For most of my nearly thirty years in the Pentecostal church, I’ve been involved in worship music, for much of that time as a worship leader. Only in the past year or so have I laid down my guitar, piano and microphone and taken a big step back. And as I have, my perspective has begun to change.
Let me first say this: I believe in both the value and the power of corporate worship.
I believe that corporate worship is of great value because it unites us as the worshipping church, takes our focus off the individual, reminds us of God’s eternal attributes and instils a renewed sense of corporate purpose.
I believe that corporate worship is powerful because something happens when we come together as the gathered people of God that transcends the individual and the commonplace. Times of corporate worship can lift us into new realms of awareness of the beauty and majesty of God and inspire us afresh as we seek to walk out our calling from Monday to Saturday.
I’ve experienced some amazing, awe-inspiring, spine-tingling moments in corporate worship, when the presence of God seemed so thick you could feel its weight and the whole world took on a different and holier hue afterwards.
But… having said all that, I’ve been wondering. Specifically, I’ve been wondering about just how much of our worship, particularly in emotionally charged charismatic settings, is dualistic.
Dualism, in essence, is the view that the world is divided into two categories: good and evil, light and dark, sacred and secular. Take dualism to its extreme and you have gnosticism, an early heresy that assumed that all physical matter was evil, and thus that Jesus only appeared to be human. We may not go quite that far today, but if we’re willing to stop and think about it, I’m convinced that much of our corporate worship is imbued with more than a hint of dualism.
Those who teach on worship will often hark back to Old Testament models of temple worship, which involved strict hierarchies and protocols as to who was allowed how much access into God’s presence. We happily speak of entering his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise. Of course, I understand the importance of thanksgiving and praise… yet at the same time I’m struck with the thought that very often we’re trying desperately to keep an Old Testament temple worship model alive when this is precisely the model that Jesus came to abolish and supersede.
Try as I might, when I walk into church on a Sunday morning I often can’t escape the shared feeling that we’re coming out of the unholy, secular world into a consecrated, holy place. Indeed, Pentecostal and charismatic churches positively celebrate and encourage the sense of anticipation and excitement that comes from believing that we’re about to step out of the mundanity of our humdrum lives and experience a supernatural encounter with the living God. The band strikes up, we passionately sing “Holy Spirit you are welcome here…”, and I wonder what is it about this building that makes the Holy Spirit welcome here and not elsewhere? And if he’s welcome at 10:30, where was he at 10:29, or for the rest of the morning, or even for the rest of the week before that?
Pentecostal and charismatic churches typically place great value on passionate worship. I understand that, and to a degree I applaud it: if we’re going to bring our worship to God, we should do so with as much intention and focus as possible. God deserves much more than half-hearted, disengaged worship.
However, I wonder whether all this exuberant, passionate worship doesn’t merely serve to perpetuate and intensify the dualism I’m talking about. Think about it: the more of an emotional and spiritual high you experience in corporate worship, the greater will then be your sense of “leaving” the presence of God as you return to your ordinary world. And so we divide our lives and the world into Sunday and the rest of the week, the Holy of Holies and the secular “out there”, the extraordinary and the ordinary, the spiritual and the worldly. This is what I mean by dualism.
(As a slight aside, it also occurs to me that the more we hold up corporate worship as the pinnacle of our experience of God’s power and presence, the less significance, by comparison, we place upon the one ritual in which we ought to find the most significance and the most concrete expression of God’s presence among us: namely, the taking of communion, also known as the Eucharist.)
I’d like to suggest something that shouldn’t seem at all radical: we – you and I – are the temple of the living God, and our whole lives are acts of worship. It shouldn’t seem radical because it’s right there in scripture. The whole point of the Apostle Paul’s gospel, which he took beyond the borders of Palestine to the edges of the known world (the “ends of the earth”), was that there is no longer one chosen people and one Holy Place in Jerusalem where God’s presence dwells. As Brian Zahnd beautifully puts it, “In Christ, the Holy of Holies is the whole world and the Chosen People is the human race!”
The implication of this is that we don’t need to stretch and strain in corporate worship to experience God’s presence – because the simple fact is that we live in God’s presence twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. More to the point, we carry his presence around with us wherever we go! I’ll even go out on a limb and suggest that there is, at the very least, a real danger that much of the passion that goes into our corporate worship is actually a striving after a certain feeling, or an attempt to create an environment that’s conducive to a certain type of phenomenon (such as, for example, prophecy).
Am I saying, then, that we should scrap corporate worship altogether, or rid it of all passion and enthusiasm? Not at all. But I do believe we need to thoroughly re-evaluate our language and practice around corporate worship. How much of our talk in this area revolves around “coming in” to God’s presence, meeting with God, getting a touch from God, and so forth? And just how well does that actually sit with a proper understanding of all that Jesus did in ushering in a New Covenant that needs no temple or consecrated priesthood to mediate the presence of God?
Let us come together, then, in joy and freedom. Joy because we live to thank and praise God for all that he is and all that he’s done, and freedom because we no longer have any need to try to work our way into God’s presence or manoeuvre ourselves into a miraculous encounter with him. And if we can make the move to stop elevating corporate worship as the ultimate place of God’s manifestation, maybe, just maybe, we’ll begin to have a greater and deeper sense of his presence during the rest of our lives outside the church building.
[ Image: Ministerios Cash Luna ]