Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth, you will again bring me up. You will increase my honor and comfort me once more. - Psalm 71:20-21
In a book I have, I recently read that “They say that the gates of hell will never prevail against the church, and that’s partly because it’s so diversified you can’t get a handle on it.” It sounds funny, and it is. But it’s also really accurate. The diversification of worship is a challenge because what might look one way in one church looks entirely different in another church. And that’s just in the United Methodist denomination alone.
My girlfriend Selena and I worship in two very different settings. One is the church I serve, a somewhat traditional church. We conform reasonably well to the liturgical guidelines, and we have a long-standing worship tradition. We’re not what you would call “high church,” as I don’t wear an alb or a cincture, but we are very traditional in that we read the entirety of the lectionary scriptures, we follow a service of word and a service of thanksgiving or table. In Selena’s church, they read the word, and they can spend around 30-45 minutes in praise of the Trinity alone. And that praise is demonstrative, has drums, bass, saxophone, a PA system that, even while it is loud, can sometimes be drowned out by the voices of people worshiping God. The message time in her church can be 35-50 minutes long at times. So when I go to her church, there’s a lot that is different there. Even though our theology is very similar in our beliefs, our worship styles are not. In fact, I’ve joked that her church is really just a loud United Methodist congregation. Still, it can be confusing for all of us who are trying to get worship just right. Which brings me to my point.
I’ve joked that her church is really just a loud United Methodist congregation
There are typically three types of folks sitting in church pews. The first two types are 1) people who are struggling to make sure they’re doing it just right so God is happy, and 2) people who are doing it the way they have been taught for decades to the point of just going through the motions. The third type is people who are doing their best to encounter God so that He can create or enhance His faith relationship with them. They are people who have seen “troubles, many and bitter” like David had in Psalm71. They are often lost and in desperate need of restoration. The Hebrew word David used for “troubles” means pressures or enemies closing in on every side, forcing them into a tight place. The word for “many” used here would be better translated from the original Hebrew as “great,” where the pictograph means the head of the family. In other words, they are surrounded in front, back, top, bottom, left and right by the grand daddy all of troubles. There is no escape that they can find, at least within their own grasp. That’s why they turn to God.
When we find ourselves here, we ask some hard questions. “Who allowed this? Who caused this? How did this happen?” The answer to the first is God. The response to the last two questions, however, is us. Charles Spurgeon noted in an exposition of this text that, “A little God would fail us, but not Jehovah the Omnipotent. It is safe to lean on him since he bears up the pillars both of heaven and earth.” The people in the pews God allowed to sink to a point where they are surrounded with no way out except God, have turned to God as their sole resource and salvation. They do so through an intense hunger for God that they can satisfy only through worship.
I ask you, which one of these three definitions is His church as a whole right now?
Being in a place of desperately practicing the spiritual discipline of worship is not for the faint of heart, nor is it only to be done when life has taken one of those hard left turns that nearly throws us out of the car. Worship is a powerful way to interface with God in a completely authentic, laid-bare manner. If people come to church just to mark time, they’re missing out. If we don’t understand why we do the things we do, the symbolism and meaning behind them, we’ll miss an essential encounter with God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. And there’s more to what we miss than just that. Worship isn’t complete when we walk out of the building after the benediction. Worship is living your life to glorify God in that same kind of encounter every day of our lives.
This is how people who don’t know Jesus get to see him. This is how people encounter us as more than just a signpost on the road, but rather as the fork Jim Elliott spoke about. This is how we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
After all, if we don’t, who will?
I read recently that the church worship service is a huddle. We run the plays during the week, but the game is not won in the huddle. If we are going to re-emerge as a denomination and as a global church, we have to be prepared to be in the huddle, on the practice field, in the locker room, in the weight room, doing our homework, practicing our spiritual disciplines every opportunity we can, so that they become second nature. They take on that nature because the authority within us is actually changed. We come under a new administration when we encounter the Spirit of God in those disciplines, especially during worship.
There’s something I recently discovered that blew my mind. Did you know that you could learn a great deal about the importance of worshipping God from a man who lived in China 600 years before Jesus? Right around the same time as the Assyrian exile was coming to a close, there was a man who earned a name for himself as a military strategist. His name was Sun Tzu. He very famously uttered, “... if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”
That concept is evidenced here in this Psalm. When David wrote this, Absalom was in open rebellion, and his whole world was crashing down around him. But the thing is, King David knew himself, and he knew who his enemy was. What was more important is, the king knew who God was, and didn’t cease to worship God throughout this time. He counted on and trusted God because he knew he couldn’t count on himself in the face of his enemy. Even in the darkest moments of his life, David worshipped God because that’s where his promise pointed him back to his purpose when he was caught in the midst of his perception.
Now, we may just think we are not in a place where we need God right now because we live prosperous lives. But if we look around through God’s eyes, we can clearly see that things are not as they appear. Our purpose on this earth is to glorify God. Every single one of the spiritual disciplines is about glorifying God, and this is why. Glorifying God is our purpose.
In Isaiah 29:13, we read, “The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.” Coming to a church service and making sure we do the right thing in the church at the right time in the church and in the right church is not worship. The act of taking bread and juice at communion is not worship. The sprinkling or pouring or immersion in water at baptism is not worship.
