Public Worship in a Secular World: What, Why and How, Session 2

Wednesday Night Connection


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

We’re going to talk tonight about the heart and the head in worship. Just sit back and listen to this text that God inspired for you, because I am just assuming that virtually everybody in this room is a believer and can just absorb and enjoy what I’m about to say to you.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:6–11)

I commend it to you for your memory; it is just a rock. He died for the ungodly; he died for us while we were still enemies. I mean there is so much liberty of soul — soul liberty — to be had in understanding justification by faith before we had done any works that could’ve ever merited anything like the justification we received in the death of Jesus. Be encouraged tonight, no matter what you brought in here when you came. If you are a believer, it’s taken of; it’s OK. It’s under the blood.

True Worship

Last week, we began our session, “Public Worship in a Secular World”, with the why of worship. And tonight, I want to turn to the what of worship. And I have lots of stuff here on the what of worship tonight.

This is a definition of worship taken from Bruce Leafblad. I want to make sure he gets credit for this; he was here with us for a year and a half or so back in ’81–’82. So I’m going to read the definition of what worship is and then I’m going to take it a phrase at a time and work through it, try to think of its biblical foundations and its application to Bethlehem, and we’ll just interact and see if before we leave tonight, we can all feel good about defining the what of worship along these lines. And if this is inadequate in some way, let’s try to bring that out as we go along. So, let’s read it together here.

Worship is communion with God in which believers, by grace, center their minds’ attention and their hearts’ affection on the Lord himself, humbly glorifying God for who he is and what he does.

So, there’s the definition. Now, let’s take it a piece at a time here.

Communion with God

Worship is communion with God, which implies there’s some give and take here: he’s a person, he’s alive, he’s near, he is seeking worshipers as we saw last week in John 4:23, he’s listening. I dealt with a young woman just today for an hour who said she just cannot believe God listens to her, unless she talks out loud and then she feels like maybe he’s hearing So, there are certain things we just must believe about God in order for worship to happen. He’s responding. So that’s the first assumption behind the statement that worship is communion with God.

Vertical and Horizontal Interchange

Now, the second thing to say is that this word communion implies a real interchange, a real interchange between you and God in worship. When we come in on Sunday morning, if you’re with me in this definition, your whole bent is going to be get to God — get to God somehow in this hour together. It’s the opposite of ritual done out of duty to family or tradition or social custom or to still a bad conscience, or to be among people or other horizontal reasons.

I just sense that in the church of Christ as a whole, there’s just so much non-communion with God on Sunday morning. People come and they think about what they wear or they think about the music, whether it’s good or not. They think about whether the pastor got a new haircut — and they don’t get to God. So I just want to plead with this core of people: if the people that come to this session and the next session get with me in this, and you are the leaven throughout this room on Sunday morning, getting to God, it rubs off; it really rubs off on other people.

Now, just so you know, I’m talking corporate worship here without by any means excluding the application of these things for private worship and just for daily living, walking in the presence of God, communing with God, praying without ceasing. I present my body as a living sacrifice, as a sacrifice of worship (Romans 12:1; Hebrews 13:5). So, all of that is true, but I am thinking mainly in terms of public worship in a secular world. So, hear it for whatever it does for you. But I’m thinking about Sunday morning and corporate times here at Bethlehem.

I heard Arnold pray so rightly that at the end of our services we ought to go for those people who reached out their hands for a visitor’s packet on Sunday morning, because sometimes I think I might be communicating by the earnest and the intensity of our vertical worship — people might be hearing me say, “Don’t pay any attention to anybody who’s here.” But this is the phrase that captures my philosophy: Come on the lookout for God and leave on the lookout for people. So, I realized that we really are discouraging a lot of give and take during the prelude. We want you to come in and go hard after God. But when we’re done here, I’d like this place to just explode with a hubbub of love and outreach, as you see people that you don’t know and you talk to them or pray with them, take them off somewhere. Now, sometimes he’s doing the kind of thing that just leaves you in your seat and quiet; I realize that, but don’t feel like I’m ever saying you shouldn’t be friendly to people between those service times. Just let that happen.

Our favorite phrase is to go hard after God. And I know people pick this phrase up because it comes back to me in lots of letters and comments. And so, I like to build into our lives as a congregation, certain shared phrases that help us know what we’re doing on Sunday morning. Go hard after God to speak and to listen — to commune.

