Diversity in God-Centered Worship

Unfolding Bethlehem's Fresh Initiative #4

We are presently unpacking the fresh initiatives on page three, so I invite you to turn to page three. We’re going to take one per Sunday. We’ve done two of them — number one and number two. I’m skipping number three, saving it for Martin Luther King Sunday, January 14. We’re going to take number four this morning. We’re going to skip number six. Do number five next week. Skip number six, do that on the Sanctity of Life Sunday on January 21. And in the intervening weeks, we will do some more focused-Christmas things as well as prayer week. So that’s the plan for the next month or two.

This morning is point number four, but we’re going to reverse last Sunday’s approach. Last Sunday, I unpacked and then I turned to the Bible. Today, I want to begin with the Bible and then unpack for a few minutes.

Differences in Preferences Regarding Worship Forms

So let’s take Romans 15. I’m going to read the first six verses. I want you to have this in your mind as I read the text.

The issue here was probably meat offered to idols. Should we eat meat or should we only eat vegetables? Or the issue might’ve been, do you keep Sunday holy in a special way or do you keep all days holy in a special way? Or how does Sunday relate to other days? Or what about the other festival days of Judaism? Should we as Christians keep those days? And there were disagreements in the church at Rome about this, and this text is written for handling those disagreements.

Now, the issue here is worship this morning: hymns, worship psalm, stand sit, lift hands, not lift hands, guitar, piano, organ, choir, worship team. The church in America today is being rent asunder. Ninety-seven percent of the churches are dealing with this issue of how do you worship the Lord on Sunday morning corporately when the tastes in a room this size are from one end of the spectrum to the other, and the preferences and the convictions about what’s good for us and about what helps us get to God are so different.

So read now, and I’m going to read this, and you keep in your mind that question as we read, okay?

We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15:1–6)

Observations on Romans 15

You make some running observations on this text and you watch and see if they’re here because the Book is what counts and not me.

1. Strong and Non-Strong Christians

There were strong and there were weak in the church in Rome. “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak” (Romans 15:1). Now if you wonder what’s that, who’s strong and who’s weak? Look at Romans 14:2 across the page: “One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables.”

So, there’s one clear illustration of what’s the issue. Some were saying, “Look, I’m free in Christ; I can eat anything.” And another said, “Whoa, when you go down to the marketplace and buy meat, you don’t know what’s been done with that meat, and it might have been offered to an idol. So the safe thing is to eat only vegetables. I don’t care if it sounds excessively conservative; that’s the best way to do it.” And Paul says, “You’ve got those two groups in the church: this group over here is a vegetable eater, and this group over here is a meat eater.”

Look at Romans 14:5. You see another illustration of it. “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike.” So you’ve got arguments in the church about what to do on Sunday and what to do about Christmas and Easter and should we have holidays and should there be special fast days. “No! I think every day should be holy for God. I don’t like this special day business.” You’ve got people all over the map on issues like this.

So those are two illustrations: the food issue and the day issue. And Paul says, “Some are weak, and some are strong.” But isn’t it interesting? This is point number two. The first point is that they’re there.

2. The Differences Can’t Just Be Wiped Away

The interesting thing to me in these verses is that he does not teach so as to get rid of the one or the other or to turn the one into the other. Isn’t that remarkable?

I mean, if I were to stand up on a Sunday morning and say, “Some of you are weak, and some of you are strong,” my next point would be, “Weak people, here’s how to get strong.” That’s not the way he handles it. He goes about it differently. He just assumes they’re going to be there, and I assume we’re always going to be here forever, differing on issues like this.

I just assume that because suppose we said, “Oh, but it makes life hard. Let’s grow up and eventually get to where we can agree on all kinds of things like that.” I’d say, “Okay, let’s take five or ten years to do that.” You know what would happen? We’d die because we’d have to keep everybody else out. See, if we’re going to work on us getting our heads together, we have to keep everybody else out because they come with new ideas.

We can’t be winning anybody to Jesus in that time if we’re going to devote all our energy to reaching an agreement on these things. So I just assume that if we’re doing our job, namely loving each other and bringing people to Christ, it’s always going to be this way — always. Which is probably why Paul didn’t try to fix it. He just taught how to live with it.

