Someone once asked me for my feedback on worship ministry in True Way, i.e. worship leading, support singing, band accompaniment, sound and computer system, ushering and choir as a whole package. I spent time thinking over it and felt I couldn’t give constructive comments on things which I am not particularly good at or involved in. Over the years here, I have heard numerous feedbacks on the state of worship in True Way as well as suggestions to improve it. The trouble is that you can classify them into two general categories and they are at odds with each other. So who is right? It is impossible to please both. Well, I guess it is easier for me to share my personal thoughts on the subject of worship instead.
John 4:23(ESV)says, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” I came to know of this verse during my early Christian days when a colleague was explaining why his church worshipped the way they did, i.e. lively and vibrant. To my best recollection, his explanation was that the time had come when the true worshiper worships freely and is not bound by any prescribed order of behavior. Therefore he is unusually expressive and emotional because of the stirring of the spirit inside him. I also recall attending a Christian concert where the Holy Spirit was being praised and prayed to so much more than the Father and the Son. I remember learning something that went like this: we worship the Holy Spirit because it is he who is now in the world and working powerfully among us; there was a time for the Father (i.e. by the Jews during OT time) and his Son (i.e. when he was on earth) but now is the time for the Spirit.
Those were my early years as a young and confused Christian who was thus happy to remain a Presbyterian. Subsequently, after my return from UK in 1997, I began hearing John 4:23 or 4:24 quoted here and there as worship in churches began to become more concert-like, i.e. with sophisticated instruments and technology employed to give the kind of audio and visual experiences similar to those of secular performances, while old-fashioned sanctuaries with wooden pews made way for auditorium-like halls, some with well-cushioned chairs fitted with armrests. I suppose the rationale behind is this: if all these things can help the worshipers worship God in spirit and truth, who are we to judge? I remember how that colleague of mine had warned me not to become like Michal who became barren after she despised David for dancing and celebrating before the Lord (2 Sam 6:16-23). So while I will not hesitate to admit that I am all for the singing of hymns and with just the piano for accompaniment, I would not want to judge others for being different because it is God whom they are offering their worship to, not me. But I suppose we would still need to ask what Jesus had meant when he said those words in John 4:23 if we desire to be the kind of true worshipers our Father seeks and especially when we come together as a body, so that we will not hinder or stumble others with our preferences or comments. Most people would be more familiar with verse 24 but it is a summary statement to reinforce verse 23, which concludes Jesus’ dialogue with the woman at the well and therefore gives us the proper context to understand what it means to worship God in spirit and truth according to our Lord Jesus.
Two things were raised between Jesus and the woman who was a Samaritan. The first had to do with the proper place to worship God. In Deuteronomy 12:5, God had told the people that they were to seek the place which he would choose for his dwelling. The Jews believed the place to be Jerusalem (2 Chron. 6:6; 12:13). The Samaritans however acknowledged only the Pentateuch (i.e. the first five books of the OT) and hence believed the place to be Mt Gerizim near Shechem (Deut. 11:29; 27:12). But the greater truth is that God is omnipresence and wherever he shows himself, the place becomes holy ground. For God is spirit and not flesh that he should be constrained to a place. And a time will come and has come when he will make himself known to the world through his Son so that people all over may worship him wherever they are. The second had to do with what the Samaritans did not know. Since they only accepted the Pentateuch, they wouldn’t know much about the rest of Scripture. So how could they worship the one true God of the Holy Scripture? Thus Jesus proclaimed that the kind of true worshipers the Father seeks are those who worship in spirit and truth.
So what does John 4:23 mean to me? Well, Romans 12:1 comes to mind, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” That is, to worship God is to offer ourselves as living sacrifices. The trouble with many today is that God seems to reside at some mountains, a.k.a. church buildings, and so they only worship him when they go to their respective mountains on Sundays. Elsewhere and at other times, God ain’t really in the picture. Some may even think that they should go to a certain mountain or back to Jerusalem if they want to feel God’s holy presence. I agree that we may want to retreat to a quiet place in order to avoid distraction and be able to focus on God. But to think that we can only find him at such places is to miss John 4:23. Then there are those who do not give much time to study the Bible and learn the deeper truths of God. And if this mean that they are not able to discern based on God’s truths, then they can only discern based on their feelings. And so the wonderful words of hymns may mean nothing to them while they are easily stirred by feel-good songs. And if they feel good about singing such songs, then it has to be of God, right? The trouble is that feeling good is subjective and can be manipulated.
So my former colleague was unusually expressive and emotional during worship services. I should not have problem with it just as he should not have problem with my usual lack of expression and emotion. But both of us would have problem with God if we were to restrict our worship to just Sundays at church. As to some strange idea that the key focus of worship is the Holy Spirit, I believe you only need to read the book of Acts and know that the people were always praising God for the mighty things that had been accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s biblical truth. And I believe there will be more strange ideas coming along to draw people away from true worship. But if we hunger for God’s truths so that we may know and worship him, we are the kind of true worshipers he seeks. So let us be willing to learn and mature in our Christian living. And when we come together for corporate worship, I believe we will be filled with gratitude and thanksgiving for God’s grace and mercy and he will surely be pleased with our sacrifices of praise and offering.
December 11, 2011