The Power and Glory of Culturally Expressed Worship
Part Two: Finding a Way to Be One Again
The Jesus Prayer:
“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, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.
A Biblical Vision to Inspire Us
With perhaps 500 of them still on the ground looking up to Him as a cloud was taking Him back to whence He came, Jesus told His followers to go into the whole world and tell people about Him. He said they were to teach, preach, baptize, and make disciples from all the nations. Talk about sensory overload! They had been with the resurrected Jesus off and on for forty days and now He was flying out of sight into heaven and telling them to disperse into regions unknown.
After Jesus was gone, no one moved. There was nothing to do but keeping looking up. Who knew? He might come back. When the skies suddenly opened again, they saw it was only an angel (“Only and angel!” shows you what kind of week they were having!) The angel rebuked them for hanging around the mountaintop. They had work to do!
They remembered that Jesus told them to return to Jerusalem until a new power came upon them—the power of the Holy Spirit—in a way they had never experienced. The Spirit would abide with them, not just touch them with the power they needed for a special task. They remembered His words at the Last Supper.
- The Holy Spirit would convict the world (That would have to mean the whole world!) of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment to come.
- The Holy Spirit would be the Spirit of Truth and He would lead them into all truth and bring all that Jesus said back to their minds.
- The Spirit would also be their Comforter, their Helper, the One who would come along side to strengthen them and empower them.
- They would not just witness about Jesus, they would be witnesses as the Spirit enabled them.
Back to Jerusalem they went. To an upper room they went. They waited and waited for the Promise of the Father. Perhaps as they waited, they searched the Scriptures for clues as to what this “Promise of the Father” might be. Perhaps Peter found the Prophecy of Joel and read it to the group. Maybe that was it. Or maybe, if Peter found the Joel passage, he kept it to himself.
“When the Day of Pentecostal had fully come they were all in one mind and one accord.”
I believe the time of waiting in prayer produced some reconciliations among the one hundred twenty. I’m sure there were healthy measures of repentance and forgiveness and what we would call “rededications” among them. When they finally arrived at spiritual unity, the Holy Spirit fell on them. First there was a sound of a rushing mighty wind as a blazing fire appeared over them. A flame separated from the fire and came to rest upon each of them. Then the Bible says they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the praises of God in languages they had never learned. Like the flame of fire upon each believer, each heart was ablaze with revelation by the Spirit of Who Jesus is—His power, His grace, His Word, His love—just as Jesus said the Spirit would do. Their spirits soared in a new relationship with Jesus as their new prayer language bypassed their conscious minds. Unnumbered passages of scripture they had memorized and prayed their whole Jewish lives suddenly came to life in Jesus.
They were so full of praise the upper room could not contain them so they spilled out into the streets of Jerusalem still speaking miraculously of the glories of God. Jews from every nation gathered for the feast of Pentecost greeted them with abuse, accusations and suspicion. “What does this mean?” they asked. Peter answered them with the Prophecy of Joel. This was it—the outpouring of the Holy Spirit for the end times! The Spirit is promised to all who call on Jesus for salvation—Jew and Gentile, male and female, rich and poor. Peter told them to repent—these faithful Jewish worshipers—and they, too, could have this New Covenant relationship with God. Thousands did exactly that.
That was only the beginning. Armed with this powerful revelation of Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit in a new and abiding relationship, the followers of Jesus went into all the world telling people about Jesus. In less than three hundred years, they and those who came after them, conquered the same Roman Empire that had tried to wipe them out.
Lord, give us a new vision of You!
Psalm 121:1-2 NIV
I lift up my eyes to the hills–where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.
We need to lift our eyes higher. We need to look beyond the hills to the real source of our power—to the Christ on the Throne of Heaven.
The church today needs to engage a new vision that will unite us again, ignite us again. It must be a vision of Jesus, reigning in majesty.
Colossians 3:1-2 KJV
If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.
I use the KJV because I like the word “affection.” The original is
phroneo (fron-eh’-o); NT:5426; to exercise the mind… or have a sentiment or opinion; by implication, to be (mentally) disposed … earnestly … intensively, to interest oneself in (with concern or obedience):
This is more than a mental assent to an idea or doctrine. This is a life-controlling, intense, earnest passion. The disciples turned the world upside down because they carried a Spirit-informed, Spirit-empowered vision of the resurrected Jesus.
