When through our dulled senses there comes even a faint glimpse of God, and His power, His majesty, His glory. . . . When we think upon men who have been in the very presence of the King of kings, and Lord of lords, such as Moses, Isaiah, Paul, and see them prostrated in awe, transformed forever after counting this experience the highest in their lives. . . . When we watch the reverence and worship of angelic beings, veiling their faces and other heavenly beings whose constant joy it is to cry out, Holy, Holy, Holy. . . . When we see all these things, then we will see the importance of worship and the worship service and the need for our giving it due consideration.
Let's be homiletical, and consider the worship service from three points: The meaning of worship, the importance of worship, and the atmosphere of worship.
The Meaning of Worship
Webster tells us that worship has the meaning of reverence, honor, respect, homage, devotion, adoration, veneration. Worship has to do with acts of homage, adoration, religious service. This definition is undoubtedly correct, but it's a little cold In his book The Public Worship of God, Henry Sloane Coffin defines worship from several interesting points of view. He thinks of worship as "appreciation." He goes back to an old meaning of the word, "worth-ship," the recognition of the merit of another, "the awed and glad spontaneous response of the spirit of man, confronted by the God of Christian revelation, the God of creation and redemption." Coffin says the "primary element in worship is this adoring recognition of the most dear Father, the august God of all worlds," and also that it is "appreciation of one loftier and better than we are." "We worship as we talk to a friend, or woo a wife, by a compelling appreciation which finds its sole reward in its object." Second, Coffin says that worship is offering, and he writes that "appreciation naturally shows itself in offering." "Worship is the offering of ourselves to God." "We present Him our thoughts, our penitence, our thanksgiving, our aspirations." We could also add that we present Him our talents, our time, our means. Finally, Coffin suggests that worship is communion, and he believes that this is the "supreme aspect of worship." He points out, "There is a difference in talking about a friend than to him, so with God." There is a difference in saying "He" and "Thou."
The Bible itself helps to round out our concept of worship. Psalm 95:2 speaks of thanksgiving. Verse 6 speaks of the physical posture in our worship, that of kneeling. Psalm 96:8 mentions an offering, as a part of our worship. Revelation 19:5, 6 speaks of praise. Revelation 15:2, 3 speaks of music. Revelation 4:8-10 mentions adoration.
The servant of the Lord expands our concept of worship still further, as we read in volume 5 of the Testimonies, page 493, "All the service should be conducted with solemnity and awe, as if in the visible presence of the Master of assemblies." Sister White speaks of "willing obedience to all His requirements. This is true worship" (ibid., vol. 9, p. 156). This is certainly the proof of genuine worship. Any worship which does not lead in this direction is pure sham, hollow and absolutely meaningless.
So worship, then, is the act of approaching God. It is the method of approaching God. It is an intensely personal encounter with God. And if worship is all of this, and if the Sabbath worship service is one of the primary media for a collective encounter with God, what kind of an awesome responsibility do we have? This makes it impossible for us to escape our second point.
The Importance of the Worship Service
Through the special council given to this people we see the importance of the worship service. "Unless correct ideas of true worship and true reverence are impressed upon the people, there will be a growing tendency to place the sacred and eternal on a level with common things, and those professing the truth will be an offense to God and a disgrace to religion." —Ibid., vol. 5, p. 500. Sister White says that "an enemy has been at work to destroy our faith in the sacredness of Christian worship" (ibid., p. 496). And on the same page she writes, "The moral taste of the worshipers in God's holy sanctuary must be elevated, refined, sanctified." We could quote many similar statements that powerfully underscore the importance of the worship service.
There seems to be a dangerous tendency, especially in city situations or in centers of our work, for an increasing number of our members to become one-hour-aweek Adventists. They attend only the worship service. There is no Sabbath school, no prayer meeting, not even social occasions, but only a one-hour-a-week contact with the church. If this trend is true, this increases the importance of the worship service, and it also increases my responsibility to prepare spiritual food that will be varied, palatable, and nourishing. I am aware that the pulpit work of the pastor represents only a part of his responsibilities. I am also aware of the servant of the Lord's cautions about spending too much time in the study, but I am also increasingly aware of our sacred responsibility as pastors to give the Lord and the people our honest time in preparing the worship entree for the Sabbath feast.
Many people who come to our services will worship or will not worship because of our planning and preparation or our lack of it. Many people will be led into the very presence of God or not be led there because we lead them or don't lead them. This is why the worship service is important.
