It’s quite possible that you’ve walked into a church building in recent days and asked yourself why the church service felt more like a production than a worship service. Was it the lights or the musicians? Was it the pastor’s method of communication or his attire? What caused this question to be raised in your mind as you were seeking to worship God? The reality is, much change has occurred within evangelicalism within modern church history that necessitates explanation. Let’s talk about lights, stage, and altars in our approach to the worship a sovereign and holy God.
Why Darkness Rather Than Light?
For many years, the church gathered together under the dim light of candles or scheduled their primary gatherings for worship on the seasonal schedule of the sunlight. During the years prior to modern technological advancements, the primitive church figured out how to meet without the use of electricity and modern light systems in a way that was both edifying and efficient.
Today, modern churches with all of the technological advancements of a modern era within modern church campuses are choosing to dim the lights, or in some cases, to turn them off altogether. Why would churches want to gather in dark rooms? What’s the point? The fact is, many churches are driven by pragmatism and a commitment to production effects rather than the prescriptions of worship in Scripture.
Consider the contrast between light and darkness in Scripture (Gen 1:3; Job 33:28; Ps 56:13; Ps 27:1; Matt 4:16; Luke 2:32; 2 Cor 4:4-6; Eph 6:12; 1 Pet 2:9). God’s people are called out of darkness into the marvelous light of Christ. Even the period of darkness during the 400 years between the close of the Old Testament and the dawning of the New Testament, we see that God was silent and that the people of God were encompassed by darkness. Jesus Christ is the light of the world (John 8:12), and his people are to be a city set on a hillside that cannot be hidden (Matt 5:14). Christians are people of light rather than darkness. Charles Spurgeon once wrote, “Oh that thy words, like the beams of the sun, may enter through the window of my understanding, and dispel the darkness of my mind!”1 C.H. Spurgeon, edited by J. I. PACKER, “Introduction,” in Psalms, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), 233.
Church leaders today choose to intentionally dim lights in order to control the mood of the room by color packages with stage lights and backlight designs. These lights are not intended for seeing. They’re intended for feeling. It’s about the emotions of the people. This is a production decision that flows out of the world of entertainment which has been used for many years in the theater and concert scene. The fact is, lights can manipulate how we feel and that’s why nice restaurants will often dim the house lights in the evening to create a specific mood for those who enter the room.
While we are creatures designed by God with specific emotions, we should be careful to avoid manipulation by how we use lights in our approach to worship. I recall a conversation with a friend a couple of years ago who could not explain why she was constantly weeping during the worship service at her church. After additional conversation and explanation, it was clear that the music choices and the lights were creating a mood and leading her to be emotionally stirred. It wasn’t based on the Scripture or the theology being communicated.
Consider the fact that beyond the avoidance of manipulation, we must take note of the calling of Christians to address one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs as we make melody in our hearts to the Lord (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16). How is this possible if we can’t see one another? It’s far less personal and edifying and in fact hinders Christian fellowship. A concert or theater purposefully directs everyone’s attention to the front, but the gathered assembly of the church should see one another sing. Since Christian worship involves this horizontal element, it must not be overlooked or minimized.
In short, children need to see their parents, grandparents, and other faithful church members singing, praying, worshipping through preaching, and partaking in the Lord’s Supper. Pastors need to see the congregation as opposed to a dark room with a bright light shining upon them. This is part of discipleship. Corporate worship is just that—corporate. It involves an assembly. It’s not about creating an atmosphere of singularity and autonomy which is the goal of a dark room. Is this goal of autonomy and singularity of purpose and feeling in worship why people often close their eyes while singing? Turn on the lights for Christian worship. We need to see one another, sing to God and to one another, and edify one another during corporate worship. This is not possible in a dark room.
From a more practical position, consider the fact that we need light to use our Bibles and hymnals. Many churches simply display the biblical text on the screens as well as the words to the songs, but it would be far more encouraging to have church members using their physical Bibles (not phones that can easily distract us away from God during worship) and hymnals (to see the musical notes and arrangement). Rather than being dependent upon screens (that frequently change) to display everything for us, we could be actively engaged with an open Bible and hymnal.
Consider the fact that by the use of lights that direct the attention of the room to the front, it’s quite possible that you lead people to embrace the false idea that whatever is happening up at the front on the platform is most important and central to worship which in actuality what is happening in the entire room is central to the church’s worship. The worship of God is corporate and is happening throughout the worship auditorium. What happens on the back row of the church’s auditorium is very important during a worship service. Turn on the lights so that everyone can worship without hinderance.
Brothers, We Are Not Performers
It’s a common thing to hear people referring to the platform in the front of the church’s auditorium as a stage. Often, people with pure hearts and motives and with sound theology will use the “stage” language in the context of their church building. I would like to push back on that vocabulary with the knowledge that words matter. We should be intentional about how we speak about the elements and circumstances of worship.
