The Watershed

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The Watershed

Psalm 103:1-5 NJKV
Bless the Lord, O my soul; And all that is within me, bless His holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul, And forget not all His benefits:
Who forgives all your iniquities, Who heals all your diseases,
Who redeems your life from destruction,
Who crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies,
Who satisfies your mouth with good things,
So that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

A Journey of 12 Thousand Feet and 30 Years
For someone who was born and grew up at less than 200 feet above sea level, travelling to a height of more than 12,000 feet was a life changing experience. It took me 30 years! In August of 1980, the wonderful church we were serving in Wichita, KS sent us to the Christian Artists Seminar in Estes Park, CO. We had another week at Crested Butte. I wanted to drive over the Continental Divide and I chose Cottonwood Pass. As you can see from the photo, we parked our altitude-challenged Pontiac Phoenix at the foot of the last trek before the summit. I hiked to the top.

It was life-changing:

  • The view in all directions,
  • The winds, so strong my jacket stood out like a flag behind me,
  • The sense of history, of brave souls who moved west in wagons, and
  • The sense of significance that I was standing on a watershed.

Facing east, I knew that any water I poured out in that direction would eventually find its way to the Gulf of Mexico, passing my hometown in the process. Facing west, the water I spilled would find its way to the Pacific Ocean.

At the completion of the journey, the destinations were thousands of miles apart, but there at Cottonwood Pass, the difference was only a matter of inches. Such is the reality of a watershed.

The Mississippi River Watershed

Watershed Issues

Just as watershed issues occur in creation, they also happen in human relations: slight disagreements between colleagues can soon become large divisions in method and purpose. When water drops of disagreement are spilled to one side or the other, gravity seizes them, collects them and sends them downhill to vastly different destinations.  When this happens, people can have difficulty communicating.

A Tennis Court Watershed
I had a good friend named Terry in high school  He and I loved to talk about the Bible and what we believed. I liked and respected him and he felt the same about me. However, we disagreed about almost everything! Instead up giving up on each other, we kept the conversation going. One day while playing tennis, we talked about a singular passage of Scripture. The subject was the Gifts of the Spirit. Terry was Church of Christ and I was Assembly of God. He believed the Gifts were only for the time of the Disciples and I knew they were for today—I had experienced them! We finally arrived at this passage:

1 Corinthians 13:8-10 NJV
Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.

Then as we dug into this passage, we arrived at a single word, a pronoun no less—“that.” Terry believed “that” referred to the completion of the New Testament. I held “that” to be a reference to the coming perfect Kingdom of God. The Bible did not make either meaning clear.

  • If “that which is perfect” referred to the New Testament, then there would eventually be no need for the Gifts of the Spirit.
  • If “that which is perfect” referred to the Coming Kingdom of Christ, then all the promises of the Helper, the Holy Spirit, having direct input into our lives and our worship through the Gifts were still in effect.
  • These are two very different results of the interpretation of a single pronoun.

The reason Terry and I could not discuss these things is this: Having believed different things about a single word at the watershed, we were now swimming in two different oceans.

Today’s Watershed Issue
There is a watershed issue in the practice of worship today.

Here is the question:
Is public worship a church growth tool?

If we believe that worship is a church growth tool, many of our decisions about what we should do and how we should do it will be market-driven. This does not mean the Holy Spirit will not lead, anoint, bless, and use worshipers to extend the Kingdom of God in this world. The Lord honors His Word. He is enthroned upon our praise. He is pleased with our passion for the lost.

If we believe that church growth is not the purpose of worship, but is the blessed result of worship in spirit and truth, our decisions about what to do and how we should do it will be quite different. As the Lord anoints our efforts, the Lord Jesus will be seen as the absolute central focus of the service. His pleasure will be sought out. His Word will go forth in the power of the Spirit. His sovereignty will pervade the atmosphere and He will walk among us as Messiah

  • preaching the Gospel to the poor,
  • opening blinded eyes,
  • releasing captives,
  • binding up the broken hearted,
  • setting at liberty those who are bound and bruised as He
  • proclaims the Day of the Lord’s favor.