None of these acts are worship.
Worship is the encounter of God not face-to-face, but heart-to-heart. We could walk into this church and not turn on a single light, not light a single candle, not sing a single hymn. But if our hearts encounter God and glorify him, that is worship. It doesn’t matter where that happens or how or with whom. If we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit so we can encounter God in the bread and juice of communion, then that is worship. If we encounter the Holy Spirit in the covenant of baptism, that is worship. If we encounter Jesus Christ, the Light of the world in the symbolism of the acolyte bringing the candle into the sanctuary, that is worship. Without that encounter, we don’t know God. Without knowing God, we don’t know ourselves, and we don’t stand a chance against what the enemy will throw at us once we leave this sanctuary. In fact, we don’t even stand a chance inside our church sanctuary, because without an encounter with the Living God, that building and our presence in it doesn’t even come close to what God intended in the first place, which is a complete and whole relationship with Him.
Pump You Up
Online writer Stuart Shepard interviewed Sylvester Stallone about his Christian faith in a 2006 article for Citizenlink.com called, “The Gym of the Soul.” Part of the article read, “Stallone realized he had to trust Christ more than himself. ‘You need to have the expertise and the guidance of someone else,’ he said. ‘You cannot train yourself. I feel the same way about Christianity and the church. The church is the gym of the soul.’” This is where we encounter our trainer, the Holy Spirit of God, sent to us through his Son, Jesus Christ who died for our sins. I say all that to make the point of an encounter with God very clear.
The real, hands-in-the-dirt hard work of worship happens throughout the week. We huddle up on Sunday to game plan in a group encounter with God through the Holy Spirit, and then we execute the plan during the week. Keep in mind, we don’t walk out these doors alone. David wasn’t alone and neither are we. That acolyte that brought the light into the sanctuary carries it out again, and into the world, to remind us that Christ goes before us. Allow me to elaborate on why remembering that is important.
I was bullied a lot when I was younger. I wanted to be big and strong, and I wanted to take care of myself and handle my business, but I simply wasn’t powerful enough. I learned quickly that unless I wanted to keep getting beaten up because I was an easy target, I needed a back up. I was blessed with people who watched out for the skinny little kid that I was, and I made sure to stay close, so I wouldn’t be targeted by others who, for whatever reason, preyed upon the weak. I sought out their protective company every day as a matter of life and death because to 6-year-old me, it was. Similarly, if we don’t seek out an encounter with God every day and actively chase it and get it, we’re the ones that will be left behind as prey. The pressure of being buried alive by this world and everything in it is all we will encounter.
The net-net is, we won’t be fulfilling our purpose of glorifying God both in this sanctuary and more importantly, outside of it.
What's on Your Menu?
We’re a very peculiar people, though. All too often we are spiritually starving, and yet, we don’t head to the kitchen to start cooking something to eat. It boggles the mind. We walk into the kitchen, and we look around, shrug our shoulders and then leave, not even opening a cabinet or the fridge to see if there’s something there. We feel weak and helpless and defenseless, so we go to the gym of the soul. We look around, stare at the weights, see the trainer who asks, “Can I help you get stronger,” and then we say, “Nah, it’s cool, I’ll just stay unable to defend myself.” Not only do we stay a target in that instance, but we also never get to the point of having the increased greatness on which this Psalm focuses. This word for greatness comes from the Hebrew word for rope. The more strands in a rope, the stronger and greater it is. That greatness is our faith, which we know isn’t increased by us. It’s only increased by an encounter with the Holy Spirit, especially in worship.
Look, sometimes we don’t think we do enough. Some days we’re tired. Some days we’re distracted. We try to define worship as a series of acts so we can focus and feel like we've achieved something in an attempt to judge whether or not we’re “worshiping right.”
The fact is, if you spend time with God daily truly worshipping Him, it’s because your heart is hungry and open to Him. He meets you there. The type of songs in our services doesn’t matter. Juice or wine doesn’t matter. Whether I am wearing a tie or a t-shirt doesn’t matter. Whether we’re in a tall-steeple church in the country or an urban worship center, doesn’t matter. Being heart- hungry for God is what matters. God builds faith through worship for the purpose of glorifying Himself through our ability to show that same faith as deeds in the lives of others.
A Fire You Can Cook With
Jim Cymbala said in his book, “Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, “... if people don’t have an appetite for God, what does it matter how many are attending the services? How would that impress God? Can you imagine the angels saying, “Oh, your pews! We can’t believe how beautiful they are! Up here in heaven, we’ve been talking about them for years. Your sanctuary lighting—it’s so clever. The way you have the steps coming up to the pulpit is wonderful”? I don’t think so. If we don’t want to experience God’s closeness here on earth, why would we want to go to heaven, anyway? He is the center of everything there. If we don’t enjoy being in his presence here and now, then heaven would not be heaven for us. Why would he send anyone there who doesn’t long for him passionately here on earth?”
It’s time for the body of Christ to get heart-hungry again. It’s time to hit the gym of the soul. It’s time we make encountering God through worship daily our intentional priority, starting right now.
Roland Millington is a United Methodist Church pastor serving Brimfield United Methodist Church in Brimfield, IL. He's the author of two books available digitally through our store, or as hard copies through LuLu Publishing.