The Pursuit of God in Corporate Worship
Gravity and Gladness on Sunday Morning
I thought it might be helpful, way back when I prepared this, to take you to a period in the history of our church, in which we were about to be blown to smithereens. It was in 1993 and 1994. And I won’t go into any details. I don’t want to hurt anybody, and I don’t want to bring up any garbage, but it was horrible. There were 230 people who left our church and it began to settle down. We were flat for three years. There was zero growth for three years. And it was a time in the wilderness and of great mourning and sadness.
What Unites Us in Worship: A Philosophy of Music and Worship
During those days, the question was, “Who are we? What has happened?” There was great immorality that took place. We thought, “What has happened to us? Has the worship we’ve been doing been real? If this kind of immorality could be happening while we’re worshiping, who are we?” And we took a year and a half to talk through, pray through, and cry through our identity as a church corporately worshiping, and things changed dramatically.
The first 10 years of Bethlehem, in my existence here, and the next 15 years are like night and day stylistically. It’s not that that was the key. It just changed. You talk about worship wars in churches. During those days it was difficult. I just went to the Lord, and I said, “Lord, I don’t know how to keep this church together. I don’t know how to keep them on the same page. This thing could blow up. It’s been around for 120 years. I don’t want it to be destroyed on my watch.”
And I presented what I’m about to present to you — these 11 points of what unites us in worship. And I believe the Lord used it to hold us together. What you’ll notice is that there is very little stylistically in these, which might make you get to the end and say, “Well, how does that help? It didn’t help decide whether we were going to use guitars or organs.”We worshiped with a pipe organ on Sunday morning. It was only a piano and pipe organ for 10 years.
It wasn’t the sound of a drum, the sound of a guitar, the sound of anything, but a great pipe organ and a great piano on Sunday morning. That’s all we did on Sunday morning. Contemporary worship songs happened in Sunday school. Hymns and the pipe organ were in the worship service. This doesn’t even address the organ issue. So how did this help? I just want to say to those of you responsible for leadership. Unity and solutions to practical problems often come from deep harmony. Underneath the Pacific Ocean a mile down it’s pretty quiet, pretty still, pretty solid, and pretty unified, and there’s a hurricane on top.
What the church often needs is for a pastor to take them down, down, down, and they lock in together, saying, “This we believe. This we love.” If you can focus people there, that can survive a season of hurricanes and come through it and by grace come out on the other side with some sense of unity in form. That’s what happened to us. We did lose people, so here’s what I gave them.
Eleven Things That Unite Us in Worship
This was presented in 1992 or 1993. I can’t remember exactly.
We put a high priority on the vertical focus of our Sunday morning service. It was just Sunday morning back then. The ultimate aim is to experience God so that he is glorified in our affections. So we say, “Come on the lookout for God; leave on the lookout for people.”
I’m never certain that we’ve got the right balance in our church — I just don’t know how to be certain — of intense, vertical-focused, God-centered worship. That’s one feel. And the another side of warmth, tenderness, compassion, friendliness, and care, which is biblically mandated. How these two relate on Sunday morning is always a tension for me. It’s a tension in our church right now.
A lot of churches have mingling times during the service. They say, “Stand up. Go greet people. Give them a hug.” If you’re a formal church, you say, “Give them the peace of Christ.” And if you’re not, you just say, “Give him a hug.” But we don’t do that. The main reason we don’t is that Piper doesn’t want to go there. And they’ll let me have my way for a little while on that issue.
I don’t want to go there just because — and the Lord may smack my knuckles on the last day because of this — I look at the American church that is awash in familiarity, low, and dumbed down, with the sentiment, “Y’all come,” and the desire to keep it friendly, and hardly anywhere is there a sense of the majesty and numinous and greatness and glory and terror and rage of God.
We have 168 hours in a week. And I just have said to the worship leaders over the years, “Is it excessive that one of those hours would be radically vertical? Is that excessive? Can’t we be friendly before and after and just go hard after God for 70 minutes? Is that really excessive?” And that’s still where I am. I’m pushing on that one. And I make enemies that way. They just say, “Yeah, but people come and they don’t think you’re as friendly as they would if we took time in the service and we all hugged each other.”