Another story from the Gospels tells us more: Like the alabaster jar of Mary of Bethany, our offering of pure worship will fill the whole house with its aroma and the Gospel will be preached in purity and power.

While the differences in these two points of view are small at the beginning, they lead to two vastly different oceans.

The Gulf of Markets
The marketplace is a place of sales. Success is measured by counting the indisputable evidence of the consumer—the repeated acceptance of what is offered. The essence of success is pleasing the public.

For a number of years now the idea that the church is really a business has made deep inroads into the thinking of church leaders. Here are some of the waves in The Gulf of Markets:

  • Pastors are sometimes seen as CEOs rather than as the biblical image of shepherds.
  • Leaders can become authoritarian, even dictatorial, in the consolidation of power.
  • A market-driven church is highly susceptible to the cult of personality because the market place is highly celebrity-central in nature.
  • The arts of the market-driven church become mired in the imitation of the pop culture, rather than in original thinking, biblical reasoning, and innovative production.
  •  Worship Leaders can sometimes see their job as one of replicating existing recordings rather than making fresh interpretations of music with the artists in the church.
  • The artists of the market-driven church are ranked in importance by their skills, often regardless of their character. Everyone knows who is a star and who is a background player.
  • Pragmatism reigns rather than principle. The ideas are judged by “what works” regardless of “what is right.”
  • When changes are considered, leadership by subtraction is a chosen method, preferred over the building of consensus. People who disagree are treated as enemies and driven away.
  • Research into proposed changes is conducted in sociological areas, not spiritual ones. Stats trump Scriptures in assessing plans.
  • An “us and them” attitude is prevalent between leadership and the congregation instead of the apostolic sense of a shared spiritual journey.

The Gulf of Markets is a stormy, unstable place.

The Ocean of Grace
The other destination of truth flowing from the watershed extends far to the horizons of faith—The Ocean of Grace.

  • Pastors are shepherds, not bosses. They follow the example of Jesus as the Great Shepherd and follow His commands to Peter. “Feed My Sheep. Feed My Sheep. Feed My Lambs.
  • Leaders lead the way Jesus taught us to lead, not as the surrounding pagans do. “It will not be so among you!”
  • A Spirit-led church is impervious to the cult of personality because Jesus is the center, the object, and the subject of everything.
  • The arts of a Spirit-led Church are original, fresh and rich in anointing. Generations speak to each other as the faith is transferred between them.
  • Worship leaders make the music of worship with the singers and players of the church.  They do live music: original interpretations of the music of all generations. Facilitating the singing of the church is a guiding principle.
  • The Artists of the church are seen as equals in the eyes of the Lord. Humility is the standard pitch to which they all must tune. Selection by skill for specific assignments does not add importance to the skillful ones nor does it remove significance from the less skillful ones.
  • Biblical principles, not pragmatism, rule the church. “What works” is not right if it violates or ignores clear biblical instruction. The principles and directives of scripture are sufficient to guide us to find what works and is also right.
  • The Spirit-led church follows the biblical model found in Acts 15. “It seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit…” Until consensus arrives, those in disagreement are not ostracized, but respected and included. “Let the peace of Christ be the Umpire…” (Col 3:15)
  • Possible changes are researched in the Bible first, seeking for the heart of God on the matter. Any change proposed must be based on clear principles and commands of scripture. These can be persuasively presented and biblically defended. They must not be deliberated in arenas of personal choices and cultural trends.
  • The unity of the Body exists when there are no distinctions. If there are “Very Important People” that means there are others who know they are “not important people.

Needless to say the “Gulf of Markets” and the “Ocean of Grace” are two widely separated bodies of water. Yet the journey to each of them begins in the same place. It begins with the Question: “Is worship a church-growth tool?”

Is there a biblical answer?
The answer is found in Psalm 103.

Psalm 103:1-5 NJKV
Bless the Lord, O my soul; And all that is within me, bless His holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul, And forget not all His benefits:
Who forgives all your iniquities, Who heals all your diseases,
Who redeems your life from destruction,
Who crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies,
Who satisfies your mouth with good things,
So that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s,

Simply put, there is a difference between the purpose of worship
and the blessings of worship.