Jesus Tears Down the Walls of Hostility
Ephesians 2:14-16 NIV
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
The church at Ephesus was a multi-cultural church made up of Jewish and Gentile believers. It was such a different place from the surrounding culture. Outside there were social walls between Gentiles and Jews that were high and hostile. There was no fellowship, no sense of family, and no common vision. But the church was different. There were Hebrews and Greeks, rich people and poor people, Roman citizens, merchants and soldiers, former pagans and former Pharisees—Jews and Gentiles—who all loved Jesus more than their culture of origin. They enjoyed a common vision of Jesus that bound them together as family and brought them sweet fellowship with each other. In this place of Christ-centered worship, Jesus tore down the walls of hostility that defined life outside the church. He was their peace.
Jesus still has the ability to destroy the walls of hostility we build to protect us within the confines of our cultures. This happens in public worship, as the presence of the Lord binds us together. Today some worship leaders use the walls as they divide generations from each other. We should be careful not to build the walls higher and stronger by reinforcing the prejudices of the people we lead in worship.
Biblical Principles to Guide Us
How can we be culturally sensitive today without becoming market-driven, people-pleasing organizations? We can take principles from these biblical accounts to guide us.
Number One: Jesus must be the center of each service.
Other people and things make their bids for center stage.
- Some leaders are treated like media stars. This is called the cult of personality.
- Sometimes innovation is most important.
- At other times tradition holds the top spot.
- In some churches technology and production values control everything.
- The music of worship can become the most important factor.
- The pleasure of a power group can be in control.
- Even the clock can be the final arbiter.
An overpowering vision of a resurrected Jesus sent the disciples into the world to preach the gospel. If we lift our eyes above the externals to the eternal to fix our hearts on Jesus, surely He will empower us by His Spirit and make us One again. Surely Jesus will tear down the walls between the generations of the church today.
Number Two: We must be led and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
We need the power of the Holy Spirit.
- Music has power all its own, but that isn’t the power that gets the work of the Kingdom of God done.
- Artistry has power to stir the emotions and inform the mind, but our creativity is not the power source for ministry.
- Leaders have power to influence others, but God doesn’t need our personalities to move the Kingdom along.
- “Knowledge is power,” they say, but earthly wisdom has only an earthly effect.
“I will look beyond hills like these,” the Psalmist says, “Because my help doesn’t come from these heights. My help comes from the Lord.”
- Only the Spirit of God can move the spirit of men toward God.
- Only the anointing of the Holy Spirit can break yokes of deception, bondages of fear, and shackles of shame.
- Only the fires of the Spirit can melt the frozen hearts of people locked in the confines of their culture.
- Only Jesus, walking among the candlesticks (the churches) as He is seen in Revelation, can change people.
He does this from the inside out, so all our external reforms are of little use to Him without the power of His Spirit.
Number Three: We must be informed by the Word of God.
While we must be sensitive to the cultural proclivities of the people we want to reach with the Gospel, we must let the principles of this world empower us.
Colossians 2:8 NIV
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.
It is good to know all we can about how people think and feel today, about their wants and desires and tastes. These things inform us but our success does not rest on these natural concepts. Our hope for success is in the eternal Word of God and in the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit.
Number Four: The Church must be a whole family.
This particular scriptural concept is essential as we seek to reform public worship.
Psalm 145:4 NIV
One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts.
Psalm 79:13 NIV
Then we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will praise you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise.
New Covenant worship must be an inter-generational discourse on the glory of the Lord.
When contemporary worship music was introduced, many churches rejected the “new” music of their younger members. Instead of rejoicing that their youth were singing in their own musical languages the same timeless truths about Jesus and His Kingdom, older worshipers chose to be offended by the sound of the music. To reject someone’s music is a serious insult. The response is often another rejection. So we turned up our spiritual noses at each other’s worship music. The adults rejected the music of the youth and the youth rejected the music the adults loved. The church lost its inter-generational sources of the voice of the Spirit. God speaks to the church through music. The youth had their part of the message and the older worshipers had theirs. But the mutual rejection kept each culture from hearing the whole Word from the Spirit.
Four things happened to me that illustrate this mutual rejection.
Story Number One: In the late 1960’s a Gospel quartet called The Imperials went from Southern Gospel to contemporary Christian. My fellow music major and music minister-to-be, Gary Isenhower, were so excited that Christian music was now in our cultural language that we played the record for Mr. Harris, our elderly Presbyterian music theory professor. He did not share our joy. To my great surprise he lamented, “Does this mean all my music will be thrown out?” I was shocked. I had no such designs on his music or anyone else’s music. I just wanted ours to be added to the church.