3. Edification and Self-Denial

Point number three: How do we live with it? What do you do with preferences about meat, preferences about days, and let’s just put in worship preferences? What do you do with those differing preferences when you’ve got a big group of people together? And he gives two spiritual values that ought to take precedence over aesthetic values.

1. In Romans 15:2, he says, “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” So the first value is let’s be the kind of people who, when we think about things, have above preferences in style or meat for days above preferences. How can I talk and live and do what I do so as to do good to others? This person down the pew that I don’t get along with very well, how can I do good to them? How can I do good to them? How can I so live and so sing and so be that my life blesses them, blesses them? That’s principle number one.

2. Principle number two is in Romans 15:1. It’s just the other side of the coin, namely highly valuing self-denial, not just pleasing ourselves. You see that? “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” A Christian Hedonist is a person who has grown to the point where he is more satisfied in pleasing other people than in pleasing himself with regard to these kinds of issues.

It is more blessed to give than to receive, even in issues like this. So, if we as a church take those two issues, just those two, living for the good of other people, making that a high priority above preferences about things like this, and putting self-denial high on our agenda, Paul seems to think we’ll survive. We’ll even thrive.

4. Christ Is the Example and Empowering Inspiration

Point number four is that he puts Jesus forward. Next point: Romans 15:3, “For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’”

In other words, when you start wanting to put forward your preference about an issue at the expense of another person, think about Jesus and how he stretched his hands out on the cross and gave up every right that he had, just every right that he had. If anybody in the universe should have had a right not to be crucified and to be worshiped, it was Jesus, and he gave it up. And so he says, look to Jesus.

5. Scripture as a Hope-Sustainer

Point number five: Romans 15:4 says that the Scriptures become the source of strength for the frustrations in life that can come from this kind of living. I mean it’s a frustrating thing to constantly be saying, “I want to please that person and not primarily myself here, and I want to do them good.” That can be costly in here. It’d be costly.

So how do you get the strength to carry on? Romans 15:4: “Whatever was written in former days [and he’s referring now to what he just quoted in Psalm 69:9 there in Romans 15:3] was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures, we might have hope.” Where are you going to get the hope to lead a life like I’m describing right now? And his answer is, Read the Bible. Soak in the Bible. Read about Jesus. Look to Jesus and read about the words and descriptions of Jesus.

6. The Prayer for ‘the Same Mind’

Next point is in Romans 15:5, where it says, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus.”

Now, in view of what I’ve said and the context here, that can’t mean, “Make them all like me! Make them all think the same about Sunday, Easter, Christmas, Hanukkah, or whatever else. Make them all think the same.” You can’t mean that because he’s just assumed that’s not happening and that there’s a way to handle that not happening through self-denial and edification.

What he means by this same mind here, be of the same mind, is to have those same values that I just talked about in Romans 15:1–2. The value of self-denial, make that a unifying thing in this church. The value of living for the other person’s good as you look at other people, say, “Oh, I want to do them good, I want to do her good, I want to bless her,” make that a high priority that everybody has. A shared value that everybody has.

And then a third one we can add now because in Romans 15:6, you see the purpose of it all, “That together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” So the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples is a third value that’ll hold us together. Edification, self-denial, and the supremacy of God in worship can hold a church together while they’re handling these other things here.

7. The Aim Is Authentic Worship

Last point in this text: Romans 15:6 — the whole point of instructing the church, in my point now instructing you, is “that together you may, with one voice, glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s worship.

Now, take those two phrases: One accord — that’s the internal phrase, the Greek homothumadon. One humas — one affection and emotion rooted in these common values, not common preferences about these music stuff, not common preferences. That’s always going to be different, always, unless we’re going to splinter the church of Jesus Christ into ten-thousand little pieces where you can sing your own little song.

And the second one is difficult: With one voice. Now, accord based on common spiritual values is one thing. One voice? Whose voice? How loud? Country Western voice? Handle voice? Whose voice? One voice. Well, that’s why this book is written. That’s not easy to answer, and anytime you feel like complaining, like I feel like complaining. I’m a complainer, just always include in your complaint the solution to the problem. Okay? Anytime you have a complaint, include the solution to the problem that you’re complaining about so we can do it.

