“At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.” Matthew 27:51-52, NIV
Have you ever told someone that you were spiritual but not religious? Or has someone ever said that to you about themselves? The implication is that there is something wrong with institutional worship that can be avoided by dropping out and seeking an individual relationship with God instead. Just as the curtain was torn in the temple at Jesus’ death ending the system of sacrificial offerings, these contemporary worshipers find little relevance in church buildings or hierarchical administrative systems for today’s worship.
Not wanting to put new wine into old wine skins, they often seek exuberant worship styles that pour forth unrestrained from hearts bursting with joy. Feeling becomes more important than content characterized by songs with endless repetition of a few powerful catch phrases sung as a mantra. Examples are “Agnus Dei” by Michael W Smith and “Awesome God” by Rich Mullins. Worship becomes marketing as these catch phrases compete in the marketplace of ideas. Choosing between God and Satan becomes like choosing between Pepsi and Coke. People understand the worship choices little better than they understand what is really in the can they are drinking their favorite beverage from. Even though the products are often associated with exciting lifestyle choices such as “The Pepsi Generation,” watching the supermarket check out line will quickly reveal that most of those buying the products are not enjoying those exciting lifestyles.
The same disconnect exists between the excited worshipers singing their repetitive phrases in weekly informal worship sessions. The overflowing joy they experience while the music plays does not continue into the weekly routine of normal life. To be sure, these worshipers would happily check the box “Christian” on any survey, but they do not feel the need to encumber their lifestyle with anything that would restrict their ability to freely make choices that are self-destructive, and they even advocate for those choices. Internet social media are filled with testimonials of those who identify themselves as “Christian” yet brag of their latest drunken party, their sexual relationships, or who “pwnd” whom. (If you don’t know what that means, google it.)
So why do we seek these worship styles in the first place? It is because just like the Israelites of old, we are finding our current worship dry, boring and uninspiring. God through Moses endowed the children of Israel with a formal worship service and priesthood created as a system for removing the guilt of sin. Guilt is a big problem. You see, no matter how hard we try, we cannot live perfect lives. We make mistakes that hurt ourselves and others. Each time we do this, it adds to our load of guilt. Human beings were never intended to carry guilt. As that load accumulates over time, we see the results in mental and physical breakdowns.
Therefore God provided a system to deal with the guilt problem. The ultimate solution was Jesus, but until He was to come, the sacrificial system would provide a means to annually cleanse the community from the burden of guilt. Eventually that once-a-year solution would be replaced by a way to come before God anytime to seek cleansing as Jesus continually ministered in the heavenly sanctuary.
Sadly the sanctuary system God had provided became dry and ritualistic as the true meaning became clouded. People brought sacrifices and participated in the feasts because it was the expected thing to do and not because of any real desire to seek a relationship with God. Compounding the problem was a priesthood that evolved into gatekeepers instead of facilitators. They emphasized the obligation of worship rather than the opportunity. Form became more important than substance. The temple became just one more place expecting money and resources, no different from the king or the emperor. Instead of encouraging an attitude of worship and reverence, the religious leaders spawned an attitude of rebellion. The religious system that should have been a check on the avarice of those who oppressed the people, instead sought power and influence with those oppressors.
Today the hierarchical administration of the churches and the dry, formal worship services are also failing to provide an answer for guilt. Many churches find people are walking away in droves and the congregations consist of the remaining elderly sitting in half-empty sanctuaries. In desperation some will form praise singing groups, update their songbooks, and spend their limited resources for audio-visual equipment, but to little avail. The problem is not about the worship style. In fact, the new worship style quickly becomes the new dry ritual. As the praise singers go through their paces down front with little real enthusiasm, the parishioners dutifully sing the songs figuring they are doing everything necessary to save their dying church. They are mystified when people continue to leave and the changes they have made do not seem to help.
The congregants have forgotten the purpose of the church. That purpose is no different than the purpose of the sanctuary over two millennia ago. It is all about guilt. The Israelites came to the sanctuary with their offerings and their guilt and left with neither. They walked toward the sanctuary with heavy steps loaded with their emotional burden and left with light tread, feeling a new hope for their daily struggle with life. In other words, the sanctuary was where they found hope.
It is no different today. People come to the church loaded with the burdens of the week. Sometimes those burdens are so heavy that it is a wonder that they were able to make it to church at all. Beaten down and depressed they come seeking at least enough hope to carry them through another week. Instead, they find an excellent presentation on correct doctrine. They may even hear a sermon on the need to love others and be unified. The one thing they often do not find is the Blessed Hope for their own situation. They leave vowing to try to live doctrinally correct, vowing to love others, and promising to pray for unity, but it is all now more burdens they must carry. Their step is heavier as they trudge home. Eventually the load simply gets too heavy, and they cease coming at all.
What makes the story sadder is that the Devil knows just what they need. And he offers them hope in every way imaginable except the only way that works. He tells them if they have more money things will get better. A new car is just what they need. Their spouse is holding them back and maybe they would feel better with a new one. Maybe some new clothes would give hope. All of these suggestions and more are advertised everywhere with promises that things will be better if we simply choose anything, anything at all, except Jesus.
When none of these things lift the burden of guilt, the Devil offers his ultimate solution. Alcohol will make you forget and feel better. And if that isn’t enough there are drugs that can help. Finally, when everything comes up empty and the guilt has laid such a heavy burden on a person’s heart that the only thing they know is despair, the last solution is offered. The Devil simply says, “Well, maybe life wasn’t all that worth living after all,” and suicide becomes the way out.
But none of that has to be. God provided the answer for guilt, and He entrusted the church to share it with others. Guilt for sin is the biggest problem in the world today. If God’s people were to offer hope for the guilty, the pews would be full. Some churches have been doing that and have seen the result, but it is not because of the music they are playing or the style of worship and praise. It is simply because those who come to worship leave with hope rekindled in their hearts. If they find that, it won’t matter if the songs are centuries old hymns or highly repetitive contemporary catch phrases, the people will come. They will not come for the worship format. They will come for the Hope. I want to be with them. Don’t you?