How Should We Then Worship?
by R.C. Sproul
Three-quarters of the way through the twentieth century, Francis A. Schaeffer asked the question, “How should we then live?” His book of the same name answered the questions raised by the radical shift in our culture from modernity to post-modernity. The question that we face in our generation is closely related to it: “How should we then worship?” The “how?” of worship is a hotly disputed matter in our day. The issue has been described as the war of worship. If there has been a worship war in the church in America in the last thirty years, then surely by now its outcome has been decided. Far and away, the victorious mode of worship in our day is that form roughly described as contemporary worship. “Contemporary” in this context is contrasted with “traditional,” which is seen as being outmoded, passé, and irrelevant to contemporary individuals. Those who deem the contemporary shift in worship as a deterioration are in the minority, so it behooves us to explore the “how” question that Schaeffer first raised.
The “how” question is related to the other questions usually pursued by the journalists who seek to unwrap the details of a particular story. They ask the questions: “Who, what, where, when, and how?” In like manner, the best place for us to answer the “how” question of worship is to begin with the “who” question. Manifestly the most important question we ask is, “Who is it that we are called upon to worship with our hearts, our minds, and our souls?” The answer to that question at first glance is exceedingly easy. From a Christian perspective, the obvious reply is that we are called upon to worship the triune God. As easy as this answer is on the surface, when we see the concern given to this question throughout the Old and New Testaments, we realize that as fallen creatures it is one of our most basic and fundamental inclinations to worship something, or someone, other than the true God. It’s not by accident that the first four commandments of the Ten Commandments focus attention on the true God whom we are to worship according to His Being. The New Testament likewise calls us to honor God with true worship. Paul reminds us that at the heart of our fallenness is a refusal to honor God as God or to show proper gratitude to Him with praise and thanksgiving. So it is imperative that the Christian, at the beginning of his pursuit to understand what true worship is, gets it clear that the object of our worship is to be God and God alone.
When we move to the “where” question, it doesn’t appear to matter that much. We recall Jesus’ discussion with the woman at the well when He said that the New Testament church has no appointed central sanctuary where all true worship must take place. It’s not necessary for Christians to migrate to Jerusalem in order to offer authentic worship to God. Yet at the same time we notice throughout biblical history that people met together in a variety of locations, including house churches in the early years after Christ’s ascension. The house church phenomenon of the first century was not something intended to avoid institutional churches or to seek an underground church as such, but it was basically built on the foundation of convenience because the church was so small that the number of believers could easily meet in a home. As the church grew in number, it became necessary to find a place where a larger group could assemble for the solemn worship of God, as an act of corporate praise and celebration. So today it would seem that the obvious answer to the “where” question is that we should be worshiping together with other Christians as we gather in local churches.
The “when?” is also a question that is given attention biblically. Obviously, it is the obligation of the believer to worship God everyday, at all times. But God appoints special times and seasons for the gathering of His people in corporate worship. In the Old Testament, that special time was established early to be on the Sabbath. The term sabbath means seventh, or a cycle of one in seven. In the Old Testament economy, it was on the seventh day of the week. After the resurrection and the split of the Christian community from Judaism, it was changed from the seventh day of the week to the first day of the week, though the seven-day cycle remained intact. We understand that when the Christian community meets in solemn assembly, the communion of saints means that not only are Christians joined together locally in their own particular congregations, but that the worship of God goes beyond the walls of each individual church and incorporates churches around the nation and around the world, who, for the most part, are meeting at the same time. But the “where” and the “when” questions pale into insignificance when we return our attention to the “how” question. And the “how” question is ultimately determined by the “who” question.
We are to worship God how God wants us to worship Him. This is the apparent crisis in the revolution of worship in our day. The driving force behind the radical shift in how we worship God today is not because of a new discovery of the character of God but rather through pragmatic studies on what works to attract people to corporate worship. Thus, we devise new ways of worship that will accommodate the worship of the people of God to those who are outside the covenant community. We are told that churches ought to be seeker-sensitive, that is, they ought to design worship to be appealing to people who are unbelievers. That may be a wonderful strategy for evangelism, but we must remember that the purpose of Sabbath worship is not primarily evangelism. Worship and evangelism are not the same thing. The solemn assembly is to be the assembling together of believers, of the body of Christ, to ascribe worship and honor and praise to their God and to their Redeemer. And the worship must not be designed to please the unbeliever or the believer. Worship should be designed to please God. We remember the tragic circumstances of the sons of Aaron in the Old Testament, who offered strange fire before the Lord, which God had not commanded. As a result of their “experiment” in worship, God devoured them instantly. In protest, Aaron went to Moses inquiring about God’s furious reaction. Moses reminded Aaron that God had said that He must be regarded as holy by all who approach Him.
I believe that the one attribute of God that should inform our thinking about worship more than any other is His holiness. This is what defines His character and should be manifested in how we respond to Him. To be sure, God is both transcendent and imminent. He is not merely remote and aloof and apart from us. He also comes to join us. He abides with us. He enters into fellowship. He brings us into His family. We invoke His presence. But when we are encouraged to draw near to Him in New Testament worship, we are encouraged to draw near to a God who, even in His imminence, is altogether holy.
The modern movement of worship is designed to break down barriers between man and God, to remove the veil, as it were, from the fearsome holiness of God, which might cause us to tremble. It is designed to make us feel comfortable. The music we import into the church is music that we draw from the world of entertainment in the secular arena. I heard one theologian say recently that he was not only pleased with this innovative style of worship and music but thought that what the church needs today is music that is even more “funky.” When we hear clergy and theologians encourage the church to be more funky in worship, I fear that the church has lost its identity. Rather, let us return to Augustine who agreed that we can use a variety of music in our worship, but all that is done should be done with a certain gravitas, a certain solemnity, always containing the attributes of reverence and awe before the living God. The “what?” of worship, the “where?” of worship, the “when?” of worship, and especially the “how?” of worship must always be determined by the character of the One Who is the living God.