Now, I don’t mean tell me your preferences. Everybody tells me their preferences. It’s amazing how helpful people think it is to tell you their preferences. I mean, please, what good does that do? I know your preferences, this one and that one. Tell me the solution. There’s some people that have given about a year of their lives to trying to get at it, and so if you’ve got it, tell me.

Diversity in God-Centered Worship

Now, let’s read this, and I’m just going to make a few comments about number four here. We’re at page number three: “Diversity in God-Centered Worship.”

Thirty people or so, elders, staff, the master planning team, put this together and came to this through struggle.

  1. Sunday morning worship is a corporate expression of our passion for the supremacy of God. We sense God’s leading to develop fresh expressions of this passion that 1) allow for a more focused and free lingering of love in the presence of the Lord; 2) reflect musically the diversity of our congregation and our metropolitan culture; 3) interweave the values of intense God-centeredness and more personal ministry to each other in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Now, let me make a few comments on each of those three subpoints. Well, before I get to the subpoints, please notice the common ground that I believe is in place for standing on in the first sentence: “Worship on Sunday morning is a corporate expression of our passion for the supremacy of God.” We want to be a radically God-centered, God-exalting, Christ-magnifying people as we gather on Sunday morning that don’t play games. Okay, that’s a given. That’s a given. I think most people would say, “Yes, yes, be that way.” Now let’s go to number one.

Subpoint 1: Allow for a More Focused and Free Lingering of Love in the Presence of the Lord

Few words here need fleshing out.


“Allow for a more focused” — let’s take that word. Focus simply means doing what we can do to get everybody’s heart and everybody’s mind riveted on God so that we’re not a people whose minds or hearts are spinning about the ball game that starts in nine minutes, just spinning out of control, spinning about lunch, spinning about perfume, spinning about whatever, but riveted on God.

The issue in worship, the issue is connection with God, connectedness with God. Do we connect on Sunday morning? As you’re sitting there and singing, are you thinking about the song, or are you communing with God?

Do you see the difference? Do you know the difference? Do you have the heartfelt experience of engagement and communion with the living God? Even when I preach, I get three messages down at Trinity Seminary on “Preaching as Worship,” and what I mean by that is when I preach, if I’m not communing with God right now as I preach, something’s wrong with me.

There is another thing going on in this person than just this. These truths that are coming out of here, I am self-conscious often of saying, “Lord, help me. Lord, receive it. Lord, be honored by it. Lord, strengthen me. Lord, that person who’s asleep waken them. Lord, move on that callous person. Move on that person over there who’s hard. Move God, move.” Did you know you can pray while you preach, and you can pray while you listen? Listening can be worship.


Take the next word: free. It’s a dangerous word, right? Free. “I’m more focused and free.” Free means I’m going to raise my hand, folks, sometimes, but not all the time. You can, anytime you want, and some will stand, and some will sit. Sometimes we’ll kneel, and sometimes we will pray in huddles, and I want you to feel free to pray out loud. Sometimes we’ll do some other things. There’s a freedom that we need to feel, we need to cultivate that’s not chaos. It’s not out of order, but it’s not locked either.

A good example, and Patricia, you used to do this more than you do. We’ve gotten on you. We’ve gotten on you. We need to respond to one another, folks. I need some amens. Amen?

My wife scolded me last week for saying hello. I didn’t do it in the second service, so you didn’t hear me. But I got to one point, and I stopped. It’s a great point, and it was dead silent, and I said, “Hello.” She said, “You shouldn’t have done that. The silence was powerful,” she said. I like powerful silence, but I also like amen, and so free up, folks. I mean, goodnight. I need some help sometimes to know if you’re there. “Knock, knock, anybody there?” You say, “Oh, we don’t do it that way.” Well, do it that way. We want to become a church that sometimes says, “Amen.” Enough on free. Let’s take this next one, which may be the most important one of all.

