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What Is Wrong With Contemporary Worship

Stephen Said of Dreamland asks the dangerous question “what is up with contemporary worship?”

The current “charismatic” style of worship is largely a construct of the ‘baby boomer’ generation in a reaction against structured liturgical worship. It has captured the imagination of the larger church and has effectively quashed any alternative forms of worship and more importantly, creates a destructive dichotomy in the mind of the believer forcing them to live a life that is divided into that which is sacred and that which is secular.

This article will attempt to give an historical overview of worship forms in scripture and in the history of the church, and consequently suggesting a more holistic approach to worship.

There is no doubt that the “charismatic” form of worship dominates the heart, mind and imagination of the ‘Christian’ world. A quick visit to any of Melbourne’s ‘Christian Bookshops’ will quickly prove this point. One will find the shelves of the music and book sections overflowing with the latest installation of the incredibly popular “Hillsong” series of album’s or accompanying music supplements. It is literally a multi million-dollar industry that many significant Christian organisations participate in, including but not limited to Youth Alive, Vineyard and the Hosanna organisations.

The model of ‘worship’ modelled and espoused by these organisations is apparently drawn from the Old Testament Tabernacle and Temple worship.

By questioning those involved in the ‘worship’ ministry at any level, of the biblical basis for ‘contemporary charismatic worship’, one will discover that almost every response will include reference to the Old Testament or to one or two verses found in the New Testament. A number of Old Testament Scenario’s will be considered as well as the two New Testament verses discussed above in an attempt to understand the justification for ‘contemporary charismatic worship’.

Probably the most famous passage of Old Testament scripture regarding ‘contemporary charismatic worship’ is Solomon’s dedication of the newly completed temple. 1 Kings chapter 8 is a depiction of the ceremony that concludes the construction of the Temple at Jerusalem (2 Chronicles chapter 7 also records the same event). In particular the focus of the passage when used to support the theory of ‘contemporary charismatic worship’ is verses 10 and 11: 10: When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. 11: And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple. In this passage, the nation of Israel has reached a significant milestone.

Israel, many years prior has ceased to be a nation of pilgrims and wonderers forced to erect their place or worship each time the nation ceases to move. The tent is no longer the focus of the nations devotion to God. God’s promise was that there would be a place where His presence would reside and that place would be the temple that Solomon was to erect. The passage focuses upon the ceremony that inaugurates the building that will be the focus of worship for the nation.

The day is significant as the majority of the nation assembles at the place of worship and Gods presence symbolically enters the temple so that the nation might know that Yahweh abides in their midst. The nature of Yahweh’s presence is such that the priests are overwhelmed so as to be subdued. They are unable to conduct their duties.

The New Testament passages used to support ‘contemporary charismatic worship’ include 1 Timothy 2:8 “. I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.” and Ephesians 5:19 “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord,” These are often the only two verses used to support the practice of ‘contemporary charismatic worship’ from the New Testament.

So is ‘contemporary charismatic worship’ a ‘biblical’ practice? Is it the ‘bible’ way of doing things? Or is it possibly a cultural iteration of worship expression? To understand this, we need to consider the previous Scriptures usually referred to as supporting ‘contemporary charismatic worship’.

The worship of Yahweh in the Old Testament centred first on the tent of meeting and once it was built and dedicated by Solomon, the centre of worship moved to the temple. What the espousers of ‘contemporary charismatic worship’ fail to understand when they attempt to exegete Old Testament passages regarding particularly Old Testament worship is that the few ecstatic encounters with Yahweh in the Old Testament occurred only on the rare occasion. The encounters with the all-consuming presence of God in the temple as masses of people gathered together for a particular occasion, often at the request of God were rare. However as is the practice of those with a particular theological predisposition, the rare incidents are ‘normalised’ ie: “this is what happened each week when the Israelites worshiped Yahweh”.

This may be viewed as a simple exegetical mistake, however the issue is compounded by a failure to translate this Old Testament theory into the New Testament. The focus of Old Testament worship was indeed the structure created by the Israelites. The fan of ‘contemporary charismatic worship’ fails to understand the development of worship practice in scripture. The law and the temple serve to highlight the separation between God and man. The Old Testament temple is constructed in a layered way and greater degrees of protection were required as one entered nearer to the very presence of God. To enter the ‘Holy of Holies’ without adequate precaution was a fatal exercise.

The very practices advocated by the supporters of ‘contemporary charismatic worship’ who utilise these particular Old Testament passage as a biblical basis fail to grasp one of the elementary purposes for the complex rituals and laws regarding Old Testament worship. They were inferior!

One of the most significant statements found in the New Testament regards the renting of the veil in the temple. At the point of Jesus’ death on the cross, this apparently obscure mention regarding the entrance to the holy of holies is made. No longer can the presence of God be contained in a structure made by the hands of created beings. God now chooses to make His home in the hearts of men and women. No longer will arcane and complex rituals stand between God and his beloved. The promise given by God in Leviticus 26 verse 12 is repeated again and again in Jeremiah 32:38, Ezekiel 37:27, 2 Corinthians 6:16 and Revelation 21:3. “I will live in them and walk in them and I will be their God and they will be my people.”

