Recently a preacher friend, after reading a couple of articles about millennials and their worship desires, noticed that one of the things millennials said they needed was “authentic worship.” Of course, that raised an interesting question that needed to be answered – “Does that mean worship now is not authentic?” The implication seems to be that if the millennial generation is looking for an authentic worship experience then the worship experience that has been the norm up to that point was not authentic.
One doubts that the average millennial would go out on a limb and say that all worship is not authentic and needs to be changed so that authenticity is achieved. That would cast doubt and judgment on parents and peers that approve of and participate in what is the typical current worship practice. It’s one thing to critique the perceived impersonal worship of the institutionalized church, but to critique the worship of a beloved grandparent or parent is impinging upon the personal. Judging whether a formalized worship is an authentic experience for another person boarders upon intolerance, and in the postmodern thought climate into which the millennial generation is born, judging another person’s actions and intentions is practically anathema. Therefore, the real point being driven home, the unspoken part of the statement about seeking authentic worship is “… for me.”
Isn’t that the real bottom line? How one person describes an authentic worship experience may be completely different from another’s authentic worship experience. Simply put, a worship “experience” can only be measured by a subjective standard: what comes across as authentic “… for me.” One person says that authentic worship consists in having a lesson presented that obviously uses Biblical references and illusions. Another person says that authentic worship consists of interaction between the members, so everyone has a voice. Still another person says that authentic worship consists of eliciting a feeling or emotional response that is confirming and reaffirming. Yet in each of these scenarios what is described as authentic worship can be said to be subjective from the standpoint of the other scenario.
The experiential dimension is mentioned in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel, the prophet that went with Israel into captivity about 720 B.C., was nothing short of what might be considered a “performance prophet.” He makes a drawing of Jerusalem and lays in front of it, on his left side for 390 days and his right for 40 days (4:1-8); that is just the beginning of his performances (see also 5:1-4; 12:3-7; 24:15-24). Yet in Ezekiel 33:30-33 the people tell each other to come see and hear the prophet because he was “to them like a sensual song by one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument” (v. 32, NASB). The people are coming to see the prophet for the experience of listening to a person that makes them feel something powerful inside. Ezekiel moved them. Then, in the same verse, we find the people – who love listening because of how it makes them feel – leave Ezekiel but never put his words into practice! Matthew Henry makes this comment about these, “(T)here are many who take pleasure in hearing the word, but make no conscience of doing it; and so they build upon the sand, and deceive themselves.”
Having an emotional experience during worship would not seem to be wrong in and of itself, but to seek out an authentic worship for the sake of that emotional encounter elevates the object of the worship to the “I” as opposed to “the Other.” In Colossians 2:20-23 Paul is asking those Christians why, since they had died to the world, do they subject themselves to ordinances that are prescribed by the world? In the end, those precepts and doctrines which are implemented by men – which Paul sums up in “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” (v. 21) – are the object of what Paul identifies as “self-made worship” (v. 23). Coffman makes this comment: “Will-worship means the kind of actions engaged in because they please the worshiper, and not because they are commanded by the Lord.”
The worship that Paul describes in Colossians is self-directed, oriented in such a way that the worshipper is the center of the activity. If proskyneo is that form of worship that recognizes God as the true object of a sincere worshipper, ethelothreskia describes worship that might be motivated because of God but in the end is a show, described by Calvin as “placed in contrast to reality, for it is an appearance, … which deceives by resemblance.” Further, to say the only worship experience that is authentic is one that produces an “I’ve-never-been-that-moved-before” experience is bordering on arrogance and rebellion. Regardless of a person’s age defined category (Baby Boomer, Millennial, Gen X, or whatever), the emphasis of worship is God, not the “I.”
There are certainly many today who worship in unorthodox places and some in unorthodox manners. While some may raise an eyebrow, the real bottom line is expressed in John 4:19-24. According to Jividen, four important facts can be recognized from this passage: 1) Christian worship is not confined to a physical place, 2) the Father desires worship from His people, 3) it does make a difference whether we follow God’s directions in worship, and 4) we must worship in spirit and truth. If this passage highlights any specific truth or principle, would it not be that Jesus believes that God has a specific method by which Christians must worship?
There is an authority structure for the church. Paul points to that structure in Ephesians 2:19-22, where he notes that the household of God into which Christians are being built has its foundation upon “the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone.” The Hebrews writer makes the same point: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world” (Heb. 1:1-2). When Paul was an old man he wrote to Timothy and reminded him to watch for what “is contrary to sound teaching, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1 Tim. 1:10-11). The reason for this admonition falls directly upon Jesus’ statement that it is by staying within His teachings that we are truly His disciples (John 8:31-32). Sadly, more and more are drifting away from the only source available that can inform us, guide us, judge us, and enlighten us: the Scriptures. Phil Sanders wrote, “When God looks down on one who is worshiping Him and sees a heart that is crafting its own religion, God sees that worship as futile. Such songs and prayers never get above the ceiling.”
The hardest part of this whole consideration is setting aside my feelings. This in the end must be done. The Christian cannot truly be a “bond-servant of Christ” (Rom. 1:1; Jam. 1:1; 2 Pet. 1:1; Jude 1:1; Rev. 1:1) when the focus is upon what makes me feel good, what makes me feel as though God is present, and what makes me feel that worship has been authentic. The focus which must be maintained is the same focus that Jesus had, a focus that allowed Him to say, “…not as I will, but as You will” (Matt. 26:39). This should be on one’s lips not only at the point of death or during great anguish, but every second of every minute of every day of this earthly life. So the question that must be answered by every person, is this. Do we allow the Scriptures to define what is “in spirit and in truth,” or is “in spirit and in truth” to be defined by the individual? The answer to that question is at the very heart of the definition of authentic God-centered worship.
Scott is a teacher, preacher, and elder for the Rock Creek congregation in Warrior, AL.
Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Vol. IV — Isaiah to Malachi (Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1970), 947.
James Burton Coffman, Commentary on Galatians Ephesians Philippians Colossians, Volume VII (Abilene: ACU Press, 1977), 364.
John Calvin, Commentaries on The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, trans. Rev. John Pringle (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948), 201.
Jimmy Jividen, More Than A Feeling: Worship that Pleases God (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1999), 25.
Phil Sanders, Adrift: Postmodernism in the Church (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Co., 2000), 56.