Ancient Truths for Contemporary Joy
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
Worship should be a joyful thing.
It should not matter if the style of worship is steeped in tradition or bursting with innovation, there should be an element of joy in it. The presence of this joy or the lack of it is a test of the effectiveness of the service. While it is certainly biblical for the congregation to cry out to God in repentance for sins committed, the end result will be the joy of sins forgiven. It is proper for the people to weep before the throne of God in intercession for the world because the joy of the Lord will comfort every intercessor with the hope of answered prayers:
- Prodigals will return to the Father.
- Sicknesses will depart from those who are ill.
- Demons will flee in terror before the name of Jesus.
- Strongholds of darkness will crumble to dust around the altars of the praying church.
How can we be sure? Because it is promised:
Psalm 126:5-6 NKJV
Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy. He who continually goes forth weeping, bearing seed for sowing, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.
And further, in the Kingdom of God, joy equals strength!
Nehemiah 8:10 NIV
Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.
When our worship is laced with joy, we are trafficking in strength. When the Holy Spirit is leading, public worship strengthens the church. Though it may abound in pleasurable elements, joyful worship is not an entertainment. It is a necessary edification, a building up, a significant strengthening of the church. No wonder Paul instructs us:
1 Corinthians 14:26 NKJV
…Whenever you come together… Let all things be done for edification…
Where can we find the joyful wells of salvation? A story from the Old Testament points the way.
The Challenges of Isaac
Genesis 26:18 NIV
Isaac reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham died, and he gave them the same names his father had given them.
Consider the challenges facing Isaac. As the only legitimate son of Abraham, he carried all the promises of God in his bosom. The pressure was on to produce the beginnings of God’s covenant people in all the earth.
And we think we are under the gun.
Well, we are.
Just like Isaac, we have been called to worship/serve God in our generation. Our fathers cannot do our work and neither can our children. Acts 13 records the conviction of Paul that King David “served God’s purpose in his generation,” and so must we. We honor those who served before us, not by replicating their distinctive work, but by doing the works God has laid out for us to do. Likewise, our job is not to insist that those who follow use our methods. Instead we must prepare them to serve God in their time in their own biblical ways. Sandwiched between tradition and innovation, we are called to be faithful to the things of God until our time is done.
But what about those unruly, unthinking Philistines?
They weren’t so stupid. It was an effective strategy. Upon the death of Abraham, they seized the day and filled the wells the Patriarch had dug. Water was more than a necessity, in an economy where wealth and power were calculated in flocks and herds, fields and harvests, it was life itself. When the wells were stopped, their springs disappeared and the land and pastures and fertile fields became a wilderness. Isaac’s job was to find these wells, to open them again, and to drink deeply from them. Abraham’s wells were the there-and-then provision of the eternal promises of God.
As worship leaders in our generation, this is our job as well. Robert Webber was famous for saying, “The road to the future runs through the past.” Do not misunderstand this. It is not a call to traditionalism or a pathetic paean to the past. Instead, it is a call to the ways of the Spirit as He opens and applies the ancient Word of God to our contemporary experience. Time and circumstance, trends and culture have stopped ancient wells where living water is known to flow. It is the worship leader’s job to find them, clear them, and drink deeply from them. We owe this to those who opened wells for us and to those whose flocks and herds, fields and harvests will mark the spiritual wealth of the next generation.
Watch out for the Philistines; they are at it again!
This is not a polemic against contemporary worship and I certainly do not cast worship leaders who use contemporary music, effects, technologies, or thinking as Philistines. True to the prophecy of the apostles, the last days will see a “great falling away,” as “the love of many” grows cold. This fallen creation is filled with Philistines—the enemies of God and God’s people.
- They wear no particular uniform and they march beneath many colorful flags to the most attractive and appealing music.
- Their swords are sharpened with humor and the Body of Christ is the butt of every joke.
- The prurient, base, and degrading things and thoughts are their stock and trade;
- the fantastical and paranormal form their spirituality and a baseless hope in a benign higher power is their cold comfort.
The Philistines in the post-modern world have so denigrated the ancient ways of God and His people that the very springs of Living Water have almost disappeared into the barren wastes of contemporary culture. We are the ones who must find these sources of joy and drink from them again.
Pass it on.
We worship God and we lead others in worship because someone opened an ancient well or two for us. It may have been our parents, a godly Sunday School teacher, a music pastor, a youth pastor, a senior pastor or a best friend forever, but someone showed us where the living water could be found. There, like the thirsty woman at the Samaritan well, we found Jesus and we drank deeply from the Well of Salvation.
- Someone told us to pray and read our Bibles every day—an ancient well if there ever was one!
- Someone told us to attend public worship on the Lord’s Day every week—oh how the Living Water flows in the house of God!
- Someone told us that God had a plan for us, a work He wanted us to do for Him—How deep and steady are waters of consistent service to mankind in the name of the Lord!
Private worship, public worship, and a life of service are ancient wells shown to us by the generations who have made the wilderness they found into the garden that we find.
Those Other Wells
Each of us has a set of ancient wells peculiar to our worship traditions.
