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FIRST PERSON: Worship is a matter of who, not how

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (BP)–When ministers get together and talk about their church services, it’s not unusual to hear the term “worship wars.” The way I see it, the warfare is sparked by the assumption that everyone should like the music and style that I (we) like. Nothing new. James tells us the source of conflict is our own selfish desires.

Raw selfishness is certainly indefensible. But let’s assume that church members believe they are acting in everyone’s best interest when they vigorously defend or condemn a particular practice. We need, then, to get a grip on what really matters.

My wife, Yvonne, and I were separated by about 600 miles in the year before we wed. I had moved to Virginia to minister in a church and she was in Ohio completing her college degree. We couldn’t talk on the phone or write enough letters to satisfy our longing to be together. On rare occasions one of us traveled the 600 or so miles to see the other.

Every time we traveled, the trip was a little different. Sometimes the trip was made on a gleaming jet plane. Other times we drove, be it my ’69 Chevy or her family’s Buick. One time, she and her brother made the trip from Ohio to Virginia in a 20-year-old Ford pickup with floorboard air conditioning. Every time they stopped for gas, they added at least a quart of oil.

Anytime one of us traveled, seeing the beloved was all that mattered. The way we got there — the vehicle — was almost irrelevant.

Worship is the vehicle in which the church, the bride of Christ, travels to see her beloved. We must care more about where we are going than how we are to go.

Once during that lonely year, Yvonne was supposed to fly to Virginia. Early on the morning when she would have come, her mother called to say that she had severe strep throat, a high fever and was exhausted by the previous week’s exam schedule. She was too sick to travel. My devastating disappointment was short-lived though, when she was able to come a few days later.

If Yvonne had called that morning to say she wasn’t coming at all because she didn’t like the airline on which she’d have to fly, or she didn’t like the airport where she’d have to take off or land, my reaction would have been much different. I would have wondered what deeper problems were being covered by this smokescreen of a lame excuse. Our relationship would have been strained to say the least.

How must our Lord feel when believers say things like, “I just can’t worship with that kind of music.” If our worship of Almighty God can be choked by using different songs and instruments, how much do we really love him? If we’re thoroughly annoyed by changing the appearance of the sanctuary, might we be worshiping the worship experience?

True worship is a matter of whom we worship, not necessarily how it’s done. In chapter four of John’s gospel, the Samaritan woman tries to start an intellectual yet safe discussion with Jesus on the proper location for worship: Jerusalem or “this mountain.” Jesus responds by getting to the only important issue — that God is a spirit and true worshipers must worship in spirit and truth.

If that conversation were to take place today, the woman might say something like, “You people have traditional worship and we have contemporary. Who is correct?” Now, as then, Jesus says to put the peripheral issues aside and focus on what is truly important: receiving his forgiveness for sins and being in a life-changing relationship with him. Once this happens, we’ll do as this woman did and bring everyone we can to meet the One who changed us.

Once we are committed to loving God more than the way in which we express that love, we can move on to communicate it in a way that attracts people. Hopefully they will come into relationship with Jesus.

Unbelievers cannot worship God as he must be worshiped. One can only worship God after being made new in Christ. Only then can we stand before the Father with clean hands and pure hearts, having been forgiven of every sin that once separated us from him.

While unbelievers can’t truly worship, they can be drawn to our worship. They can hear and see the gospel message in preaching, music and a variety of other media. They can also see the relationship that true worshipers have with God, who can then draw them to himself. Our worship, then, must be pleasing to God while making some sense to unbelievers.

Looking back on the 600-mile trip my fiancee and her brother made in the ’64 pickup truck, they probably shouldn’t have done it. But love will often do things that rational thought won’t allow. Will we love God with such abandon that we lose sight of tradition and see a world that is dying for lack of a clear, understandable gospel message?
John Boquist is the minister of music at Calvary Baptist Church, Newport News, Va., and a student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C.

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  • John Boquist