And if you only knew where we were to where we are. There was a day at this church when we put signs on the outside of the doors of the sanctuary that said, “Enjoy the ministry of waiting.” And you only came into this church at two points in the service. And that was during no active worship, except silence as the organ played. And you were made to feel you were late.
And when you came in the first 10 minutes, it was quiet. And the organ was playing and people were bowed in prayer. And I preached on bowing in prayer during the prelude to get your heart ready to meet God. That’s gone. I let that one go. I stopped fighting that battle. I did. I just gave it up. I loved it. I would still love it if our people came in and this place was trembling with expectation rather than talking about the Vikings.
But I’m not going to fight that one anymore. So if you think I’m a stubborn person, you’re right. But I have moved. Whether I should move further, we’ll see.
2. Going Hard After God
These are things we are united on. We lovers of organ and guitar, right? This is about pursuing and expressing the deepest satisfaction in all that God is for us in Jesus.
3. Expecting the Powerful Presence of God
We don’t just direct ourselves toward him. We earnestly seek his drawing near according to the promise of James 4:8, which says, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.”
4. Bible-Based and Bible Saturated
We are Bible-based and Bible-saturated in these services. There’s a difference between being only Bible-based and being Bible-saturated. I choose that word intentionally. In other words, I have heard talks on psychology, talks on God, talks on marriage, and talks on relationships never refer to Scripture. And if you approach them and say, “Shouldn’t you be a bit more biblical?” The answer is, “Everything I said was based on Scripture,” and I think, “Oh, excuse me. I couldn’t tell.” Meaning, you didn’t try to show that and it didn’t look like that.
Now, that’s good. I’m so glad that what we say when we’re not quoting Scripture is based on Scripture. Amen, let’s base everything on Scripture. ut in a worship service, I want God talking. God has power. I want his word woven everywhere. I want prayers to have Scripture in them, songs to have Scripture in them, welcomes to have Scripture in them, and preaching to have Scripture in it. This is God’s moment. Let him talk here. Let him just be oozing out here.
Let’s not just have our ideas, our ideas, our ideas, and then justify it with, “Well, it’s all based on Scripture.” That’s why I chose the word saturated. The content of our singing, praying, welcoming preaching, and poetry will always conform — I mention poetry because the advent poems — to the truth of Scripture. The content of God’s word will be woven through all we do in worship. It will be the ground of all our appeals to authority in preaching and elsewhere.
5. Head and Heart
This is about worship that aims at kindling and carrying deep, strong, real emotions towards God, but does not manipulate people’s emotions by failing to appeal to clear thinking about spiritual things based on shareable evidences outside ourselves. Now try to let yourself imagine a church agreeing on this that’s at odds with each other on something. That’s massive.
If you get two people and one loves pipe organ and one loves guitar and drums, and you get them both to say this, you’ve accomplished something amazing. Worship aims at kindling and carrying deep, strong, real emotions. So the guitar player has to believe that and the organist has to believe that. And if they’re real, there’s going to be some amazing approach to each other there. It’s going to alter the way the organ is played and the way the guitars are played. And there just might be someday the possibility of harmony.
6. Earnestness and Intensity
This is what was asked about earlier. That’s a goal. That’s an assumption. This is about avoiding a trite, flippant, superficial, frivolous atmosphere, but instead setting an example of reverence, passion, and wonder. We’re very serious about being happy. Jokes are rarely fitting. Levity is a bad word for me. Joy is a positive word. I’ve preached for 28 years at Bethlehem, and I’ve never told a joke in a sermon. Now we laugh a lot at Bethlehem and I say funny things. They just somehow come out sometimes. Like right there you laughed. See? So that happens because I think humor is totally designed by God and is a good thing. So I’m just making a judgment call here.
What are jokes about? How do jokes work? They don’t help me do what I want to do. They don’t. My dad was an evangelist and preached more and better than I, and he began every sermon with a joke. They taught him that at Bob Jones University, evidently. He would begin every sermon with an icebreaker, to get them laughing a bit. I don’t find a congregation laughing together necessarily helpful for what I’m about to say. Crying together, maybe. Terrified together, maybe. Laughter is not a given for me. You don’t use it like a little break. This world is plagued with pastors who are afraid of seriousness.