What Communion Looks Like

Here’s what I mean by that. This is taken from a seminar I went to of his a few years ago at Bethel. I’ll read through this with you. It’s modeled on Isaiah 6:1–8, but here is the kind of thing that communion looks like; this is what we mean by communion: God does his part and we do our part.

  1. It starts always with God’s initiative and we respond. Generally, God reveals himself to man, and man acknowledges God with praise, adoration, reverence, awe, wonder.

  2. Then God reveals to man his sin, first his own nature, and then man’s sin and his sinful condition. And man acknowledges his sin and confesses it. So, these are acts of worship now in response to revelation.

  3. Then God forgives man, cleanses him, reveals the truth of justification by faith.

  4. Man is now free to release other burdens to the Lord through prayers and petition and intercession. And that’s such a crucial transaction right there to believe that I’m cleansed so that now I can begin to really do a lot of business that needs to be done in my life of unloading on the Lord burdens that, if I weren’t forgiven, I never even could begin to handle.

  5. God takes those requests and relieves man of the burden.

  6. Man responds with gratitude to God for lifting the burden.

  7. God speaks to renewed man, revealing his will now and his desires.

  8. And the response is that we submit ourselves to God with offering ourselves to whatever God desires. So, he reveals his will and we say, “Whatever your say. I am at your disposal. Use me.”

  9. God is pleased and seals man’s decision by his Spirit.

  10. Man is now restored, refreshed, commissioned, and he leaves this encounter with God, rejoicing and celebrating.

Most of us are coming crawling on Sunday morning. Most of us come crawling to the house of the Lord on Sunday morning to go down on our face before the fountain and begin to get some strength. And the goal is that as we move through a kind of communion with the Lord, we end up renewed and able to press on for another few days.

All of these don’t have to happen every time; some of them happen bunched up together. But I wanted to illustrate what we mean by communion. You should be seeking to hear from God, and you might hear from him in a hymn, in a prayer, in a sermon, or just in his Spirit’s small voice in your heart. And then you should be giving back to him whatever the needs are that you have, lifting up the cup of salvation, asking him to fill it (Psalm 116:13). Alright, that’s the first phrase, worship is a communion with God.

By Grace

Let’s take the next phrase: in which believers, by grace. Now, I just want to talk about this phrase, by grace. Worship is a gift of God’s grace. The reason we know that and the reason we need to affirm it is because we are born with a bent to want worship for ourselves.

Who Are We?

Adam and Eve basically did a role reversal with God and we’ve inherited that bit ever since. God created them to enjoy worshiping him, and they rebelled against that and wanted self-sufficiency, self-reliance for themselves, and now they have it in large measure, and need it confirmed with praise and worship from other people. And we get a great deal of pleasure as fallen human beings out of being worshiped, we love to be worshiped. And that’s, of course diametrically opposed to what we ought to be doing. and we can’t change that on our own; that’s why grace is utterly essential.

There’s this wonderful prayer that David prays as the people are giving so generously to build the temple in 1 Chronicles 29:14. He says, “But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly?” Do you see what that implies? That implies that there is a grace being given to them, enabling them to offer willingly, which he doesn’t feel worthy of. And I think when I stand before you on Sunday morning, week in and week out, God lifts us in earnest intense worship, and the hymns rise with fervor, and hundreds of people are manifestly meaning what they’re singing, I sometimes say to myself, “Who are we to be blessed in this way?” I was with a dozen downtown clergy today — the big cathedral churches downtown — and they just kind of dropped their jaw that we’re building a sanctuary downtown for 1,350 people. They could not conceive that anybody would want to drive downtown, and that there’s a growing church downtown.

And I just have to be so careful what I say in public about these churches, but my heart just aches that the kind of thing that’s happening in this room on Sunday morning is by and large not happening there: life — attractive life that people want to be around. They come in, they feel good, they feel better about being here; whereas, in so many churches, you don’t walk out feeling better that you’ve been there. And you come out of duty or you don’t come anymore, and churches begin to dwindle, and I came away from that breakfast this morning with this prayer on my lips: Who am I and who is this people that we should be so granted to love you? That life should be here on this corner, that people should be praising the Lord the way they do, and as excited about so many ministries as they are here?

