Worship: the heart of the church

The church that makes worship central in its life will be dynamic and alive, life-changing and contagious. The gates of hell will not prevail against it.

Greg Taylor is senior pastor of the Foster Memorial Seventh-day Adventist Church in Asheville, North Carolina.

Becky had always had an eye for Jason. It had been that way ever since fourth grade. Of course, back then he was totally oblivious to her feelings, and she would never let on. But as the years rolled by and they got into high school, her care for him deepened. She would drop hints here and there that she was interested in him, but he never seemed to catch on. Oh, they would talk after class, study together, and eat lunch with each other in the cafeteria. He would even tell her some of his feelings about other girls. She would watch with pain as he took her friends to the school banquets and to other places. She would cry when she found out he had another steady girlfriend.

Soon Becky and Jason were attending the local community college. During the second semester they ended up in a freshman composition class together, and the old friendship was reignited.

After class one day Jason said, "Becky, I have a couple tickets to the fall festival this weekend, and I was wondering if you'd like to go with me." Becky, trying hard to hold back her joy and excitement, said as casually as she could, "Sure. I'd like that."

The next few weeks and months flew by. Becky and Jason did everything together. They grew to love each other deeply. And on days when they could not see each other, they would always be in contact by phone. He would call her at 9:00 each night on the dot. And each week, no matter how much they had talked, they would meet together for an hour of eye-to-eye conversation. These times were especially meaningful. Becky thought she was the happiest woman alive.

Then something started to change. During his nightly calls Jason stopped telling Becky about his life and asking about hers. It didn't happen all at once. There were good days. But Jason started sounding fidgety. Often he would say the same old things day after day. Nothing new, nothing from deep inside him, no real heart-to-heart sharing. Becky would try to pull things out of him, but to no avail. Her heart broke as she encountered his indifference.

One day she said to him, "Jason, I wish you were either hot or cold either that you'd fall in love with me 100 percent in heart, mind, and soul, or that you'd break up with me. Because I love you so much and always have, this half-hearted stuff is tearing me apart. Please make a choice."

God looks for wholeheartedness

God is in love with us. He always has been (Jer. 31:3). The one thing that gets to God (Rev. 3:16) is when I, the apple of His eye, the object of His everlasting love, the focus of His most tender emotions, am not present in the relationship. When I go through the motions, recite the lines, pray token prayers, while my heart is far away, He cannot let it go.

What is more serious still is when the worship of all His people arranges itself along the same lines. We might meet with Him on the right day, at the specified time, and keep our date regularly, but when we do, we sing the songs, do the praying, drop some money in the plate, and doze off for the "message" (Isa. 29:13).

This has to be faced. Just about all of us are guilty of this. We have had times in our lives when we have wounded our God. And it is time that we individually and corporately repent of this sin that pains God so profoundly. It has been only in the past few years that I have been convicted of this great need in my own life: the need to worship God truly, to bring absolutely all that I am into intimate contact with all that He is, to bring myself completely into a relationship with Him, to stay in prayer or to stay in communion with Him each day until I know in my heart that we are vitally connected and that sin is forgiven and the joy of the Lord is in my soul.

It is for us to prepare ourselves for the big event. Corporate time with God must be more than rituals, set phrases, and formal exchanges born of our years of uninvested passion. I cannot be satisfied with the forms of godliness without contact with the Spirit of God. I believe that the greatest need in the church today is worship, real worship. We need whole-hearted intimate contact with God individually and corporately, or we are just empty vessels playing church, having a form of godliness that denies God's power. In this condition, instead of attracting lost people to God and His message, we will repel them.

Listen to these words of Jesus to the woman at the well: "Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks" (John 4:23, NIV). It is that last line that catches a Christian in the heart. God is actively seeking a certain quality in those who worship Him. He wants a relationship with us that will be full, open, honest, and intimate. "God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth" (verse 24, NIV). God is looking for deep spiritual contact with us daily and weekly.

Worship in the eschatological scheme

It is fascinating to note how this plays itself out in the eschatological scheme of things. In Revelation, John records his vision of heaven, and we find that worship is central to all that happens there. Obviously, those who inhabit heaven are those who find their greatest joy in praising God (see Rev. 4; 5; 7; 11; 14; 15; 19).

The message of Revelation 14 is specific. The three angels' messages have become the rallying cry, the focal point, the mission statement, as it were, for Adventists. We see in these messages our call to proclaim the gospel to all the world, to hold up the authority of God's Word, to urge lost people to take God and His Word seriously, and to come out of any lifestyle that is less than God-honoring. We find, in these messages, the urgency to warn the world of God's judgment hour. We find here the reaffirmation of God's creative power and the need to recognize Him as Creator.