A Time for Everything
I’ll give you an illustration. I was in an ordination service one time, and I just almost knocked this guy off. I was so mad. We were standing surrounded by a bunch of pastors, and we were going to ordain a friend of mine to the ministry. He was going to kneel down and we were going to lay hands on him. To me, this is one of the holiest moments you can imagine. You’re asking God almighty to come down and put his seal on this man’s ministry in the name of Christ. The pastor of the church summoned to the front the other elders and preachers in the group that they would come and join us in the laying on of hands.
And he said, “I’m going to invite all the ordained clergy to come and join us here.” And evidently, they weren’t coming as fast as he thought they should come. So he stepped to the pulpit and said, “Come on, you shepherds. Don’t be sheepish.” And everybody laughed. I almost pushed him off the stage.
There are pastors like that all over the country. They have no sense of the moment. It’s okay to be punny. Sam Crabtree is the punniest person in the world. Sam is the executive pastor here. Sam brings gold to our staff by his personality. I wouldn’t trade him for anything. But you better not do that at the wrong moment. If he does, I’m on his case. And he has done that. Just like I told you, my personality gets me in trouble. Good night. It gets me in trouble way more than his does, but he’ll do one of those punny things at a moment, and I’ll say, “Sam, I don’t think so.”
And I know this is on film and he’s probably going to watch it. I love you, Sam Crabtree. So much of this is about having devotions where you see God is enraged with the nations and there will be on our heads everlasting joy, and knowing both of those and wanting to go before a people and capture them. So you help them feel what it’s like to have a God who’s enraged at the nations, and you help them feel what it’s like that everlasting joy is going to be upon their heads.
That’s what pastors are supposed to do. You’re not supposed to tell jokes, do slapstick, show films, do rap, ride donkeys, roll basketballs down the aisle, and bounce beach balls around the sanctuary. It’s just ridiculous. Come on. I’m in favor of youth groups that do crazy things from time to time — just weird, crazy things. Craziness is okay, but one hour a week, can we just have one hour a week where the majesty and the wonder and the glory of going hard after God in intense verticality would be okay? That’s my simple plea. And we agreed on things like this as Bethlehem back in there.
7. Authentic Communication
We agree on that. This is the utter renunciation of all sham, deceit, hypocrisy, pretense, affectation, and posturing. This is not the atmosphere of artistic or oratorical performance, but the atmosphere of a radically personal encounter with God and truth.
What has historically killed hundreds of churches is pastors who seem, especially to young people, artificial, saying things like, “Come let us gather and pray to the Lord.” You know how it’s mocked, like in the The Princess Bride. Almost all movies make pastors look stupid. Why? Because there’s so many stupid pastors. And by stupid, I mean, “Come on. Be real.” Everybody can see right through that tone of voice.
We as a staff really want to be real with you. We try to be totally honest. I mean, when I was having marriage trouble in 1988 through 1990, my wife and I went to 33 months of marriage counseling. What does a pastor do with that? We were hanging on by our fingernails to like each other and not hurt each other.
We’re 40 years married now, so that was 20 years ago. I just went to the elders and I said, “This is where it is.” So they knew the details and the church knew generally. There’s just no point at hiding it when my kids went away. I thought, “Come on Bethlehem. You’re my family. Pray with me. Help me.” There’s no point in hiding anything. If you’ve got stuff you have to hide, you probably should be out of the ministry. It held us together.
8. The Manifestation of God and the Common Good
We expect and hope and pray that our focus on manifesting God is good for people and that, therefore, a spirit of love for each other is not incompatible but necessary to authentic worship. So I know that how we treat each other and what God does in and through us in those in and around those services is a key part of holding us together and displaying the glory of God.
9. Undistracting Excellence
I’ve probably said enough of that in the other session. We’ll try to sing, play, pray, and preach in such a way that people’s attention will not be diverted from the substance by shoddy ministry or by excessive finesse. Those are the two mistakes. Over here, you’ve got shoddy ministry that causes people to think about it because it’s so shoddy. And over here, you’ve got finesse that’s so good people are always drawn to think about it, or you could call it elegance or refinement.
Natural, undistracting excellence will let the truth and beauty of God shine through. That’ll affect the way you dress. Dress is a small thing. I hardly ever talk about it. In 28 years, I don’t think I’ve ever preached a sermon on how to dress. You notice how I dress on Sunday. Nobody else dresses like me. Mine is intentional, and so is theirs.
