Who’s in Charge Here?

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Worship: Pleasing Others

Who’s in Charge Here?

Rethinking the Demographic Reformation

The Pier at St. Pete
They have torn it down now but this inverted pyramid thrusting out into Tampa Bay from downtown St. Pete was one of my favorite places. When I served a church in St Pete, The Pier was one of my thinking and praying places. It seemed both the beauty of God’s creation and the needs of people were spread before me there. In the late 1990’s I took a particular issue to the Lord in prayer on the top floor, called the Observation Floor. I needed a clearer vision of how the Lord wanted us to do worship.

The Purpose-Driven Church: The Demographic Reformation
We were feeling the influence of the purpose-driven church movement. It was suggested that we needed to reform our public worship according to the desires of the lost people in the community and then build our church according to their desires.

I found a quiet corner with very little tourist traffic. The skyline of Tampa glistened 21 miles in the distance and downtown St. Pete rumbled just over my left shoulder. I was told there were three million people in the Tampa Bay Area. I asked the Lord, “Are there three million sets of desires or even needs?”

To design a church to meet the hopelessly varied and competing demands of people seemed an impossible, back-breaking, heart-breaking task.

“Or, is there one set of needs that happens three million times? If so, where could I find the list?”

The answer was, of course, the Scriptures. As the 21st century loomed before us as leaders of the church in the late 1990’s we were all trying to find our way into it. Reformation was inevitable. It seemed to be the nature of things for man to plan new things for a new century, let alone a new millennium. If the needs of a fallen mankind were essentially the same in 1999 as they had been in 1899 or even 999, surely they are addressed in the Bible. But where?

Messiah’s Ministry
My first thought was of Luke 4, the story of Jesus in his hometown synagogue when he was asked to read the scriptures. Jesus gave us a list of what people need.

  • Poor people of all kinds of poverty need Good News: Jesus preaches Good News.
  • People are brokenhearted: Jesus binds up broken hearts.
  • People are held captive by all manner of addictions: Jesus brings freedom.
  • Peopled are prisoners in all kinds of darkness, poverty, depression, lust, despair: Jesus releases them from darkness and ushers them into His marvelous light.
  • People need grace, the unmerited favor of the Lord: Jesus deals in grace amazing.

In one translation this phrase is found. “to set a liberty those who are bruised.” People have been deeply injured by events in their lives, injuries that bruised the soul. At the same time, like iron shackles on their wrists, they are not only bruised but they are bound. Jesus breaks the shackles and heals the bruises.

Why not build a worship experience on this survey?

The Covenant Names of God
As the refreshing breeze off Tampa Bay cooled my face, another wind of the Spirit excited my spirit. There was another list, another survey in the Bible to consult. The Covenant Names of God as progressively revealed in Old Testament history tell us who God is and what He wants to do for us. Conversely these names also provide us a survey of the deepest needs of a fallen mankind.

  • People need things so He is Yahweh-Jireh-The Lord our Provider- Genesis 22:8, 14;
  • People are sick so He is Yahweh-Rapha-The Lord our Healer- Exodus 15:26;
  • People are defeated so He is Yahweh –Nissi-The Lord our Banner, our Victory -Exodus 17:15;
  • People have been captured by sin and need to be restored and set apart again for the Lord so He is Yahweh- Qadesh The Lord our Sanctifier-Leviticus 20:8, Ezekiel 20:12;
  • People live in fear and turmoil so He is Yahweh Shalom -The Lord our Peace Judges 6:24;
  • People need constant care so He is Yahweh Raah- The Lord our Shepherd Psalms 23:1;
  • People are spoiled by sin so the need to be made clean again so He is Yahweh- Tsidkenu -The Lord our Righteousness -Jeremiah 23:6;
  • People long for fellowship with God and with each other so He is Yahweh – Shammah- The Lord Ever Present – Ezekiel 48:35

I have written extensively on these Covenant Names of God and their impact on the world through our worship.

The Human Survey
When worship leaders started reforming worship based on the desires of un-churched people a shift of authority took place. The marketplace entered the church.

Oh, the marketplace was always there, to be sure, but it was usually dressed up in spiritual terms. The answer to the question of this article, “Who’s in Charge Here?” has seldom been answered in any other way—people are in charge. Sometimes this is unspoken like the proverbial elephant in the room. The demographic worship reformation of the 1990’s brought the elephant out of the corner of the room and put him in the center.

