John Bunyan demonstrates a sanctifying use of imagination in his classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. I’ve often wondered how Bunyan’s character “Christian” would respond if he visited a modern seeker-driven church. This story takes place later in Christian’s pilgrimage, having been matured by many dangers, toils, and snares.
Mrs. Chipper led Christian through a labyrinth of halls to a line of people streaming into an open door.
Mrs. Chipper: Enjoy the worship experience!
Christian slowly walked into a cavernous room. He marveled at the masses of people entering the place. He noticed many appearing to engage in prayer, but upon closer inspection they were bent over and looking into a small rectangular illuminated device. Many peered intently at screens depicting moving pictures. Some were not even talking to one another—they seemed hypnotized by the small device. Seeing a man sitting at the end of a row, Christian asked him,
Christian: What are you looking at?
Libertine Larry: This is my phone—we love snap chatting, instagramming, and watching funny videos on YouTube. Sit with us and I’ll show you!
Christian: Why then do you come to the Lord’s church?
Libertine Larry: I came to Quest because it’s a church for the tech-savvy. My boss invited me, and I said, “OK.” Been here ever since because I found my people.
The person sitting next to Larry added,
Best Life Now Bert: People from Quest gave me a survey to find out what I was looking for in a church. Based on what I wanted, they designed a service to fit my lifestyle. Quest is cool—the church shows movies, does skits from Back to the Future, and even has a bring your pet to church day! This church is devoted to making members happy.
Christian: But is the church devoted to the Apostles’ Doctrine (Acts 2:42)?
Another happy and excited lady entered the conversation.
Libertine Lisa: We don’t focus on doctrine—all you need is love.
Christian noticed Bibles in a rack under every chair. He picked up a copy of God’s Word and put his finger on 1 Corinthians 13.
Christian: Doctrine is simply Biblical teaching. The Scripture says, “Love does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor 13:6). Apart from biblical truth, you can’t know or understand love.
Libertine Lisa: We commend ourselves to the community by never offending people.
Christian: That’s very different from the way the Apostles commended themselves to the world. In 2 Corinthians 4:2 Paul writes, “But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” The Lord’s people commend themselves by speaking and living the truth.
Libertine Lisa: We are open and affirming of all people. The Lord accepts everyone.
Christian: You speak in vague generalities with a sprinkling of biblical words. The Scripture describes the wrath of God as coming upon all the unrighteous who, “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (Rom 1:32). You should not approve, affirm, or accept what God abominates. You should be like Jesus and call sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32). The Apostle Paul did not accept the worldly Athenians the way they were—but says, “God…commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30).
Suddenly the chamber became dark. Multicolored lights began flashing on the stage.
Christian: It’s darker than the dungeon of doubting castle in here, how can anyone read their Bible?
Music began playing and a tall man came skipping onto the stage. He was nodding his head, jumping, and clapping his hands.
Mr. Entertainment: Let’s get excited and worship!
The next half-hour was stunning and disorienting for Christian. He could not understand how what he witnessed and experienced could be considered Christian worship. There was no Scripture reading, no prayers, and no Lord’s Supper. Chaos reigned in the way people participated— Some stood, some jumped, one person was lying face down on the floor with his arms extended in front of him. As the music and singing came to crescendo and stopped, the leader on the stage introduced the preacher.
Mr. Entertainment: It’s time for Ted’s Talk!
Christian excitedly opened the Bible hoping for clear teaching from God’s Word. He felt like a starving man in need of spiritual nourishment. The preacher never read from the Scripture. He quoted a proverb and made a passing reference to what Jesus would do. He never clearly preached the Gospel or mentioned repentance. He titled the talk, “Building a Nest Egg.” It contained an extended story about planting seeds which he likened to giving money to support the church. The man spoke with rhetorical power. He demonstrated natural gifts for speaking, communication, and engaging the audience. Christian marveled that such a gifted speaker would replace preaching the Word with storytelling. Christian wished the speaker would use his natural gifts to teach Biblical doctrine.
At the conclusion of the talk, Mr. Entertainment returned to the stage and began leading much slower music. The ted-talking senior pastor began to exhort people to give money and “Build a Nest Egg” for the church.
