Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Services of the Church, the Worship of the World, and the Diversity of Style and Structure

This week's article for the newspapers describes what makes the services of the Church different from the worship of the world and touches on the reason behind the differences in style from church to church:

Q:  What makes Christian worship distinctive, and why is there so much diversity in the structure and style of services from church to church?

If one surveys the world’s major religions, a common pattern emerges with regard to their beliefs.  They begin by observing that the complexity and the beauty of the world indicate the activity of one or more personal creators or creative a force.  Sometimes the personal spiritual experience of a founder is also set forward as evidence for this belief. 

Typically this creator is also understood to influence events in present life and make judgments concerning whatever sort of afterlife or next life they perceive.  In response to this conclusion, they formulate a set of moral rules and/or ritual practices which are to be performed in order to satisfy this creator, influence events in spiritual realms, or compensate for the moral failures of the worshipper.  

This pattern holds true throughout the world for all of the major religious groups, as well as many of the minor ones, with one exception—historic Christianity.  The thing which set Christian faith apart from the beginning is that it set this pattern in reverse.  They acknowledged the existence of the Lord as creator, revealed to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and other prophets throughout the Old Testament, as well as their sin—that is their failure to live up to the demands of His law. 

But they taught that the Lord took action to solve the problem of their sin and the division it caused between creator and creation.  Rather than specifying a course of actions that humans must take to bridge the divide, Christians believe that God took on humanity in Jesus and lived a perfect life according to the Law to satisfy God in our place, then was abandoned by God the Father in our place while He died by crucifixion—doing all of this in order to exchange places with us so that He suffered the penalty for human sin and humans who rely on His sacrifice receive God’s blessings of forgiveness and eternal life as a pure gift. 

For this reason, historic Christian worship has taken on a certain form.  Since the Bible teaches that God delivers His grace by connecting His Holy Spirit to the reading and preaching of Scripture, to Baptism, and to the Lord’s Supper, Christians have traditionally ordered their service in such a way that emphasizes these things. 

This can be seen even by the words they use.  Rather than speaking of “worship,” (a more recent English term emphasizing what is given to God by the worshipper) Christians in other parts of the world used terms such as Divine Service – emphasizing that in the service God serves man rather than man serving God (as occurs in the rest of the religious world).

In the late 20th Century, American culture became extremely consumer-oriented – a trend that did not spare the Church – and the attempt began to use the service for the purpose of attracting visitors and gaining membership rather than delivering God’s gracious gifts to humanity.  As a result, styles and structures developed that took attention away from God’s gifts and placed more emphasis on what man offers to God. 

As part of this effort, church music began to shift from telling about God and his actions to talking to God, and instead of receiving forgiveness, life, and salvation from God, emphasis shifted toward offering something (like the worshipper’s heart, praise, or adoration) up to God. 

Even the preaching became more about what those in attendance were to go out and do rather than what God had already done for them in Christ.  As a result, the distinctiveness of the Christian faith became hidden, and its worship and its purpose were redefined to look more like the rest of the world’s religion rather than a unique contrast to them. 

The diversity that is seen is not so much about traditions or preferences, but about what that church believes.  It was said in ancient times, “lex orandi, lex credendi,” which means that the Christian’s worship and their doctrine are intricately tied.  Congregations and denominations whose belief centers on what we have to offer God will worship in a way that emphasizes the things directed from earth up toward heaven, and those whose belief emphasizes God’s grace and gifts to us will conduct their services in a way that emphasizes the things given from heaven down to us on earth. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Why did High Places anger the Lord?

My article from this week's newspapers deals with a question about the Old Testament High Places:

Q:  What are the “high places” that are spoken of in the Old Testament?  How were they used, and why was God angered by them?

The high places were large platforms  that we today might say resembled a small, open-air stage.  They were often built on mountains or hilltops, but remains of them have also been found in valleys and on plains as well.  They were originally used as sacrificial altars for the worship of idols by the Canaanite people who inhabited the land before the Israelites returned from Egypt. 

For the Israelites, God had ordained the Tabernacle as the place where He would be present among His people.  This tent of worship housed the Ark of the Covenant, where various significant items of divine activity were stored, as well as other divinely-instituted ritual items and furniture for use in the worship of the Lord. 

Later, the Lord would allow Solomon to build a permanent temple in Israel where the divinely-ordained sacrifices and worship would occur, and which would be the promised location of the Lord’s presence. 

When the Israelites returned to their promised land, the Lord demanded that they abandon all idolatry and allow no worship of false gods in the land.  At times, the Israelites honored this command, but at other times they neglected it, sometimes worshipping idols instead of the Lord and at other times mixing the worship of the True God with that of false gods in various ways – a pattern in which the high places were prominent, especially among Samaritans. 

One way in which these high places were used in false worship would be to place an altar to Baal or an Asherah pole alongside of an altar to the Lord.  Often the worship of these false gods did not only include idolatry, but also divination, acts of sexual immorality like ritual prostitution, and acts of murder such as child sacrifice, further amplifying the repulsiveness of these acts of idolatry. 

At other times, the Israelites were more subtle in their idolatry in that they would imitate the acts of worship of an idol, but direct the worship toward the Lord and His name instead. 

But the Lord is not a god who receives self-appointed worship from man.  Just as God saves by His choice and forgives as a pure gift, so He also specifies the methods by which His grace and forgiveness will be delivered, and thus no humanly-invented worship will suffice. 

So, on a few occasions, the Lord even disciplines the people who offer the right sacrifices to the right God in a place of their own choosing, or He disciplines those who offer the wrong sacrifice to the right God in the right place, or even those who offer the right sacrifice to the right God in the right place, but who are not authorized to make such a sacrifice. 

While these things occurred in the Old Testament, their example still reveals much to us about the worship of Christians in the New Testament.  The clearest of these is that mixing the worship of the Triune God with that of another is expressly forbidden – for example, a Christian pastor praying jointly in a public service with a Muslim Imam, a Jewish Rabbi, or a Native Medicine Man. 

It also remains that the Lord has given promises concerning the ways in which He will become present to us.  The most common of these is through His Word.  So, when God’s Scriptures are preached or studied, He is delivering grace to create faith and forgive sin.  Similarly, the Lord’s promises are expressly attached to the Visible Word of His Sacraments.  So, when Baptism is administered and when the Lord’s Supper is received, the Lord is present in a special and tangible way to apply His grace to individual Christians for the forgiveness of their sins. 

These divinely-instituted methods of delivering His forgiving grace are certain and when we come into contact with Him, we can know that we are receiving Him and His promises.  Common elements such as prayer and song surround these gifts, but it is to the gifts of Word, Baptism, and Supper themselves that the Lord has attached His promises.  Therefore, Christian worship has them at its center, and if we seek to find the Lord elsewhere or by our own methods, we surrender the certainty of having received His Grace and run the risk of finding another spirit rather than the Lord who saves.