The Purpose of Worship
Biblically there is only one purpose for worship. It is expressed clearly in Psalm 29:1-2

Psalm 29:1-2 NKJV
Give unto the Lord, O you mighty ones, Give unto the Lord glory and strength. Give unto the Lord the glory due to His name; Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

The single purpose of worship is to “Give unto the Lord the Glory due His name.”

“Bless the Lord, O my soul and that is within me; Bless His holy name.” This is the only purpose of worship!

When this singular purpose is ours, when there are no other motivations mixed in, the planning and leading of worship becomes a task much more easily performed. Jesus said the Father was looking for True Worshipers who would worship Him in Spirit and in Truth. The Truth is that worship is holy and due only to the Lord, reserved only for Him. If we try and bend our acts of worship to some other purpose, they can no longer constitute “worship in truth.”

How do we know the difference?

Mixed motives are located in the heart of the worshiper. The motivation to “bless the Lord with my song” is so large, other motivations have to diminish it to find room in our heart:

  • “I want to use my song to attract a certain group of people.”
  • “We are going to use this music to attract these people.”
  • “We are going to make this church grow my using only the latest, most popular music.”

Jesus warned the off-center worshipers of His day that God could see the impure heart.

Mark 7:6-7 NJKV
He answered and said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:’This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me.And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

This passage is not intended to condemn those who have confused the purpose of worship with the benefits of worship. Neither do I compare them to the wicked worship leaders of Jesus’ day. But worship from mixed motives still hinders the work of the Spirt, even when those motives are good ones. In fact, “the commandments of men” is one way of expressing the tremendous rule of pop culture over the arts of local church in contemporary worship.

“Worship in truth” demands an undivided heart and only this invites the deep work of the Holy Spirit.

The Benefits of Worhsip
When our worship is led from a pure heart, the benefits are many and wonderful! Let’s go back to Psalm 103

  • Who forgives all your iniquities,
  • Who heals all your diseases,
  • Who redeems your life from destruction,
  • Who crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies,
  • Who satisfies your mouth with good things,
  • So that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

This marvelous promise contains all we need for church growth!

The Lord Jesus builds His church spiritually, not with the devices of technology, or with displays of human talent, or even with the impact of sparkling personalities. He builds His church through the power of the Holy Spirit: anointed prayer, anointed worship, anointed Word, and through a powerful anointing resting on the lives of the people of the church every day. They have received power to be His witnesses!

Be Careful at the Watershed

When we are at the watershed considering what we will believe about worship, we must be careful to choose the way of the Spirit of God and not the scintilatting pathways of the culture. One leads to the Gulf of Markets where strife and confusion reign and the other leads to the Ocean of Grace, where Jesus is King.

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer
© 2016 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

The Watershed


  1. This is a thought-provoking article that needs to be thoroughly digested and duly considered. Upon first reading, my response is that there is much truth in Dr. Stephen’s thesis but I wonder if the comparison may not be quite as stark as presented. In other words, perhaps it is not quite as black and white, not all right and not all wrong. It may be possible that worship can be Spirit-led and thoroughly scriptural AND appealing to people to the degree that it encourages church growth. I need to process the article further before reaching firm conclusions. Thank you for a fine thesis, Steve.

    • Philip! I always love hearing from you. It is a long piece, I know. It is difficult to explain the concept of the watershed and then make the worship application. I will look for ways to add more nuance so that my appreciation of creativity and the evangelistic impulse comes through. I am trying to say that if our worship remains pure and centered on Jesus, He will be attractive to those in the marketplace–the Holy Spirit will do a work in the hearts of observers. This would be a fulfillment of Paul’s prediction, “If you are all prophesying (corporate worship is how we would do that) and an unbeliever sees and hears you–the secrets of his heart will be laid bare and he will fall down and worship God with you, saying, ‘God is really among you!'” That is my goal: keep worship pure from the heart with a single purpose and watch Jesus make Himself real to those standing in the marketplace. Hard to get it all in!

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