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Answering Some Questions About Worship 3 :: Warren Wiersbe

(taken from Real Worship, pg. 203-210. © Used by permission of Warren W. Wiersbe. Do not duplicate - for personal use only.)

15. In his book Preaching and Preachers, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones warns that preaching declines whenever there is "an increase in the formal element in the service." Please comment.

The late Dr. Lloyd-Jones was my friend and I would not want to debate him since he cannot defend himself or explain further what he meant. Perhaps the weight of his criticism should be on the word formal. When liturgy becomes an end in itself, then it certainly would minimize preaching, and I would oppose such a trend. It is difficult to know, however, whether "ritualism" is the cause or the result of poor preaching. Perhaps both are involved.

There are not many men who can preach like Dr. Lloyd-Jones and hold a congregation week after week with detailed expositions of the Scriptures. I always had the impression that "The Doctor" thought anybody could do what he did!

I consider preaching an act of worship, so there really is no competition between "ceremony" (the liturgy) and preaching. Both are a part of worship, and both have their place of ministry. I can see where a strong ritualist would be prone to minimize preaching, and this would be a grave mistake. It is a matter of balance. Often when a church has a "great preacher" in the pulpit, the "worship" part of the service is looked upon as "preliminaries to prepare the heart for the Word," and this is a concept I disagree with. The next step is to worship the preacher, and that is idolatry.


16. If I understand your concept of preaching, you are against outlines. Most of the preachers I have heard could use more organization in their messages, not less!

A sermon must have some kind of logical development or it can never he communicated to others. What bothers me is that too often the preacher so emphasizes the outline (especially if it is alliterated) that the people miss the message. Furthermore, too often we preachers force the Scriptures into some artificial analysis in order to have "a good outline." We are so outline-conscious that we forget why we are preaching. The content of the message is important, but so is the intent.

Suppose my wife and I invited you over for dinner, and throughout the meal kept telling you what the menu was, the order in which the dishes were served, the vitamin and mineral content of each dish, and so on. My guess is that you would get tired of that kind of conversation and say, "All of that is fine, but just let me enjoy the meal."

To continue the analogy: the fact that my wife sets the table in a beautiful manner, has everything arranged in order, and serves the food graciously, does make for a more enjoyable meal. So with homiletics. Have good food, set the table in an orderly and attractive manner, but please do not keep talking about it!

Not every preacher is an "outliner." Every preacher ought to be organized in his thinking and preparing, and orderly in his presentation, but he must not make an idol of his outlines. (Remember G. Campbell Morgan's little fire.)


17. I am confused about symbols. I always thought symbolism ended at the crucifixion. Why use symbols in worship today?

A symbol represents something else and helps us to understand it more and more. Symbols are universal. In the Bible, a yoke is a symbol; it conveys many lessons to us as we think about it. A dove is a symbol. "The seed is the Word of God." The more you think about it, the more it says to you.

A sign simply points to something else and conveys information. For example, a skull and crossbones on a bottle is a sign of danger; a flashing red light means "Stop!" Nobody meditates on the skull or the flashing light. But while a sign merely conveys information, a symbol conveys insight and inspiration.

The Bible uses symbolism from beginning to end. Jesus is the Lamb of God. Satan is a roaring lion. The church is a flock of sheep. The Bible is a two-edged sword. It is impossible to understand the Bible apart from these symbols. There is symbolism in baptism and in the Lord's Supper. There is symbolism in a wedding ceremony (the lifting of the veil, the exchange of rings, the lighting of a "unity candle," and so forth), and in a funeral service (dropping flowers or dirt on the casket, "planting" the body in the ground like a seed, and so forth).

Symbols have the advantage of not only instructing our minds, but also stirring our hearts--and we need emotion in our worship. Furthermore, each individual perceives the symbol differently, depending on his or her spiritual maturity and personal experience. Symbols reach different people at different levels, something a mere lecture cannot always do.

The most nonritualistic church still has its symbolism, both in what is absent and what is present. The design of the building, the arrangement of the furniture in the room, the kind of people who participate in the service, even the order of the service, all have symbolic meaning. In other words, we cannot avoid symbolism.

Churches that would never permit candles on the Communion table will often have beautiful flowers there, and the flowers preach a symbolic message just as much as the candles. Pastors who will not permit candles on Sunday morning will permit dozens of them at weddings. Church members who have lovely Christian mottos on their walls at home will not permit colorful banners on the walls of the church sanctuary. Even colors can be used symbolically; in fact, most churches that follow the Christian Year change the "altar colors" from season to season.

A large, open Bible on the Communion table is a symbol that tells the worshipers that God's Word is central in the church. A world map in the narthex announces that the church family has a concern for a lost world.

Now, symbolism can be overdone, and if we are not careful, it can be misunderstood. New Christians must be taught the meanings of these symbols so that they can participate in worship with understanding. Moreover, our symbolism must be solidly based on Scripture so that it has orthodox theological content. There is a difference between sanctified imagination and mere fantasy! A friend of mine once spent an entire lunch hour trying to convince me that using hamburgers and Coca-Cola for the Lord's Supper would be more meaningful to people today than using bread and wine!

I suppose personal taste enters in as well. Some people are "Puritanical" by nature and resist anything that even hints of symbolism or ritual. We respect their feelings so long as they understand that these are feelings, not convictions, and that they are not called of God to try to convert the rest of us. God has chosen to use symbolism to convey spiritual truth, and it can be used in that way today. To worship God "in spirit" does not mean we jettison everything sensory. As Martin Luther said, God gave us five senses and we ought to use all of them in worshiping Him.


18. Is it right to get our worship pattern from the Old Testament? As Christians, should we not focus primarily on what the New Testament teaches?

God changes His dispensations but not His principles. Old Testament saints were saved by faith (read Heb. 11) and they lived and worshiped by faith. While the externals may be different, the spiritual essentials are the same. The only Bible the early church had was the Old Testament, and the Spirit was able to use it to guide the church in their worship.

The first Christians were Jews, and they continued some of the practices found in the temple and synagogue. When the Gentiles came into the church, they no doubt enriched the worship with whatever expressions of worship were indigenous to them and approved by the Lord.

In one of the churches I pastored, one Sunday morning we opened the service with a fanfare of praise by a brass quartet. After the service, one of the long-time members accosted me with, "What kind of opening was that! Just a lot of noise! Who ever heard of a New Testament church starting a service like that!" I gently reminded her that Psalm 150:5 told us to praise God with loud and high-sounding cymbals - but we had not done that yet!

Please do not get the idea that Old Testament worship was loud, dramatic, and exuberant, while New Testament worship was quiet, laid-back, and timid. I doubt that the Jewish believers suddenly changed their whole approach to worship when they trusted Christ. They continued to use the psalms (1 Cor. 14:26), and the worship expressions in the psalms are anything but timid!

The Old Testament legal ceremonies were fulfilled in Christ, so we do not repeat them today. But I see no reason why we must make an artificial distinction between "Old Testament worship" and "New Testament worship" when we see no such distinction in Scripture. That God revealed Himself and His requirements for blessing over a period of years is clear. His methods of working changed from age to age, but the principles of the spiritual life do not change. I take it that this includes worship.


19. I must confess that I am a bit worried about that word mystic. Are Christians supposed to be mystics?

No need to be worried! A mystic is a person who believes that we can experience God personally, that the material world is not the real world, and that the spiritual world is what counts. A mystic sees God in everything and seeks to know God better and become more like Him.

Now, there are different kinds of mystics. Christian mystics base their belief and experience on the Word of God. They will not bypass Jesus Christ and Scripture. There are schools of mysticism today that are definitely unbiblical in their approach, and you want to avoid them.

There is no question that the great saints of Bible days enjoyed this mystical experience with God, sometimes paying a great price to have it. Here and there, down through the centuries, great mystics have emerged and called us back to the spiritual priorities of life. Some of them wrote books that are still meaningful to us.

You may not realize it, but many of our familiar worship hymns give expression to a mystical experience. "Jesus, lover of my soul/Let me to Thy bosom fly" is a mystical expression. "There is a place of quiet rest/Near to the heart of God" is another. One of the clearest expressions of Christian mysticism in a song is "I Am His and He Is Mine" by George Wade Robinson. Another is "Jesus, I Am Resting, Resting" by Jean S. Pigott.

Mystics are not satisfied with only doctrinal formulas or traditional church ceremonies. They do not reject them, of course, but seek to use them as pathways to God. They seek a satisfying experience with God, whether it be love or fear, conviction or joy, quietness or a stirring for service. "My soul thirsts for God, for the living God!" (Ps. 42:2) is the evangelical mystic's expression of desire.

I suppose the greatest exponent of Christian evangelical mysticism in recent years has been Dr. A. W. Tozer, whose books I have quoted often in these pages. The Pursuit of God is perhaps his best exposition of what he feels it means to he an evangelical mystic. He gives a concise explanation also in the introduction to his anthology, The Christian Book of Mystical Verse.

Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once told me that he and Tozer, while sharing in a Bible conference, discussed their thinking about the church and the Christian life. They came to the conclusion that they pretty much agreed. Tozer had come by way of the mystics and Lloyd-Jones by way of the Puritans, and yet they were of one mind on the essentials.

If you want an introduction to Tozer's writings, see my anthology The Best of A. W. Tozer (published by Baker Book House).


20. You did not say much about family worship, in the home. Any suggestions here?

It must be regular, systematic, and flexible. Mother and father must have their own personal "quiet time" before they attempt to lead their children. One of the purposes of a family devotional time is to teach the children how to have their own quiet time and to help to develop in them a desire for a daily fellowship with God. There must be variety and flexibility. As the children mature, the older ones can assist in the reading and praying. While it must not be a "fun time" (although there is nothing wrong with a good laugh), family devotions must not be tedious and boring. Our practice was to gear the reading to the youngest member of the family, whose attention span was much shorter than ours.

We wore out two copies of Ken Taylor's Bible Stories with Pictures for Little Eyes, and our children have used it with our grandchildren! We tried to provide age-graded devotional material for each child as he or she matured in years and in the faith. This was not always easy. We encouraged them to read systematically in the Word, to meditate on it, and to pray.

Each family must determine when the best time for the family altar is. At one stage in our lives, after breakfast was the ideal time. Later, with changing school schedules, it was more convenient immediately after supper. There were some days when the schedule fell apart and we had no devotional time at all with the children. But we did not feel guilty; we just picked it up the next day and kept on going.

By the way, when you and the family are driving down the highway, you have a wonderful opportunity for an impromptu family altar. (If you are the driver, be sure to watch and pray!) The spontaneous devotional times can carry more power than carefully prepared sessions.

Our children need to be taught what worship is. They will see in us, the parents, what God is really like. If Dad or Mom piously goes through a family devotional time, but then does not live like a Christian the rest of the day, more harm than good will come from the family altar. God often gives us parents opportunities during the day to practice what we talked about at the family altar, and we must not waste these opportunities.

Vitality, variety, spontaneity, flexibility: these are the characteristics of a successful family altar.


21. Nobody today seems satisfied with the church, and each leader has a different solution to the problem. How far back must we go in church history before we can find the approach that will work today?

You are right: every preacher or writer who critiques the church wants us to "go back" and recover something that the church has lost. Some of the "superaggressive churches" and their leaders want us to go back to the days of Billy Sunday and D. L. Moody, when the emphasis was on evangelism. Dr. Lloyd-Jones urged us to go farther back than that, to the Puritans. "The sooner we forget the nineteenth century and go back to the eighteenth, and even farther to the seventeenth and sixteenth, the better!" is what he said.

Others insist that we return to Luther and the Reformation. Another group wants us to return to the Eastern Orthodox Church, and another to the church of the fourth century It always seems that the past was better than the present.

A journalist accused Billy Graham of setting the church back two hundred years. Mr. Graham said that if that were true, he considered himself a failure, because he really wanted to set the church back two thousand years, back to the Book of Acts!

We can learn - and we should learn - from every age of church history; but we must not make any one age so ideal that we begin to imitate it. "Do not say, 'Why were the former days better than these!' For you do not inquire wisely concerning this" (Eccles. 7:10).

It appears that during each age of church history, God enabled the church to recover some lost truth. Luther recovered justification by faith and the priesthood of believers. Wesley recovered evangelism and holy living. Today, our charismatic friends have encouraged us to get acquainted with the Holy Spirit of God. Each age learned something and lost something; so we should be wise and profit from their gains and beware of their losses. But to make any one age the final example of what God can do would be dangerous. Even the apostolic age, which is probably our best example, had its weaknesses and problems.

Instruction and inspiration - yes! Imitation - no.

©2004 Warren W. Wiersbe.

Author:Warren Wiersbe

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