Worship: God's agent of contact

Worship is not only coming to the presence of God but experiencing it.

Wintley Phipps is senior pastor of Capitol Hill Seventhday Adventist Church, Washington, D.C.

Worship—both corporate and per sonal—is often a true barometer of the spiritual condition of people. As our worship goes, so goes our spirituality and destiny. As a pastor I have struggled to understand why our church is languishing in North America. In 1989 and 1990 the average Adventist church in North America in creased its membership by only three to four members per church per year. This statistic alone ought to compel us to act. I have wondered whether we weren't marketing well enough. But I have come to the conclusion that our progress mirrors the spiritual condition of our worship, both corporate and personal.

One of the primary purposes of worship is to invoke among us a sense God's presence. This provides evidence of His favor and the key to our success as a church. God never meant worship and liturgy to be merely vehicles through which we disseminate information about His gospel. Instead worship and liturgy are God's agents of contact with the unseen Majesty of heaven. We must rid our worship of whatever does not sharpen our vision and whatever does not aid us in an apprehension of things eternal.

Ever since the entrance of sin we have fled from the presence of God. We have lost the ability to see and hear Him. But through faith God allows us to commune with Him. Through faith we can experience the authentic reality of His presence. Hence whatever does not aid us in sensing God's presence must be reevaluated and discarded. Personal and corporate worship is at the heart of the church's progress. We will advance no further and reach no higher than the spiritual condition of our worship and our liturgy.

Eight years ago I became the pastor of the Capitol Hill church in Washing ton, D.C. I accepted the appointment with a philosophy I hadn't even developed fully. I told my church: "I believe in the spiritual tone of the church. Raise the spiritual tone and you will raise the church. If God's presence can be felt in our worship, then we will find progress in every area of the church's endeavor." I have seen this philosophy work. In less than four years our church attendance has soared from 80 to more than 1,000. Our tithe base has leaped from $80,000 a year to almost $1,000,000 last year. What is the secret?

Get rid of Egyptian ways

First, in our worship we need to rid ourselves of some of our Egyptian ways. And by Egyptian ways I am not talking just about African Egypt, but also European Egypt. Some of the liturgy we have borrowed from Egypt—both African and European—inhibits us from invoking in our churches a sense of the presence of God.

Consider the experience of Moses. In Exodus 32 and 33 we find Moses in one of the most incredible disappointments of his life. As he came down from Mount Sinai, Moses saw his people dancing before a golden calf. The people whom he set his heart upon to serve, the people with whom he chose to suffer affliction rather than reign on the throne of the pharaohs, the people with whom he had cast his lot when he forsook the glories of Egypt, the people for whom God had parted the waves and made a highway through the sea were now rioting and dancing, worshiping an idol, just like they had seen it done in Egypt. Moses saw the liturgy Israel had so hastily constructed. He watched them as they frolicked and shouted, praising the virtues of the golden calf. They had forgot ten that worship without the presence of God is bankrupt, empty, drowning in its own futility. It leads nowhere.

Ellen White says that "during all the wanderings of Israel, Christ, in the pillar of cloud and of fire, was their Leader."1 The pillar of cloud met their desire for some visible manifestation of God's presence.2 But over a period of time the children of Israel began to look upon "the cloud of the Presence" 3 as common and ordinary. As a result they lost, as we have lost in many of our churches, a sense of appreciation for and dependence on the presence of God.

God has made us with the ability to sense the approach of the Divine. Enoch walked with God. But how? He educated his mind and heart ever to feel the presence of God.4 We too can feel His presence and sense the brush of angels' wings.

Because the children of Israel lost their appreciation for the sense of the presence of God, like an injured suitor, like a sweetheart rejected, the cloud quietly rose and withdrew itself from the people. "When men are careless of the Saviour's presence, and in their conversation make no reference to Him in whom they profess that their hopes of eternal life are centered, Jesus is not in their company and the holy angels are grieved from their presence. These pure and heavenly beings cannot remain where the presence of Jesus is not desired and encouraged, and where His absence is not marked." 5 God will not draw near to those who do not miss His presence. We must mark His absence before we can feel His presence.

Look at the children of Israel again. In repentance they shed their ornaments and began to pray. They prayed that God would restore the glory of His presence. Moses entered into the tent of meeting that He had pitched far from the polluted camp, and suddenly the pillar cloud— the signal of God's presence—started coming down from off the mountain. The people prayed and prayed until at last they had prayed God down off the mountain.

But look at the prayer of Moses: "Moses said to the Lord, 'You have been telling me, "Lead these people," but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, "I know you by name and you have found favor with me." If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.'

The Lord replied, 'My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.' Then Moses said to him, 'If your Pres ence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?' " (Ex. 33:12-16, NIV).

Mark the audacity of Moses. He had the daring, the boldness to petition God to change His mind. He had the courage to beseech God to alter His plans and reverse His judgments. In effect, Moses was saying to the Lord: "If Your Presence does not go with us, how will the people of the land know that we are the people of Your covenant? How will they know that we are the children of Your promise? How will they know that we are inheritors of a divine commission? How will they know that we are the remnant?" Moses led Israel to recognize that they had no land, no money, no treasures, no throne, to recommend them, nothing to distinguish them, nothing to set them apart from all the people on earth—except the presence of God.

Strength in His presence

This leads me to the second principle of real progress in the church: Without God's presence in our life and our worship, we as a people and as a church will not progress as we should. God's presence alone can provide for us the strength and protection we need to face the final days ahead.

Many of our worship services are like a coronation without the presence of the King. We have the dignified processionals and the orderly recessionals, and so many people leave our churches saying "Oh, that was wonderful," but the unspoken word of their hearts is "But where was the King? Why did we not see His glory?"

Ellen White contends: "It is a miser able delusion to have a name, and yet be without a connection with God, without spiritual life, without Christ, without a sense of God's presence in the soul." 6 God made us to reach out and touch the Invisible by faith. "To none will it be granted to enjoy the presence of Christ in the paradise of God if they do not enjoy His presence and love in this probationary life." 7

Moreover, enjoying the presence of God has another great purpose: "As a shield from temptation and an inspiration to purity and truth, no other influence can equal the sense of God's presence." 8 Nothing will inspire one more to be a Christian than to know that God has drawn near. "Although there may be a tainted, corrupted atmosphere around us, we need not breathe its miasma, but may live in the pure atmosphere of heaven. We may close every door to impure imaginings and unholy thoughts by lifting the soul into the presence of God through sincere prayer." 9

1 Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1958), p. 311.

2 Ibid.,-p. 316.

3 Ibid.

4 ————, Testimonies to Ministers (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1962), p.
5 ————, Historical Sketches of the Foreign
Missions of the Seventh-day Adventists (Basle,
Switzerland: ImprimeriePolyglotte, 1886),p. 145.

6 ————, Special Testimonies, Series B, No.
7, p. 29.

7 ————, Signs of the Times, Sept. 12, 1892.

8 ————, Education (Mountain View, Calif.:
Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1952), p. 255.

9 ————, Signs of the Times, Dec. 16, 1889.

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Wintley Phipps is senior pastor of Capitol Hill Seventhday Adventist Church, Washington, D.C.

April 1993

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