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In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor offers this insight into fallen human nature: “So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship.” Though the Grand Inquisitor falls far short as a reliable guide to theology, at this point he is surely correct. Human beings are profoundly religious — even when we do not know ourselves to be — and humans incessantly seek an object of worship.
Yet, human beings are also sinners, and thus our worship is, more often than not, grounded in our own paganism of personal preference. As John Calvin profoundly explained, the fallen human heart is an “idol-making factory,” always producing new idols for worship and veneration. That corrupted factory, left to its own devices, will never produce true worship, but will instead worship its own invention.
The church is not comprised of those who found the true and living God by experimentation in worship, but of those who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, incorporated into the Body of Christ, and are then called to true worship as regulated and authorized by Scripture. Worship is the purpose for which we were made — and only the redeemed can worship the Father in spirit and in truth.
But, do we? The British philosopher Roger Scruton once advised his fellow philosophers that the best way to understand what people really believe about God is to observe them at worship. Theology books and doctrinal statements may reveal what a congregation says it believes, but worship will reveal what it really believes. If so, we are in big trouble.
Just look at the confusion that marks what is called worship among so many evangelicals. Instead of engaging in worship that points to the glory of God, many churches feature services that look more like a carnival of chaos than a Christian congregation at worship. Years ago, A.W. Tozer lamented that many churches conceive of worship as “a maximum of entertainment and a minimum of serious instruction.” Many Christians, he argued, would not even recognize worship as “a meeting where the only attraction is God.” True fifty years ago, those words now serve as a direct indictment of contemporary worship.
The pathology of our problem must be traced to realities as fundamental as our worldview and as superficial as personal taste. At the worldview level, we must face the fact that modernism collapsed transcendence in many minds. The focus of worship was “horizontalized” and reduced to human scale. Theological liberalism simply embraced this new worldview, and it made the theological compromises that modernity demanded. Worship was transformed into an experiment in “meaningfulness” as judged by the worshiper, not an act of joyful submission to the wonder and grandeur of God.
Now that postmodernism rules the worldview of the cultural elite and the culture’s most powerful centers of influence, the radical subjectivity, moral relativism, and hostility to absolute truth that marks the postmodern worldview shapes worship in some churches as well. Postmodernism celebrates the victory of the image over the word, but Christianity is a Word-centered faith, rooted in the verbal revelation of God and the identity of Jesus Christ as the incarnate Word.
Postmodernists assert that all truth is constructed, not absolute. As philosopher Richard Rorty insists, truth is made, not found. Those who accept this radical pragmatism will see worship as an experiment in “making” meaning rather than a discipline of preaching, hearing, believing, and confessing eternal truths revealed by God in propositional form.
While all Christians affirm the necessity and reality of the experiential dimension of faith, the experience must be grounded in and accountable to the Word of God. This is of central importance to the question of worship, for, left to our own devices, we will be inclined to seek worship that meets our desire for a “meaningful” experience or matches our personal taste as a substitute for authentic worship regulated by Scripture and centered on God, rather than His people.
Concern for the proper worship of God was central to the Reformation, even as it is central to our most important theological debates today. Nothing is more important than our understanding of worship, for our concept of worship is inescapably tied to our understanding of God and His sovereign authority to reveal the worship He desires, deserves, and demands.
Hughes Oliphant Old once summarized the Reformers’ understanding of worship in terms of “its sense of the majesty and sovereignty of God, its sense of reverence, of simple dignity, its conviction that worship must above all serve the praise of God.” As Old recognized, this path of renewal “may not be just exactly what everyone is looking for.”
This is surely true, but it is the only path back to the worship God seeks, and to the recovery of our witness to the infinite glory, perfection, and worthiness of the triune God. We will either recover the biblical vision of true Christian worship, or we will slide into some form of pagan worship. There is no third option.