in town. We wanted to see revival come in our neighborhood. We wanted signs and wonders, healings and miracles and God’s power to be displayed. Along with that came choruses and contemporary music sung during our time of ‘Praise and worship’. Back then, contemporary music by Don Moen, Graham Kendrick, Ron Kenoly, Bob Fitts were the ‘in’ thing. We were quite free to do what we wanted in the youth meetings but the main worship service for the adults was quite traditional. There were old hymns accompanied by the church organ, recital of the Apostle’s creed, singing the doxology and threefold Amen. The youths (including myself) never knew why we did those things. Frankly we thought they were boring if not spiritually cold and lifeless. So we prayed hard and pestered the pastor to include more new songs in the main service. And boy! We were so happy when we first bought a drum set. It was so cool: “Hallelujah! Revival is finally coming to our church…” 

Welcome to the worship war! Hymns on the right versus choruses on the left…

Sad but true, worship that is supposed unite all believers regardless of race, age, gender and social background often becomes a battleground that separate and divide us. But thank God, I’d like to think that Malaysian churches seem to have matured beyond such debates today. Some churches would have a separate service with different music styles. Others will have a blended worship service that makes use of both (like what we do in Puchong). I guess most of us today have come to realize that the line is drawn not between the old and the new. There are emotionally rich hymns and horrible hymns just as there are doctrinally solid choruses and lousy choruses as well. The line isdrawn between good songs and bad songs.

But what counts as ‘good’ music for worship? Or a more basic question: What is worship anyway? What is it that we come to do every Sunday morning as a family of believers? Why are we doing what we do in CDPC Puchong? If the gospel is not just the basic ABC of our faith but the comprehensive A to Z that shapes everything we do, then how does the gospel shape our worship? Hopefully some of these reflections will help us to do just that.  

In the passage we read just a moment ago, we see that the gathered church is God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved – here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, slave or free, Malaysian or African or American, male or female, young or old. These distinctions no longer separate us because Christ is all and is in all. So worship is not about me. Or my individual or cultural preference? It is not what I feel when I am by myself. Worship is all about Jesus. Christ is all in all. Therefore, we are all united in Him. The walls that divide us are broken down as we stand equal before God. It is our response to what God has done in loving and choosing and rescuing us. It’s about us coming together as a family to encounter Christ and be transformed by Him in the power of the Spirit.   

So first of all, Worship is God-centered. We give to God the adoration, honor, praise and glory that He deserves. Because He is worth it 

The first letter in our SIMPLE DNA is “S: Seek and celebrate God”. It’s all about God. Sometimes we can get caught up with “what I can do for God” or “what can God for me”, that we forget about God Himself at the center altogether. In worship, we seek and celebrate God for who He is.

There was a popular worship song called "When I look into His holiness" but it was often sung with a terrible mistake in the lyrics. Do you know where the mistake is? "When my will becomes enthralled in Your Love". Very often, people (including myself) have sung "When my will becomes enthroned in Your Love". Huge difference! My will becoming enthroned in God's love means my will is exalted, my will is made to sit on the throne in God's love, that God's love revolves around me and therefore, I am more important. On the other hand, my will becoming enthralled means I am captivated by and submitted to God's Love. Of course, it’s not an intentional mistake. But it goes to show that if we are not careful, worship can become deeply self focused and man-centered instead of God-centered.

Pastoral guru Eugene Petersen warned us that if we put human requirements above God, we may be entertained, we may feel distracted or excited in such worship; but we will probably not be changed. Our feelings may be sensitized but our moral direction/compass will be dulled when we make a god from our own imagination. 

Now, what is worship? The Anglican William Temple provided perhaps the best and most famous definition of worship that I have ever read. He said:

Worship is the quickening of the conscience by the holiness of God, the feeding of the mind by the truth of God, the purging of the imagination by the beauty of God, the opening of the heart to the love of God, and the devotion of the will to the purpose of God.

Note how God is all over the place in this definition. In short, in worship we encounter God and all that He is – His truth, love, beauty and holiness. And we are changed by Him – all that we are, mind, will, heart and imagination. In worship we encounter God Himself and we are changed by Him. There is an exchange: We give Him all that we are for all that He is.