Christian resolved to speak with the worship leader and the preacher. Many questions filled his mind about what he had experienced. He genuinely sought to understand the motivations and methodologies of the worship leader and senior pastor.
As people quickly filed out of the room, Christian fought through the crowd and approached the stage. Mr. Entertainment engaged in a discussion with the many musicians.
Christian: Dear Sir, might I ask you some questions about worship?
Mr. Entertainment: Sure—that is my specialty.
Christian chose not to address the issues of musical instruments in worship and not employing a Psalter—he wanted to address more fundamental concerns.
Christian: The songs did not seem to be based on Scripture, and some did not even mention God or Jesus.
Mr. Entertainment: We want songs to touch people and create an atmosphere for worship with joy and praise. We sing relevant and encouraging songs that address people’s real lives. These songs get people excited for God.
Christian: I agree that worship should be characterized by joy and praise. But what is the reason for joy that leads to praise? Psalm 111:2 says, “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.“ Delight in the Lord comes from reflecting on great truths about Him and His great works—primarily what God has done in Christ—the gospel. This is the most important and relevant message of all, and the real need of every person. That’s something to get excited about.
Let me pose another question: do you want your worship to please God?
Mr. Entertainment: Yes, of course.
Christian: How do you know if your worship is pleasing to God?
Mr. Entertainment: If the people are happy, responding, and keep coming. Look at how many people come to Quest—the proof is in the pudding, what we’re doing is working. God wants people to worship Him!
Christian: If you aim to gather a large crowd, then you seem to be succeeding. But I propose a different goal for worship—to please God and glorify Him. You’re correct, God seeks people to worship Him, but people must worship Him on His terms—in Spirit and in truth (John 4:23). We can only come to Him through the way, the truth, and the life—Jesus Christ.
Let me ask a more basic question—where do you learn about worship?
Mr. Entertainment: We learn about worship from other people, and from engaging in worship.
Christian: If you base your worship on what others do, it may simply be founded on worldly traditions. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for vain worship, because of how they followed their traditions (Matt 15:9). If you base your worship on experience (how you have always done it), how do you know it pleases the Lord? What if the people you’re following gave you a wrong example?
Christian held up the Bible and continued.
You must learn about worship from the one source we know comes from God Himself—the Scripture—his Word. I had a friend named Faithful who was put on trial for his beliefs. He testified, “Therefore, whatever is employed in the worship of God, that is not in agreement with divine revelation, cannot be sourced in anything else than human faith…” The Bible provides the standard for obeying God in all things—especially worship. It explains how God’s people should worship Him. Thomas Watson simply says, “[Scripture] shows . . . what we are to believe; and . . . what we are to practice.”1Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 663.
Mr. Entertainment: Why be so restrictive? Shouldn’t we have the freedom to worship how we like?
Christian: God is the only one entitled to prescribe how He is to be worshiped—and He has revealed in Scripture how we should worship Him.
John Calvin argues, “In order that we may not adopt any device that seems fit to ourselves, but look to the injunction of Him who alone is entitled to prescribe. Therefore, if we would have Him to approve our worship, this rule, which he everywhere enforces with the utmost strictness, must be carefully observed.”2John Calvin, “The Necessity of Reforming the Church” (Audubon, N.J.: Old Paths, 1994), 6. Emphasis mine.
Mr. Entertainment: Then what should we do in worship?
Christian: We should include those elements commanded in Scripture: reading, preaching, singing, and prayer. We should lead God’s people to do the things we see exampled in worship: the Lord’s supper, giving, and fellowship.
Mr. Entertainment: That won’t work in today’s world. Modern people like movies, visuals, and entertainment.
Christian: People need saving faith more than anything else and “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17; see also 1 Pet 1:23; Jas 1:18). Christians need teaching, admonition, and edification from worship (Col 3:16; 1 Cor 14:26). The means God appointed will work in any generation and any place to bring about salvation and sanctification (1 Cor 1:21). We should expect the preaching of the cross to be foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Cor 1:18).
Mr. Entertainment: But God cares about our hearts—If we have a sincere and happy heart, surely God will be pleased.