’Lingering of Love’

“The lingering of love in the presence of the Lord.” I long for God to come near in worship, for God to come near so that we’re not packaging our praise to put in the mail, to send to him and hope he gets it. “Oh, I sure hope he got this. It was a good service. I hope he gets it,” but that he comes here by his Spirit, receives, enables, enjoys, is enthroned upon this.

Sometimes you can feel it happen. People are made sober, but here’s the other thing about lingering with that. Now, this lingering has to do with some of the more contemporary worship music. You don’t have to use contemporary worship music to do it, but contemporary worship music is largely built around this phenomenon of lingering. If you wonder what’s the difference, one of the differences is this lingering issue. Contemporary worship music is rooted in an experience of lingering before the Lord.

Worshippers Linger in the Presence of the Lord

Let me try to illustrate. Let’s take a traditional hymn first of all. What about the one we just sang? Look at the bulletin. Turn here to, where is it? Oh, it’s in the hymnal. I’ll just do it from memory: “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel.” How many times we sang that? Five, I think. Anybody offended by that five-time repetition of that refrain?

Now, you wouldn’t put your hand up if you were. We are very offended if we sing the worship song three times (some of us). What’s the difference? Why are we offended by a worship song that’s repeated three times and the refrain:

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.

That’s great. You know why we’re not offended by that? Because those verses are so rich that you need to linger after each one and let it sink in. You need to say back to the Lord, “That was good. That was a good verse. I like that. I rejoice in that Lord. Let’s do another one.”

Sometimes at the end of a hymn — this is the kind of worship leader I’m looking for, folks, a lead worshiper — we come to the end of a hymn. Greg did it this morning. Greg did it. We came to the end of that thing, printed back there, and said,

Hallelujah! what a Savior! Hallelujah! what a friend! Saving, helping, keeping . . .

I had my hand in the air. I love to do this, and he did it again. It’s not printed again, but he did it again, and he said — whether you can understand him or not, just before he got that last line — he said, “Let’s do ‘you.’ ‘You are with me to the end.’”

Now, you see, there comes a point in worship when you’re moving through a song, and the truth is gripping you, and you are lingering in the presence of the Lord, savoring the truth, and communing with him. He’s getting close to you, and you’re getting close to him. A lead worshiper needs to be in touch with that happening. He has to be in touch with whether that’s happening or not, and if he senses that’s happening, he holds us there. He keeps us there. He may not do it the way Greg did it this morning. It may be another verse that you use.

I did it a few weeks ago. Do you remember when we did “Amazing Grace,” and I came to the pulpit, and we weren’t done? I didn’t feel done, and I said, “Let’s just do ‘Hallelujah’ to the ‘Amazing Grace’ song.”

Repeating Worship Song

When you’re repeating a worship song, and it’s simple, it’s just simple, “You are Lord, you are Lord,” massively simple. One reason for singing it three times is that the first time through, you’re getting used to it, you’re learning it, you’re putting on the shoe.

It’s not quite there yet. I didn’t get how that word fits in there, so you’re self-conscious. Then you’ve got the shoe on, and the next time you take a step or two, and your sock gets fixed in your shoe, and the third time, you’re not thinking about the shoe anymore; you’re enjoying the path.

Do you know why I think some people get upset? I don’t think we’re connecting. I think we are just thinking about shoes. We’re not connecting. Now, listen, I thought I might use the illustration of cheering. I get in trouble for this because I had one person say to me, “I don’t think you ought to compare worship to cheering at a football game.” I said, “Well, I’m going to use it anyway.”

If your team were about to be scored upon when you’re down by one point, and the cheerleaders got you all up and said, “Hold them, hold them, hold them.” If they said, “Stop,” and you said it twice, “Hold them, hold them, and stop,” you’d be frustrated. You’d want to keep on saying it for a little while, but if they said, “Let’s do it sixty times, let’s say ‘Hold them’ sixty times,” you’d say that’s too much. So what’s the answer? The answer is a lead worshiper who’s in touch, a lead worshiper who’s in touch. He knows what’s going on in the Spirit. And if another time is needed, he leads it. If he can tell it’s done, he stops it.

Just a brief comment or two on the second two. I’m not going to spend as much time on these.

