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Perhaps you remember the 1980s Del Taco commercial in which a group of office workers trudged off to lunch, chanting in monotone: “Same place, same thing.” There was no joy in their lunch, just boring routine.
Is this bland monotony your worship experience on Sabbath? Or do you identify with the psalmist?
I rejoiced with those who said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the LORD” (122:1).
I fear that more than a few of us experience joyless, obligatory worship on Sabbath morning. We go to church in the same way we face a bowl of plain oatmeal—not because we enjoy it, but because it is good for us.
Several prophets and Jesus (Mark 7:6) addressed the subject of obligatory worship, perhaps none more often than Isaiah,
“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’” (Isaiah 29:13).
What is your worship experience like? Do you experience joy, or are you just going through the motions?
Case Study of Joyful Sanctuary Worship
Our church has done a good job highlighting some aspects of the Sanctuary service, but possibly because it is not always easy reading, few venture outside of a several selected passages and thus miss some beautiful pictures in the Sanctuary. We don’t talk enough about an important part of the service: the Peace Offering, also called a Wave Offering (Leviticus 3:1-17; 7:11-36). The Peace Offering was not for sin, but for celebration—praise for what God had done for the worshiper. Furthermore, this offering was not a solitary act of praise. The one who brought the offering gathered other worshipers to eat this offering with him in joy because they were eating with God. This special praise meal could not take place anywhere else—only in God’s presence.
How can we bring this same spirit into our worship? Do we have that same sense of joy—of celebration? A few years ago the word celebration was taboo in many of our churches, but I’m thankful to see it has lost most of its baggage, and we’re able to acknowledge that we should be celebrating in church on Sabbath morning.
No Sense of the Sacred
The first ingredient is that experiencing God’s presence is an incredible joy. We see a couple examples of this with the Peace Offering and also when God filled the Sanctuary with His presence.
“Fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown” (Leviticus 9:24).
The Israelite worshiper took his offering to the temple—a space so numinous that our 21st century Adventist mindset has nothing with which to compare it. Our postmodern generation has actively minimized any distinction between the holy and the common. I periodically ask people about their experience when entering church: “Do you sense that you have entered a sacred space?” The most common response is a puzzled look as if they never considered that question.
What made something holy was its contact with the Holy—recall the rugged terrain of Mt. Sinai became holy because of God’s presence in a burning bush.
While we tacitly acknowledge that God is present with us in worship, “where two or more are gathered…” we seemingly don’t appreciate what that means.
Worship and joy has to start with a sense of the sacred—something greater than ourselves—consider Revelation 14:7, “Fear God and give him glory…Worship him who made the heavens…” Something sober to ponder is that the end-time message of Revelation 14:6-7 as the part of the Three Angels’ Messages, suggests that reverence and worship suffer at that time.
Perhaps the utilitarian trend of church as multi-purpose building (church services in the morning and basketball in the evening) has had the unintended consequence of dulling our perception of sacred space and thus keeping us from encountering the presence of God. Christian baby boomers rightly resisted the notion that God could be found only in certain settings, but I believe they went too far with their de-emphasis of the sacred. Of course, God can be experienced in a cathedral or a gymnasium, but we forget that architecture has long been used to point people to heaven. It is interesting to note that the latest church architectural trend seems to refocus on architecture as an aid to worship.
Praise—the Christian’s Weak Spiritual Muscle
A main component of the Peace Offering was praise—something we Christians surprisingly struggle with. During prayer request times at church, I see people bring out grocery lists of things that are going wrong, but they can’t recall anything that God has done for them this week. It is easier for them to remember how awesome the devil has been in their lives than what the Lord has blessed them with.
The Peace Offering included both “thanks” for a specific action done by God and also “praise” for Who God is. The worshiper would hold aloft his offering and declare what God had done for him. While the average Christian understands thanks, praise on the other hand, may be one of the weakest spiritual muscles that many Christians have. In prayer time, it is common to hear people say, “Thank you, Lord, for dying for us. Thank you for the rain this week.” While thanks is good and should be a part of worship, it is not the same as praise—declaring the mighty acts of God. Read through the Psalms and see how praise is detailed there.
LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory
in the heavens (Psalm 8:1).
If you are just beginning to develop your praise muscle, read a Psalm. During your praise time, drop the phrase “Thank you for…” and instead use declarative phrases, “You are…” or “You have…”
You will find this kind of praise encouraging and joy inducing.
The Praise Offering required action on the part of the worshiper—something we modern worshipers struggle with. Are you at church to worship or to watch? Participate or be entertained?
In our entertainment-saturated culture, we have been trained to be critics, (perhaps even harsh, American Idol types) with a limited tolerance for a weak performance. It is highly unlikely that the music team or pastor is going to hit a home run every week. Worship passivity is very tempting because it absolves the worshiper of any responsibility for the joy of worship other than getting to church. It de-evolves the worshiper to be spiritually infantile: “Feed me and make me feel something.”
Worship media is perhaps the ultimate form of passive worship (however if you are a shut-in or don’t have other worship options, then TV or internet worship is a Godsend). We need to be wary of the unrealistic image of worship that can be created by Adventist media. Is it really fair to compare your 50-member church with the best Adventist church services in the nation? The local church is one of the most vulnerable to measurement by unrealistic standards—after all, how many doctors or plumbers are weekly compared to the nation’s best? There is nothing wrong with catching other church services on LLBN, the Hope Channel or 3ABN, but we need to be careful of the pitfalls of worship pornography… that impossibly attractive, unattainable, airbrushed image that makes our own music team, pastor, audio/visual team, church look downright ugly in comparison and thus rob us of joyful worship. The analogy of worship pornography is further enhanced when we start substituting real church relationships for non-existent media ones because media relationships are never messy. Please bear in mind that even emotionally healthy churches are messy places (Scazzero, Peter. (2010). The Emotionally Healthy Church: A Strategy for Discipleship that Actually Changes Lives. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, p. 87).
Studies show that people who are actively involved in worship and who are using their spiritual gifts are the most spiritually content. What responsibility do you have for your own worship joy, and what responsibility do you have for dispensing joy to others at church?
Joy Takes Preparation
Consider the mindset of those going to the Temple in the Psalms of Ascent 120-134. Even before they got to the Temple, they were joyfully singing in anticipation.
What can you do to prepare yourself for joyful worship? Is there something standing in the way between you and God that you need to make right, as the Israelites did with their sacrifices? What can you do during the worship service—even during a less-than-stellar worship service—to experience joyful worship?
James “Jim” Lorenz, II, is the senior pastor of the Pleasant Hill Adventist Church in Northern California.