15 May, 2022

Coming Back to the Heart of Worship

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by | 7 May, 2006 | 0 comments

By Jack R. Reese

Everywhere I go these days””at conferences and workshops, in hallways and classrooms””I hear people talking about worship renewal.

That”s a good thing, of course. Who could be opposed to renewal? Surely we all would agree that our worship could be better. We all want it to be more engaging, more effective, more uplifting, more spiritually forming. None of our churches is all it should be in this regard. We need to be renewed, to be sure.

My problem is not that people desire worship renewal. Rather it is the assumption, among many at least, that such renewal is primarily about music. If only our songs were more celebratory, we think. If only we chose more relevant songs, sang more enthusiastically, had better worship leaders, recruited better musicians, or wrote greater hymns, then surely our worship would be better.

Perhaps so. These would all be good things. But our fixation on them, sometimes to the neglect of other parts of our worship, is making us nearsighted if not blind.

I am not opposed to good music, of course. I am a musician. I fear I love music not too little but too much. But in the pursuit of worship renewal, I worry that our obsession about music may be stunting the very growth we most desire and desperately need.

At one conference I attended recently, a speaker said that in the history of Christianity spiritual revival has always occurred in the wake of worship renewal, especially through the rise of new hymns. The crowd, filled with the sounds of the latest praise songs ringing in their ears, roared its approval.

I couldn”t help but think how wonderful that would be, if only it were true. But in the history of Christianity, worship renewal, especially the writing of new hymns, has always followed rather than led spiritual awakening. It is not music but the hearing of the Word that has sparked the renewal of God”s people.

EARLY WORSHIP

It has been this way from the very beginning. The earliest assemblies, reflecting everything we know from the New Testament, were driven by Christian passion for the Word of God. In fact, every Christian assembly for at least 15 centuries followed, without exception, the same basic pattern: each one moved from the ministry of the Word to the ministry of the table. In more detail, these early Christian assemblies looked like this:

Like Jewish synagogue services, Christians began with extensive readings of Scripture. Justin Martyr, in about ad 150, said the Bible was read “for as long as time allowed,” a far cry from the paucity of Bible readings in many of our churches today. This was followed by an exposition of the biblical texts. In other words, the people were urged to go out and do the things they had heard.

After first listening to God, Christians were then ready to confess their needs and express their trust in him through intercessory prayer. Once God had spoken, then people were prepared to respond, to lay their lives, their sins, their pain, and their desires before God. Thus ended the first movement in the Christian assembly, from Word to prayer, from hearing to surrender.

Most of us would find the next act in the early assembly amazing if not disturbing. After the intercessory prayers, Christians rose and embraced one another, kissed one another, and extended to one another the peace of Christ. Slaves and masters, old and young, men and women, rich and poor, Jews and Gentiles””all extended to one another an intimacy unimaginable were it not for the reconciling work of Jesus in their midst.

Then Christians gathered around the table and presented their offering””loaves of bread and jugs of wine. An elder took the bread and wine and offered eucharist or thanksgiving. And as they ate and drank together they believed Christ was truly among them, forgiving them and transforming them into his very likeness.

And then immediately, not in any way “separate and apart,” but as a direct response to the redemptive work of Christ experienced again in their participation in the Supper, they gathered the leftover bread and wine, along with other gifts, and made their way back to their homes. The gifts were distributed to those in need as God”s people made their way into the world in the name of Jesus.

This was the basic pattern of Christian assemblies for many centuries: the ministry of the Word led to the ministry of the table. And in between, Christians extended to one another in a shockingly intimate way the peace of Christ.

Each part of the service began with God. God spoke while worshipers listened. Then they knew how to pray. The bread and cup of Christ”s redemption were offered as communers received. Then they knew how to live in the world. And all of this took place within the context of radical community, of Christ-filled intimacy.

CAPTIVE HEARTS

Almost nothing was said in the earliest Christian documents about singing. It is not that these Christians did not offer hymns to God, of course. But hymns did not function then as they do now. Their chants were hardly distinguishable from their prayers or from the reading of Scripture.

Modern hymns, with moving melodies and elaborate harmonies, came to the church relatively recently. They are wonderful gifts from God but are hardly crucial to the renewal of God”s people. Through the centuries, Christians have been renewed not primarily by great music but by captive hearts inclined to hear the Word. This is a discipline, I fear, that too few churches seek or know.

If we are to experience a renewal of worship in our churches, it will begin not by singing to each other about how excited we are to be together, or even by telling God how great he is, but first by shutting up long enough that we might listen to him. If revival comes among us, it will grow first out of our surrender so that thanksgiving has its cause in the mighty work of God.

I pray for a day when God”s Word will be read with passion and care “for as long as time allows.” This Word might come through extensive readings, through singing, or acted in parts. It might stand alone, or it might lead directly to a sermon. But it is first in hearing that we know our place in relation to God.

Under the Word, we finally understand that none of this is about us, about what we want or like or claim. It first of all is about him. Only then can we find the words to pray and to praise. Only then can we find the heart to extend Christ”s peace to unlovable people.

When God”s Word comes first, then we are ready to come to the cross with our hands extended, empty, and hopeful. We can then eat the bread, overcome by our own brokenness, so that by his brokenness, we may be made whole. We can drink the wine, shamed by our own sin, so that we may be washed again by the blood of the One who became sin for our sakes.

We may very well be experiencing in our churches the fruit of a great revival. I pray so. I hope it bursts forth in the greatest hymns that the church has known. But if it does, it will be because God”s people have first learned how to be silent before him, how to listen, how to confess, how to surrender.

Songwriter Matt Redman says it this way. “[We”re] coming back to the heart of worship, and it”s all about you. It”s all about you, Jesus.”


 

 

Jack Reese is dean of the College of Biblical Studies at Abilene (Texas) Christian University where he teaches worship and preaching. He is currently coauthoring a book with Stephen Johnson on worship as the church”s resource for community spiritual formation.

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