Once a year, a small college in Michigan publishes a list of words that should be banished from the English language. These include words that have become incredibly over used, and still others that have been twisted to mean something entirely different from their original meaning.
As a writer, I am acutely aware of the power of words to shape and limit thinking, create attitudes and, thereby, change behavior. In the case of modern Western Christianity, we have a number of words that are so commonly used that the ideas they convey have become part of our culture, are rarely questioned, and, as a result, have changed our behavior in ways that are detrimental to our spiritual growth and the growth of the Kingdom. On top of that, they are non-biblical!
Here’s the fourth in my series of nominations for words which should be banned from the Christian’s vocabulary: ‘Worship Service.’
I can hear the howls of protest already. “What is more Christian than a worship service? Every church has them, at least once a week and sometimes several times. It’s the reason we all get together, and the purpose of the church. Of course we must have worship services. How can you think anything else?”
Before you out right dismiss this post, take a moment to consider an alternate point of view. I understand that worship services are what the institutional church does. But, what if that were not a biblical concept? What if the entire idea of a worship service is a man-made attempt to create a church that fits man’s expectations, not God’s?
There is certainly Biblical precedent for man thinking he knows better than God, and creating structures and practices that seem right to him, but are not sanctioned by God:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways. Isaiah 55: 8 – 9
With that as background, let’s just take a look at what the New Testament has to say about ‘worship services.’
Actually, nothing. The phrase does not occur in the New Testament, and there is no record of even one ‘worship service.’ It’s entirely a man-made idea that has its roots in Constantine’s efforts to blend Christianity with pagan practices 300 years after Christ’s death.
It is not that there is no mention of ‘worship’ in the New Testament. It is just not anything like the ‘worship services’ of the modern institutional church. The early Christians knew exactly what worship was, and it had nothing to do with a ‘service.’ Rather, it was a way of life. It’s pretty simple. God wants us to worship Him. And that means to live our lives in obedience to him, to sacrifice our worldly natures for a spiritual walk.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Romans 12:1 (NIV)
So, worship the way God intended is not three songs and a sermon on Sunday morning. It is a lifestyle of obedience and sacrifice, in every area of our lives. To teach that a 90-minute event is an adequate replacement for a lifetime of obedience is, perhaps, one of the greatest evils of the institutional church system. How many millions of people have been deceeved into believing that a 20 minute emotional high is pleasing to God, in place of a ‘true and proper worship?”
But what about gathering together, you might be thinking. Certainly we are commanded to get together to ‘celebrate.’ Aren’t we?
Not exactly. The early Christians met together regularly. But, it was not for the purpose of ‘celebration,’ nor for the purpose of ‘worship.’ It was to build one another up, to help equip each other for the journey, and to minister to each other. There is no similarity between the gatherings of the early Christians and the worship services of the institutional church system. In fact, the Bible contains clear, unambiguous directions for how to meet.
26 What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; 28 but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. 30 But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; 33 for God is not a God of confusion but of [m]peace, as in all the churches of the saints. I Cor: 14:26
Let’s note a couple of things. First, the purpose of the gathering of the disciples was not to worship God. It was, and is, to edify one another – to build each other up. You’ll find that same thought expressed in Ephesians 4: 11 – 13:
“…so that the body of Christ might be built up…
And, then again later in that same passage:
“From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” Ephesians 4: 16
The purpose of meeting together is not to worship God, but to build each other up!
Second, note the highly participative nature of these meetings. ‘Each one’ has something to add, ‘you can all prophesy’, etc. The nature of the experience severally limits the size of the group. As a life-time teacher and facilitator, I can assure you that that kind of meeting gets really hard to do when the group grows over about 20 people or so. It’s probably for that reason, at least in part, that the early church met in people’s homes. When the group size grew to the point where the interaction commanded by the Bible grew difficult, the group probably split into two, and continued meeting in people’s home.
Contrast that with the drive in the modern institutional church to grow in size. Pastors proudly proclaim that they have grown the church to thousands of people attending the ‘worship service.’ And, of course, that is the rationale for spending millions on new buildings and professional entertainers (ministers of worship). All of this, is, of course, in direct conflict with the clear, unambiguous teaching in God’s word.
Then, there is the practical consequences of ‘worship services.’ Clearly, the larger the worship service, the more disconnected and passive the attendees are. Worship services directly promote the proliferation of disengaged, superficial Christians, many of whom come only to be entertained and get a little bit of an emotional high.
The damage that is done to the stray visitor and occasional seeker who stops in, thinking that this is Christianity, and wanting to investigate it – is one of the greatest hidden negative consequences of our worship services. No one wants to acknowledge it, instead feeling good about the 5% of the attendees who complement the pastor on the ‘great sermon.’ According to David Tinnaman, of Barna Research, writing in the book, unChristian, “among non-Christians aged 16 to 29, — that is atheists, agnostics, those undecided about their faith, and individuals affiliated with other faiths – more than four out of five have gone to a Christian church at some time in their life (82 percent) Most of those attended for at least three months.”
Imagine that. Eighty-two (82) percent of the people we want to reach with the gospel have attended the institutional church’s worship services, and have become so turned off to Christianity that they are lost forever.
Isn’t it time we put an end to this most pernicious man-made practice?