By Bruce H. Leafblad
God is the first priority of the church. Not people. Not ministry. Not growth. Not success. God and God alone occupies the place of ultimate and absolute priority in the church. However, this biblical ideal does not receive much attention in the highly people-centered, growth-dominated, success-oriented American church of today. From our preaching, our writing, and our lifestyle, it would appear that today's church is preoccupied with other matters.
It may be nothing more than a still, small voice, but many in the church are hearing a clear call to the recovery of God as first priority-over everything and in everything. It was the Apostle Paul who wrote to the Colossians saying that Christ was to have the pre-eminence in everything. The priority of God is not an option in Scripture, nor can it be anything but the very centerpiece of Christian belief and practice in the contemporary church. If the church expects to be all that it is intended to be, God must be first. If the church is to accomplish its great mission in the world, God must be its first priority. If the church is once again to become salt and light in an increasingly darkened and decadent culture, it must recover the priority of God for itself.
Worship and the priority of God
What, then, is the connection between the priority of God and worship? Worship is essentially about the priority of God. It is predicated upon the reality of God's being in the supreme position in relation to everything that exists within the created order. Worship is a personal, human expression of that relationship by which we honor and praise God as supreme. The results of such worship include a greater understanding of who this unique God is and an increased desire to make Him first in all of life. Consider the names and titles by which we address God in our worship. These all explicitly or implicitly reveal a God who is first and ultimate in His being-a God before whom we, together with all of creation, assume a place of humble stature.
As King, He is ultimate, the King of Kings, and we approach Him as loyal, contented subjects. As Lord, He is supreme, the Lord of Lords, and we come into His presence bowing and kneeling. As Master, He is one, and we all honor Him as willing servants. As Father, He is alone, the true Father of us all, and we come to Him as loving children. As Creator, God is the solitary source by whom everything was made, and we come before Him as lowly creatures. As Savior, He is unique, for there is no other savior, and we celebrate Him as the One who alone has rescued us out of our helpless and hopeless condition.
Worship and the Character of God
Not only does our worship express God's superior position in relation to all that He has made, but in our worship we affirm the superiority of God's character set against the backdrop of humanity's universal moral failure. In our worship, we extol those divine virtues and draw upon His wealth of virtue by which our lives are restored to more and more Christ-like reflections of His moral perfection's and by which our weakness of character is replaced by divine strength.
God is holy-we worship Him with awe and reverence. God is love-we worship Him in loving adoration. God is good-we worship Him with a spirit of gratitude. God is all-knowing-we come to Him in our ignorance seeking genuine knowledge. God is all-wise-we come to Him in our foolishness, seeking the wisdom that comes only from Him. God is merciful-we worship Him in contrition and with repentant hearts, seeking His forgiveness. God is compassionate-we come to Him casting our burdens and cares upon Him.
God is everywhere-present-we worship Him at all times and in all places, confident of His personal presence. God is truth-we worship Him, trusting every word He speaks to us to be true, for He cannot lie. God is righteous-we worship Him with deep respect and with a desire to be like Him. God is unchanging-we worship Him with living faith and quiet confidence that He will always be as He has always been.
Much about our worship is centered on God's perfect character and His superlative attributes. Worship is a response to God as He is. Hence, our worship is an acknowledgement of God's exclusive superiority in power, authority, and every positive moral and spiritual quality. This reality, the reality of who God is, constitutes the very heart of worship. Because He is God and no other, we worship Him. Because He is who He is-superior to everything He has made, unlimited in power, unrivaled in excellence, unsurpassed in beauty, unequalled in moral perfection, and unmatched in love and grace and compassion-we worship Him and Him alone, giving Him the priority over everything else. Worship is a personal, faith-filled expression of the priority of God.
The priority of God in our pursuits
Worship rightly understood is not merely a response to God, but it is very much a pursuit of God. Moses was confronted by God, and his response was a desire for more of Him. Near the end of his life, Paul, the apostle who had such a rich relationship with the Lord, prayed that he might know Christ even more fully. To know God is to desire more and more of Him. This seeking is truly normal when one has tasted and seen that the Lord is good.