I don’t mandate what they wear and they don’t mandate what I wear. They probably wish I didn’t dress like a penguin, but someday when I’m willing to brave it, I’ll write an essay about that. But if you talk about it, you know what happens? People think you’re making a big deal out of dress, even if you talk about it not to make a big deal out of it. So I’m not going to say any more.
10. Determination to Welcome People Different from Ourselves for the Sake of Christ
We aim to be more indigenous to the diversity of our metropolitan cultural setting, both urban and suburban. That’s huge. That’s difficult. That’s a challenge we want to work on continually. We don’t want to give the impression to ourselves or to the world that in order to be a Christian, you have to be white, or that in order to be Christian, you have to be Western, or whatever.
But finding a way to be ethnically diverse, culturally diverse, and unified is difficult. I will go to my grave working on that and failing. I totally believe I will go to my grave never stopping working on that and never expecting to succeed because I don’t think it’s possible in this fallen world to take as much diversity as we have in the Twin Cities, bring it into one room, and with dress, prayer, preaching, music, relational structures, and styles, make everybody able to be at home.
So we work at it because we know that in heaven, we’re going to be together. And the diversity that God has created in the world — ethnically, racially, personality-wise, male and female, tall and short, and all kinds of diversity — he did intentionally for his glory because humanity is like a prism and the glory of God is shining on it. As you turn the prism, different angles and different shapes refract the colors of the glory differently.
And so each of you individually is unique and you’re intended by God to refract part of his glory that nobody else can refract in just your way. And churches try to put all that together.
11. The Mingling of Historic and Contemporary Music
This last one is focused on the mingling of historic and contemporary music with heartfelt congregational singing.
And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52).
Now that starts to get up next to the style issue, doesn’t it? Old and new. New tends to sound like contemporary worship music and old tends to sound like hymns. And so we’re saying there is a mingling of historic and contemporary. The best of both is something we want to value.
It might be helpful for me to point out the importance of the phrase heartfelt singing. I was talking with a brother last night who said the same thing. One of the things that we discussed in our meetings in those painful days was, what should be the defining sound of Bethlehem? Would it be pipe organ, guitar, piano, drums, orchestra, flute, choir? What should be the defining sound when I’m not preaching? And the answer we gave was the people singing.
That sure doesn’t help you choose between an organ and a guitar. You might be surprised. It has an effect to agree that this people robustly engaged with their voices will be the defining sound. It means you better back up on some of these instruments. If you take a pipe organ to the limit, you’ll never hear a single person sing. If you take electric instruments to the limit, you’ll never hear anybody sing. And so that was important. It’s true to this day. And we constantly have to adjust. So those are the things that we as a church gathered around about corporate worship. About fiteen years ago and God used them to spare us.
Preparing for Sunday Morning
Now we only have a few minutes left in this last session, and what I want to do is go to the last session and take maybe five minutes. It’s the one that says 10 Practical Preparations for Hearing the Word of God on Sunday Morning. I’ll just bullet these with you. We’re going to skip the other things. You can think about those yourself if you want to. I think I’ve said most of what I want to say. What I want to do here is just talk about preparation for corporate worship. Most people don’t even think in those terms.
I was thinking again this morning as I reread these that parents need, from the time their children are little, to build into them this mindset. If you go to worship on Sunday morning, you should have this mindset: “Jimmy and Janey, tomorrow morning is the most important morning of our week. We’re going to meet God together with God’s people. We’re going to tell him how much we love him. And we’re going to listen to his Word and we’re going to be shaped by God tomorrow. This is the most important part of the week. Therefore, you can’t stay up late tonight. If you want to go out with your friends and stay up until midnight, you’re going to do that on Friday night. You’re not going to do it on Saturday night. As for this family, we’re going to get a good night’s sleep because being awake is more important tomorrow morning than Monday morning. Worship is more important than school.”
Almost nobody thinks that way. So I want to just encourage you to think that way. What are some ways to get ready for the most important hour of the week?
Pray that God would give you a good and honest heart because that’s the text. This is all born out of Luke 8:18, which says, “Take heed then how you hear.” That’s what I’m trying to help. Take heed how you hear.
2. Meditate on the Word of God
Saturday night and Sunday morning, pray that God would give you the heart to worship and also take some time in the word to retool your heart so that you’re in tune with him.
