We have a tendency to limit our Christian experiences by “boxing” them in a confined space. We label our spiritual boxes, both large and small, and place our boxed experiences neatly on the shelf of our minds…. along with other boxes we’ve collected over the years. It all makes for a tidy intellect, an organized life, manageable encounters with God and man.
There’s only one problem with all this. Spirituality and all of life is organic. When the Spirit of God breathes life on something, it grows. Sometimes, life oozes out of our tidy little boxes, drips down the sides of the boxes in our minds we can no longer contain them. If you’re like me, I foolishly try to control matters by simply placing them in newer, larger boxes! But sometimes, we experience such explosive growth that our boxes literally burst and there we stand—with real spirituality splashed all over our faces and dripping down our arms. It’s a truth that many times God is not tidy with us. He cannot be contained in our mental boxes despite our best efforts. When He breathes life on something, it will grow… and many times in ways we cannot manage.
The problem with all our boxes and labels is that we think of a given spiritual experience in terms of the label and the dimensions of its box. A good example that springs to mind is the label “saved”. If one of us were to encounter a 1st Century Christian and ask, “When were you saved?”, he might well be mystified. The early church believer would more likely say “I am being saved”, because he saw salvation not as a single incident, but an ongoing experience. Further, he would not limit the word “saved” to a conversion event. “Saved” (or “sozo” in the Greek) meant indeed our “rescue from destruction”, but it also meant “to heal from disease” or “restore to health”. There are many passages in the Bible where the “sozo” is translated “saved” and many others “healed”. This is why the ministry of Christ and the apostles is accompanied by miraculous healing, and the Commission includes “In My name they will… lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” My box labeled “saved” is much too small to contain this.
Similarly, our box labeled “worship” hardly resembles the worship of the Old Testament and early church. The modern-day church has reduced the word to mean “praise and worship music”. If you don’t believe me, ask the average Christian about how the “worship” was at his church last Sunday and he will rattle on about the music. While music is a wondrous tool for worship, it is not itself worship per se. Our churches miss so much if music is the only thing in our “worship box”. This must be not only admitted by us as church musicians, but must be taught by us until we really believe it.
Here are a few things I’m certain we’d never hear from early Christians: “The worship this morning was just awesome!”, or “I just can’t worship when we use one of David’s new psalms,” or “The timbrel was so loud in worship this morning! Someone needs to talk to Asaph about it.” No, worship in the Bible is actually unaccompanied by music.
With the exception of the Psalms, which display much music associated with worship, the majority of worship stories in the Bible have no music involved at all. Worship did not require a song, it required a heart. Job laid in the dust and worshipped in affliction. Isaiah trembled and worshipped in awe. Jehoshaphat worshipped in warfare. David danced and worshipped in abandon (other times, he worshipped in laments). Hannah worshipped in perseverance through barrenness. John the Revelator got to see the worship of heaven. To be sure, some of these stories had musical components. But worship was the central spiritual experience, not music.
This is a hard pill for me to swallow. I can embrace the concept of worship apart from music in the larger corridors of my intellect. But in the small, inner chamber of my heart I must admit I see my worship as primarily music. I am only beginning to understand what a beautiful gift of expression music is, by putting it in the context of worship among other God-ward expressions.
Maybe through embracing this truth we as church musicians become humble (The Holy Spirit finds humility in God’s children absolutely irresistible!). Maybe if we empty out our box of worship and ask Abba to breathe on us, worship will grow without restraint. Maybe by emptying our hands of instruments and microphones and conductor’s batons and by bowing down, we will begin to encounter a Beautiful Savior, a Loving Father, an Empowering Spirit.
Living Worship: A Biblical Guide to Making Worship Real in Your Life is now available from Bethany House Publishers. For information about “Living Worship Events”, go to www.johnrandalldennis.com.