Apart from Grace

I mean apart from grace, it could vanish in a minute. And there are so many needs, and I walked through the new sanctuary again today just praying as I walked over the baptism pool, and where I’d be standing, where the choir would be, and I looked up where different people would be sitting, and I wondered how quickly people will stake out their pews. And I just prayed, “God fill this place with power. Please, please, fill this place with power.” If this building is not full of power for the salvation of souls, what a stupid investment. So do that now and then: Walk through it as you leave and plant a little prayer in this corner, a little prayer in this corner. Just rebuke the devil, just cleanse that thing with prayer every time you get to walk through out there.

Serve in the strength which God supplies (1 Peter 4:11). There’s grace again, see. And I take that serve to cover all kinds of things, like the service of worship. When you come in here, you admit you’re crawling: “I don’t have any strength to worship you this morning. I can hardly see. I’m discouraged. And you pray, “Lord, come and let me sing, let me pray, let me listen in the strength that you supply — that you would get the glory even for the worship this morning.” Paul says, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” So even if you put out an effort in worship, if you have this theology, you don’t have to say, “I did that.” You say, “I worked, but nevertheless it was not I, but the grace of God with me, because I trusted it.” I believe that faith and repentance are a gift of God and these are the very foundation of worship.

To be overwhelmed that all I am and have and can do and be is a free gift of the sovereign grace is deeply stirring to worship. I believe, to be gripped by grace, is to be freed in worship. So, I just wanted to stress this phrase by grace. Without a strong theology of grace in your life, covering your sin, overlooking your imperfections, canceling out your hidden faults and guarding you from presumptuous sin, you’ll be so burdened down and so enslaved that worship will be a foreign word to you.

Truth Serves Worship

Center their mind’s attention. I’ve got lots more to say about these next two phrases: 'minds’ attention and hearts’ affection because I believe that the heart of our worship distinctives at Bethlehem are right here — namely, the effort to mingle, in the best way we can, and a growing way, the mind and the heart. So that’s what we’re going to think about for the next minutes.

What Truth Does

Jesus is seeking worshipers according to John 4:23, who worship in spirit and in truth. That’s the one we’re focusing on now: truth. And I think I had in a Star article some months ago, this list of values, of biblical truth, and I just want to read down the list, because you need to feel what the Bible says about the importance of truth, so that you can see it cannot be short-circuited if worship is to be biblical.

  1. Biblical truth frees from Satan. “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

  2. Biblical truth mediates grace and peace — like in 2 Peter 1:2: “May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.”

  3. Biblical truth sanctifies. “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). So, truth is what sanctifies; truth makes people holy and pure. There are other texts that say the same thing.

  4. Biblical truth serves love. Philippians 1:9 says, “It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment.”

  5. Biblical truth protects from error. We are to grow up in every way into Christ and not be blown about by every wind of doctrine, and so protected from error. (see Ephesians 4:14–15)

  6. Biblical truth saves.

  7. Biblical truth is the ideal of heaven First Corinthians 13:12 portrays the coming age where all imperfect knowledge will be done away with.

  8. Biblical truth is the duty of elders to preserve and to proclaim and to protect.

  9. Biblical truth is approved by God. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

  10. Biblical truth should continually increase — like in 2 Peter 3:18: “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

We just can’t be a biblically worshiping church if we give truth short shrift on Sunday morning. That’s one of the distinctives, and I have people come to me regularly who have left churches with a lot of emotion who come to Bethlehem not wanting to forsake the genuineness of emotion but wanting substance, wanting something for the mind as well as the emotion on Sunday morning. That is an abiding distinctive that I cherish because I think it’s biblical.

Raise Your Affections

Here’s the way Edwards talked about these two things two hundred years ago:

I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections [emotions] of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with.

That’s a remarkable statement; it’s a little bit complicated, but all it means is people’s emotions ought to rise in proportion to their grasp and sight of truth, and the nature of the emotion ought to correlate with the nature of the truth. If there’s an expression of emotion that has no correlation to the nature of God, or the truth that is being revealed about God, you’re going to say, “Hmm, must be some flesh mixed up here.” Which is very likely the case. There ought to be a correlation not only in intensity, but nature, about the emotion. And we’ll talk a lot more about that next week.

