Greeks at Nine/Jews at Eleven
Worship that Brings Down Walls
“For Christ himself has made peace between us Jews and you Gentiles by making us all one people. He has broken down the wall of hostility that used to separate us.” (Ephesians 2:14,15, NLT)
In an anachronistic spasm I want us to imagine that the church in Ephesus had a sign out front inviting the community in for worship. At the top of the sign is the name of the church: “First Church of Ephesus.” Just below that, in smaller letters are the service times: “Greeks at 9 a.m.” on one line; “Jews at 11 a.m.” on the next line. Next is: “Worship with us!” followed by “Timothy, senior pastor” and “Dr. Paul of Tarsus, pastor emeritus.” The topper is the last line: “This Sunday’s sermon: Unity in the Body of Christ.”
Ludicrous? Of course. Intercultural strife is not new to our generation. Among the Jews there were many divisions and parties. The Samaritan woman at the well presented Jesus with a clash of worship cultures when she said: “Sir, … you must be a prophet. So tell me, why is it that you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place of worship, while we Samaritans claim it is here at Mount Gerizim, where our ancestors worshiped?” (John 4:19,20, NLT)
The apostles had the assignment of making one church out of Jews and Gentiles, slaves and freemen, the rich and the poor, and ignorant peasants along with the educated elite. And we think we have problems. Paul indicated that these walls of hostility can be broken down by the grace of the Lord Jesus.
Barnes’ comment on this passage is rich:
“The Jews regarded the Gentiles with hatred, and the Gentiles the Jews with scorn. Now, says the apostle, they are at peace. They worship the same God. They have the same Savior. They depend on the same atonement. They have the same hope. They look forward to the same heaven. They belong to the same redeemed family. Reconciliation has not only taken place with God, but with each other.”
Can we find better solutions than Spirit-and-truth worship as we put Jesus at the center of our worship? I don’t think so. Let’s examine the problem from a scriptural standpoint. First, God intends worship to be multi-generational. Second, though we are many, Jesus wants us to be one as we worship. This is not a natural phenomenon, but a supernatural gift. Third, the New Testament church is by nature multicultural. True worship stretches us beyond ourselves into the fullness of the kingdom of God.
Multi-generational Worship—A Whole, Worshiping Family
“One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts.” (Psalm 145:4, NIV)
The transfer of faith from one generation to the next is a major theme of Scripture and a primary function of Lord’s Day public worship. A strategy of hell is to divide the generations; the strategy of heaven is to unite them. In the United States since the 1950s each generation of teens has felt obligated to rebel against their parents. Each rebellion has had its own music and now the music of each revolution can be tuned in across the radio dial as the Hits of the 50s and 60s, or the Music of Your Life, or Classic Rock and Roll. The church must be the one place in the world where there is peace among the generations. This is no easy ceasefire, but an actual inter-generational discourse on the glory of God. The great evangelical music scholar, Donald Hustad, in his important work, Jubilate! Music in the Evangelical Tradition, writes that a vital function of music and art in a society is this transfer of the values and beliefs of a tribe from generation to generation. By this he means that music communicates the values and beliefs of a people from one generation to the next. Certain songs express the shared identity of the people.
This means that the music of public worship is the tribal music of the people of God.
Americans turned to traditional songs when we were attacked on September 11, 2001: God Bless America, The Star-Spangled Banner, America, the Beautiful, God of Our Fathers, our tribal songs. This is trans-generational music. The feelings expressed in the music and the values contained in the words belong to all of us, not just the old or the young, the rich or the poor. The music of Sunday worship should fit into this category, affirming who we are, what we believe, and taking us into our common destiny.