Christian: You’re right—God does care about our hearts. But He also cares about our obedience. A faithful heart leads to faithful obedience to His Word—the worshiper needs both to please the Lord.
David had sincere motives in his heart when he planned to move the ark—yet he did not carefully follow God’s Word and therefore faced judgment. His error was not obeying the clear regulations for moving the ark. God judges His people for disobedience to His Word (Deut 28:58-63; 2 Kgs 22:11-13; Jer 6:19; etc.).
Mr. Entertainment: That seems nit-picky.
Christian: Jeremiah Burroughs warns, “In the matter of worship, God stands upon little things. Some things may seem to be very small and little to us, yet God stands much upon them in the matter of worship…”3Jeremiah Burroughs, Gospel Worship, Don Kister, Ed. (Orlando: Soli Deo Gloria, 2006), 13.
Mr. Entertainment: All these examples from the Old Testament—they don’t apply to us. It’s 2022!
Christian: In speaking of Old Testament examples, Paul tells Christians, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Cor 10:6).
Mr. Entertainment: So you really think God cares so much about how we worship?
Christian: Hebrews 12:28–29 exhorts Christians, “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”
Notice again, God demands reverence and awe in worship because of His nature—a consuming fire.
Jeremiah Burroughs says, “The great reason why people come and worship God in a slight way is because they do not see God in His glory.”4Burroughs, Gospel Worship, , Don Kister, Ed. (Orlando: Soli Deo Gloria, 2006), 86.
You don’t read the Scripture and conclude, “we can worship God any way we want—God really doesn’t care.” Scripture will never lead you to be flippant about worship, but rather to be fearful and joyful in your approach to God.
Mr. Entertainment: But I have the gift of the creative eye. In America-land we value freedom of expression.
Christian: God has provided numerous outlets for creativity in the world—art, writing, music, business, etc. Many avenues for creativity can be found in how we serve the Lord through good works and hospitality. Pastors utilize creativity in crafting and delivering their sermons. But this does not give us license or freedom to create new ways of worshiping God to please ourselves and others.
Mr. Entertainment: Aren’t you taking this too seriously?
Christian: These are serious matters—especially for one who leads God’s people in worship. Failing to follow God’s prescription was very costly for Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:1-7). Scripture records numerous occasions where judgment came on those who did not obey God’s word while engaging in acts of worship (1 Samuel 15:22; 1 Chron. 15:12-15).
Mr. Entertainment: Those are Old Testament examples.
Christian: In 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 God judged those in the church who worshipped Him in a way He did not prescribe/approve.
Mr. Entertainment: Judgment?! My God would never do that. He’s a God of love.
Christian: Then your God is not the God revealed in the Bible. I understand why you call this “Quest” and not “Church.” I think you’re wrong to call this “worship.”
A young lady walked up and interrupted their conversation.
Miss Tolerance: I’m Miss Tolerance—the Pastor of Inclusion and Engagement. May I help you find your car?
Christian: May Ispeak to the preacher.
Miss Tolerance: Follow me—I’ll take you to meet our Senior Pastor for Ted-Talking.
To be continued.
I don’t intend this story to contain false caricatures of ministries or straw man arguments. Most of Christian’s interactions reflect actual conversations I’ve had with leaders and members of churches. I intend this story to help readers think biblically about the Church and worship. I hope to equip readers to engage in meaningful conversations with other Christians about worship. Many believers engage in corporate worship without asking or considering basic biblical questions about what they are doing and why they are doing it. I pray this helps readers consider and evaluate the theology and methodologies utilized in their churches. G3 provides outstanding resources to help you grow in your faith and make disciples in the world.
|1||Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 663.|
|2||John Calvin, “The Necessity of Reforming the Church” (Audubon, N.J.: Old Paths, 1994), 6. Emphasis mine.|
|3||Jeremiah Burroughs, Gospel Worship, Don Kister, Ed. (Orlando: Soli Deo Gloria, 2006), 13.|
|4||Burroughs, Gospel Worship, , Don Kister, Ed. (Orlando: Soli Deo Gloria, 2006), 86.|