August 1

Discerning the Essence vs. the Expression of Worship

One of the problems we sometimes have in church life is discerning between the essence of something versus its expression.  In some ways, the King James Bible controversy falls into this category.  The KJV is one expression of the essence of God’s Word in Bible translation.  When people make it the only one they are confusing the essence of God’s Word (found in other faithful translations) with the expression of it (in the KJV).  Another area of church life that we often make that mistake is in worship.  We can easily confuse the essence of worship with the expression of worship.

When Reggie White was still living he gave a famous speech to the Wisconsin State Legislature.  In the speech, he extolled various ethnic/racial groups for having certain strengths that add to our collective enrichment.  He said that African-Americans are particularly good at worship because of the exuberant, expressive style of black worship.  The speech was not well-received partly because of errors like this that confused the essence of something with its expression.  

I have run into this over the years in conversations with people.  One friend told me about visiting a church where he found the sermon to be particularly moving.  But he was disappointed in the response of the congregation.  He said to me (and I quote), They should have been on their feet clapping.  But we all know that clapping can become a substitute for actually changing.  Which is better, to clap or to change?  Clearly clapping cannot be the essence of what it means to respond to a powerful sermon.  It may be appropriate at times (or maybe not), but one cannot judge a congregation by the absence of clapping.

This is really quite important because we all tend to elevate what we prefer over the essence of what something really is.  Once we do that we may miss out entirely on what we should be doing in favor of a focus on externals.  Those insisting on the KJV are so caught up by it that it makes their lives and churches unhealthy.  They are so judgmental they fail to obey the very Bible they are jealously attempting to protect.

So, what is the essence of worship?  The great Protestant Reformer John Calvin wrote, Lawful worship consists in obedience alone.  A more modern-day statement comes from Prof. D. A. Carson:  Our generation desperately needs to connect praise with righteousness, worship with obedience, and the Lord’s response with a clean heart.  What these gifted teachers are saying is what the Bible says itself.

And Samuel said [to King Saul], Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord?  Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.

Saul’s fundamental error was that he thought he could offer God the expression of worship rather than the essence of worship.  We can fall into that trap too.  Various styles of worship are acceptable to God.  Most of us will gravitate toward either the quiet or the more exuberant.  Either is okay.  What is not okay is worshiping without obedience – substituting the expression of worship for its essence.  In the end, that is not to worship at all.  

Your friend, learning about worship, Pastor Brian (:-}).