Interview with

Founder & Teacher,

Audio Transcript

One final time we dip back into the online controversy, into the “brew-haha,” as it was called. Pastor John, on September 30 you tweeted about coffee. You posted Hebrews 12:28, which says, “Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.” And in light of that reverent vision for our worship, you posed this open question: “Can we reassess whether Sunday coffee-sipping in the sanctuary fits?”

The tweet was loved. The tweet was hated. The tweet was spread all over the Internet to the point that after a couple weeks it had over 1,000 retweets, 1,500 comments, 3,000 likes, 2.7 million views, and feature articles online from Fox News and the Daily Mail — none of which you saw.

That tweet led to this little series on the podcast. In part one, in APJ 2011, you got to the crux, saying, “The heart of the matter is not the coffee mug in hand. It’s the absence of a kind of experience with God that would make a Christian soul long for regular encounters with God and his people that are so profoundly satisfying in the depth of their being, with his majesty and his sweetness, in the seriousness of their joy and the weightiness of his glory, that a coffee mug would simply feel strangely out of place.”

And then last time you dropped into the nitty-gritty, with five appeals to preachers on how to move a casual church toward a more reverent and more deeply satisfying encounter with God on Sundays. That was in APJ 2012. But fostering such healthy reverence on Sunday mornings requires more than just sermons. We’ve talked coffee. We’ve talked preaching. But now, what about dress codes and music and announcements, and all the other factors at play here on Sunday mornings?

One of my points so far, Tony, in this — which is turning out to be a three-part series on a sense of reverence and transcendence in worship — has been that we will never out-entertain the world. Therefore, it’s not only foolish to try, but we shouldn’t try because we have something better — far, far better — than entertainment to offer our people, something our souls were made for, something profoundly stabilizing, strengthening, refining, satisfying in the depths of our being, which we experience in moments of reverence and awe in the presence of God. That has been one of my main points.

So, I began last time to point (what I hope is) a way forward for pastors especially, but also for churches or people in general in churches, to move a church gradually from the atmosphere of a casual, chipper, coffee-sipping, entertainment-oriented gathering to a more seriously joyful, reverent, deeply satisfying encounter with God. I started by referring to the preaching of the pastor, and today I simply want to give a few suggestions about the rest of the service.

Meeting God on Two Mounts

I know this is not the only way that we meet God — that is, to meet him in a joyfully serious moment of reverence and awe. I know that’s not the only way we encounter each other and God. We used to say at Bethlehem, where I was pastor for 33 years, that Sunday morning is the Mount of Transfiguration, and Sunday evening — we had Sunday-evening services — was the Mount of Olives.

On the Mount of Transfiguration, the disciples met the majesty of Christ, and they fell on their faces speechless (or they began to say foolish things). On the Mount of Olives, Luke tells us that Jesus got away with his disciples customarily. I picture them on the Mount of Olives, sitting on the grass with each other, talking about life and ministry, getting help from Jesus, telling him the problems they’ve had in trying to heal the sick. These are two very different ways of meeting Christ.

And my argument was — namely, to my church, when we talked about these things — that one hour out of our entire week to devote to a serious meeting with God in a more transcendent and reverent way was not excessive. The whole world, all week long, is urging us to equate pleasure with what’s casual, happiness with entertainment. But on Sunday morning, our people can taste in corporate reverence and awe something far deeper, far better, far more satisfying.

So, on the Mount of Transfiguration, I wore a suit. I stood behind the pulpit, a big wooden pulpit, representing God’s word, and the whole service was designed with a relentless, vertical God-focus. In the evening, I did not wear a suit. I dressed differently. I came down out of the pulpit. I used an overhead projector. There was interaction with the congregation. And so on. You get the difference between the Mount of Olives and the Mount of Transfiguration.

In all my pleading for a sense of reverence and awe and wonder and transcendence, for the sake of God’s glory and for our own hungry souls — we’re starved for transcendence, I think — in all that pleading, don’t hear me denying the preciousness of meeting Jesus together in informal, interactive, casual ways. God is for us in both of these encounters. Our hearts need both, but we don’t live in a day where there’s an excess of reverence and transcendence.

Here are just a few suggestions for the rest of the service, the Sunday-morning service, where I think it more naturally adapts itself to this kind of experience with God.

1. Consider how leaders dress.

The pastor can lead the way in how the leaders, the people up front, or the congregation dresses. We never prescribed a dress code for our people — and there was a lot of variety — but we did for those who lead.

Clothing speaks. What you wear says something about your understanding of the situation: a wedding, a funeral, interviewing for a job, meeting the president of the United States, playing tennis, sleeping, addressing the United Nations, attending a fundraising gala. What you wear speaks. It does. You cannot avoid it. It sends a message about your understanding of the event.

