Where God Is Encountered (Sep 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

by Jack R. Reese
September, 1992

Most congregations I know are facing a serious dilemma: Should we make major changes in how we approach our worship, make some minor adjustments, or just leave things the way they are? Those who want some changes are less and less why in saying why.

“Our worship is too boring.”
“The services are disjointed. Very little planning appears to be done.”
“The songs and lessons seem almost irrelevant.”
“Our traditional service hardly resembles the intense and purposeful worship of the early church.”
“I am embarrassed to invite my unchurched friends.”
“The service provides few opportunities for genuine fellowship and sharing.”
“We seem to be just going through the acts.”

But when changes are made – or even suggested – the response from others is no less strong.

“We don’t know those songs. I like the songs we used to sing.”
“I’m uncomfortable with the changes. Surely it is not the purpose of worship to make people uncomfortable.”
“Where is the chapter and verse that supports these changes?”
“We’ve not ever done it that way. What’s wrong with the traditional service we’ve followed all of my life?”
“All of this is just change for the sake of change.”

As a result, some congregations are caught in a conflict over what should be done or allowed in their assemblies, or, more specifically, what they want or don’t want; like or don’t like.

I am aware of several reasons why such change is sought. In general, the reasons are three, all of which are the result of some sort of seeking.

SEEKING OUTSIDERS

Many are concerned about having congregational assemblies connect with the unchurched in their community. When their friends find the songs archaic, the sermons filled with insider jargon, and the services generally incomprehensible, they want to do something that is relevant or at least understandable.

Some are attempting to adapt the concept of a “seeker-service” like that of the Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago. Whether or not that model is appropriate, the desire to relate to people in our community is a compelling reason to consider some changes in the assembly.

SEEKING ONE ANOTHER

Over the last 30 years, many have suggested that the Sunday assembly primarily should be a time when Christian fellowship is experienced. Reacting to a dry, thoughtless implementation of five acts of worship, advocates of the “edification model” seek a dynamic assembly in which members are built up and encouraged.

Biblical references to edification in the assembly are not difficult to find. In several places in 1 Corinthians 14, for example, Paul urges the Christians to build up one another in the assembly. “Let all things be done for edification” (v. 26).

SEEKING OURSELVES

Others are seeking assemblies where individual worshippers are stirred and moved, where something special is experienced, where not only the mind but the heart is touched. Many are rebelling against worship services which follow the right pattern but are not very open to the experience of the holy. They want opportunities to express deep-felt praise. They are drawn to the worship language of the Psalms where people are shouting, bowing, kneeling, raising their hands, repenting, and in diverse and overt ways responding to the greatness of God.

Many are seeking themselves, or God within them, through an experience – especially an emotional one – in which they feel closer to him.

BUT WHOM SHOULD WE SEEK?

These three reasons for reexamining our Sunday assemblies have considerable validity. We must be sensitive not only to outsiders in general but to the language, styles, and preferences of people in the 1990s, churched or unchurched. We should be concerned that every person present in our assemblies is edified, spurred on to love and good works. And we should expect to experience something in our assemblies, to have our souls touched and renewed.

But valid as these concerns are, their purposes are too limited. More candidly, the focus is too much on US.

Biblical worship, in contrast, is focused on GOD. In both Old Testament and New, acceptable worship is rooted in who God is.

If asked the question, “Who is God?”, the ancient Israelites would have had little trouble answering. Of course, God is many things: sovereign, lord, merciful, longsuffering. But typically they would have responded: “He is the Holy One of Israel” (1 Samuel 2:2, 2Kings 19:22; Psalm 89:18). God is Holy. That is to say, he is other, beyond, distinct. He is not like us.

But the people of Israel often articulated a great paradox: “The Holy One of Israel is in our midst” (Hosea 11:9; Isaiah 12:6; Psalm 46). The God who is other is with us. The God who is beyond is among us. The God who is distinct participates in our humanity.

It is important to note that the distinctiveness of Israel’s worship was not in her worship rituals. Other ancient near-eastern nations had rites similar to Sabbath, Passover, new moon celebrations, harvest feasts, atonement, sacrifices, and other acts of worship. These were significant for Israel because they were associated with the actions of the Holy One who was among them.

Every response of worship and every religious and national law were connected to the work of God who acted on behalf of his people, the God who was with them. This work of God began with creation, triumphed in the delivery of Israel from Egypt, and ultimately found its fruition in the incarnation of Christ – Immanuel – God with us. It is this God who not only saw Israel in her bondage but saw us in our sin and suffered for us: the Holy One in our midst.

The handful of New Testament passages addressing the Christian assembly assume the centrality of God’s presence in the midst of his people. In 1 Corinthians 14, for example, Paul blasts those who would cause confusion and chaos in the assembly. He urgest them to a kind of worship that would not only build up each other but might affect any outsiders present.

At its core, the Christian assembly is not designed to seek outsiders, each other, or ourselves. Rather it is a sacramental event. That is to say, in our worship we encounter God, the Holy One among us.

The fundamental task of worship is not to attract outsiders, though we should be aware of their presence and sensitive to their needs. Nor is it to build up one another, though that will be an important and even inevitable result of meaningful worship. Nor is it to stimulate our emotions, though we may have moving emotional experiences.

Rather, in worship, as we praise God for his holiness, as we confess our unworthiness, as we thank him for his lovingkindness, as we commit ourselves to his purposes, we actually encounter God in our midst. It is not so much that we seek God in worship that we may find himm but that we open ourselves to his seeking us. And being found in him, we allow ourselves to be changed into his likeness.

Christian assemblies are not simply places where right worship is done in right ways. They are not frivolous events where we thoughtlessly conform to some prepackaged program. They are not performances where we demonstrate our public gifts.

Rather, we participate in Christan assemblies to be encountered by God! It is him that we seek. We gather each week to hear again his promises and to be renewed by his presence. We offer him both our praise and our sin knowing he will receive both – for his glory and our redemption. We bolster and exhort each other to be faithful to his ways. We urge each other to persevere in the face of adversity by his power and to his ends. We commit ourselves to sharing in the death of Christ which we experience anew so that we might proclaim it until he returns. We offer all that we have so that we might receive all that he is.

So in our worship we seek the God who seeks us. By his grace we see his face – the Holy one in our midst.Wineskins Magazine

Jack R. Reese

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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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