Recently I was speaking at a conference and right in the middle of my sermon, the audience began to applaud. It shocked me. It’s not the first time that has happened, but when I’m preaching I’m not thinking about applause. The second time they applauded, I remember having to intentionally wait on them to finish so that I could continue speaking. It was a massive distraction to the preaching in my opinion. Pastors are not performers on a stage.
The evangelical church is filled with performers. This performance mindset has influenced church leaders far and wide. At the heart of the issue is an insatiable desire for success. When pastors are turned into performers the church will be filled with consumers rather than worshippers. The same thing can be said with regard to those who lead musically. Anyone who holds a microphone must be committed to leading for the glory of God rather than for the applause of man.
Churches do not have stages. It’s that simple. The area in the front of the worship auditorium where the pulpit stands is not a stage. Everyone who gathers in the room should be there to praise, worship, and submit to our Lord. Our aim should be to please an audience of One rather than consumers. Dear brother pastor, we are not performers.
We Are Called to a Table, Not an Altar
The people of God approached God in worship at altars. The altar was common among the directives set forth in Leviticus. In fact, when the Tabernacle was completed, if you entered the fence through the central gate, you immediately came into contact with the bronze altar. Exodus 20:24 reads, “An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you.”
Under the old covenant, the people of God were to constantly offer up blood sacrifices to God to cover their sin. The Hebrew root for altar means “to slay” or “slaughter.” The burnt offering was common for Israel’s worship of God and it was at the altar where God met with his people. Gideon offered burnt offerings according to Judges 6. When the Ark of the Covenant was returned from the Philistines, burnt offerings were offered to God (1 Samuel 6). David offered burnt offerings as a result of his sin (2 Samuel 24). King Solomon offered 1,000 burnt offerings at the dedication of the temple (1 Kings 3).
Each year at Passover, the city of Jerusalem would fill up with people and animals for sacrifice. Josephus, the ancient historian, claims that several hundred thousand lambs were herded through the streets of Jerusalem every Passover. Jews who lived outside of Jerusalem would travel home for the Passover celebration, but they would need to purchase a sacrificial animal. According to 2 Chronicles 35, when King Josiah celebrated Passover, he slaughtered more than 37,000 sheep.
Charles Finney introduced his “New Measures” during his ministry where he would invite people to immediately respond to the preaching and come to what he called the “anxious bench” at the front. According to Finney, if he could get you or your children to come to the anxious bench and pray, he could almost guarantee their salvation. This practice would be used by figures such as Billy Sunday and Billy Graham. By the 20th century, pastors began using the “altar” language to refer to the front of the church’s auditorium as they invited people to respond during what became known as the “altar call.”
As we gather to worship God, it’s clear that words matter. We try to distinguish between the church’s building and the gathered church. It’s essential to be clear that “praise and worship” is not merely the “singing part” of the worship service. We praise and worship God in various ways through prayer, song, and preaching. Therefore, when it comes to the “altar” language, I would like to push back against using it within the realm of Christian worship.
When Christ gathered his disciples on the evening before his crucifixion, he celebrated Passover with them around the table. That evening, Jesus brought Passover (the oldest Jewish feast) to a final culmination and inaugurated a new memorial meal (Lord’s Supper) which would continue under the New Covenant until Christ returns.
This memorial would not look back to the salvation of Israel from Egypt, but instead—the salvation of God’s people from their sin. This memorial would not look back at a lamb that was slain to spare people from the Angel of Death, but instead it would focus on the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world(John 1:29). This memorial would not look back to a time when God saved the Jews, but instead, would be focused on the salvation of God’s people from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation. John MacArthur observes, “In that one meal Jesus both terminated the old and inaugurated the new.”2John MacArthur, “Instituting the Lord’s Supper” [accessed: 7/13/23]
Today, rather than an altar at the front of the worship auditorium, we have a table. This table is where the church gathers at the culmination of the worship service to celebrate the finished work of Christ on our behalf. Rather than approaching an altar to give another sacrifice, we come to the table to celebrate the once for all sacrifice of Jesus who as the Lamb of God fulfilled sacrificial system under the Old Covenant. We do not come to bring a sacrifice, we come to celebrate the grand sacrifice of all where Jesus saved his people from their sin. Christian worship is identified by a table rather than an altar.
By way of conclusion, we need to be able to recognize trends that impact Christian worship. Rather than becoming slaves to new measures that promise instant results and success, we must remain committed to approaching God in the way he has prescribed in his Word. Pragmatism is a cancer that sucks the life out of Christian worship. Words matter because theology matters. But rising from that theological foundation is our worship philosophy which matters too. That’s the beautiful thing about worship, God has not left us to guess at how he desires to be worshipped by his people. He has given us his Word.