A generational shift in authority took place as younger leaders reformed worship in order to reach more people for Christ, especially their peers. Like some of the Protestant Reformers they were iconoclastic in their reforms discarding the icons of their parents and grandparents in favor of new ones of their own design. (I use the term “icon” in its literal sense as a window through which we view spiritual things, not as a reference to any particular set of icons.)

  • Choirs and orchestras disappeared along with pulpits, communion tables and sometimes even crosses.
  • Suits and ties were abandoned in order for leaders to identify with those who did not like them. (A strange irony appeared. It was believed that worship leaders must dress in particular ways in order to prove that dress didn’t matter.)
  • The darkness of the theatre and concert hall replaced the traditional lighting of the sanctuary and
  • the congregation became an audience, isolated individual worshipers seeking intimacy with God.

Marketing works. So these reforms accomplished their goals of reaching un-churched people.

Revival and Authority
Church growth can happen when people are in charge but revival only comes when the Holy Spirit is in charge.

The years since the purpose-driven reformation have revealed the weaknesses in this approach:

  • The desires of the worshipers took the seat of authority.
  • The untargeted generations were ignored or lost.
  • The church divided into competing camps based on musical preferences.
  • Each generation failed to be enriched by the worship of the others.
  • The challenge of the intergenerational transfer of faith from one generation to another was unmet.
  • The representation of God through the liturgy was limited by the reduction of the repertoire of the church to only a few musical styles and spirtual themes.
  • Worship suffered a severe reduction from a full-orbed encounter with the testimony of the past, the power of the present, and the promise of the future to a one dimensional experience of the “now.”

These are just a few of the unintended consequences of the purpose-driven, demogrpahic reformation.

Semper Reformanda—Always Reforming
There were also benefits.

  • I am grateful the cultural sensitivity renewed by the purpose-driven approach.
  • It is important that worship leaders know their communities and remain in touch with the needs of the people.
  • I am glad for a generation of new believers who wouldn’t have been won to Christ through traditional worship.
  • I rejoice in the challenge of carefully judging what we choose to do in worship according to the purposes we hold dear. It is important that worship should avoid confusing or conflicting expressions that do not advance the announced purposes of the church.

But the work is not finished. We must keep on reforming worship. Until Jesus reigns for a thousand years of peace on this earth, the work of worship reformation will never be finished.

I look forward to what is next as worship leaders go about “Finding the Book Again,” (https://stevephifer.com/finding-the-book-again/) and base their reforms on the revelation of Scripture along with cultural sensitivity.

Find you own St. Pete Pier, someplace beautiful where you can think and pray and talk things over with the Lord. The heart of man has not changed—people need God. Think about what Jesus said He wanted to do for people. Think about who the Old Testament reveals God to be.

In that spot where the beauty of creation and needs of mankind lie before you in a panorama of revelation, listen the voice of the wind, the Spirit of God, and base your reforms on a survey of God’s heart.

He also has not changed.

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

Who's in Charge Here?


  1. May I be painfully honest…?
    The most ‘happening’ times in my walk have been one-on-one or in small groups.
    We must walk wise –
    I’ve seen false spirits descend upon a group and people were falling all over themselves – shaking as though possessed (and, I think they were)-
    Jesus never lowered the bar, so to speak in dealing with a particular person or peoples group. Yes, He crossed cultural boundaries when talking to the Samaritan women but He maintained who He was, and sin was still sin.
    We’ve got to walk close and walk wise – to hear the heartbeat of God – or we’re going to have a Christ-less Pentecost.

    • Julie:
      I am sorry that your experience of corporate worship is been such a disappointment to you. It is true that worship on a large scale can also fail in large ways. Yet the scriptural instructions to worship the Lord on a grand scale remain in the book of Psalms,in the historical biblical accounts of worship under Kings, David, Solomon, and Zerubbabel, and in the Revelation. Worship in Spirit and Truth brings us into the throne room of God–a place of worship on a grand scale. The Psalms call for worship measured by “the glory due is name,” Psalm 29:1-2. This is certainly worship involving the hosts of heaven and earth. We cannot simply ignore the splendor of congregational worship arts simply because we prefer small group worship. The Last Days Outpouring of the Holy Spirit will be marked by worship that is both intimate–a witness to individuals, and grand–the glory due His name. The more people involved in public worship, the more potential for failure there will be but we have learn how to obey the Scriptures.

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