Old Testament worship was structured in such a way as to highlight the need for a redeemer. The law could never be fulfilled. Its function was to highlight this truth! In the same way Old Testament worship was structured in such a way as to highten the anticipation of the fact that one-day, Yahweh would no longer be separated from His creation through the fear of destroying them by His holy presence! God would burst forth and make his home in his creation! No longer must God’s creation persue a complex and arcane process of worship that culminates in an ecstatic spiritual experience of being caught up in His presence.

His presence now abides in the hearts of men and women. In all that we do, God is with us. The journey now is one of connected with God, wherever we find Him, at work, at home, at church. And whenever and however we connect, we worship Him.

To use either of the two New Testament verses as support for the popular model of ‘contemporary charismatic worship’ is simply a matter of incorrect exegesis of those two respective texts. Firstly, Paul’s admonition of ‘raising holy hands’ is not an instruction to worship. The verse reads in its entirety: “. I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.” Firstly the verse is dealing explicitly with prayer. Lifting holy hands in prayer. A supporter of ‘contemporary charismatic worship’ may state that prayer is either worship or a part of worship. However when examining the practice of ‘contemporary charismatic worship’, one will discover that on the very rare occasion, are people encouraged to ‘pray’ as part of a ‘contemporary charismatic worship’ service.

The cues are normally encouragement’s to ‘sing’, ‘sing to the lord’, ‘sing a new song to the lord’ or to ‘lift holy hands’. Little if any time is made in a ‘contemporary charismatic worship’ service for prayer as it is widely understood. Secondly, Paul had a far more holistic view of worship, in his view, it would seem that worship sometimes involved singing rather than singing is worship. A significant distinction.

The second New Testament verse used to support ‘contemporary charismatic worship’ practices in the church is Ephesians 5:19. In it’s entirety, it reads: “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord,”

Again, a fundamental error in the exegesis of this verse fails to take into consideration the fact that Paul encouraged the congregation to “speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”. The failure to exegete this passage results in two significant errors. Firstly, singing becomes the emphasis again. This is not in and of itself a significant error, however brought out in a culture that already equates worship with singing, this can lead to all sorts of problems and issues. Secondly and probably most significantly, Paul encourages everyone to speak to one another.

The practice of ‘contemporary charismatic worship’ generally reserves the bringing of such material to the individuals upon the stage. It is the trained professions who normally bring the psalm, hymn or spiritual song, not the participant in the service. The Old Testament model encourages this principle.

At the very least, the evidence thus far suggests that the model of ‘contemporary charismatic worship’ may not necessarily be as biblically based as Christian culture has led us to believe. If this is the case (i) where did it come from, (ii) what theological problems does it pose and (iii) what are the ramifications of giving this model pride of place?

Where did it come from? The 60’s saw an incredible counter cultural revolution in North America that spread to all parts of the world. The ‘flower power’ revolution saw the birth of the anti-establishment sentiment that impacted the culture of the time. As people were challenged with the emptiness of materialism, they sought meaning.

The tail end of the 1960’s saw an incredible revival amongst the children of the revolution. They began turning back to the established church seeking to rediscover the Christ who was indeed calling them back. This revival was known as the ‘Jesus People’ movement. Essentially hippies were seeking Jesus. What they found was a church steeped in traditionalism rather than rich tradition. They sought to reinvent church for their generation.

One of the hallmarks of the 60’s was the ‘Protest Movement’. Flower Power children protested against the decisions of the conservative establishment, taking to the streets to protest such issues as racism and the Vietnam War. The movement saw some incredible bards such as Joan Baez, Cat Stevens and Bob Dylan write songs of protest that struck a chord with the disestablished flower power generation. As the ‘Jesus People’ movement gained momentum, the Jesus People saw embodied in their Messiah a cause far greater than any other.

It would not take long for the bards of the Jesus People to begin to write songs concerning the Messiah and what he had to say concerning the troubles of the world and the coming kingdom. A form of worship that reflected the mass protest rally’s of the time was born, one which the church stringently opposed at first, however over the years, this radical form of worship has gained mainstream acceptance until it now holds pride of place amongst worship forms in the established church.

As the converts of the Flower Power generation, such as John Wimber moved into positions of authority, the ‘contemporary charismatic worship’ phenomenon moved from the edges of the institution to the centre. It is now recognised as part of mainstream Christian church culture. Modern parodies of Christianity in such television shows as “South Park”, “The X-Files”, “Dawson’s Creek” and “The Simpson’s” as well as movies such as “Sister Act” and “Leap of Faith” portray the ‘contemporary charismatic worship’ as part of the mainstream charismatic church.

What theological problems does it pose? In and of itself, ‘contemporary charismatic worship’ does not pose any theological problems. If appreciated and experienced for what it is, it serves as an adequate expression of worship for a generation which is essentially what worship should be, an incarnate expression of the culture that Jesus has touched and transformed.