And the message of clothing in the last forty years in the church has largely become, “God does not require any particular dress or nice clothes” and “God accepts us as we are.” Both of those messages are true. It’s not a sin to send those messages. But they’re not the only message worth sending.

The up-front leaders of the service will have to decide, What do we want to say about God in the various gatherings of the church? Is there one gathering anywhere in the life of our people, in the life of this church, just one, where it would be worth saying with our clothes and in every other way something about the respect and reverence and awe that we have for God? Clothing is not a big thing. It’s not the main thing. It’s just one part of what church leaders can do to move a church toward a serious joy of reverence and awe.

2. Strive to stay Godward.

Give serious attention to the Godward flow of the service. Strive to linger in the presence of God, to focus on God, uninterrupted for a significant time. For example, avoid unnecessary spoken sutures — meaning, the way different acts of worship are connected, how you move from one to the other.

If you’re just finishing the song “I Love You, Lord,” and the next planned act of worship is a pastoral prayer, the one who comes to pray does not need to say, “Let’s pray.” We are praying. That’s what we’re doing when we say, “I love you, Lord.” We, as a congregation, are loving God. We’re praying to God. We’re telling God.

So, the aim of the one leading the people in the pastoral prayer is to catch that powerful moment when the Holy Spirit is at work. We’re carrying our people Godward, and he picks up on it, so he helps the people just to stay right in the prayer and carries them into communion with God in the pastoral prayer.

Another example would be to work hard to do the necessary horizontal acts, like announcements or a word about the offering, in a Godward way. I spent hours preparing my announcements and preparing other things in the service that you have to do as a pastor. If something is happening in the life of the church that week, you have to tell the people it’s happening. And you can do it in a worshipful, Godward way that doesn’t jolt anybody out of the sweetness of the communion with God that they were just enjoying in the hymn.

You don’t need to joke about things. You don’t need to ramble with trite words that you say over and over because you didn’t prepare anything, with a bunch of “you knows” and “ums” and “ers,” and everybody is now deflated from where they just were in their moment of worship.

Suppose there’s going to be a fire drill — we did this recently at our church. You’re doing a fire drill for the kids in the nursery during the service because you’ve got to train them for what you’re going to do if there’s a fire. The people in the church are going to see their kids walking up the stairs, and they’re going to be panicked, like, “What’s going on here?” if they don’t know there’s going to be a fire drill.

Now, this is a worship service. How do you do that? What do you say? Well, you get on your knees at home, and you ask God, “Show me how to take this word about the fire drill and make you the center of it.” You conclude, “I’ll say this: ‘Jesus loves our kids. You know that. He loves kids. Jesus threatened terrible things for those who would make our children stumble. So, we take good care of our kids for Jesus’s sake, and you’re going to see them filing out here on a fire drill.’”

And you have a big smile on your face, but you’re not going to joke here. You’re not going to turn this into a joke. You’re going to say, “Let’s give thanks. Let’s give thanks when we see those kids. What a gift from God they are to us! What a weighty responsibility. God is sufficient. Oh, how he loves and how we love our children.”

That’s the way you do it, or something like that. There is always a sweet, good, deep, powerful, wonderful alternative to slapstick. Lots of pastors and other worship leaders have no idea what I’m talking about when I say, “You just don’t need to turn everything into lighthearted, jokey.” Okay. Enough on that.

3. Let the congregation sing.

Let the sound of the congregation singing be the main sound of the music in worship. Don’t let the instruments or the lead worshipers dominate the sound. That’s what entertainment does.

Let every song be singable. It needs to have a melody that people can grasp and enjoy, and make sure that the song is keyed so that the men can sing all the notes. It’s crucial that the men of the church sing. And they will sing — they’ll sing like an army — if the musicians choose the songs and calibrate the songs and the range of the notes so that the men can sing.

If half our songs are singable only by women, we are saying to the men, “This is not for you, and you might as well grab your coffee.” So, let the songs be singable, and let the congregation singing be the main sound of worship, not the worship team and not the instruments.

4. Saturate the service with Scripture.

Finally, saturate the song lyrics, the prayers, the readings, and the confessions with Scripture and rich, deep, sound doctrine. This will communicate that nothing here is random or careless. It’s all designed to help the people sustain a relentless focus on God, and that’s the focus that will make coffee-sipping seem increasingly out of place.

So I end, Tony, where I began in the first episode in this series, a couple of episodes ago. Coffee-sipping in the worship service is not the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter is Hebrews 12:28: “Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.” Is there in the church a longing for this?