Recovering the Wilderness Protocol

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Public Worship: The Heavenly Pattern

Recovering the Wilderness Protocol

How Old Moses Can Help Your Congregation Get Involved

When you think of someone who could help you see more of the congregation involved in worship, Moses might not be the first guy to come to mind. But give me a few minutes and I will try to make my case.

(Author’s note: This article was written in 2017. Today, 5/11/24, I have updated it.)

Worship in their Wilderness and Mine

It took them 40 years but the children of the slaves of Egypt finally crossed Jordan to become the citizens of Canaan’s Land. They, with their wilderness-born children, followed the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant into the Jordan and walked across the riverbed on dry land as the water piled up just a few feet upstream from them.

A few years ago, like those wandering Israelites, I was looking for a church home since I no longer served in a staff position. After my forty+ years of staff ministry (wilderness wanderings?) I had crossed the river into semi-retirement. (The Social Security Administration held back some of the river’s water for me!) As the chief musician on several pastoral teams, my church had always been chosen for me—finding one to join was a different process altogether.

So what does worship at that ancient Tent in the Wilderness have to do with my search for a church? I will relate a common experience thus far:

  • We are generally on the verge of being late.
  • There are small worship teams consisting of assorted guitars and keyboards, with a safely caged drummer, all accompanying 3-6 vocalists.
  • The lights are lowered in the congregation and change in color and intensity as the music unfolds. Sometimes there is smoke but no one seems to be alarmed by this.
  • The church platform doesn’t look anything at all like a church platform.
  • Words for singing are projected in strategic places so that everyone in the house can see them as they change gracefully through the structure of each song.
  • Unfortunately, many of the people in the congregation are doing more standing and looking than they are singing.

While these innovations represent up-to-date worship leadership in the third decade of 21st Century Evangelical America, the less than full participation in worship singing is not a new problem by any means. While warning against casting the congregation as an audience and grieving the lack of involvement, I have little scriptural issue with any of these presentational choices. Just as I did for more than 30 years of worship leading, I’m sure each worship leader prays each week about the level of involvement by the people of congregation. Is there a scriptural principle we can find to help more people open their hearts, minds, and mouths to worship? I think one answer is what Moses saw on Mt. Sinai.

What Old Moses Saw on the Mountain

There are at least two things Moses saw in the heights of Mt. Sinai that speak to us today.

  • He saw the glory of the Lord. (Ex 33:21)
  • He saw the pattern of the Throne Room of God in Heaven. (Heb 8:5-6)

The first of these is better known and more commonly discussed than the second.

The Glory

Every worship leader dreams of the glory of the Lord descending on the platform and the people, the leaders and the laity, as it did on King Solomon, the priests, the choir and orchestra, and the people at the dedication of the Temple. When this happens it is a sovereign act of God. We can long for it and we can pray and prepare for it but until God visits us in power that is all we can do.

The Pattern

The second of the things Moses saw on the mountain is something we can do! The Lord told Moses to build the Tabernacle according to the pattern he saw while the lightning danced, the thunder rumbled, the rocks shook, and the smoke clouded the heights of the Mountain of God. Moses did exactly that and when the Tabernacle was completed, the Glory of the Lord filled that tent. What does that Wilderness Tabernacle have to do with us today? Better questions are these: “What about that Tabernacle pleased the Lord and can we build something like that today?”

The Wilderness Protocol

At the heart of the worship of Jehovah at the Wilderness Tabernacle there was a protocol; a prescribed way things were to be done. The Wilderness Protocol was a step-by-step journey into the Manifest Presence of God. This was the pattern Moses saw in heaven. I believe worshipers who follow this protocol please the Lord greatly. Under the Old Covenant, not everyone could participate in the total protocol. This journey into the presence of the Lord, though started by the Covenant People, could only be continued by priests and Levites and could only be completed by the High Priest, and that only once a year on the Day of Atonement.

However, under the New Covenant, all worshipers can safely travel from

  • outside and through the Gates of Thanksgiving,
  • into the Courts of Praise,
  • into Holy Place of the Word and Prayer in the Light of the Spirit, and finally,
  • through the Torn veil into the Holy of Holies, where the Lord lives and rules.

This is the pattern—the shape and structure of Worship in heavenm and it can be for us on earth.

Now, back to my personal journey.

It is my observation that many contemporary worship leaders seem unaware of this protocol. Case in point: On several occasions, I have seen worship leaders start the service with a deep song of prayer, seeking the Lord’s face.

I wondered why would they do that? Don’t they know about the Gates of Thanksgiving and the Courts of Praise? Don’t they know about the command to “Enter His presence with joyful songs?” Then, as I wondered about this, I think I understood.

The worship leader is the most prepared worshiper in the house. He/She has planned and prayed all week. The Leader got to church hours before anyone else and the whole team has already been through all music at least once. The leader and the team are already through the Gates and Courts and are ready to worship and pray! They are most likely doing deep songs that mean so much to them so that’s where they start the service.

Meanwhile—I just came in the room. I was out on a parking lot just a few minutes ago! I need the Gates of Thanksgiving and the Courts of Praise! My heart cries out to the Worship Leader:  “I am not where you are yet. Provide a path for me to get to the place you are enjoying.” In short, people need the protocol! Worshipers need to give thanks, to proclaim praise, to exhort one another, to sing or read the scriptures before they are ready to seek the Lord’s face in deep songs of prayer and adoration.

Is this just a Baby Boomer thing?

Some worship leaders dismiss the “fast songs-medium tempo songs-slow songs worship leading method” as a Baby Boomer invention. They would rather find meaningful songs and use them however and whenever they want. I believe the Wilderness Protocol was the power behind the “fast-medium-slow method.” Of course fast and slow do not necessarily equate to praise and worship, but many times it works out that way. We Baby Boomer worship leaders used this form because it worked—God blessed it and the people participated.

  • It worked because it is one, but not the only, application of the Thanksgiving-to-Praise-to-Worship protocol.
  • It worked because we did what Moses did; we built it according to the pattern of God’s throne room in heaven.

The Wilderness Protocol has nothing at all to do with the style of any song you might choose. It has everything to do with the content and function of the song. Worship music is a functional art form—worship songs do something.

  • They help people give thanks, proclaim praise, express adoration or spiritual aspirations, and they help people pray.
  • The biblical protocol of a “reasonable service of worship” (Romans 12:1-2) tells us which songs should go where in the list (the liturgy).
  • The Protocol helps “people come before the Lord” which is why the worshiper comes to church. This is something we can do—we can follow Moses’ example and “build it according to the pattern.” Remember, this is the pattern of the Throne Room of God in heaven.

For a fuller understanding of the eternal significance of the Pattern God showed Moses, you can study Hebrews chapters 8-10.  Here is a highly condensed version:

  • … Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.”   But the ministry Jesus has received is superior to the Wilderness Tabernacle.
  • This is an illustration for the present time… For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming-not the realities themselves.
  • Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith…
  • … Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

So I am looking for a church  and a worship service where I can come before His presence in a way that greatly pleases Him. I want a worship service that holds the promise of seeing His glory and being changed in the process.

For more on this topic go to “Fire and Form: Praise and Worship.”

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer
© 2017 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved, Revised 2024

Recovering the Wilderness Protocol

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