Nope. That’s not a typo. We very likely commit grievous sin as we worship. Right there in our sanctuaries, smack dab in the pulpit and the pew, is an idol worshipped by all those who attend. You’re guilty, and so am I.
When the Church gathers to worship, we do so because we have been redeemed. A great God has saved us through Jesus Christ, and we rejoice, not only in the cross, but also in the resurrection, longing for the day that Jesus will come again…”Even so, Lord, come quickly.”
Where Do We Go Wrong
Sure, there are other benefits gleaned from gathering to worship, and these are expressed in our encouragement to and community with each other. These are the horizontal elements that exist between and among those in the gathering. They are biblical and important. But, the audience in our gatherings is not sitting in the pews…it’s God. He wants to see our response to His revelation of Himself in the written and Incarnate Word.
Sadly, though, we make ourselves the audience. We sit and watch and listen and demand to be, well, entertained. At that very moment, worship is turned on its head and we have exposed the worship of a made-made idol. The very holy act of being in the presence of God with the body of Christ becomes a sinning free-for-all.
I’ve hinted at this issue previously, when I wrote “Serving Others as We Worship.” That was a call to put our musical preferences aside so that our brothers and sisters in Christ could be encouraged. Instead of serving our own desires and tastes, we exhibit the love of God by deferring our preferences to others. It’s a selfless act.
The idol that you and I worship, though, goes farther than our own preferences. It is our own desire to be fulfilled, to be entertained. The evidence comes after a particular rousing solo or choir piece. Thunderous applause. A shout or two. “Amens” by the dozen.
The cause of the reaction? A really, really well-done performance. We’re responding to the musical performance and its impact on our emotions. Don’t believe me? You’ve seen it, and so have I.
Let the “A” soloist sing or front the choir, and the vocal abilities are impressive. Let the “B” soloist sing the same piece, and the applause is scattered, slow, and obligated.
A 250-voice choir can sing “Come to Jesus” in whole notes, and the roof comes down. A 15-voice volunteer choir can sing the same piece, and we respond with gratitude that they reached the end at the same time.
The examples can go on and on. If we’re honest, we know that we get sidetracked by the music in our church. And, I’ll be the first to say that our music should be done well. The Psalmist exhorts us to sing and play with excellence. It should be done with excellence. Wrong notes and rhythms can obstruct the message of the song.
The idol is erected, though, when we focus so much on the music and its performance that we don’t hear the message.
St. Augustine and His Issues with Music
The early Church father Augustine wrestled with the same issue at a time when it was not clear what form of music should be used in the Church, or if it should be allowed at all. In his Confessions, he states,
I am inclined rather to approve the practice of singing in church, although I do not offer an irrevocable opinion on it, so that through the pleasure afforded the ears the weaker mind may rise to feelings of devotion. However, when it so happens that I am moved more by the singing than what is sung, I confess I have sinned, in such wise as to deserve punishment, and at such times I should prefer not to listen to a singer.
See how I stand! Weep with me and weep for me…
If there is any consolation, it is that a great Church leader such as Augustine had the same issue that you and I do. Yet, there is no consolation in the guilt we share. As Jesus said, “…those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24 ESV) In truth, let us applaud the message that is proclaimed in our gatherings and on that message focus our affections.
Soli Deo gloria.