The difficulty arises when in an effort to support a distinctly ‘cultural issue’ improper exegesis takes place in order to rationalise such a cultural expression as a theological truth. One of the most significant theological issues presented by an attempt to suggest that ‘contemporary charismatic worship’ is a theological truth rather than a cultural expression is the concept that “we come into God’s presence to worship”. There are often exhortations to “come into God’s presence”, “enter in” and so forth based upon the Old Testament model. The inference that is made is that we are somehow outside of God an unable to access his ‘presence’ unless we are in a corporate ‘worship’ setting with band and other believers. In addition, the presumption is that God is ‘worshipped’ until a climactic ecstatic experience similar to the one described in the Chronicles passage is reached. Such suggestions and subsequent teaching create a wedge between a person’s ‘secular’ life and the ‘spiritual’ activities that they are involved in that will only occur in a church based activity or setting. Life becomes a balancing act between the ‘secular or profane’ and the ‘sacred’.

The participant begins the task of cataloguing such tasks as parenting, work, education and leisure as ‘secular or profane’ tasks whilst bible study, church attendance and any other church based activity where a worship session is involved is considered a ‘sacred’ task. Only in the ecstatic experience of the presence of God, can we worship or be with Him. This is a far cry from the minds and hearts of such spiritual figures as Paul, St Patrick and even Jesus himself.

Paul would have made no such distinction, with such incredible statements as: “And whatever you do, whether in word or in deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” Col3:17 Jesus and Paul come from a culture that view life in holistic terms. St Patrick was heavily influenced by the Eastern Orthodox Church and consequently viewed his mission to the Irish to include all aspects of life, work and education as worthy of redemption.

Such a Gnostic like separation would have seemed absurd to men such as these. Christianity is about a life offered in worship to God in the every day as opposed to the pursuit of ecstatic experiences. The difficulty is in reducing worship to the singing of songs and such ecstatic pursuits.

The second and probably the most disturbing aspect of ‘contemporary charismatic worship’ is the recreation of a priestly caste once again. Protestants claim that part of the reformation involved the restoration of the priesthood of every believer. This may be a truth that the Protestant movement certainly pays lip service to, however closer examination, particularly in terms of ‘contemporary charismatic worship’ reveals a distinct discrepancy between the proclamation of this doctrine and it’s practice.

The reality in terms of ‘contemporary charismatic worship’ is that only the most beautiful or the most talented will be the ones that appear on the stage. ‘Creative Ministries’ is an incredibly exclusive and demanding aspect of modern church life. As churches grow in size, the emphasis upon ‘excellence of presentation’ grows also. The musicians and singers that will be involved are whittled down until only a handful, which in effect will be the most talented, are the ones that can participate.

It is this cadre that will be seen week after week ‘leading people into the presence of God’ where they ‘enter in to worship’. Individuals without musical ability are denied the opportunity to participate in ‘contemporary charismatic worship’ in this way, relegated to the congregation. Paul’s exhortation for individuals to bring a psalm, hymn and spiritual song can only be carried out by one of the ‘creative ministry team’ or one sanctioned by such a team.

This practice closely resembles the Old Testament model, which we have already discussed as being inferior to the worshipping community offered to us by the New Testament, in which everyone participates. This is a serious challenge to the doctrine of the priesthood of every believer.

What are the ramifications of giving this model pride of place? Probably the saddest aspect of giving the ‘contemporary charismatic worship’ model pride of place is the fact that not only are other forms of worship crowded out, but also they are viewed as being unbiblical or simply mocked. The incredible richness of liturgical history delivered to us over the last 1900 years is branded irrelevant and not meeting the needs of today’s world.

In actual fact however, what has happened is the ones who were originally branded as heretics for wanting to introduce culturally relevant forms of worship into the church are making the same accusations concerning emerging generations wanting to experiment with different forms of worship in this day and age.

We live in a culture that is somewhat removed from that of the 60’s and 70’s. This generation is not seeking the large concert style experience. This generation already knows what it means to be lost in the crowd. They do not seek the ecstatic experience to breathe life and excitement into their otherwise stale and conservative existence. Generation X’ers live in a world that is so incredibly fast paced and inhuman, filled with extreme experiences and leisure activities. What is sought is a personal experience, not one of crowd or mass, which is holistic. They seek a God of work, family, friends, food and recreation, not just a God of the spiritual part of their life.

They seek a truth that is in a language they understand, but also one that is built upon ancient truths. There is so much in our traditions that we can claim and re-invent as it were for this generation. However ‘contemporary charismatic worship’ still holds sway over our hearts and imagination’s.

‘Contemporary charismatic worship’ in and of itself is not evil or sinister. As previously stated, it is an expression of a culture that sought to worship God in a way that was meaningful to them. This is what worship should be, a cultural expression redeemed by God. It is when this form is held over and above any other, and it is when it’s professors claim a biblical mandate and justification that it steps outside of the boundaries of it’s purpose.


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