- Some of us are used to traditional music in various forms while others know only contemporary music.
- Some of us joyously receive the music of previous generations while others are not interested in anything that isn’t “new.”
A generation ago, we would have all stayed inside our compounds to drink from our own ancient wells and that would have been that.
I believe that the Body of Christ is breaking camp in this century. Music is leading us out of our comfort zones to listen the other person’s songs—to drink from his/her well. We are discovering that the water is sweet, cool, and refreshing from “those other wells.” Today, because of the readiness of media to serve each of us, we can drink from many wonderful wells.
- “Liturgical” worshipers exercise the Gifts of the Spirit in worship.
- Baptists lift their hands and sometimes clap them.
- Pentecostals recite scriptures together and even have intentional moments of silence.
Because Worship Studies is becoming a recognized field of theological study for both preachers and musicians, worship leaders of all stripes are learning about each other and the wonderful ways we can worship God. Living Water flows from many, many wells.
Those People in the Pews
It is one thing for leaders to find new wells, but how can we help the people of the church expand their understanding of what is possible in worship? The worship leader operates in the culture of the church. Any reformation of the expectations of the congregation must be led above the level of the worship leader.
The only solution I can see is the introduction of new modes of worship in a scriptural context. There is no reason to just trade culture for culture or preference for preference; that leads to worship wars. On a higher plane, if a new way of worshiping God is presented as scriptural, Christ-honoring, and “decent and in order,” a congregation can embrace an unfamiliar mode of worship—a different ancient well.
Wells on the Map
Using the Bible as a map, we can see where the ancient wells can be found:
- Liturgical Prayers Some of us use only fixed prayers and confessions while others of us are highly suspicious of them. The whole Book of Psalms is a prayer book. Jesus gave us a prayer to pray. The word “liturgy” comes from the Greek language in the New Testament. (Acts 13:1-3) Jesus and the disciples used fixed prayers. This is deep sweet well of Living Water.
- Extemporaneous Prayers As wonderful and eloquent and inspiring as fixed prayers may be, there is a biblical place for the cry of the heart. There is a power when the church prays all at once, each one from the heart. God has no problem hearing each voice and measuring each heart. The book of Revelation often describes the hosts of heaven all praying at once. Perhaps when we drink from this well, we join with heaven to pray the will of God.
- The Creativity of the Psalms Three times the New Testament tells us to sing the Psalms. In my mind this catapults the instructions on how to worship God found in the Psalms right into the heart of the New Covenant. The creativity and artistry demanded by these masterpieces is enough to keep any set of singers, players, actors, visual artists, dancers and banner-makers busy until Jesus comes back. These wells are not only sweet, they are fun!
- The Signs and Gifts of the Spirit A century ago, these modes of worship were dormant in the church. Today, these restored, biblical practices are in use around the world. Since the Bible says we should anoint those who are sick with oil when we pray for them, why shouldn’t we do it? If the Bible says clap your hands, can that be a sin? When a congregation is taught how to respond to the direct input of the Holy Spirit through the Gifts of the Spirit, these manifestations can flow beautifully in public worship to honor Christ and build up the church. We are happy to sing “psalms and hymns.” When will be ready to sing “spiritual songs?”
- Formal and Informal Worship The Bible endorses both: Regal ceremonies as described in the histories and in the Psalms and spontaneous meetings as described in the Book of Acts. Each mode of worship is an ancient spring of Living Water.
- The Lord’s Table To some the Table of the Lord is the center of the public worship service. To others it is rare and peripheral. For those of us who have had only limited opportunity to drink from this well, a fresh study of Communion is recommended. There is more grace than law at the Table.
- The Public Reading of Scripture Many traditions call for extensive readings each week while others have hardly any scriptures beyond the pastor’s text. Paul told Timothy that the public reading of Scripture was something to attend to carefully. There is a flow of power when the Word of God is read, a power flow that we need today.
- Corporate Prayer, Praise and Worship God does not have a hearing problem. He can hear us when our hearts pour out praise, worship, and prayer. Perhaps we need more than a polite benediction at the end of the service; perhaps we need an extended time of corporate prayer. I know altar calls have been abused and people have been manipulated by them, but there is an ancient well called the altar service. More than an appeal to sinners, this is a focusing of the saints on pressing issues of concern. Just as God can lead music before the sermon, He can lead prayer with music in response to the sermon. The healing waters of the Spirit flow from this ancient well.
The Choice: Broken Cisterns or Joyful Wells
My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.
As a Classical Pentecostal Renewalist, I have learned to stretch beyond the limitations of my origins. I have fallen in love with liturgy. I have embraced the wonders of the Lord’s Table and Water Baptism. I have committed myself to the public reading of Scripture. I am moved by pageantry and processional in worship. These are ancient wells, previously unknown to me and I have found Living Water there. Some of things I suggest are wells from my Apostolic/Pentecostal roots. These, too, are ancient wells where joy still flows and healing waters, too. Abraham’s are well marked in the Bible.
It is time to undo the work of the Philistines.
© 2016 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved