Jesus at the Center
Hard Questions and
Exciting Possibilities about Public Worship
The New Living Translation of the Bible reads this way at Matthew 21:9.
“He was in the center of the procession and the crowds all around him were shouting…”
Most other translations say something about a multitude in front of him and another behind him.
I am drawn to the language of the NLT—Jesus “was in the center…”
Who Is at the Center of Our Worship?
Can we look at our public worship services and say with all honesty that Jesus is at the center of them?
If we interviewed worshipers, who or what would they say is at the center? What is really going on when a church gathers to “worship”? Is it really all about Jesus? Or is someone or something else the real central issue? There are other possibilities: The music can be at the center. The doctrine of the church could be at the center. The personality of the preacher may be at the center. The vision of the church could be the central focus. Denominational tradition may occupy the central position. The latest innovations in worship techniques and emphases may be the center. The tastes and culture of the worshipers may have the central focus. The desperate need of mankind may be the true center of the worship life of a congregation. Perhaps even the clock might be at the center of some public worship services.
Is Jesus at the center of our worship procession?
Other options have always been available. The scriptural record reveals much:
- Israel’s first King, Saul, put politics at the center and the glory of God departed Israel.
- King David pitched a tent for the Ark of the Covenant in center of the nation and saw the presence of the Lord become the focal point of the life of the people. He dramatically stripped away all kingly robes to wear only the linen of priestly worship. Message: “Jehovah is King, not David.”
- King Solomon let the center of his heart be occupied by foreign wives and their strange religions and he died without God.
- The Prophet Isaiah’s attention was captured by a great King, Uzziah, whose life, though long and well-begun, ended in leprosy and isolation because of pride in his heart. The death of his king shook Isaiah to the depths of his being. A startling vision of the Lord at the center of heaven changed Isaiah into a man centered on God; the timid historian became a mighty prophet, a poet setting words aflame with a fire that still burns when we read them today.
- Jesus encountered a religious system with tradition at the center and a racially-charged society centered on the Jewish culture. He constantly said and did things intended to put the Kingdom of God at the center.
- The Disciples, in the Book of Acts and the centuries that followed, went into all the world, encountering all sorts of alternatives at the center of people’s lives. As the good news of Jesus spread to the other nations, people gladly centered their lives and worship on Jesus.
No matter where the people of the ancient world started, what manner of pagan or heathen they were, when Jesus came to occupy the center of their lives, peace came in, and forgiveness, and healing and life abundant. They cast aside the useless, pagan deities of their culture and began to live as children of the Father, brothers and sisters of Son, and Temples of the Holy Spirit.
Have we lost this Jesus-Centered Ministry?
In Acts chapter 3 the story is found of Peter and John going to the Temple to pray. At the Gate called Beautiful they saw a lame man begging for alms. Peter’s answer to the poor man’s cries has challenged believers for centuries. “Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have I give to you.” The man asked for money and got a complete healing instead. Peter and John didn’t have money but they had Jesus!
When hurting people come to Jesus’ believers today, what do we have to give them? Are we in the opposite position from Peter and John—silver and gold have we aplenty, but the healing power of Jesus?—We’re a little short on that. If someone or something has taken the place of Jesus in our hearts and in our worship, we have been robbed of our power source.
What should unbelievers expect from the church?
Simply put, they should expect Jesus—His presence, His power, His love, His truth, His grace and unconditional acceptance.
What do they sometimes actually get? I shudder to write it. How many times do they see just another version of the world around them dressed up in nice clothes or shabby clothes and sounding all pious and pure? Is church politics any better than secular politics? When boards and pastors are at odds, when power struggles between factions of the church lie just beneath the service, when personal ambitions are served by the facilities and schedules of the life of the church—is this really any better than the world lost people already occupy? When snobbery and prejudice cool the church pew, is that any better than a cold shoulder or a frigid park bench outside the sanctuary? Shouldn’t the church be a different place, an oasis of peace, an island of love?
The Music of Worship Is a Starting Place.
Some churches are pulling apart along generational lines. This is reflected in the music of congregational worship. Some people want only the songs of yesterday and others want only those of today. Their worship leaders are caught in the middle, threatened with the loss of the older worshiper or of the younger worshiper. The people are like those in Jesus’ day. Listen to His words:
“…These people are like a group of children playing a game in the public square.
They complain to their friends, ‘We played wedding songs, and you weren’t happy,
so we played funeral songs, but you weren’t sad.’” Matthew 11:16
There is no winning in this deadly game; both sides lose. Why? because even when we get our way and only our favorite music is used, we will find ourselves “at ease in Zion”, a dangerous place indeed. The power of the presence of Jesus doesn’t flow to our comfort—God loves us too much for that. The presence of Jesus disturbs as often as we are comforted. God wants to root us out of our sedentary, mediocre complacency and set us on a vigorous path to greatness. The songs of worship are more than joyful wedding songs or mournful funeral dirges. They are power connections to God!
It is time for us to allow our worship leaders to choose the music that centers us on Jesus and then when we work at worship. It is time for congregations to venture forth up the heights of Mt. Zion to stand with clean hands and pure hearts, lifting our hearts to God in the Holy Place. (Psalm 24:3-6) When we do, we will see Him, know Him, feel Him, and by Him, we will be changed. (2 Corinthians 3:18)
What is the function of Congregational Music?
The function of congregational music is this: to enable the people to minister to the Lord with their personal, priestly sacrifices of praise and worship. These sacrifices are thanksgiving, proclamations of the Lord’s excellence, expressions of adoration and commitment, and all kinds of prayer.
What is the function of music in a society?
- To carry forward the identity, traditions, and beliefs of that society from one generation to the next,
- To define each of the generations by expressing their hopes, fears, dreams etc., and
- To light a pathway to the future.
In other words music in a society expresses where the people have come from, who they are, and where they want to go.
Weren’t we all glad we still had traditional American songs after 9/11? Our identity as Americans and our national values are passed from generation to generation by traditional music. Then they are restated by each generation by its own music. Americanism is then carried into the future by both contemporary and traditional music.
The same is true in church, with our own “tribal” music, to use Donald Hustad’s (*) term—Congregational songs. Our communal worship must do three things:
- We must encounter Jesus in our worship,
- We must take a step toward our destiny in God with our worship, and
- We must carry forward our identity, history, precious doctrines and cherished beliefs through our worship.
Neither contemporary nor traditional congregational songs do ALL THREE of these things well.
- I believe that God intends to keep our doctrines and the testimonies of past generations before us through traditional music. Like the great songs of America, the great historic songs of the church (albeit, only a few, probably the best) need to be kept in the hearts of all worshipers.
- I also believe that God intends that each new generation sing a new song to the Lord and that all the other generations APPLAUD the new song and JOIN IN whenever they can! Through the new songs, the Holy Spirit IS SPEAKING to the church the current message from the heart of the Father—the Spirit speaks to the church through new songs—“He that has ears to hear let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches!” (Revelation 2:7) If hungry worshipers do not encounter Jesus in our services, they will go someplace else where they can encounter Him.
- And, each time we worship, the Lord wants to take us a step closer to the marvelous future He has for us. “Let all things be done unto edification.” (I Cor.14:26) The Holy Spirit will use the songs of today and even the great songs of history to lead us into the future. This prophetic nature of congregational worship is available to any church that will decide corporately to center its worship services on Jesus and not on the songs or anyone or anything else.
Only the Senior Pastor has the level of leadership required to take the church to this place of Christ-centeredness. Worship Wars continue because the leadership lets them continue. There is a higher way—an emphasis BY ALL on Christ-centered worship, “Christo-centric” is the theological term.
Jesus is the only one who can bridge the generations together.
Please remember this the next time you see kids, and teens, and young adults, and older adults all standing and singing “God Bless America”. It took a national tragedy to get us together as Americans.
As the church, we can avoid a tragedy. We should be able to just decide that all this foolishness about new songs and old songs has to stop. We all have videos and CD’s that enable us to go home and enjoy “our music”. Meanwhile, Jesus is waiting for His people to come together in His house and get centered on Him. He is waiting for us to be stirred to action by the concept of giving Him the “glory due unto His name”. (Psalm 29:1,2)
- Why should we settle for songs about Jesus when we can spend time with Jesus Himself?
- Is there anything else or anyone else, worthy of our time and energy?
- Is there another with His record of faithfulness and mercy?
- Is there another Lord who can touch and us and change us today?
- Is there any other King we dare follow into the future?
Perhaps then, as we walk along like the Apostles, going from prayer to prayer, some hurting, lame citizen of our world will call out to us for help. Perhaps then, having centered our lives and our worship on Jesus, we can answer, “Let me touch you with the power of Jesus. He will help you up. You can walk again with Jesus!”
Perhaps, when centered on Jesus, miracles from His hand through us will be the talk of the town.
© 2016 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved (Revised March 29, 2023)
(*) I highly recommend Dr. Hustad’s book, Jubilate II, Church Music in Worship and Renewal Hope Publishing Company (January 1, 1993).