Monday 28th November, I expect to be in London to speak at a seminar organised by the John Owen Centre, a study-centre associated with the London Theological Seminary. Perhaps of all the meetings I’m preparing for, this could be the most vital. I’ve been asked to speak on the subject of ‘Worship’. Or rather, I’ve been asked to discuss a view of worship which has suddenly become very popular.

What’s the line all these folk are taking? Well, essentially they’re saying that it’s a mistake to talk of our church meetings as ‘worship’. The word ‘worship’ implies that we focus on God himself – we address him, adore him, pay our tribute to him, offer him our service. Now these folk agree that in OT times, that was exactly what God’s people met to do. In the words of Psalm 95:6 – “Come let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD our Maker”. But is that still why we meet in New Testament times. They say ‘no!’. Here’s what one of them wrote,

“..we are Biblically wrong to speak of any Christian meeting as being a time of worship.. to speak of having a “time of worship” is meaningless… Should we refer to any Christian meeting as a ‘service’? God does not need us, so in what way are we serving him by singing, praying and preaching? Christian meetings are for the benefit of believers not God”.

That’s the new view. Yes, in OT times, the Israelites came together to worship. They served God by their praise and sacrifice. Their meetings were directed Godwards. But in NT times, we should no longer think of our meetings as worship. They are for the benefit of believers not God. The only purpose for which we meet is to encourage, support, teach one another.

And that’s what I’ve been asked to speak about at the John Owen Centre. Do you see why I say this is a vital issue? If these brethren are right in what they’re saying, it will change the whole way we approach our meetings. When we come together we won’t concentrate on God himself and say ‘we’re here first and foremost to draw near to him, we’re here to pay him honour’. Instead, we’ll say, ‘we’re just here to see one another, to encourage and help each other’. God won’t be the centre of attention in our meetings.

And what I’ll be saying at the seminar is that he must be. Why? Because he really is present in the meetings of the church – in a way he’s not present anywhere else. When I’ve spoken on this subject in the past, I put it this way:

  • “Yes, of course, we believe in the omnipresence of God. He is everywhere. And yes, of course, we believe that in a special sense, God is present with every believer continually – ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’. He indwells every believer. But we also believe that in a yet more special sense, he is present in the meetings of the church. He is present there in a sense that he is not present anywhere else. He comes among us. God is present through his Son, by his Spirit. Jesus promises ‘where two or three are gathered together in my name (and he’s talking about the church – Matthew 18:17) there am I in the midst..’ Paul writes to the Corinthians and says, ‘When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus.. and the power of our Lord Jesus is present’….
  • Now if we take this seriously, if we are really aware that God in Christ by the Spirit is present – that we are meeting in the very presence of God – how can we not make God himself the supreme object of our attention? How can we not rush to honour him? How can we say ‘I’m only here to benefit other people. I don’t need to concern myself with him?’
  • Paul tells us that even unbelievers – if they once realise that God is actually present – will be driven to worship in our meetings. “If the whole church comes together… and an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in… the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you”. When a tiny fragile human being becomes aware that God himself is present, there is nothing else he can do except worship him. That is the response, isn’t it, of men and women everywhere in the Bible when they become aware that they are actually in the presence of God. They fall before him, they cry out to him, they adore him, they are filled with awe and wonder and praise. They worship. Well, when we gather in the name of Christ, we are as much in the presence of God as Isaiah was when he saw the Lord high and lifted up. He cried ‘Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips’. We are as much in the presence of God as John was when he was caught up into heaven to glimpse the throne and the one who sat upon it. We may not always have the same vivid awareness of God that these men experienced but we are just as really in God’s presence.
  • And surely that means that he must be at the centre of our meetings. He can’t simply be here as a spectator, listening as we concentrate on one another’s needs! When the king calls us into his presence, our first responsibility is to pay him the honour that’s due to him…”

My worry about this new view of church life is that in the end it all becomes so low-key. If Christians take on board this new teaching, then they’ll no longer expect to meet with God in any special way when the church meets. Church meetings will be cheerful, chatty, user-friendly, cosy. But we will have lost the most precious thing that can be found here in this world: the sense of God.

I believe that we all need a renewed awareness of the fact that God really is present in our meetings – in a more real, more immediate way than was ever possible in OT times. If we really believed that, it would transform our meetings, wouldn’t it? No more of the casual chit-chat before the service, or the bored flicking through the hymnbook during the sermon. No more letting our thoughts drift away during the prayers… Instead, a glowing excitement at the thought that God is here, in Christ through the Spirit!

Please pray that I’ll be able to help those folk down in London to grasp that. But let’s pray too that we’ll experience the wonder of it afresh ourselves.

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