Story Number Two: In the early 1970’s a scripture song movement sprang up. These songs set the words of the King James Version to music for the congregation to sing. Many were awkward and all of them sounded strange to older worshipers. I was ministering with my family group when we came to a small Southern church. An older gentleman asked, “Brother Phifer, what do you think about these scripture songs?” His inflection expressed his distaste for them. Carefully and respectfully I answered him. “The Bible tells to sing the psalms. I think it is ok.”
Story Number Three: In the mid 1970’s my wife and I had a youth choir in our first church job as Youth and Music Ministers. We arranged a jazzy, bluesy medley of old songs about heaven for a statewide youth choir competition and a medley of Andrea Crouch songs—the hottest new music of the day. After the choir sang, an brother came up to me to thank me for keeping the old songs alive. Again, I was shocked. This was not in my mind at all. I was just trying to find some good competition music for my choir.
Story Number Four: In the mid 1990’s my wife’s elderly aunt came to Florida for a visit. She was chatty and healthy as a horse. I was my job to drive her around for a day. Early on in our “conversation” (She did most of the talking.) she said this. “They tried to bring that new music into our church but we put our foot down and said we weren’t having it.” An hour or so later, she said this. “I don’t know why but we just don’t have as many young people we used to.” I wanted with all my heart to help her connect the dots but I knew that wasn’t a chauffeur’s place so I didn’t.
These stories illustrate how the mutual rejection of worship music got started—the old folks didn’t have enough maturity, grace, perspective and good worship theology to rejoice in the birth of a new generation of worship music so they rejected it. Wounded, the youth returned the abuse by rejecting the traditional music of worship. Both sides lost. And the beat goes on—still.
A Biblical Plan to Set Us Free
We need a plan to set us free from this culture of mutual rejection. We need for Jesus to come to us and tear down these walls of hostility. It is not my job to tell you what music to sing. I am not in your community, your church, your culture. It is my duty to provide you with a scriptural framework for your own plan that is specific but loaded with the flexibility for the cultural sensitivity you will need to lead the whole family of God in worship.
1. Keep Jesus at the center. Sing about Him. Tell His story over and over. Celebrate Him. Preach about Him. Preach what He preached. Lift up His name at every opportunity. Ask the Holy Spirit to set your affections on Christ, you and the whole church. The centrality of Christ is the primary interest of the Holy Spirit. When your goals and the goals of the Spirit are the same, the anointing of the Spirit will rest upon you and your people.
2. Do things by the Book. The Bible should be your primary source of wisdom.
- The Bible says we should know those we are leading. Do the work. Discover who the people are and lead the people you have. Find out where they are and meet them there. Before you can move to higher ground, you must meet together on common ground.
- The Bible says we are to be one whole worshiping family. Discover the heart-songs of the generations within your congregation and sing them. Seek to engage everyone in the worship liturgy. Join Jesus in His prayer for unity in John 17.
- Teach the congregation a higher view of worship. If there are 500 people in your congregation you will have 500 different views of worship and 500 sets of competing expectations. Open the Book and teach a biblical view of worship. The pastor must standardize the vision and tune the expectations to those of the Scripture.
- Plan your worship services by the patterns found in the Bible, specifically, the Tabernacle/Temple protocol for coming into the Lord’s manifest presence. God’s plan is still relevant for worship today.
3. Depend on the Holy Spirit. Not only is the Holy Spirit the only true source of spiritual power, He is also your source of wisdom. In the New Covenant, the Lord gives you an intuition, a capability to know His will. It is not your job to copy someone else’s plan for renewal, though you should certainly explore them and learn from them. The Holy Spirit wants to give you a plan for your ministry. He delights in empowering His plan. Some of it will come in advance planning and some of it will come in unplanned moments of ministry, but it is all the work of the Spirit. When you have the Lord’s plan, fully tested by the principles of the Bible, (The Holy Spirit never contradicts Himself!) you can rest in the plan of God. You can watch God, the Holy Spirit do things you could never do.
It is time for the Blessing, not for the curse.
The last verses of the Old Testament give us hope. The Lord promises to restore the unity of the family.
Malachi 4:5-6 NIV
“See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.”
We have had enough of the curse—homes divided, churches divided, a nation divided. If we are wise and if we have the boldness of Elijah to confront the false worship of our day, we will see the fire fall from heaven. We will see old and young sharing with each other, learning from each other, rejoicing together, weeping together, praying together and waiting together at the feet of Jesus.
© 2017 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved