I remember talking to a Christian from another country. He commented about how different many of us American Christians are than the brethren were from back home. He talked about how "dead" many of us were and how "dead" many of our churches were. At first, I thought he was referring to the mood in our worship services, which tend to be pretty formal compared to what he was used to. Their worship is less structured and has more spontaneity, and has a lot more singing, reading, and praying. But this isn't what he was talking about. He said it looked like most of us in worship did not want to be there and were in fact bored out of our minds. It appeared we were going through a ritual, fulfilling a duty, and were not really there because we wanted to be together and together thank God, worship God, and pray to God. I took a little offense at this at first. This is a matter of difference in culture. Besides, how could he possibly know what was in the hearts of worshippers. After I got past being offended, I began to consider what he was saying. Could it be true? Do I want to be there? Am I really focused on thanking, honoring and praising God or merely fulfilling an obligation? Am I struck by the wonder, grace, majesty, and holiness of God when coming together with my brethren for worship? Is there a sense that we are, in a manner of speaking, on "holy ground" when God invites us into His presence in worship?
I have had conversations with people who believe that we are too casual and laid back. We do not act as though worship is a particularly holy time in the way we start and begin, in trying to quiet down the chatter so we can worship, in writing notes back and forth in worship, and so on. I know there are those who came from a high church background where even the physical structure of the building was constructed in such a way that this was to be a holy place and a holy time when coming together. The colors, the stained glass, the use of precious metals all communicated something of the holiness and highest worth of God. Do we need to contract our worship space in such a way that it reflects a little more of the purpose of this space and its use and think of it as a "sanctuary?" To be sure, it sure would communicate something of the majesty and the holiness of God.
On the other hand, I have had conversations with people that believe we are too formal, cold, and even lifeless. From an outsider's perspective, it looks as though we are bored and apathetic. It is not just that we don't say Amen much, that we don't raise our hands or kneel when praying, or that we don't clap our hands. It is the fact that it seems we do next to nothing. We might sing, but only in a whisper if we sing at all. We don't sing out loud. It is subdued, it appears, not because we are in the presence of the holy, but because we are just not excited or overjoyed to be there. The "feeling" in the room is dead. I took offense at this as well. This is not a concert, a pep-rally, or anything like that. It is worship and needs to be dignified and honoring to God. Once again, after I got over being offended, I had to ask myself is there any truth in this? To be sure, worship need not be so stuffy, formal, and ritualistic that we squeeze the meaning out of it. Isn't shouting to the Lord, making a joyful noise, raising open and undefiled hands toward Heaven, reading to God and ready to receive his blessings, or even an "Amen", aren't these appropriate responses from the heart? After all, David leaped about with all his might before the Lord during that special occasion when God's Ark was coming to the city. I don't think I would dance in a linen ephod in a worship service, but surely when God has done something special in my life, singing with joy or an "Amen" would be appropriate. I remember in a worship period with a bunch of teens, we all gathered together on the floor to sing. Some sat, others were on their knees, and a couple at one point even reached toward the heavens as we sang a particular song.
As I reflect on this, I ask myself, do we really need to make the worship space more ornate an holy looking in order to inspire the sense of majesty, holiness and awe? Then I remember God telling the Israelites about how to build their altars. Not with cut stones, but with uncut stones. In other words, a pile of rocks. Wouldn't that be embarrassing in light of some of the ornate pagan temples and high places that had existed at that time? Why did God tell them to do this? Perhaps it was to keep the focus on God and not on the work of men's hands, which could lead to idolatry. Holiness is not about gold, wood, or stone and what you can fashion it into.
Later in Israelite history, many Israelites began to treat the temple like an idol, thinking if they performed the right rituals and incantations that they would be invincible because it was the Temple of Yahweh. They had not circumcised their hearts, therefore worship was either a duty or merely a means to try and be manipulative and satisfy their selfish desires through their worship.
What about the other end of the spectrum. Should we try and whip all the worshippers up into an excited frenzy so it can be more upbeat and outsiders will see that our faith is indeed real and we are happy to be there? This can be just as artificial. In fact, if it is artificial, outsiders will see it for what it is. How tragic it is when outsiders can see artificial worship for what it is and insiders do not! I have been in worship services that were frenzied like this. It seemed forced, orchestrated, and phony. On the other hand, I have also been to worship services that were very upbeat, but were not forced, orchestrated or phony. I have been to more formal worship services in buildings that were made with the utmost care, artistry, and dignity, including sculpted trim, stained glass, and things of this nature. Yet the worship services were lifeless and dead. On the other hand, I have been to other worship services in the same type of structure that was beautiful, dignified, full of awe, majesty, and life. I walked away as a believer declaring, "surely God is among you."
What was the difference? It surely wasn't about orchestrating a frenzy. Nor was it merely about creating an aesthetically majestic and awe-inspiring space. It had more to do with the people. You can tell when they love God and truly believe that he is the living God and not just some character in a book. It is clearly evident when you are among a group of people who are theists rather than deists, who believe that God has been and is still working out his plan and reject the idea that God has merely wound up the clock and leaves us on our own.
I am reminded of Exodus 15, the very first act of worship by Israel. It came as a "response" to God's mighty act of salvation from bondage. They sang a song declaring Yahweh as a mighty warrior who rescued them from the clutches of Pharaoh. This worship was meaningful, heartfelt, and moving.
True worship does not begin with us. It doesn't begin with, "what shall we do?' or "how shall we worship?" It begins with God himself. Worship is response to God. If worship does not begin with God, then it will either be dead or orchestrated.
Isn't it appropriate to begin worship with a declaration or reminder of who God is and what he does? Many of the Psalms give us the language, words, and images to call to mind what God does for his people and what kind of God he is. No matter how bad things get, no matter how much enemies persecute, no matter how much it seems the world no longer needs God, God is still on his throne and is still God. He is our shepherd; we are the sheep of his pasture. When we come before his throne, remembering who our God is and who we are, we kneel, we pray, we give thanks, we praise, we worship. Pride diminishes. Humility with joy increases. Fear shrinks. Strength and courage expands. We are reminded that God is with us and all is well.
In Exodus 3, God tells Moses, "I am who I am." In Hebrew, it is "ehyeh asher ehyeh." This could also be translated, "I will be who I will be." The exact same word in the exact same form is used earlier in the chapter when God tells Moses "I will be (ehyeh) with you." The difference is huge. God is not merely telling Moses that he exists, but that he will be who he will be…for them. God will be the Lord of Hosts, Deliverer, Warrior, Provider, etc… God is not a mere watcher, but is the living God who is active in his creation. He came and tabernacled in the midst of Israel and dwelt symbolically enthroned above the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant. He tabernacled among us as Jesus, our savior and deliverer. Jesus sent the Spirit when he departed, and we as God's people have become God's temple. Since we are God's "mobile" temple, you could say in a sense that God still tabernacles in us. Our Lord is with us to the end of the age. If we believe that, then our natural response is to worship him. If we do not believe that, worship may be a little more difficult. I suppose that what you "actually" you believe about God and what he is like will affect how you worship.
I do not merely see God as "I AM" (that here merely exists 'out there' some place far away), but as "I WILL BE" (God will be for us and with us as our rock, our salvation, our strength, provider, our song, etc.). He is not just our God, he is our "Father." Doesn't that just want to make you sing a song, to give thanks, to worship?