In worship we continue to pursue God-to pursue a deeper, fuller, and increasingly intimate knowledge of Him. The psalmist Asaph expressed this holy longing in Psalm 73:25 (RSV): "Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides thee." These words of Asaph are an illustration of the priority of God in one's pursuits. Is this what today's church is seeking? Is this the one holy passion of American Christianity? Or has a lust for growth become the new priority of the '90s?
The priority of God in the pursuits of the church must not be surrendered to any rival-friendly or otherwise. Seeking first the kingdom of God will always be a pursuit of God and His reign in our lives, and it must ever remain the first, the primary, and the all-consuming pursuit for those who belong to Christ. The major hunger and thirst in the lives of all believers today will be no different from that of David when he wrote: "O God, thou art my God, I seek thee, my soul thirsts for thee, my flesh faints for thee as in a dry and weary land where no water is" (Psalm 63:1 RSV). Worship is about the priority of God in the church's pursuits
... in our values
The meaning of worship is also understood in terms of personal and corporate values and value systems. Worship is spiritual action by which the church affirms God to be first priority in its values. Inasmuch as we are value-driven beings, this matter of the priority of God in our values is of critical relevance. Whatever or whomever we value most highly gives shape to the rest of our value system. By nature, our value systems are structured from the top down-that is, from the highest to the lowest value. Thus, one's value system is a hierarchy of values that is dominated by the highest value.
By definition, whatever or whomever one values most highly-that is one's god. True worship is that spiritual action in which the God of the Bible is affirmed to be the highest value. In the Scriptures, God is everywhere assumed and affirmed to be the ultimate value beside whom there is none of equal value and beyond whom there is none of greater value. The One who created all things is revealed to be of greater value than all those things that He created Worship, then, is understood to be the personal spiritual action through which believers acknowledge, accept, and affirm that God is the first priority in their own value systems.
In the First Commandment, God requires that we shall have no other gods before or besides Him. No other objects of worship are appropriate to the reality of one true God who alone qualifies for such reverence. The English word worship-actually a shortened form of "worth-ship"-gives additional strength to this aspect of our understanding. By this word, we understand worship to be a "worth-shipping" of God, that is, an acknowledging of the supreme worth of God in and of Himself and within our personal system of values. To worship God is to treasure Him more highly than any other person, thing, cause, or enterprise in all of life. God alone is worthy; therefore, we "worth-ship" Him alone."Worthy art thou, our Lord and God,to receive glory and honor and power ..." Worship is about the priority of God in our values.
... in our affections
In Matthew 6:21 (RSV), Jesus states a principle that is applicable to more than one aspect of life: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." We take this principle to mean that what one values, one will cherish. A man will pour his heart into that which he values most. A woman will invest her deepest affections in that which she most highly treasures. That is, what we value most we will love most. The biblical scheme of affections consistently positions love at the head of the list.
In the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4,5), in the Great Commandment (Mark 12:29,30), and in Paul's famous discourse (1 Corin-thians 13), we see this uniform perspective on love as the greatest affection. From this biblical material, we derive this simple yet significant piece of theo-logic: If God is first in our values, He will also be first in our affections. This ideal represents the normal Christian life, although one must confess that the church today does not always rise to the biblical standards for normalcy in the Christian experience.
The sum of the matter is this: Worship is about the priority of God in our affections. To worship God aright is to give Him our first, best love. This love properly belongs to God and to no other. To love anyone or anything else more than God is idolatry. Worship is the highest form of love-a love we give exclusively to God. In true worship we declare and express the priority of God in our affections. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength." (Mark 12:30 RSV) In true worship, love is the supreme affection, and God is the exclusive object of our greatest love. At its center, this divine-human encounter we call worship is a love affair of the highest and holiest order. We value, we cherish, we praise, we celebrate, we receive the love of God that has rescued and redeemed us and that continues to pursue us day after day; and we respond to that love by declaring and expressing our deepest, our highest, our strongest, our first, best love to the Lover of our souls. This is the "real action" in worship. And this is what worship is really about-the priority of God in our affections.
... in our commitments
If what we value most we come to love most, then what we value and love most is that to which we become most committed. Worship is spiritual action through which we affirm the priority of God in our commitments. In worship, we commit ourselves to God as first priority in our lives. We commit ourselves to Him as to no other. By such action, we come to grips with the truth that we are His, that He owns us, that we belong exclusively to Him by virtue of creation and redemption.
Commitment is that process by which values and affections are translated into concrete and decisive actions. Commitment begins with the attitudes of humility and yieldedness, both of which are expressed in a continual succession of decisions that subsequently precipitate action. It is the incarnational actualization of spiritual realities, in which words become flesh, thoughts become deeds, and values and affections become actions, that characterizes this aspect of worship. Being committed to God is to be first committed to His will, His purposes, His plans for our lives. The Christian lifestyle is one of submission to the will of God; one of continual obedience to His leadership. This is not to be viewed as irksome or burdensome, however; the believer knows that such submission is a path of great joy and true freedom. It is the eager submission that two lovers grant each other in the act of love. Such is worship when it truly expresses the priority of God in our commitments.
The Apostle Paul describes this aspect of worship in terms of "living sacrifices" (Romans 12:1). In this familiar text, he affirms:
- That commitment is a fundamental aspect of worship;
- That God is the only one to whom we must commit ourselves completely;
- That commitment involves sacrifice, that is, dying-dying to self, self-will, self-sovereignty; and
- That commitment is not a single, once-and-for-all action, but rather a lifelong, continuous process of "living dying" and "dying daily," of new commitments and renewed commitments to God and His will for us. In worship we affirm and express the priority of God in our commitments.
- We should all rejoice and praise God for the worship renewal that is taking place in many churches. God is at work restoring the vision of Himself and renewing the worship life of many congregations. There is not a continent on this planet where worship renewal is not now taking place.
- We should remember that renewal is not the same everywhere. In church history, no major renewal has ever come from forms and formats, and so it is today. In some places, little change of externals has taken place, if any, while great changes in spirit, life, vitality, and spiritual energy abound. In other places, many new forms have been added to the traditional heritage of the church, and a blending of old and new is characteristic. In yet other places, a distinctly new set of forms and formats has replaced the former ones. In all such settings, however, the heart of the renewal is, as it has always been, a work of the Holy Spirit of God restoring to the church something the church has lost.
- Alongside the genuine spiritual renewal of worship that has been observed is another movement in American worship that may have little or nothing to do with genuine renewal, although there may be many similar external changes present. This is essentially a "wineskin" movement in which major changes in the wineskins-the externals-of worship are being introduced. This liturgical reconstruction is variously motivated by interests in contemporaneity and relevance to modern society, concerns regarding church growth, or merely an imitation of some "more successful" church that is doing some new things. It is entirely possible to totally redo a congregation's worship service, replacing its basic format, forms, and style with a totally new set, and yet be entirely outside the renewing work of the Spirit.
The Ultimate Objective
The great need of the church today is neither to cling to the old or to create the new forms and formats. Our greatest need today is to recover the priority of God in our worship and in the whole of life. The wineskin issues are totally secondary to the more pressing need for the new wine of the Spirit. The crisis in worship today is not a crisis of form but of spirituality. When worship renewal comes, the congregation pursues God Himself as its ultimate objective. God Himself is treasured above any experience, any feeling or any result of worship. Love to God will be the dominant affection expressed through the various forms of worship. Fresh commitment to God is the common response of the entire worshiping community. Worship becomes an end in itself rather than the means to some other end. Worship will be experienced as a relationship with God being dynamically acted out rather than merely being a function of the church. WL
Bruce H. Leafblad is a professor of church music and worship at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.