Jesus says that His Father is looking for true worshippers who worship in spirit and in truth. To worship in spirit and in truth, we must engage our heart and mind. Truth without emotion is spiritually cold and dead. Emotion without truth is shallow and based on a wrong idea of god. We need deep affections/warm desire for God (the spirit side of the equation) rooted in a true vision of God’s greatness and love (the truth side of the equation). Otherwise we may honor God with our lips but if our heart is far away from Him, we are just wasting our time.

John Piper has a vivid picture to describe this dynamic. Imagine a red-hot, fiery furnace. You need to feed the flame with wood or fuel so that it generates heat and light. Imagine this all-consuming refiner’s fire. He says: The fuel of worship is the truth of God, the furnace of worship is the spirit of man, and the heat of worship is the vital affections/emotions of reverence, repentance, trust, gratitude and joy… pushing its way out in confessions, longings, acclamations, tears, songs, shouts, bowed heads, lifted hands, and obedient lives. (Desiring God)

So we want to be captivated by a true, biblical vision of who God is and what He has done and we want to express our heartfelt affections for God – joy, trust, awe, tears, lamentation and so on.  

How do we strike this balance in worship? You may realize this in CDPC Puchong that we work towards a blend of traditional hymns and contemporary songs (quite unique, considering the fact that hymns are like the Malayan tiger. They are both endangered species nowadays).

So what are the strengths of newer worship songs? They are often celebratory, upbeat and help us express spontaneous joy in our heart. Think “Celebrate Jesus Celebrate! He is risen, He is risen! Come on and celebrate the resurrection of our Lord”. They also tend to be personal and intimate. They don’t just talk about God; they allow us to speak directly to God. “I worship You, Almighty God, there is none like You”. The new songs help us to experience and express this closeness, this intimate relationship with God.  

Yet there is a real need to balance intimacy and awe in God’s presence. Yes its true that Christ is my Friend but He is still God. What kind of God is He? Here, the ancient hymns with their solid theology help us to remember. Their exalted lyrics teach us not to be too familiar or too flippant coming before Him. Hymns like “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Almighty, All Thy works shall praise Thy name, In earth and sky and sea” opens up for us a grand vision of God as holy Creator and as the blessed Trinity.

So as a preacher, it is very humbling to realize that people probably won’t remember what I said next week but many people even children will memorize every word in a worship song they have learnt. I get the chance to see how children learn in Sunday School. The teachers (Mandy, Crystal and others) did a wonderful job teaching them bible stories and simple catechism. But when it comes to singing a song, they can almost memorize every single word along with the action sequence. It’s amazing how much they can learn through music.

And so are hymns and worship songs– they are powerful teaching materials. Especially today when we just cannot assume that people read the Bible very much. Like it or not, most people learn their doctrines by singing them. Not many people read books on systematic theology. But all Christians sing. And important truths about the faith were passed from one generation to another through songs. So Paul says this to us: “teach and admonish one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”.

A balanced blend of hymns and modern choruses can help us to worship in truth and worship in spirit. There should be passion and theology, heat and light, truth about God and feeling for God. That’s God-centered worship. We need to encounter afresh the beauty, holiness and love of God Himself.

2. Worship is corporate or communal

It is not just vertical (relating to God above). It is also horizontal (relating to others). It is not a solo performance. We can see this already in the Colossians passage just now that reminds us of identity as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved. So Paul calls us to “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” Worship is corporate.

Of course there is a place for private worship at home but Christian worship is primarily congregational. It’s personal but it’s not private. We worship as a family. When we worship, we assemble as a people belonging to Him. We are not just individuals who just happen to be in the same place at the same time. It is more important that we are in harmony than for our music instruments to be playing in the same key. It’s far more acceptable to have an instrument playing off beat than our hearts spiritually out of tune with one another. That’s why Paul stresses “forgiveness”, “love”, “peace” and “unity”: words that can have meaning only when we relate with other people.  He also calls us to a life of “singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with gratitude in our hearts to God.” For God deserves the best music we can offer Him.

Our SIMPLE DNA says that we seek and celebrate God “By glorifying Him in creative, contemplative, heartfelt and celebratory worship, joining the global church through the ages”. That means when we worship, we do so in unity, in solidarity with true worshippers from different cultures, denominations, nations, languages across space and time. The global church is much bigger than we think. And we want to honor that inclusive diversity. 

If worship is corporate, then we should look for songs that bring people of different ages together because singing is an act of unity. When CDPC first started, we experimented with intergenerational worship service where children and adults would feel welcome. That’s why the furniture and sofas are arranged the way they are. That’s why we did the Kid’s talk. And we can flesh this ethos out in creative ways like when we sing songs in Bahasa, when we include our brothers/sisters from different countries to pray in their native tongue, when the music team joyfully plays from the back. That’s another unique thing that we do. Almost every musician that I talk to enjoys this arrangement. It is less distracting to others and draws less attention to ourselves. Some are just relieved because it doesn’t appear like a concert where we are performing in front while the audience passively enjoys the show. There is only the audience of One. It’s all about God. 

But how do we connect with the global church through the ages without a time machine? As good evangelicals, we don’t pray for the saints who have died. Well, one way we can link up our worship with worshippers in the past is through hymns. They remind us that Christianity is a historical faith. They connect us to our past.

When we sing, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” for example, we are reminded of the Reformation and the courageous stand that Martin Luther took in defense of the gospel. Here I stand so help me God. When we sing, “And Can It Be That I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?” by Charles Wesley, we capture again the wonder of being strangely warmed by God’s grace during the Great Awakening revival. Soo Inn wrote: “Many hymns serve as snapshots of key moments in church history. They remind us that the Christian faith has come thus far because many others have come before us, many of whom have paid a heavy price for the name of Christ.” If we don’t do that, we will forget who we really are. A church without history is like a person without memory.

Not only that, we need to be shaped by the story of God’s people in redemptive history. For many centuries, the Jewish family would celebrate Passover. They eat unleavened bread, drink wine and partake of the roasted lamb. The child would ask, “Papa, why are we doing this?” And the elder in the family would explain, “Son/Daughter, we celebrate the Passover because we remember that the Lord delivered our forefathers out of Egypt with a mighty hand. On that night, the angel of death passed over homes on which the blood of the lamb was applied. That is how we pass over from death into life, from slavery into freedom. We are now part of this story.” In the same way, when we celebrate the Holy Communion as a Christian family, we remember that on the night Jesus was betrayed, He broke bread and said: “This is my body broken for you and as you eat it, remember me”. Then he lifted up the cup, gave thanks and said, “This is My blood of the new covenant, poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins”. When our children ask, “Why are we doing this, Daddy/Mommy?” And we say: “We are now part of this story. Jesus the perfect Lamb of God delivered us from sin to life, from slavery into freedom”. We act out again and relive the story of God’s deliverance on the cross as it has been done for centuries.
One more way that we join the global church through the ages in worship is through our shared beliefs. There are historic summary statements of our faith that have been recited for hundreds of years such as the Apostles creed/Nicene/Chalcedon creed:
 I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth; I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
When we recite and memorize creeds like this together, we are saying to God: Here are the core beliefs we share in unity with each other and with others across the ages. We hold to the same faith that once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3). Churches that do this make it difficult for people to be led astray by strange teachings.

Lastly, worship is gospel-driven

Worship is often understood narrowly as just the “singing before the sermon.” But again, the Scripture passage today reminds us that worship is much broader: whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus giving thanks to the Father. That’s holistic worship. All of life is to be an act of worship and thanksgiving. 

But having said that, we also need a rhythm of work and rest so that we set apart a day to come together and worship God as a congregation. Keeping the Sabbath reminds us that we are not machines. We are not in total control of life. It is a space and time for us to be refreshed, to remember who God is, what He has done, who I really am, what I have been called to be. And that’s what we do on Sunday mornings when we gather and it prepares us to be sent back as God’s people to the world.

So worship includes the singing before sermon. But it also includes our prayers, our responsive Scripture readings, our silent reflections, our confession of sin/guilt, our tithing, our listening to the Word preached, the Holy Communion. Every element of a worship gathering is a tool in the hand of God to shape and mold us in His own image. Let’s unpack these elements a bit more to see how can we "re-present" and act out the gospel in our worship? How can it be meaningful so that even a first time visitor will get to understand and experience the good news week in, week out?

When we first got together to discuss the ethos of worship in CDPC Puchong, we ask ourselves: What should the worship service look like? We leave a lot of room for various worship styles and I personally enjoy different personalities of worship leaders to shine through each week. But there is one thing in common that binds us together.

Our worship tells a story. We want to tell the gospel by the way we worship. It’s the simple yet profound story of God creating us, we have sinned against Him but Christ has redeemed on the cross and He shall return in glory. When we worship week in week out, this pattern of adoration, repentance, assurance of forgiveness and dedicating ourselves to God’s purpose becomes a habit. It becomes natural. It becomes our second nature like driving a car after many years.  The shape of the Bible story of creation/fall/redemption and hope guides our worship so that we do not just drift along with the leaders’ preference, or denominational tradition or what’s appealing to the surrounding culture.

Here is an example of how our liturgy may look like. It is not a strict to-do list, we can be very creative with the arrangements but it can serve as a helpful sample template:

We begin with the Call to Worship where we invite everyone to gather and worship the Creator, we call them out from their daily activities to come into His presence. Reading the Psalms (the prayer book and hymn book that Jesus used) together is a wonderful way to do this. For example, Psalm 95 is a beautiful call to worship that we like to use.

Let us come before him with thanksgiving
    and extol him with music and song.
For the Lord is the great God,
    the great King above all gods.
Come, let us bow down in worship,
    let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;
for he is our God
    and we are the people of his pasture,
    the flock under his care.

Then, having come into the presence of a holy Creator, we search our hearts and confess the sins that separate us from Him. This can be a public confession and/or private confession. It gives us an opportunity to repent, ask for forgiveness and renew our trust in God’s faithfulness and follow Him more closely.

It’s appropriate to follow up confession with an assurance of pardon so that we do not just leave people with a sense of guilt and condemnation without any hope of grace. Again we can find many Scripture promises of God’s mercy i.e.
1 John 1:9 “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. These promises from Scripture come alive and become precious to us.  

We continue our worship with the collection of tithes where we give back to God from what He has blessed us with. That is also worship, thanksgiving and an offering to God.

And during the sermon, we listen actively to God’s word being preached from Scripture. God speaks to us through the reading of Scripture, through the words of the speaker and through the Holy Spirit convicting and comforting us. He gives us promises, warnings and reveals His will to us.

Having heard from God’s Word, we cannot remain passive and just ignore it. So we respond by dedicating our wills to the purpose of God. We renew our commitment to follow Him in response.
Then we end with a benediction or blessing that the gathered church is now dispersed and sent back into the marketplace as ambassadors of the gospel in word and deed. So we can see an inside-out movement in worship where having been gathered inside to encounter God and renewed, we are again sent outside to be salt and light in the world.

Without this inside-out movement, worship becomes too inward-looking and self-focused. In the Disney cartoon, The Hunchback of NotreDame, a gypsy girl Esmeralda prayed for the outcasts who were marginalized by her society. Then in contrast some religious-looking people prayed:
I ask for wealth, I ask for fame
I ask for glory to shine on my name
I ask for love, I can possess
I ask for God and His angels to bless me

Finally, Esmeralda prays this prayer:
I ask for nothing
I can get by
But I know so many
Less lucky than I
Please help my people
The poor and downtrod
I thought we all were 
The children of God

Whose worship do you think is more pleasing to God, I wonder? That’s why I really enjoy it when we close our worship service last week by kneeling before God and sing “The Worker’s Prayer”. It is a great inside-out movement that prepares us for the challenges that we will face throughout the week in the workplace. Another one of my favorite “inside-out” songs is called: “God of the poor” that intercedes for people who are sick, dispossessed, unemployed and ask God for compassion for the poor and marginalized. It also prays for the ravaged earth that is poisoned and plundered by our carelessness and greed. It’s quite comprehensive, really. Songs like that help to connect our spirituality with the real pains we experience in the world.

Friends, if our worship is shaped by the gospel, we cannot help but realize that many others who have yet to know Christ need His grace also. Evangelism exists because worship does not. Worship is the driving force of mission – Once we have tasted God’s goodness, we want others to be included into this joy of enjoying and delighting in His love. The goal of evangelism is not just to save souls from sin (that’s true, of course). But the ultimate goal is so that people can enjoy and glorify God in fellowship with Him forever. Worship is more than a song. It is what we were made for. The ultimate purpose of our lives. 


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