I want begin to tackle music because this little phrase here is real troubling to me: “nothing but truth.” I wonder if that’s true. If that’s true, then let’s get rid of the organ, let’s get rid of music, let’s get rid of architecture. We’ve got to think through this. There are other emotion-kindling things besides intellectual perception of truth. Music moves the emotions. Organs move the emotions. Choirs move the emotions. This building moves emotions. Large crowds move the emotions. If we have to condemn all of this, we’re in a real bad fix, because where do you go? You just have to sort of crawl inside a dictionary I suppose and shut the covers on yourself. See, that’s maybe the route we should go. What is truth? Can truth be mediated other ways than through propositions? We’re going to tackle that in the next week or so. That’s a very helpful pointer to what the solution may be.

Let’s try to define some of the excesses here. What is emotionalism? If I’m going to really press for heightening emotion, just like Edwards did here, what are we to guard against? Well, this -ism on the end clearly makes this a bad thing, so what is bad about it? Emotion running without the reigns of truth to guide them and shape them. That’s how I would define emotionalism. It’s running rampant like a horse and the reigns have been dropped, the reigns of truth to guide the horse and to shape the nature of his gait. I don’t know how to make the analogy work exactly, but that’s the difference between emotion that’s proper and emotion that’s improper. It’s not a matter of degree in my judgment, and I’ll try to show that from biblical statements about emotion. There is no problem with emotion that just goes right through the roof here. The problem is if it’s not shaped by truth and a response to truth. We’ll deal with music, how it relates to truth and its influence on us emotionally.

Know What You Sing

But note that in hymns, we should know what we are saying and be moved by the truth as well as the tune. Now, we need to work on this. Some need to work more than others. But I just wrote down two examples here, two contemporary worship songs, “Holiness to The Lord” and “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” And I did a little survey with a group of people after singing “Holiness to The Lord.” I asked, What do you mean by that? Holiness to Jesus? And they didn’t have any clear answer. That’s not good. I wonder how many of you have sung that song, and could right now give me a clear statement of what you mean when you say holiness to Jesus.

Well, as soon as I start singing that song, I love the song. It seemed just so right to me, but I had to stop, I had to stop right while I was singing. I said, “What am I singing here?” “Holiness to Jesus, holiness to Jesus.” That sounds like a familiar phrase, “holiness to the Lord,” in the Old Testament, and it is. I found four instances of it in the Old Testament. In fact, I opened Church History Magazine, and saw a picture of a tent meeting of Charles Finney, and a huge flag flying over the tent a hundred years ago, and on the flag was “Holiness to the Lord.” This statement just comes right out of the Old Testament.

Here’s what I mean by “holiness to the Lord.” I mean two things: First, I mean that I ascribe holiness to Jesus. I ascribe to you holiness, that’s why when I’m singing that song, the natural physical response is hands straight up, not down with palms up. I have another meaning for this when I in a receiving posture. It’s more of a quiet, worshipful offering up of myself. But when I ascribe holiness or greatness to the Lord, my hand is ascribing holiness to the Lord. So, I’m saying it’s just like singing the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy.” It’s just the same message.

Second, the other thing I mean when I say it is that I offer you myself in holiness; I want to be holy for you. That’s the Old Testament meaning of the phrase. What they did was they wrote it on the bells of the horses, they wrote it on the amulets of priest here, and said “holiness to the Lord,” right across his forehead, meaning he was holy for the Lord. And when you give a gift to him he would offer them as holy to the Lord. Now, there are a lot of people who do not want to be bothered with this kind of biblical reflection. Come on, you’re just messing things up, we were having such a good time with this hymn; we were just singing it and we were just free and here you are, complicating things with your intellectual speculations about the meaning of the words. Well, that’s just the way it’s going to be at Bethlehem, and some people won’t go to this church for that reason, that I raise those kinds of questions.

Or take “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” Bob helped me with this one because a few months ago or weeks ago, he came to me with the text from Ephesians 5:14, where it says, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” And I got my concordance this morning, and just looked up the word shine. There aren’t many words for shine in the Old Testament or the New Testament, but I found these texts:

  • “The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you” (Numbers 6:25).

  • Jesus “was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (Matthew 17:2).

  • “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

  • “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:14).

When we’re singing words, we ought to think biblically. What do they mean? Are they biblical? Can I freely affirm them? There are hymns we sing here, if you watch me closely, I drop out on certain verses. Theologically, I cannot affirm them. I don’t sing what I don’t believe. I tried to find this the title of some of these hymns, but I can only think of the verses. There’s one whose second verse is “I ask no angel visitant, I ask no rending of the skies, I ask no prophetic word” and so on. I don’t sing that verse anymore. I want the skies to rend! I want the Lord to speak! I want prophecies and visions. I would like an angel to visit, thank you. I don’t sing that verse anymore. I mean, sometimes I can really bend the meanings of the words and put in my meaning and say these things are not as important as the fact that I love Christ. If that’s what it means, I’ll sing it.

The other one I don’t sing is in one of our communion hymns, where it says “he hath for all a full atonement made.” I don’t believe Jesus made a full atonement for non-elect people. There are no people in hell for whom Jesus made a full atonement; they wouldn’t be there if he made a full atonement for all their sins. It’s double jeopardy if you go to hell and have a full atonement made for you. So, I don’t sing that verse.

Let Truth Ignite Worship

So, I’m just pleading with you: use your mind in worship. People come to Bethlehem because of the seriousness with which we take the Bible and the doctrinal truth of the Bible. We are distinct in a large measure by the clarity of the contours of our vision of God. We think he is this way and not another way. We believe that to the degree that God is hazy in people’s minds, their worship will be vulnerable to emotionalism, or on the other hand, to emotionlessness.

Now, let me just try to explain this a minute here. I got in the mail the day before yesterday from another Baptist General Conference church, a request to make recommendations for a CE director at their church. And I read over the job description. I said what a world of difference between the way I would write a job description and prerequisites than the way this is written. And one of the sentences was something like: “It is expected that he will agree to the broad evangelical understandings of the doctrine of God” or something. All I see is just a big cloud, just a big hazy cloud of whatever you think God is like. As long as he’s three in one, that’ll be alright.

Blow Away the Haze

Well, you see, I write books, and I preach sermons that try to blow the haze away and let the contours of God look real precise. He is this way; he is not that way. If you don’t like that, you can’t worship him, unless you say, “I want to worship God so please conceal him again.” There are a lot of people who worship in proportion to the degree that they don’t know God, because they just have this haze out there. And that leads straight to emotionalism, because they have to depend so much on the music and the feeling in the atmosphere and the people around them. Last night, I was speaking at the perspectives course. When I ask, “Why did God deliver the people of Israel from Egypt?” and I pause and let them think of their answer, and my answer is “To make a name for himself,” and then I read a half-dozen texts to prove it, I can read right what they’re thinking from their faces. And they’re sitting there saying, “God is not like that; he’s not an egotist, he does not do things like that.” And so those people are in no position to worship God with me. Because I’m going to worship God because he is a God who passionately is pursuing his glory in the world. And so theology, in some pretty fairly well-defined contours, emerges as a foundation for worship that’s distinct. There are other churches that do that, but I get the impression that most churches avoid theology to cultivate worship.

I was talking with a pastor who was talking with a denominational official. The pastor said on he’d preached to Romans and he got to Roman 9. And he wondered, How do you handle Romans 9? Because it’s heavy stuff with election in there and predestination, and he went to the denominational official and said, “I’m going to start tackling Romans 9 next Sunday, any advice?” And the denominational official said, “Oh, I think there’s a way to preach that so that the people won’t really know what you think.” In other words, create a kind of warm, fuzzy haze as you move through Romans 9, and they’ll all feel good about it. Just talk friendliness and point out a few things that they can handle and skip over all the hard sentences. And that’s just not the way we’re going to do it at Bethlehem. It doesn’t matter whether people are confused or discouraged that, at a given point, we must deal with the truth. Question? Now this is ... Yes, please.

Now, as we rear children, as we teach youngsters, there is an appropriate accommodation to the level of a person’s understanding, and the level of a person’s maturity. How to handle that in a big congregation on Sunday morning where every level of maturity is present is tougher. And I think one needs to find ways to state the whole truth in ways that can be seen as beautiful. I don’t think there are any ugly doctrines in the Bible — not one. Everything is beautiful in its proper proportion. That’s the challenge for the pastors: to find out how a doctrine, that for many people seems burdensome, is in fact a glorious doctrine.

Doctrinal Counsel

I think the doctrine of unconditional grace, unconditional election, is one of the most glorious doctrines imaginable. And twice now this week, Tom and I have been praying with people and I have found myself drawn out, I believe by the Holy Spirit, in the most unlikely places and circumstances to exalt the doctrine of unconditional election with a person who’s struggling with a problem that you wouldn’t think was remotely related to the doctrine of unconditional election. And yet it was so radically relevant because the person was struggling with whether they could possibly be accepted in view of what they had just done, whether God could possibly be viewing them with anything by scorn and disdain after this act. And at that point, to bring forth the fact that ten million years ago, God

saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. (2 Timothy 1:9–10)

There are no doctrines that cannot be made beautiful if we just are thinking biblically. I reckon with that secularization of the mindset of all of us. It is very man-centered, by and large, and very at odds with the radical God-centeredness of God himself: that he is supreme in his own affections. That’s just an utterly foreign notion to unbelievers and most believers who have been scheduled in a man-centered view of the gospel. And so my approach is to just write books and teach this and preach sermons and take some speaking engagements, and everywhere I go, hold up the supremacy of God, until it’s just a broken record in people’s ears — that’s all they think about when they think about me.

I’ve been reading these letters that people write me on our tenth anniversary, and they all say the same thing. “Thank you for your vision of God.” And that’s the way I’ll go to my death bed, I suppose. I hope that at my funeral, somebody will stand here and say that what we thank God most for is his vision of God in John Piper. That’s all I know to do with my life, is just keep putting an alternative vision out there before people.

Emotions Serve Worship

But now I want to talk affections here before we run out of time. I know that there are just such different kinds of people that are here. And some of you love doctrine, and some of you love emotion and find doctrine threatening and divisive. And others find emotion uncontrolled and worrisome and threatening. So, I’ve just said a lot for all of you doctrine people. And now I’m going to say something for the other type: the truth is to be loved with the heart and not just affirmed with the mind. Second Thessalonians 2:10 tells us that some people will perish because “they refused to love the truth” — not just believe it or affirm it, but love the truth. Jesus gives awesome warnings to lukewarm people. We should fear our lukewarm emotions.

The biblical commands to be emotional about God are many and strong, I just picked out a few: make a joyful noise, shout for joy, sing for joy, be jubilant with joy, clap hands and shout, exult in the Lord, stand in awe, fear the Lord, be glad in the Lord, boast in the Lord, cry out to the Lord, taste the Lord, make melody to the Lord, praise with trumpets and lute and harp and dances and strings and pipes and loud clashing cymbals. That does not fit some emotions. And the people who have emotions that that doesn’t fit, should pray that God would help them grow.

Spontaneous Movement of the Heart

Emotion, by definition, is less controllable than thought. Here we come up against something that was raised at the leadership retreat: How do you keep weird things from happening if you believe in emotion? And that emotion should be, like Edwards says, raised to its height. I mean won’t people just start barking like dogs? In Desiring God, I quote Charles Chauncy who was the dignified Boston Minister in 1843 who really criticized the revival that was breaking out largely under Edwards’s influence. And he just listed the excesses of howling and rolling in the aisle and barking like dogs and screaming and violent shaking.

And Edwards had to come to terms with: Well, now, what are we going to do with this? And Edwards insisted that all that list of things did not nullify the validity of the true work of God in this revival. Though he opposed excesses and tried to avoid them, he wouldn’t let Chauncy say since that’s happening, this is not of God. And as I was thinking on that today, it occurred to me that emotion is less controllable than thought. It is the spontaneous movement of the heart, not the controlled movement of the heart. No one says, “I will now produce gratitude,” or “I will now produce adoration,” or “I will now, in a measured way, produce fear of God,” or “I will now, in a nice, careful, limited form, produce joy in my heart or excitement. I will not get excited.” Nobody does that — absolutely nobody. Nobody produces genuine emotion with a controlled act of willpower, except in a very indirect way by putting yourself in a situation where emotion may be kindled. This emotion is there because of some sight of glory or some wonderful application of truth to the heart by the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, if the Bible insists on emotion in worship — which it does, again and again and again — it insists that we take the risks that come with a less controlled atmosphere of what might erupt from the heart. I mean, either you are going to opt for enough control so that you never run the risk of something unsavory erupting, and in that way, cap emotion, or you’re going to accept the risk and say we’re going to uncap emotion, and make the best of it. And I think there’s a way to make the best of it — namely, the safety parameters are provided by strong doctrinal commitments, the strength and breadth and depth of the church’s leadership, and good teaching on this sort of thing.