Note that Psalm 145 indicates that this is a two-way communication, a meaningful conversation among the generations. It is not enough for the young to sit down and listen to their elders. The elders must listen to their children and grandchildren; they have much to say. They love the same Jesus, read the same Word, and express the same emotions as their elders. Their music may sound different to us, but they are in our tribe. In fact, they are the future of our tribe. Without them we are headed for extinction. Instead of recoiling in horror because of the sound or sound level, or the beat, or the instrumentation, elders need to listen for the truth in the songs and rejoice that these precious things have been successfully transferred to their progeny. The new song is not a grievous thing, but a sign of success.
Becoming One In Worship—Unity With Diversity
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one. … May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20,21,23, NIV)
Many people have marveled at the priestly prayer of Jesus in John 17. Can there be any doubt that unity in the church was His chief concern? Paul and the other leaders of the church shared this concern as they sought to make the fractured, factious followers of Jesus into a functioning whole. Musicians have a special understanding of unity with diversity. The musical term ensemble means together. There is a difference between 50 people singing at the same time and a 50-voice choir. Unity with diversity is vividly demonstrated in the instruments of the orchestra. Twenty-five instrumentalists all improvising at the same time on the same song will most likely be chaotic and noisome. But the same 25 orchestra players in a balanced instrumentation playing an excellent orchestra score can express anything from the intimate, to the mighty, to the joyful, to the plaintiff, to the music of peace or of war. Ensemble — togetherness — results in real communication.
And so it is with the church in worship. In the unity of substance (worship, Word, altar) and the diversity of the cultures of the peoples of the earth, we can be one without the loss of our individuality. I quickly tire of the sound of the brass only, or woodwinds only, or strings only, or percussion only. But with all of them playing decently and in order, with ensemble, the orchestra is never a tiring sound; it is fresh, new, and appropriate. This is a picture of the Universal Church. Each family of nations has a sound of its own to add to the choir and orchestra of humanity in worship. I have heard the unbridled joy of the African song and the immediacy of the African-American song; the passion of the Eastern European song in Romania and the peace of Taize worship from France; the sweetness of the Filipino song and the joyful energy of the Latin-American song; and, in my own land, the truth of the great hymns of the English-speaking church, the testimony of the great gospel songs of our parents, and the passion urgency of the songs of American youth. We can only imagine the variety of sounds and forms worship will contain in the millennial reign when every tribe and tongue and nation gathers before the Throne of God and of the Lamb. But today, instead of enjoying the diversity of God’s singers and players, do we put our personal cultural sounds on like a set of cultural headphones? If so, we are closing out the sounds around us and amplifying the sounds we are used to.
If anyone had to learn how to open up to the worship of different brothers and sisters in the Lord, it was the apostles. From the record in the Book of Acts, it seems they were not prepared for the inclusion of the Gentiles in the kingdom of God as full partners, especially as brothers and sisters. In spite of the prophesies of Isaiah and Amos that the Kingdom would be based on the Tabernacle of David (Isaiah 16:5; Amos 9:11,12) where Gentiles, women, and children (the remnant of mankind) were welcomed at the summit of Mt. Zion, this seemed to be a surprise to the apostles. Yet they could not deny that God had saved the Gentiles and had even baptized them in the Holy Spirit with evidence of speaking in tongues. (Acts 10:44–48)
The process the apostles used to bring the peace of God to the conflict and to expand their comfort zones has become a model for the ages:
- pay attention to what God is doing;
- consult the Scriptures; and
- follow the inner direction of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 15:1–31)
- They listened to the testimony of those who had seen the Gentiles saved and filled with the Spirit. The prophecy of Amos was seen as authoritative and, finally,
- “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you.” (Acts 15:28, NIV) was their testimony.
This is still a good method for processing the surprises God brings our way. If we use a lesser, human-centered method, it is likely that a wall of hostility will grow between us and the change God wants to bring.
Yet, the church fathers did it.
They forged a church out of lost and desperate people of every nation they visited. How did they do it? By keeping Jesus, the One who breaks down the walls of hostility between peoples, in the center of their worship. Barnes explains:
“The work of the atonement is thus designed not only to produce peace with God, but peace between alienated and contending minds. The feeling that we are redeemed by the same blood, and that we have the same Savior, will unite the rich and the poor, the bond and the free, the high and the low, in the ties of brotherhood, and make them feel that they are one. This great work of the atonement is thus designed to produce peace in alienated minds everywhere, and to diffuse abroad the feeling of universal brotherhood.”
With such an example to follow, why would we divide our congregations over something as trivial as musical style? If style has become a wall of hostility,(“I won’t sing those songs.” or “I can’t worship with that music.”) Jesus still has the power to tear down the wall. If He can bring down the wall between Jews and Gentiles, He can certainly destroy the one between those who love old songs and those who prefer new ones. Sometimes instead bringing down the walls that separate people, leaders decorate them, strengthen them, and make them the whole point of the service: “Contemporary Worship 9 a.m./Traditional Worship 11 a.m.” Surely when placed next to vital considerations like unity in the body of Christ and the scriptural demand for a whole worshiping family, musical styles should not be allowed to be divisive. Why can’t differing styles be celebrated as diversity rather than segregated as divisive?
The Plague of Pragmatism
Our pragmatic use of musical style as the centerpiece or the drawing card of our worship, rather than the timeless universals of Spirit and truth, is a result of our culture of choice. We Americans have described freedom of worship as the right to “worship God as we please” and our pleasure has become the ultimate judge of worship. If we do not like a church, we find one we do like, one that meets our needs. In response to this cultural influence, leaders build style-specific services to reach these consumers. If they do not, someone else will. All the while, the present members of the church who do not welcome the musical and presentational innovations protest — generally quite loudly — so a traditional service is designed for them. Thus, style-specific Sunday services are born in an effort to give people what they want. While this may be well-intentioned and it may actually work because people attend the services with the style they prefer, is this what the church fathers did? Were their actions shaped by their pagan cultures or did they raise up the church of Jesus Christ as a holy counterculture to change their world?
Can you imagine the range of personal preferences available to the believers in the first century? They came out of idol worship, orgies, human sacrifices, and offerings of appeasement to household demonic idols. There was much more going on in these churches than drums, guitars, soundtracks, pipe organs and lights on chemical smoke. The church fathers insisted on Spirit and truth—on the substance of worship: the Word, prayer, and Communion. They took the traditions of the synagogue and the temple, added the Lord’s Supper, made them Christocentric and created multicultural, multi-generational Christian worship. They put Jesus at the center, not culture-clad concessions to the marketplace. Let me quote Barnes a final time:
“The best way to produce peace between alienated minds is to bring them to the same Savior.”
That will do more to silence contention and heal alienation than any other means. Bring people around the same Cross; fill them with love for the same Redeemer, and give them the same hope of heaven, and you put a period to alienation and strife. The love of Christ is so absorbing and the dependence on His blood so entire that they will lay aside alienation and cease their contentions.
The Early Church was forged in many furnaces of the ancient world: Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Alexandria, Rome, and countless villages where the missionaries took the story and presence of Jesus. The Universal Church was diverse because it represented the nations of the world. There was also unity of belief and practice that soon consolidated itself into the canon of Scripture and the great confessional creeds, such as the Apostles Creed. From the local church to the Universal Church, Jesus broke down the walls of hostility between peoples, making enemies into brothers and warring camps into the peaceful dwelling placees of God by His Spirit.
The Church Universal — Every Tribe and Tongue
“After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9,10 NIV)
John saw that the church in heaven is multicultural. The writer to the Hebrews made it clear that true worship is the congruence of heaven and earth:
“But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant.” (Hebrews 12:22–24, NIV)
When the church worships, we — in the words of the Psalmist–ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in the Holy Place (Psalm 24:3). It makes sense then that the church on earth should resemble the church in heaven: “every nation, tribe, people, and language.” (Revelation 7:9, NIV). Ideally, the population of a church should reflect the population of the neighborhood where the church stands. Gordon Fee makes an interesting and revolutionary observation in his book, Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God, about the essential nature of the church in Paul’s theology. “Homogeneous churches lie totally outside Paul’s frame of reference.” The congregations in the New Testament were multicultural because they existed in multicultural societies. When a church stands within a mono–cultural context, it will be mono-cultural except for the generational subcultures (a black church in a black community; a white church in a white community; an Hispanic church in a Latino community). Problems arise when churches are mono-cultural even though they stand in multicultural settings. This indicates that these churches are isolated from their communities, rather than a part of them. They are not reaching their surrounding neighborhoods for Jesus. Most likely this is because their mono-cultural worship does not engage the cultures surrounding the church. How does this happen?
Closely related to the concept of using style-specific worship services to reach certain groups of people is the concept of keeping worship styles safely nestled within the comfort zones of a congregation. These churches usually exhibit little or no interest in reaching the lost of the different cultures around them. Comfort-zone worship is not true worship—worship in Spirit and truth.
As a worship leader, I must not settle for popular, status-quo affirming, people-pleasing worship. That is grandstanding. My job is to prepare the sacrifice of praise our congregation will offer to the Lord as I am led by the Spirit. I want to lead prophetic worship that is pulsing with the power of God to change people’s lives, convict sinners of their need for Jesus, and bring us all before the Throne of God and of the Lamb.
Our worship must accomplish three things:
- affirm our heritage,
- provide a meaningful encounter with the Lord Jesus, and
- lead us into our future in Christ.
Comfort zones cannot withstand this true worship, but lost people of every culture will be drawn to the Lord Jesus as He is lifted up in the power of the Holy Spirit.
How Do We Lead Multi-generational, Multi-cultural Worship?
“My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:4,5, NIV)
This serious miscalculation lies at the heart of this discussion:
The impact of the church on the world depends on our public presentations of the gospel.
While our services are important, the real power to reach the world for Jesus is the power of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and lives of the people of God. Churches grow because lost people see and feel Jesus in the lives of God’s people all through the week, not because we are slick and professional in our presentations on the weekend.
This choice of the power of the Spirit, rather than the excellence of our presentation, is not new to our generation. Paul made specific choices to rely on the Holy Spirit and not on his own personal giftedness:
“When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:1,2, NIV)
Paul “resolved” that the ministry did not depend on his considerable gifts, but on the power of the Spirit. The way to tap into the power of the Holy Spirit is to align ourselves with His purposes.
Here are some things to do:
- A starting place would be to take the advice of Jesus to the Samaritan woman — worship the Father in Spirit and truth, not just culture and methodology.
- Next, reverse the trend of continually dividing the church into generational groups. Bring the family back together so we can talk to each other about the glory of God.
- We need to learn to merge the musical languages of the congregation into cohesive, integral sacrifices of praise and worship with Jesus at the center. Let’s focus on the Lord, not our music.
- We need to restore the biblical elements of congregational worship: the psalms, the public reading of Scripture, proclamations of praise, seasons of worship, corporate prayer, creedal confessions, anointing with oil, laying on of hands, altar services, singing in/by the Spirit, and especially Communion. These things are all about Jesus. They are means of grace, and they are trans-generational and trans-cultural.
- Finally, we must elevate our view of worship to the higher view of ministry to the Lord. Blended worship and style-specific worship tend to be horizontal, focused on the desires of the people. That is not what public worship is for. When the church gathers as the people did in Acts 13, to minister to the Lord, we, like they, will hear from heaven.
We can be one—a whole and healthy worshiping family. We can be one—celebrating the diversity of cultures with the unity of spirit and truth. We can be a universal one—an earthly reflection of heaven itself.
© 2016 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved
(Author’s note: I have written much about the necessity of unity in worship and the power of peace among the generations. Here are some of the articles found on this website.)