We often talk about Jesus being the center of our lives but we are not always so consistent in showing it. John was on the Isle of Patmos for the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ when Jesus appeared to him standing in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks (Rev. 1:12-13). The candlesticks represented the seven churches of Asia (vs. 20) and John immediately knew the meaning of the vision—Jesus must be the center of the church and also of every believer’s life. When John saw this, he fell at his feet as dead (vs. 17).
The full description of Jesus Christ on the Isle of Patmos (vss. 13-16) is the clearest idea we have of what Jesus will look like when we see Him in glory. From this description, John is instructed to address each church by emphasizing the various characteristics of the Lord’s appearance. To Smyrna, the suffering church, Jesus was “the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive” (2:8). To Pergamos, the sinning church, Jesus was “he which hath the sharp sword with two edges” ( 2:12). To Philadelphia, the church of the open door, Jesus was “he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth” (3:7). Jesus is seen to be the central figure in every church and His attributes are the comfort, warning, and blessing of every church’s ministry.
Jesus walked with John through the churches and showed him the pastors who are in His hand (1:20). As Zechariah’s flying scroll went into every house and searched for and listed those things that are offensive to God (Zech. 5:1-4), so the Lord searches every church for those things that are offensive to Him and warns them to remember the first works and repent of their sin. In any church, if Jesus is not in the midst, there may be many works but they are to no avail without the blessing of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The book of Hebrews also presents Jesus Christ as the central figure of the church’s life. He is the Captain of our salvation (2:10); the Apostle and High Priest of our profession (3:1); the Mediator of the new covenant (9:15); the Author and Finisher of our faith (12:2). He is also in the midst of the church as He ever intercedes for her, washing her with His own blood so that she may draw near in full assurance of faith (7:25; 10:22). Even all the angels of God fall prostrate before Him as He ministers for the saints.
We are being told by many today that Jesus is a mere spectator in the church and that we are the central figures in worship and that we are the performers who draw attention from heaven as the Godhead sits as an audience before us. Brian Liesch, in his book The New Worship titles chapter 8,1 “Is Worship A Performance?” to which he answers, “yes! Absolutely!” He takes great pains to “reload” the word performance so that (to his way of thinking) anything we “do” is some sort of performance and therefore it becomes impossible for us to worship at all without performing. He includes two drawings of football stadiums, one of which he shows God as the audience, the people as players, and the pastor as a coach. This is Liesch’s view of proper worship. The second stadium depicts the people as the audience, the pastor as the player and God as the coach. Liesch sees this as backwards. He advocates a more liturgical method of worship where the people go through various old and new rituals to act out their devotion to God. This, of course, fits well with contemporary worship and the idea that all artistic ability ought to be displayed and God is happy to watch all of our human inventions.
It has been my contention for some time that the contemporary worship style is today’s version of the old liturgical, sacramental, and Romanish way of worship (see my article, “The New Formalism”). The bands have become the priesthood, the screens have become the stained glass, the swaying back and forth has become the obedient kneeling and kissing the hand of the priests, and, most alarming of all, the gradual orientation of new attendees has replaced repentance and faith as the requirement for membership and has effectively become a new form of the old confirmation.
Robert Webber, in defending the Emerging Church (which is the logical outcome of such formalism), advocates bringing back the Eucharist, or “Table worship,” and reestablishing “a new emphasis on the presence of the resurrected Christ experienced in the breaking of the bread.”2 He scolds the Protestant Church for leaving the Catholic form of worship. Harold Best, in critiquing Webber and other contemporary worship remarks, “I am fascinated by the continual need of worship thinkers to go back to the Old Testament for sequential categories without going forward to the New Testament to examine how these might have been Christocentrically fulfilled or transcended in entirely new and organic ways.”3 This is exactly my point! Just as our forefathers had to leave the formalism of the Jewish worship, the Catholic worship, or the Anglican worship, so we need to leave this new formalism for the pure New Testament way of worship and that is with Christ alone as our object.
The perspective of making human inventions the center of worship rather than an understanding of what Christ has done and is presently doing for us will always lead us away from Christ and eventually to idolatry. Fallen human beings have always found it easier to express themselves and their desires and talents than to concentrate on the truths of Christ’s work for us. The fact is that Christ is the “performer” of worship (the only sinless man who can approach the throne of God without condemnation—see Rev. 5:7-8) and we are all observers who are being taught by Spirit and Word all that our wonderful Savior provides for us.
We have forgotten that we are always worshipers and that worship does not begin and end on Sunday morning. We do not bring sacrifices to a temple and ask that God become propitious; He IS the propitiation for our sins continually (1 John 2:2). Neither do we start up the heavenly tabernacle where Jesus intercedes for us by calling ourselves to worship on Sunday morning. Jesus is not in a vestibule waiting for our first hymn. There is not a time of the day or week when our High Priest is not “performing” His intercessory work for us. The writer of Hebrews, therefore, saw that the “sacrifice of praise to God continually” is actually “the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to his name. But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well-pleased” (Heb. 13:15-16). William Newell wrote,
“Yes, we need a Priest, and we have a Priest, thank God, a Great Priest over the house of God (vs. 21). Let us mark, however, that we do not serve Him as Priest: He serves us. We are not directed to come to Him as Priest, but to God’s throne of Grace, relying on Christ’s shed blood, and having Him as Great Priest over the house of God.”4
Louis Berkhof wrote,
“He is priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. When He cried out on the cross, ‘It is finished,’ He did not mean to say that His priestly work was at an end, but only that His active suffering had reached its termination. The Bible also connects priestly work with Christ’s session at the right hand of God . . . . Christ is continually presenting His completed sacrifice to the Father as the sufficient basis for the bestowal of the pardoning grace of God. He is constantly applying His sacrificial work, and making it effective in the justification and sanctification of sinners. Moreover, He is ever making intercession for those that are His, pleading for their acceptance on the basis of His completed sacrifice, and for their safe-keeping in the world, and making their prayers and services acceptable to God.”5
Worship, then, is the wonderful recognition of Christ’s work on our behalf. For this we give thanks in word and song, in prayers and supplications, and in allowing His Spirit to illuminate our minds and hearts through the Word. That is because we are the audience and we see Him doing these things. Yes, we have much work to do but it is because these things are so, not to make them so. We toil in prayer for many things; we witness of these truths to the lost and needy; we sing praises in response to what Christ has done; and we fellowship with other believers who also recognize the truth of the gospel and with us look forward to the glory that shall be revealed in us when we all get to heaven!
We have also forgotten that busyness is not necessarily worship. Our independent churches have become good at getting people involved and active. We know that when people get involved they are more likely to stay around. We also have created so many “ministries” that it takes a huge staff of volunteers to keep them running. When we add to that the contemporary model of making the church platform a “stage” and making the church service a “production,” complete with lights, sound, background and technology, we must have an army of busy people in order to make it happen. Since these are the things in which today’s young people excel, we have made novices more indispensible than an elder member who only knows how to pray.
The added danger to this scenario is the perception that all ministry takes place at the church. This is the only place where people can “perform” and where the obedient attendees can give their symbolic worship gestures back in return. Perhaps this is why the disconnect between what is said on Sunday and what is lived on Monday continues to grow larger and larger. There is a way, however, in which it doesn’t grow larger. Since church attendees make little effort in dressing up or in general manners or in prolonged attention spans, often there is little disconnect between the two—it is all minimal! If true religion, according to James 1:27, is to visit the widows and orphans and to keep oneself unspotted from the world, then the self-centered worship model is not working very well.
It is also true that we have effectively left the ministry of the Holy Spirit out of our church services. Once we conceive of ourselves being the performers of worship, what need do we have of the Holy Spirit’s work in our heart? Evidently we are plenty qualified to do what we’re doing! Let human emotion take over. Human ability in art and music is much easier to muster than contriteness and humility before the Spirit that lives and yearns within us. But He also has a rightful place in the midst of our worship. Strong wrote, “The Holy Spirit is an advocate within us, teaching us how to pray as we ought; Christ is an advocate in heaven, securing from the Father the answer of our prayers. Thus the work of Christ and of the Holy Spirit are complements to each other, and parts of one whole.”6
Whether we are stirred and convicted by the Spirit’s work in our daily lives or taught and comforted during the services of the church, He is the One who is illuminating Christ’s work on our behalf and directing our thoughts toward Him. Our command is to be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18) so that we may be speaking among ourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. There is nothing quite like a local church service where simple songs are sung from the heart, humble prayers are made and heard from God’s people, and all are challenged by the Word of God. The Holy Spirit works among God’s people and Jesus Christ becomes central in the church. Believers can leave the service prepared for work in God’s field because they have properly observed and learned in the church.
And So . . . .
One sign of true reform throughout church history was made by congregations who put the pulpit back in the middle of the platform. In the liturgical churches, the pulpit was moved to the side and the altars where the priests performed were squarely in the middle of the church. Our churches removed the altars along with the priestly paraphernalia and put the preaching of Christ and His Word back in the center of the worship service! So again we need to put Christ back in the midst of the churches.