Subpoint 2: Reflect Musically the Diversity of Our Congregation and Our Metropolitan Culture

Diversity in this room is a given. Diversity in the culture is a given. I read an ad for a worship minister in Christianity Today yesterday. A big church in California says, “‘Wanted: Gifted Music and Worship Leader.’ We have traditional service, contemporary service, a choir, worship teams, ensembles, children’s choirs, et cetera.” Some churches are attempting a partial solution by having two services, as though two services could satisfy the problem. Do you know what American Christians are wanting? They’re seeking a worship mall.

A worship mall — you got a Target anchor, a Sears’ anchor, and a Dayton’s anchor. Is there something even more elite than Dayton’s? If so, what is it? Perhaps Nordstrom’s? Let’s consider Nordstrom’s, Dayton’s worship, and Sears’ worship. I don’t go to malls; I’m not a mall person. What are you going to do? You’re going to establish a Dayton’s church and a Sears church or a Dayton service and Sears’ service and do it that way?

What we’re saying here — and I want to try to clear this up now — is that we believe at Bethlehem, for the foreseeable future, God doesn’t want us to do that: the two-service thing. But rather, to try to find a range of diversity in the middle that’ll be wider than we’ve known in the past, wider to match that significant range in paragraph two up there.

Maybe this will help. I don’t think it’s going to be like a mall on Sunday morning at Bethlehem in two years when all this has passed. I don’t think it’s going to be a mall, and so somebody’s saying, “Oh, are we doing Target worship or are we doing Dayton’s worship this morning? I don’t know who to bring to church.”

I don’t think it’s going to be like that. I think that there’s going to develop, over time, a personality that is broad, broader than we have been. It’s not everything to everybody, but it’s going to be an identifiable Bethlehem, and under Jesus Christ, under the word of God, and under the Holy Spirit, what the key to that personality is going to be: the new worship leader, the new lead worshiper.

This Tuesday night, the music and worship team gets together, and we’re almost at the point where we’re turning the corner from theorizing about who we are to looking for that person.

This is a time for extraordinary prayer because here’s my conviction. I don’t know if it’ll be shared by everybody on that committee, but my conviction is this: We must do our best to say, What’s the range going to look like at Bethlehem? What kind of breadth of musical ability and skill and giftedness and so on do we need? But once we sense God’s person, we call him, and we say, “You be you, and that’s going to be who we are.” Scary, huh? Scary.

I don’t think you can call a person and say, “Read the notes and do that next week.” That won’t work. I don’t think it can be, “Let’s take a survey each Sunday and do forty percent worship songs and six percent hymns, or let’s repeat them this many times, or let’s have this instrument this many times.” That is just not going to work.

We cannot, as a congregation, design worship services. Somebody’s got to design them, and that somebody must do so from his heart, soul, and mind. We’ve got our work cut out for us in prayer. We really, really do.

Subpoint 3: Interweave the Values of Intense God-centeredness and More Personal Ministry to Each Other in the Power of the Holy Spirit

Here’s the way I want to close. Jon, you’re sitting here. Come stand beside me, Jon Grano. Jon Grano didn’t know I was going to do this. Jon Grano serves along with ten others on that committee. In fact, any others on the music and worship committee, come here right now. Quick. We’re done. I want to close. You’re all standing around waiting. Carl, anybody else here, Tim? Most were in the first service probably. There’s Carolyn, Jon, Carl, John, Tim.

These are people to pray for. These are people to get on your face for because we are within a month, I think, of beginning our search, and that is all important, and so let’s close now. The reason I’m calling them up here right now is to illustrate point number three. You thought I skipped point number three. I didn’t. It says, “Interweave the values of intense God-centeredness with a more personal ministry to each other in the power of the Holy Spirit.” These people are standing beside me here as an illustration of what I mean by that.

In the first service, just so you’ll know, I asked Keith Anderson to come. His dad died Friday night. He didn’t know I was going to do this. I said, Keith, come here. Come here. I said, tell us what God is doing in your life in the loss of your dad. Now, I’m going to do more of that, folks. That’s what I mean by number three here. God’s got some things to share this way for these people this morning and that way from our praying.