Putting the ‘Meaning’ In Meaningful Worship (Sept-Oct 1997)

By Matt Dabbs

by Larry Bridgesmith
September – October, 1997

Where Do We Find God?

28He had spent a lifetime of Sundays in his customary pew. He was a good, God, fearing young man. But since his brother committed suicide, there was little solace to be found in familiar routines. Church was no different. The worship assemblies he attended since his brother’s death were not inspiring. They failed to meet him in his loss. His pain was not soothed. A church shepherd and friend could not help but notice.

One day the older asked the younger about his spiritual and emotional health. The answer was obvious before it was articulated. Nothing seemed to make sense anymore. God was nowhere near in the young man’s confusion. Certainly, the church assembly offered no connection with eternity and the answers offered there. Confusion gave way to anger as the young man explained how meaningless worship had become. He looked for God in the church assemblies, but could not find him.

The elder asked his young friend where he felt closest to God. “In my duck blind,” was the immediate reply. “Then go there,” said the shepherd. “Talk to God about your loss, your anger, your confusion. And then listen for his response.”

Early Sunday morning, Matt got in his truck and headed to his favorite hunting spot. It was not duck season, so neither dog nor gun accompanied him. In the quiet of that special place, Matt poured out his heart hurts. Over the course of the entire day he questioned, he accused and he honestly confronted his God with the inexplicable dilemma which faced him. He shouted, he argued and he cried out. He heard no voice; he saw no vision. But for the first time since his brother’s death he sought an encounter with God with all his heart, head and spirit. His plea was simply, “If you are there God, if you care about me, show me.”

At day’s end, exhausted and emotionally spent, he headed home. As he crested a hill, the glory of a spectacular sunset caught his eye in the rear view mirror. He stopped his truck on the side of the road and got out to see it more clearly. Matt had not noticed it before, but when he stepped out, a huge stag deer stood motionless in the road between him and God’s glorious sunset. The deer looked at him momentarily and bounded away. Stunned, Matt fell to his knees and worshiped. The God he thought was not listening came near in ways his heart was prepared to encounter. At that moment, Matt’s emotional and spiritual healing began. His questions were not answered; his accusations were not responded to. But God came near and his presence was unmistakable.

What Puts the Meaning in Worship?

Perhaps the most meaningless question being asked around Sunday dinner tables is, “Did you get anything out of worship today?” In our well-intended quest for meaning in worship experiences, what we “get out” of worship is immaterial. Worship was never intended to be about us. Worship is about God, the only being in the entire universe worthy of worship. The externals of a worship experience may be either conducive or an obstacle to true worship, but they are never worship in themselves.

Some would make the mistake of concluding that Matt’s experience teaches that worship can only be meaningful in the context of the outdoors, sunsets and God’s animal creation. Few of us would stretch analogy that far. However, many are willing to reach similar conclusions about other externals of the worship experience. Are praise teams your sunset? Is a particular style of music your stag? Do our preferences dictate how God should reveal himself to us? Is it necessary for us to sense that God has chosen to come near for our worship to be “meaningful”?

What led Matt to worship was an attitude of heart and spirit that was open, honest and anticipatory. Matt was blessed when God chose to respond to the desires of his heart for connection with the eternal. Whether God did so or not, Matt was poised for worship and he encountered God for the first in a long time. The worship experience is not a place, it is not a style, it is not an expectation to be satisfied. Worship is an encounter with God that leaves us changed and our posture in contrast with the eternal clarified. Worship places our condition in perspective as God proclaims his sovereignty. We’d better know who we are because we see who he is.

Worship Is Not Always Fun, But It Is Always Worship

Many worshipers, like Matt, meet God in times of loss without finding easy answers or instant joy. Abraham took his son Isaac to worship on the mountain altar prepared to lose his most prized possession. Abraham could not understand God’s strange command, but he was prepared to obey. He was willing to trust absolutely because God had proven himself absolutely trustworthy. It was not the “why” or “how” that drove him to an intersection of faith; it was the “Who.” Abraham had to be confused, distraught, even angry, but he was prepared to respond to the voice of God calling him to worship. That call was not about Abraham’s comfort, it was about God’s holiness and his need to be first in Abraham’s faith. Isaac could not be Abraham’s focus of worship. Only God deserves such a place (Genesis 22:5).

We are given Abraham choices constantly. Will we seek comfort, satisfaction and gratification, or will we seek God? Do we possess the prerogative to define “meaningful worship” or is that the sole domain of the Almighty? Can we worship when music styles, format and content are not to our liking? If not, we probably need to be more concerned about the idolatry in our theology than finding a worship style we like. Is God calling us to take our “first born” worship expectations to the altar of sacrifice in order to be faithful children of the King? If we approach our worship responsibility with the submission of Abraham, our worship experiences will be satisfactory to the only audience that matters. We are not the audience, we are the performers.

Worship is not concerned with our getting, it is only about our giving. King David paid total devotion to the healing of his son by Bathsheba. He prayed, he fasted and he threw himself on the mercy of Jehovah Raphe, the Healer. Days passed and David dedicated himself completely to God’s will. He prayed for the elimination of this illness in an innocent victim of David’s own sin. To no avail. The child died. Immediately, David got up, washed his face and worshipped (2 Samuel 12:15ff). How can we worship God when he does not give us what we want? How can we do otherwise? Do we really think we deserve any better? Is God any less worthy of worship when we are disappointed? Is he any less God?

Job revealed the same worshipful response to loss. On learning of the loss of his possessions and his children, Job worshiped (Job 1:13ff). His submission to God was not dependent on having his desires met. No less should we seek to adore and glorify our God only when events in our lives are suitable to our tastes. may God grant us the patience and the wisdom to seek his satisfaction over our own. May our worship theology transcend our human tendency to gratify our desires rather than his.

Worship Is A Response to God In Our Midst

Angels were heard on high the night Jesus came in the form of a human baby. He was known then and now as Emmanuel, God with us. The Revelation shows in vivid imagery the celebration, the unrestrained joy which will accompany the reunion of the church with the Bridegroom. Our public and private worship merely foreshadows the inevitability of this divine unveiling which God planned before Adam’s fall. Knowing what he has done for us drives us to worship.

Human traditions can serve to obscure the purpose and focus of worship. Isaiah warned that man’s rules can serve as an illicit substitute for true worship (Isaiah 29:13). Christ agreed (Matthew 15:1-11). All our efforts to “do worship” the right way may actually serve to distance us from the God we seek to honor. When more struggles are expended on the form and content of a “worship service” than on the name of the Lord of lords and King of kings, we may be worshiping worship rather than God.

Form Is Secondary, But Not Irrelevant

Jesus spoke eternal truths to the Samaritan woman by the well when he informed her that place is not important, but truth and spirit are essential in worship (John 4). Jesus amplified the priority of worshiping God when he proclaimed that the first order of human obedience is to love God with all our heart, mind, body and spirit (Matthew 22:37-38). Worship is clearly more than a mental exercise. It is far more than a spectator sport. When we learn to be participants in holy abandonment, rather than sophisticated critics of various forms of worship, we will be truly prepared to worship.

This does not imply that worship forms are irrelevant. Instead, they are merely secondary to our pursuit of the appropriate response to the Almighty. Worship can be dishonest, hypocritical and detestable in God’s sight (Isaiah 29). Worship can also be self-congratulatory and inward-focused to the exclusion of the outsider (1 Corinthians 14). Worship that does not speak in culturally relevant fashion to those who do not yet know God misses the mark entirely. Unwittingly, we can grow persuaded like the Corinthians that worship which “meets my nees” ends the inquiry into meaningful worship. To the contrary, we must remain vigilant to use worship forms consistent with biblical freedoms which connect with God seekers who are not familiar with “the way we have always done it.” Those traditions may feel good to us but lack any capacity to bring unbelieving outsiders to their knees and exclaim, “God is really among you!” (1 Corinthians 14:24-25).

Worshipers Must Develop a ‘Holy Expectancy’

The greatest obstacle to meaningful worship is our personal lack of attention to worship preparation. No one can do that for us. It is our individual responsibility to prepare for the encounter with God. Failure to do so almost ensures there will be no encounter. In his book, Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster develops the promise of consistently wonderful worship through developing a worshiper’s “holy expectancy.” Worshipers throughout Scripture revealed a distinctly immediate expectation that God’s presence will be revealed in worship. In the Old Testament only the chief priests entered the Holy of Holies. They did so and reflected the Shekinah: the radiance of God. After the veil of the temple was torn from top to bottom, all believers were ushered into the very presence of God. Our only intermediary is Christ and he has promised eternal presence in our midst. Unless we expect to see, hear and experience the Holy Mystery of God among us, we will not know it when he comes. If we bring a critical spirit, a callous and unfeeling heart or an unwillingness to be touched by the God of Hosts into private or public worship, our expectations will be realized. Instead, seek to find God in praise, song, prayer and Scripture. Hold up the leaders of worship and pray for the Shekinah of God upon them. Listen for the message of God and submit your heart to his voice and you will find worship meaningful and life-changing.

Practice Worship When It Seems Unattainable

Worshipers do not wait until it feels like worship before they worship. They practice worship even in circumstances that seem antithetical to worship. David revealed the true worshiper’s heart in Psalm 22. Over the first 20 verses, David rails at the Almighty for ignoring his please, for leaving him twisting in the wind before his enemies and for abandoning him to the “wild dogs.” In desperation he cries, “Don’t let them cut my throat; don’t let those mongrels devour me. If you don’t show up soon, I’m done for – gored by the bulls, meat for the lions” (The Message).

With nothing to rejoice about, David then recounts the story he will tell his friends when they come to worship. Sound like a setting for a “pity party”? Only to those who have not prepared for worship. To David, the man after God’s own heart, the occasion called for only one response: “Shout Hallelujah, you God worshipers; Give glory, you sons of Jacob; adore Him, you daughters of Israel.” To anyone who doubts God’s presence in times of loss, confusion and attack, David proclaims, “He has never let you down.” The king adores the King “in this great gathering of worship” where a “praise-life” was discovered. Does this sound oxymoronic? When everything is wrong, how can anything be right? Wouldn’t it be prudent in such times of distress to wait until circumstances are better, when the form is more to my liking? Not to a “truth and spirit” worshiper. God is sovereign regardless of our perspective, our desires and our preferences. David found his “duck blind experience” where the congregation gathered and where God came close.

Worship Is Sacrifice with a Smile

Like Abraham taking Isaac to “worship,” like David and Job rising from the depths of despair to worship, like all God seekers in all ages, worship is about giving, not getting. As a people of God created for “the praise of his glory” may we rise above the babble of self interest, territorial certainty and simply worship. Let us stop talking about worship and just worship. Let us stop merely teaching about worship. Let us not critique the efforts of those seeking to worship. Let us worship.

With expectant hearts anticipating a holy encounter with the Creator of the universe, let us enter into worship with the clear understanding that meaningful worship is defined only by the Holy One who is the sole focus of our worship. In turn we will derive meaning out of our response to the Lion of Judah. Like Isaiah, we will respond with a life dedicated to the difficult, but infinitely rewarding task of seeking God and being filled with his presence. Is that meaningful? More than anything on earth!Wineskins Magazine

Larry Bridgesmith

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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