bare-ly wor­ship

Jesus removes the constricting clothes we have put on religion and worship***We’ve come a long way so far. Most recently we talked about what true worship is and how it is about God moving through us and not us doing things for God.

How We Clothe Worship

But we have gotten ahead of ourselves in the previous post. So now we must go back. Our primary problem is this: how do we separate true worship from other forms of worship? Where is the line between true religion and false religion? John 4:21 Jesus does not begin to define true worship in a positive way. He doesn’t begin by telling you what it is. First, he begins in verse 21 by telling us what true worship is NOT. The first thing Jesus does then is remove the constraints we have placed on worship. He strips true worship of its location, its culture and its time.

Verse 21 is in response to the woman at the well’s statement in John 4:20. The woman here lays out a problem that often occurs when we worship. The Jews believed that the place to worship was in Jerusalem and that, of course, meant that one had to worship in the Jewish style. They did not believe with the intention of malice or spite. Their cousins the Samaritans had a strong vein of idol worship 2 Kings 17:29-33. In addition to their history of idolatry, Samaritans also did not worship in Jerusalem. Therefore, among the Jews, the Samaritans were not true worshipers of God. Requiring that true worship occur in Jerusalem, was therefore a way to maintain the purity of the religion and prevent corruption of their faith with surrounding idolatry.

Therefore, any worship of God that occurred outside of Jerusalem might be acceptable but not as “true” or “holy”. People often sought to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem partly for this reason. Jews, likely, did not associate Jerusalem with true worship out of pride. They were geographically surrounded by those who worshiped idols. The worship of God was visibly confined to a certain culture in a certain place and time since the Jews were the only people who God visibly knew through His Covenant with Abraham. Being human beings though, it was inevitable that they would jump from the blessing of knowing God to making their culture a prerequisite for knowing God. This idea of making Jewish culture a requirement for worshiping God persisted beyond the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ into the early Church. Paul spent a great deal of his letters continuing to dismantle this same idea.

In Our Churches

This is analogous to what happens today in our churches. People associate, in their heads, true worship with a certain location and a certain culture. There is nothing wrong with this association. However, we often then leap into the ditch of saying that worship has to have a certain style and has to be done in a certain place and a certain time (usually Sundays) in order for it to be true. It is why we have for so long constrained the definition of worship to songs from the mouth alone not knowing the range of notes that the body, mind and spirit can produce under the direction of God.

This is like saying that a man has to a wear a certain type of suit made in a certain place in Italy or he’s not a man. It is like a little child who wants to buy clothes for her Father. This is an excellent intention. However, all she knows is that her Father is big, she can’t really say how big. So she uses herself as a point of reference and buys clothes that, although bigger than her, are still too small for Him. She doesn’t even know what He likes. So also, our minds are too small when it comes to worship. Ideally, the child could take her Father shopping so that she can learn what He finds appealing and fitting. And even better, she can use His Money to buy it Isaiah 55:1-3. Or, better yet, so as to not ruin the surprise, she could ask Someone who knew the Father well for some recommendations John 6:44, 14:6.

This importance that we place on the style and location of worship also creates an unhealthy relationship between the church, its members and God. Those who like worshiping in a certain style will feel like they belong and are true followers of God when this might not be the case at all Matt 7:22-23. Those who don’t like that style may feel like they don’t belong and that they are not true followers of God and that may also not be the case at all Matt 25:37-40. Putting undue importance on style and location also limits the capacity for true worship among current members because it prevents the Lord from acting through them the way He would want to.

Those outside or new to the church also have their own preferences and are used to God acting through them in another way. For various reasons, they might feel like they would not fit in into a particular church culture. Maybe because of where they come from, what they are used to, what they have done and so forth. The church receiving these people might also feel that these people do not belong because they don’t fit in to the culture. These things are not often explicitly expressed as bravely as this woman spoke. Instead, one either embraces the church or doesn’t embrace the church. The church either embraces you or not. In either case, you feel the kink relationship and the church feels it too.

This is not a case of right or wrong. Neither the church nor the person that feels he is outside the church is right. We’ll discuss this in the next post in this series.

So It Has To Be Bland?

It is not that we should not have style when it comes to worship. Uniqueness will always be an aspect of worship. Culture, time and space are inevitable consequences of an Infinite God acting through finite men and women. We have bodies and each body is individual. Each collection of bodies, then in a church, will be unique and different from another collection elsewhere. God expresses Himself through each of our unique bodies uniquely in a specific place and time. Jesus, Word made flesh, is The Pattern. He was NOT Japanese, Spanish or Nigerian. He was a Jew. Note though that culture, time and space are consequences not requirements. Things are added and removed (since subtraction is a form of addition) as we pursue the Kingdom Matt 6:33.

The problem is that we often elevate the style and the place above the God whose very movement through us is the worship. Instead of submitting to Him and letting Him move through us to create worship, the outflowing of living waters, we compromise with Him. We say to Him that we will submit to Him but only if He will submit to meeting us in a certain way, in a certain place and in a certain time (Sundays preferred, I’ll have my people call Your people!). We trust the style and the place more than Him!

He is not our only source then. He is not our only spring. The culture, the location and the time are also our sources. It is from them we draw water to quench our thirst. In this regard we are Samaritan since it would appear that we have many gods besides God. Therefore, like Israel in the desert, even today, we limit Him Psalms 78:41. Is it any wonder then that like Hagar and Sarai, on Sundays, we (both church and individual) often find ourselves thirsty and in the desert?

New Clothes

Therefore, Jesus says that true worship is NOT constrained to place and culture. It is not more likely to occur in the monastery than in the streets. But now we are lost. We know true worship exists. But we’re not sure what it is anymore because Jesus prevents us from using a culture to identify it. Does this mean that anything goes? Does it mean that anything anyone does at any time and in any place can be considered worship? No. However, there is a difference between man made clothes and God made clothes Genesis 3:7, 21.

Note how these questions expose our human tendencies. Whatever we can’t pin down in space, time and culture doesn’t exist. We can’t relate to it because it doesn’t speak familiar words in any of these three universal human languages. If it doesn’t speak to us then we don’t know what it calls itself and we can’t define ourselves in relation to it. With one verse, Jesus has closed the door through which we formerly entered into worship and so we are lost. With a few words, He has taken away every single word and every single note to all those worshippy songs we love to sing when we believe we are really worshiping. With one prophecy, He has stripped worship of the time, place and culture we imposed on it.

But this is not really why we are uncomfortable. We are uncomfortable because He has also stripped me and you of the time, place and culture we use to clothe and define ourselves. For we are only as clothed and as naked as our worship.

We must now choose from one of two options. Either Jesus is wrong or unrealistic and so we should keep “worshiping” the way we’re used to regardless of our exclusions and failings. We should just keep on drinking from the same wells and singing the same dead songs. So that, as one song writer put it, people will know we’re Christians, “because we’ve gotta sing songs a certain style // Or we’ll walk right down that aisle // And just leave em all behind.”

Or we have to fundamentally change the way we define ourselves, the way we relate to everyone and everything around us. Let us go to Him to learn a new language and a Living Word.

“… for from the first day that you set your heart to under­stand and hum­bled your­self before your God, your words have been heard …”
- Daniel 10:12

Wanna reach out and ask me some ques­tions? Or do you want clar­i­fi­ca­tion on some­thing writ­ten here? If so, write me a let­ter. I’d love to hear from you and I’ll respond. I bet your hon­est ques­tion will pro­duce insights that will ben­e­fit other read­ers.