3. Purify Your Mind by Turning Away from Worldly Entertainment
Turn off the television. I don’t have a television, and haven’t had one in for 40 years in the house but we take vacations. And when we go on vacation, we’re almost always someplace where there’s a television. So I’ll watch it. I get my TV bath for a couple of weeks. And frankly, I come away almost dispairing for my people.
Just take the best of prime-time TV, whatever that is, and I think, “If that’s what my people are feeding on, I just don’t know how I can fight it. I don’t know how I can awaken spiritual affections and biblical values and priority when they’re soaking their brain in this crap.” And I’m not talking about explicit nudity or terrible language. I’m just talking about absolute banality, silliness, and foolishness mingled with innuendo and suggestiveness, and then advertisements poking in every 10 minutes. Almost all of them are sexually oriented. And I sit there and I think, “Lord, how in the world can we be Christian in the 21st century if we sit here?” And I would just say if you can fast one day a week, fast Saturday night.
Here’s another statement I have. For you young folks who are going to get married someday and have kids, if you fear that raising your kids in a non-TV house is going to make them nerds, squares, weird, or unable to grow up, that’s not true. Meet any of my four boys. They’re all grown, married with kids and they’re all intelligent and worldly wise. Here’s a little simple help. Move into the city so that they can see it real and don’t have to watch it on television.
Watch a guy raping a woman in the front yard. Watch a guy pulling the spout off the side of my house and smashing another guy’s head with it. Hear the door being pounded on at 3:00 a.m. in the morning with a wild-eyed drunk hollering at the pastor. Take your kids where the world is. You don’t need to watch it on television because then they might have to learn that it’s real and they have to deal with it and they learn how.
4. Trust in the Truth That You Already Have
5. Rest Long Enough Saturday Night to Be Alert and Hopeful Sunday Morning
Just get enough sleep. Figure out what time you need to get up in order to not be hurried to go to church, and work back seven or eight hours, or whatever you need in order to be fresh. And then go to bed 15 minutes before that and read your Bible because either God will put you to sleep because you need the rest, or the devil will put you to sleep because he doesn’t want you reading the Bible.
I really believe that. You read your Bible at night, you’re going to go to sleep, and just take that as okay. That’s a gift. If you go to sleep in the morning, when you read your Bible, then do what I do. It could be a Bible like I have. Get off your knees or your chair and just walk in a circle, like I do in my study. I have never fallen asleep walking except one time when I was working as a nightwatchman and I used to have to punch buttons. I could sleep the whole time. I was just walking as I slept. I don’t know how I did it.
6. Forebear One Another on Sunday Morning Without Grumbling and Criticism.
Know that one of the great killers on Sunday morning is spats in the car between a husband and a wife or with the kids. The kids are slow and you get mad at them. And you’re so mad. Then you get to church, and you think, “Okay, we have to worship.” Just put it off. If you have to deal with the kids, deal with them at one o’clock in the afternoon. Just make peace on Sunday morning and try to be ready.
7. Be Meek and Teachable When You Come
8. Be Still as You Enter the Room and Focus Your Mind’s Attention and Heart’s Affection on God
I still believe in that. I think it’s totally wonderful if you walk into a worship service and you see a person crying or you see a person that left the church three years ago in a huff and they’re there. I think it’s gloriously God-honoring to walk over, put your arm around him and say, “I am so glad to see you and worship with you this morning. Are you okay?”
That’s different than saying, “How about those Vikings?” There’s nothing wrong with the Vikings. Well, there probably is, but you know what I mean. There’s nothing wrong with being interested in sports. I’m just saying there’s a time for everything under heaven.
9. Think Earnestly About What is Sung and Prayed and Preached
Just be engaged. Don’t let the words go by without your reflection.
10. Desire the Truth of God’s Word More than You Desire Riches or Food.
This has been a seminar supposedly on gravity and gladness in corporate worship. We’ve talked mostly about our hearts and about the inner nature of true, authentic worship. And that’s because I think that’s the emphasis the Bible has in the New Testament, especially.
Nevertheless, I have tried to make a case that corporate services are normative. Within that, preaching in some way, form, and length is normative. And I hope that we at Bethlehem and those of you from other churches will be able to be an instrument of cultivating the kind of authenticity and intensity and passion and truthfulness that would correspond to Jesus’s words when he said, “The Father is seeking such people to worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23).