Freedom to Express

So, what we saw at the leadership retreat, for example, were some new kinds of expressions of emotional response to something. And some were very disturbed by this. Tom read us an absolutely amazing letter of what God had done in a person who wasn’t upfront but was off by herself and was deeply, deeply, affected by the Holy Spirit that night. And I think what will guard us from thinking that those kinds of emotional things like shaking or sobbing or becoming weak and having to sit down are somehow the be-all end-all, is good solid teaching that sanctification matters, and a leadership and a taught congregation, who just doesn’t go bananas when they see something.

I want freedom. I want freedom. I mean, frankly, I don’t know of too many places in the Bible that express concern about excess. But I know hundreds of places in the Bible that express concern that we shout, clap, sing, make a joyful noise, lift your hands, play the loud cymbals — that’s all over the place. Whereas “be careful not to offend anybody” is scarcely to be found. A little bit, but not too much. I assume we communicate pretty strong expectations of people in one kind of group or another, just by tradition or verbal statements or order of service in the bulletin or whatever. I have numerous people coming to me and saying, “Wow, I wanted to say amen this morning.” What did I say that kept you from saying amen? I mean something’s being communicated here that they’re not free to affirm with an amen. We have a fairly controlled atmosphere on Sunday morning, and I would like people to feel free to give a lot more verbal feedback, and I can clearly imagine it getting out of hand.

I spent three and a half hours in a service on Sunday down at Bethesda Baptist; I was the last of nine preachers to preach. And they said many interesting things in response, and I put a lot of them in the Star this week because I reflected out loud on that experience. So, everything can get out of hand; everything can be imagined as an awful destruction of what we cherish at Bethlehem. But if you want to be biblical, it seems to me like we need to just provide an atmosphere in which there can be more free expressions.

I’d like to have an atmosphere in which nobody condemns anybody for not raising his hand and nobody condemns anybody for raising his hands. I mean that’s the kind of freedom I’d like to have. So, if the person next to you raises her hands like this, you don’t say, “Oh, good grief, what are they trying to do?” You just don’t do that. Or if we had room, there could be a little spot in the service where you could stand or kneel or sit for three minutes of quietness or worship singing. And then the person who’s sitting wouldn’t feel indicted because the person next to him turned around and got real serious, like you’re unspiritual and I’m spiritual. I’d like the kind of freedom where we just would not be labeling each other and fearing each other and criticizing each other. A little bit maybe, that helped maybe.

Maintain Order

I’m one of the leaders of this church. I have the doctrinal oversight and I have responsibility for keeping order on Sunday morning. If something seems to go awry, I judge first of all by who it is, and second, by the spirit of the moment. Does it seem right? Is it an ugly intrusion? And then I probably say, “OK, don’t take too long now, but go ahead, let’s see.” And then I would be looking to others with me to get vibrations here. Is this in tune with God, or is this weird, off-the-wall, of the flesh? And probably, if it got carried on too long, I’d say, “OK, we can’t keep going that long because the spirits of prophets are in the control of prophets (1 Corinthians 14:32). You can sit down now; I’ve got a prophetic word, too, that I’m going to give.” Or if it was really of the Lord and was moving people, we would stop and pray over it, and I think I can handle that. We’ve had some pretty funny things here on Sunday morning.

Our time is up and you’ve got to go to your next classes. So we’re going to pick it up right there next week and spend time on the what Let me pray with you before you go, and just ask God to be giving us balance and wisdom in these things. I know that there is deep concern that what we cherish and love at Bethlehem on Sunday mornings and Sunday nights not be jeopardized by any massive or significant change so that you become a “TV” kind of church. And I don’t think any of us who wants the kind of freedom that I’ve just described wants to destroy anything beautiful and great. And I think the combination of truth and emotion, white-hot affection and razor-sharp insight — if we keep saying yes to both of those — the Lord is going to keep us on balance here.