NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Ben Witherington III pulls no punches when it comes to the culture’s increasing consumer mentality of worship, in which the people in the pews often attend church for what they can get from a service instead of to truly worship a holy God.
“A consumer mentality as an approach to worship is a sin,” Witherington said. “It’s a mistake.”
Witherington, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky and the author of a numerous books, made the remarks during a chapel message at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Witherington was on campus as a featured speaker at the seminary’s Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum, an annual event that draws some of the world’s top theologians to dialogue on issues of faith.
In his chapel message, Witherington used verses from Revelation 1 and 4 as his primary texts, buttressed by Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1. In the passages, three men of God are granted a vision of true worship, something Witherington said is increasingly missing in 21st-century churches. For John and Ezekiel, their encounter with God and their true worship experience came not in the church but in exile. Ezekiel was in the desert of Iraq. John was on the isle of Patmos.
But even for those in church — as Isaiah was when he encountered a vision of God in the temple — there is no guarantee of a true worship experience without a proper mind and heart.
The experiences of John, Isaiah and Ezekiel teach key lessons on true worship, Witherington said.
“For Ezekiel, unlike Isaiah, worship was not a matter of a holy place or being in the sacred zone,” Witherington said. “What he learned on that day is the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof and you can encounter Him anywhere.”
He added, “God’s presence, His holy living presence, can be encountered anywhere, at anytime.”
For John, who was banished to Patmos, the encounter with God meant that John heard and saw what God intended for him. Witherington noted that Revelation 1 marks the first mention of the phrase “the Lord’s Day” in the New Testament. John was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” according to the text.
“When you go to church, are you in the Spirit? Not [are you] in the church, but are you in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day so that you might hear and you might see?” Witherington asked the audience during his visit to the campus in late February.
“An awful lot of people do not come for the worship experience in that condition,” he said. “And they do not receive what God has to give them on that occasion. See, it wasn’t a matter of holy space, it wasn’t a matter of him being in the right place, but being in the right condition to worship and encounter God. He was in the Spirit.”
Many people get to the edge of true worship but never experience it for themselves, he said.
“They’re on the penumbra of the worship experience, but they have not learned how to be still and know that He is God. They are distracted by a million wandering thoughts. Twittering thoughts, tweeting thoughts, texting thoughts and they are not worshipping God.”
And mistakenly, the modern church often panders to the people in the pews, altering services for the sake of popularity.
“Worship was never intended to be a spectator sport or the performance of the few for the benefit of the couch potatoes for Jesus in the pews,” Witherington said. “The consumer mentality for worship has put the ’em-PHA-sis purely on the wrong syl-LA-ble.’ It leads to pastors desperately seeking to change worship patterns so we’ll attract a bigger crowd, on the theory that worship should be a matter of giving the people what they want and crave. Wrong.
“Worship is about giving back what God desires and requires. It’s not about giving the congregation what they want and crave, because most of what they want is invalid and most of what they crave isn’t good for them.”
Feeling good should be a bonus and a byproduct of true worship, but not the goal, Witherington said. John, by truly worshipping in the Spirit, set the standard.
Witherington turned to a controversial issue in churches, the role of music in worship.
“Sometimes churches seem to think music is just for the purpose of revving up the troops, getting them in a congenial mood to hear the message, because after all, it’s all about the message. The truth is friends, that music ministers to the affective part of who we are, that is not reached by mere cognition. The goal is that … our whole beings are caught up in love and wonder and praise of God…. We want the whole person, the whole of the time, worshipping the whole of God wholeheartedly. That’s the goal.”
Witherington reminded the audience that John’s prerequisite for worship was not the right music or the right place.
“Rather he came prepared for a holy encounter in holy time on the Lord’s day. He came prepared to give honor and praise and glory to God. He was wide open to the Holy Spirit to such a degree that [the Bible] said, ‘He was in the Spirit.’ And then God gave him this incredible vision.”
Worship is meant to be theocentric, focused on God, Witherington said. As the theologian John Knox said, “The chief aim of humankind is to love God and enjoy Him and adore Him forever.”
“The most important act on earth is worship. The chief end of humankind in human history … is not the salvation of everybody,” Witherington said. “Salvation is not the goal. Salvation is the means to the goal. You want to get people saved so that they will worship the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Salvation is the means, worship is the goal…. We were created to worship the one true God.
“We come to give primarily, not primarily to get. But hear the good news: God also comes to worship, prepared to give. As we bow down to God, God comes to relate, empower, heal, save, give vision to His people and proclaim His truth.”
During a visit to the catacombs of Rome, where many early Christians had been martyred, Witherington encountered a tour guide who was lapsed in his faith. The guide began to weep. He asked Witherington if God could forgive him, so that he could worship. On that day, the guide and others repented and worshipped God.
“Wouldn’t you like for worship to always be like that?” Witherington asked. “A close encounter of the first kind with God.”
Paul F. South writes for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.