This message is for all people. Hence, we are a missionary-minded church. The three commands in verses 6 and 7 particularly stand out: Fear God; give glory to Him; worship Him. God is still seeking a particular kind of worshiper: Those who will bring all that they truly are into intimate contact with all that He truly is. At its very heart the three angels' message is a call to worship. And it is fair to say that as a church we are missing the mark situated at the very center of the message that has always been foundational to Seventh-day Adventism. The point is that the evangelistic thrust in Revelation 14 is worship-driven. The call to come out of Babylon is a call to abandon meaningless worship and to come into a vibrant community who really worships God.

So what do we do?

1. Face reality. Admit our true condition. Admit that worship has not always been high on our priority list. Face our true condition openly and honestly. Then we must go beyond admission to confession. Tell God where we are, first as individuals and then corporately (1 John 1:9).

2. Seek renewal as our top priority. Personal prayer is first. Pray as never before that God will bring renewal to our own hearts. Pray that worship will find its rightful place in our daily lives. "If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land" (2 Chron. 7:14, NIV). Then as small groups we must commit to prayer for one another and for our church, that God will pour out His Spirit upon us and give us guidance as to how to make His priorities our own.

3. Reexamine corporate worship in light of the importance God places upon it. Remember, the new wine of the gospel of Jesus Christ must be kept fresh. If the old wineskins (forms and traditions) are allowed to get too much older, more brittle and cracked, the wine of God's love will drip out and may be lost. We must be searching for fresh ways to express the unchanging but ever new message of God's love (Matt. 9:17).

Several areas in the weekly routine of worship that need to be reexamined. The apostles did not design our current corporate worship format. A break from the routine might be a big step toward helping our people think about what they are doing in the worship service. The use of visuals, energizing platform decor, the use of children's stories, well-planned music, even drama, can help engage the heart and mind in worship. Just some careful, intentional planning will do wonders. As we try to lead our people to worship God fully, they will catch on to the meaning and purpose of well-planned worship.

A case study

I pastor a church that has taken worship very seriously. Starting before I arrived, there had been some deep renewal among many of the members. Repentance and prayer have become a real part of church life---both individually and corporately.

During the eighties the church had gradually declined in membership from 500, with a strong attendance, down to just under 400 membership, with 120 or so coming each week. A core group of individuals took this as a personal and spiritual challenge. They began to pray for God's direction, for renewal, and for evangelistic vision. As they prayed together, they grew in their love for Christ. They began to realize that for them worship had gradually become just a ritual. Their new understanding of the gospel gave them a passion for worship and a deep concern for their children. They prayed for direction and did some research. Soon they discovered that most of their children, inactive members, and unchurched friends were thoroughly bored with church. They felt that it was irrelevant and impractical.

The leaders discovered that other churches like theirs had found a road to recovery through an unreserved return to Jesus and His gospel. They instituted a "seeker service" in which they tried more contemporary forms of worship aimed at attracting the youth. They utilized appropriate arts, practical teaching, and music to proclaim the timeless truths of God's Word. This service was designed to be as evangelistic as it was to be a time for weekly worship. It was designed for people who had left the church and for those who were unchurched.

They also planned and provided a way for believers to worship God in a deeper way. The "believer service" would study the Word more deeply and provide advanced worship opportunities for mature believers. When I arrived as pastor of the church, there had already been a decision to experiment with some of these ideas.

The transition has not been easy. Some long-term members found the change unacceptable for various reasons. Some found other places to worship. The congregation as a whole, however, felt God's leading as we began to see authentic renewal within our member ship. A passion for worship developed and a commitment to reaching lost people. Since starting the renewal process, the number of people coming to worship has more than doubled. Decisions for Christ and baptisms are a regular occurrence.

Worship is now a priority. Our worship committee meets with the pastoral staff to plan creative ways to support the biblical messages that will be presented. Drama, music, audiovisual, and technical teams meet regularly to prepare and make sure we are honoring God with our very best. We believe that one day we will have in our church the worshiping community described in Acts 2:42-47.

In the Acts church, worship was central. There was a sense of awe that God was doing something supernatural in that community. The Holy Spirit was present. The rich cared for the poor, the teaching was transformational, the sacraments were held high, people met regularly for praise and worship, and lost people were regularly coming to faith.

The church of Revelation 14 is the eschatological expression of the early church experience. It is vibrant. Alive. Powerful. Evangelistic. Why? Because it loves God supremely and it places Him squarely on the throne of its life as a whole. The highest motive of this church is to honor God, to worship Him, and give Him glory. Such a church is dynamic and alive. It is life-changing and contagious. The gates of hell will not prevail against it.

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Greg Taylor is senior pastor of the Foster Memorial Seventh-day Adventist Church in Asheville, North Carolina.

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