There was a picture in one of the classrooms of the old Seminary building in Washington, D.C., that made a deep impression on me. It was a picture of a church, beautiful, ornate, with a magnificent altar, and there were some people worshiping there. Christ was in the picture, but He was not at the altar. He was with one lone worshiper at the back of the church, in the shadows. It has made me ask myself many times, Where is Christ in the worship service I conduct? Is He there at all? Is the service acceptable to Him? Is it pleasing to Him? If we don't have the presence of God in our worship service, we don't have anything. This is why the worship service is important.
I have spoken of the meaning of worship. I have tried to underscore the importance of the worship service, but the most important aspect is the how of the worship service, putting the principles we have learned into practice. I have chosen to think of this as the atmosphere of worship.
The Atmosphere of Worship
You say, What do you mean by atmosphere? Impressive ceremony, gorgeous display, magnificent churches, solemn and fascinating rites, imposing processions, paintings, sculpture, incense? Not exactly, yet some of these elements might find their place in the worship service. Actually, "atmosphere" is something that people sense, something they feel. "I like to go to an Adventist church, there's just something about it, there's something there." If this is ever said, it's because Someone is there. Here again counsel comes to us: "Our meetings should be made intensely interesting. They should be pervaded with the very atmosphere of heaven."—/bid., p. 609. What a spiritual challenge this is.
Only very occasionally do I have dreams that border on the nightmare variety, but almost invariably they center on the worship service falling apart before my helpless eyes—such as going out not fully dressed, people walking all over or leaving while I'm trying to speak, looking frantically for my sermon notes and being unable to find them. Perhaps you have experienced a similar nightmare, and the tremendous sense of relief when you wake up. I have been in worship services when the atmosphere has been something less than the atmosphere of heaven. I was in one service where the minister thought his sermon notes were in his Bible, but when he stepped up to the pulpit they weren't there. He looked for them in his Bible a moment, finally stepped off the rostrum, down to where he had been sitting during Sabbath school, looking for them there, but they weren't there. Finally, another minister and I, who were on the rostrum, joined in the search for the missing sermon notes. You can imagine what this did to the atmosphere of worship.
Don't Forget the Pickles
I well remember one service where there was such animosity between the organist and the choir director that the choir director was urging the congregation on to an ever-increasing tempo. The organist finally just stopped. Something electric went through the entire congregation, for many were aware of the personality clash. The atmosphere of worship was completely destroyed. At times there are unrefined acts or very casual acts that destroy the atmosphere of worship. I think also of the service that is fractured with disorganization. I think of the service where there is conversation between pulpit and pew. "Sister Jones, will the Dorcas building be open on Tuesday?" I think of the service where oftentimes inappropriate secular announcements are made, concerning a picnic perhaps, and someone finally adds, "And don't forget the pickles for the wham sandwiches!" What happens to the worship atmosphere in these situations? Brethren, we have some excluding to do, and some including to do, in order that our worship services be pervaded with "the very atmosphere of heaven."
What is it that makes up the atmosphere of the worship service? First of all, there is the minister himself, his dress, his demeanor, his decorum, et cetera. There are the elders, their knowledge, training, ability, et cetera. Then, there is the actual order of worship, its planning, organization, and preparation. Music plays a large part in the atmosphere of worship. Whether hymns, anthem, or offertory, the music should be well chosen, appropriate, fitting the spiritual needs of the congregation.
There is also the matter of the place of worship. Just now in the Stone Tower church we are spending thousands of dollars to make our church more worshipful and reverent. But no matter what church you are in, large or small., there are always things that can be done to increase the atmosphere of worship, even with the expenditure of a small amount of money. It is possible to worship God in the old Elks hall, where paneling, plaster, fixtures, drapes, and flags reek of cigarette smoke, coffee, and ham dinners. But what a blessing it is to worship God in an appropriate setting, where the atmosphere bespeaks, "God is here." In the church where John Wesley preached his first sermon are to be found these words engraved on the floor: "Enter this door as if the floor within were gold, and every wall of jewels of wealth untold, as if a choir in robes of fire were singing here, nor shout, nor rush, but hush, for God is here."
Have They Really Worshiped?
It's all right if people come to our churches and say, "Well, I went to church today, at an Adventist church," or "I heard a sermon today by an Adventist pastor, pretty good." But if only we could have people say, "You know, I worshiped God today in the Adventist church. It seemed as though God were really there. I felt His presence."
How shall we summarize our thinking, concerning the worship service? Reverent, but not cold. Dignified, but not too formal. Beautiful, but not pompous. Warm, but not common or casual. Solemn, but not joyless. Smooth running, that is to say, "decently and in order," but not mechanical and stilted. Elevating, but so that the common people could worship gladly. Maybe there isn't a worship service like this anywhere on the earth, but with God's help we can work at it. In just a little while from now, through our ceaseless approaching to God our whole being will be enraptured in transports of praise and adoration as we worship God face to face.