Idolatry in Corporate Worship
What’s your greatest hindrance to worshiping God as you gather with the church for corporate worship?
I can think of a number of possible answers: Our song leader isn’t very experienced. The liturgy is too stifling. The band sounds bad. The preacher is uninspiring. Our church is too small. Or, Our church is too big.
While I don’t want to minimize the importance of faithful planning, musical skill, and wise leadership, our greatest problem when it comes to worshiping God doesn’t lie outside us, but within our own hearts. It’s the problem of idolatry.
Anything Other Than Jesus
“Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21), John ends his first letter. In other words, don’t see anything but God’s glory in Christ as the source of your greatest joy, deepest satisfaction, and highest authority.
“Even the most polished performance is insufficient on its own to merit God’s favor.”
Idolatry can be active in my heart even when I’m gathered with the church. Whenever I think I can’t meet with God unless “X” is present, I’m making a profound statement. If “X” is anything other than Jesus Christ, and his Holy Spirit, I’ve moved into idolatrous territory.
Of course, God uses means to reveal himself. We encounter him through his word read and preached, the Lord’s Supper, fellowship with one another, and our songs and prayers. But when we make those means — or more specifically, the execution of those means — the basis of our fellowship with God, we’ve added an unnecessary barrier to meeting with him. We attend the gathering of the saints as idolatrous consumers and judges rather than grateful receivers and servants.
Our Sunday Morning Idols
What are some of the idols we might battle on Sundays? Here are a few that come to mind.
It’s easy to be distracted by sloppy playing, unsophisticated songs, an out-of-tune guitar, a vocalist who sings sharp, a drummer who drops a beat, or a mix that’s out of balance. That’s why skilled musicianship is commended in the Bible (Psalm 33:3). But rather than just internally criticize what’s going on, I can thank God he uses the weak things of this world to confound the wise (1 Corinthians 1:20–31). I can remind myself that Jesus perfects all our offerings of worship through his once-and-for-all sacrifice (1 Peter 2:5), and that even the most polished performance is insufficient on its own to merit God’s favor. It also might be helpful to talk to the leader after the meeting to humbly communicate what you’re hearing out front.
Our leaders don’t always pick the songs on our playlist. And they shouldn’t. The best music for congregations serves both the lyrics and the unity of the congregation, not our personal likes and dislikes. No song needs to keep us from glorying in our Redeemer. We gather with the body to edify one another. I bring more glory to God by rejoicing that others in the church are benefiting from a song, even if it’s not my preference.
Would that every preacher were as gifted, trained, and skilled as some of the more well-known preachers of our day. They aren’t. But as long as they’re preaching the gospel and seeking to communicate God’s word faithfully, they’re obeying God — and we can rejoice (2 Timothy 4:2). As Charles Spurgeon’s grandfather reminds us, someone else might be able to preach the gospel better, but he can’t preach a better gospel. Make it a point to encourage and thank your preaching pastor.
Creativity is never our goal in worshiping God. It’s simply a means to the end of displaying and seeing the glory of Christ more clearly. New forms or mediums of communication can give us a different perspective, causing the truth to have a greater impact on us. But if we’re concerned that our times of corporate worship aren’t cool, cutting edge, or surprising enough, we need to remember that the gospel of Christ is always news — and the best news we’ll ever hear.
We all love “worship experiences” with God. But the goal of gathering as God’s people is not simply to feel butterflies, but to see and remembersomething, with true affection. That “something” is the word, works, and worthiness of God, especially as he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6). If I pursue goose bumps or mere heightened emotion during a meeting, God becomes simply one of numerous options I can choose to seek them from.
“Someone else might be able to preach the gospel better, but he can’t preach a better gospel.”
Forms and practices are significant when we meet as God’s people to worship him. Our gatherings both reflect and shape our beliefs. But there is no “liturgical perfectionism” we can achieve that will ever make our worship more acceptable to God than it already is in Jesus. Our goal is to do in faith what magnifies God’s glory in Christ most effectively and scripturally. We can and should use biblical elements and proportions in corporate worship. But liturgies should serve us, not rule us. Since God has seen fit to allow freedom in form, so should we.
Every time we gather is an opportunity to glory in God’s grace revealed to us in the crucified and risen Savior. Let’s not let idols keep us from reveling in the inexpressible joy that our sins are forgiven and that we have been reconciled to God.