More about worship

False Gods in the Pews!

Sometimes I wonder how many gods are being worshipped in my church, and just who they think they are.

Some people think the whole purpose of a church service is to entertain, uplift, and refresh. Some people go to church, not so much to worship God, but to sit back and enjoy the music and the sermon. Of course, they expect the church building to be attractive, the pastor to be well-groomed and smooth-mannered, the organist to be talented, the choir to be majestic, the coffee hour to be well-stocked, the parking lot to be convenient, the people to be well-dressed and friendly, and if they have small children, they won’t attend if there is no nursery. All they want to do is sit back in the (preferably padded) pew and drink it all in!

There are even people who select their church, not by religious criteria, but by these amenities alone! A newspaper in Texas carried this so far that the religion page editor began to visit churches and rate them with stars, just as a restaurant critic rates restaurants.

Forget the New Age; the real threat is the consumer mentality! I wonder sometimes if what some people call “Christianity” is really “Selfianity.”

I don’t dispute that these things are valid secondary considerations after you’ve narrowed down your choices with religious criteria, but I maintain that worship is not a form of entertainment. A church that has become a mutual congratulatory aren’t-we-great-folks society has ceased to worship God and has begun to worship itself. God should be the center of attention in church, not you. The first of the commandments is: “You shall have no other gods before me.” Let us not place ourselves as gods before the Lord; let us not join the ranks of those who demand to be appeased in church before they condescend to worship the Lord!

Many people leave church asking themselves, “What did I get out of the service today?” instead of asking themselves, “What did God get out of my worship today?” They demand a NutraSweet religion—you know, all sweetness, but no nutrition.

Then there are people who claim that many things in the Bible —particularly in Paul’s letters—are gloomy and negative. “My religion is in the Sermon on the Mount,” they say, recalling how it begins, with the beatitudes: “Blessed are these, blessed are those.”

They look up towards the ceiling as they sigh in elation. “That’s true religion,” they say, with a knowing sparkle in their eyes.

Obviously, these people have never actually sat down and read either Paul’s letters or the Sermon on the Mount. For it is Paul who said, “and we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28) and “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22). The Sermon on the Mount, however, contains some of the most terrifying passages in the Bible:

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.
—Matthew 5:21, NIV

You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.
—Matthew 5:27-28, NIV

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.
—Matthew 5:31-32, NIV

Again you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne, or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no,’ ‘no’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
—Matthew 5:33-37, NIV

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
—Matthew 5:38-39, NIV

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven... If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?
—Matthew 5:43-45a, 46, NIV

There are three ways we can take these sayings:

  1. As ideals towards which we should strive, although we can never reach them. (That’s a nice way of saying that they are unrealistic platitudes.)
  2. As an example of the rabbinical method of “putting a hedge around the law,” that is, forbidding more than what the law forbids so that the law is forever inviolate. We can’t deny that Jesus is following that pattern, but if that is all He meant by it, we are hopelessly lost. Jesus placed the hedges too far out!
  3. As a way of teaching us that it is not enough for us to be sinners who consciously avoid sin, we must be righteous people who actively pursue virtue! Jesus intended for us to feel distress when we hear these words, for we cannot in our flesh obey His words. In that distress we hear the voice of the Spirit calling us to submission in faith to His transforming power.

It may very well be that worship is an uplifting experience in a pleasant environment, and if that is the case, we are indeed fortunate. But just as a caterpillar eats many leaves, not to become a fat caterpillar, but to become a beautiful butterfly, we worship God, not to be entertained, but to be transformed.