Shadows of Worship 5: The Bronze Laver

Make a bronze washbasin with a bronze stand. Place it between the Tabernacle and the altar, and fill it with water. Aaron and his sons will wash their hands and feet there. They must wash with water whenever they go into the Tabernacle to appear before the LORD and when they approach the altar to burn up their special gifts to the LORD — or they will die! They must always wash their hands and feet, or they will die. This is a permanent law for Aaron and his descendants, to be observed from generation to generation.” – Exodus 30:18-21
The Laver in the Wilderness
Situated in the courtyard, between the altar and the tent, is a large bronze basin. This basin, or laver, is positioned in the hot desert sun on a stand. The basin and its stand are constructed of brilliantly reflective bronze that was once used in the hand mirrors of the women of Israel. Priests would wash various tools and offerings in the laver, but most importantly they would wash themselves. The Bible gives us no dimension to this particular part of the Tabernacle, but it must have been at a height were the priest could wash both their hands and feet. Washing in this highly reflective basin allowed the priest to see a clear picture of themselves as they scrubbed away the dirt and grime accumulated in their sacrificial practices and desert living.
A Picture of our Worship
Not only does God’s grace allow us to be forgiven of our sin, but he also cleanses us from those elements in our lives that tend toward death. The cleansing process of God is not just the wiping away of one’s moral failings in an instant, but it is a purification of the heart, mind and whole being that occurs over a period of time. It is interesting to note that the priest of the Tabernacle needed to be cleansed on rather regular basis. I think it is helpful for us to think of the sanctification and repentance process in our lives, not as an endless gantlet of failure and shame, but the act if a loving father, teaching his children how to walk. This cleansing process of God is an extension of his goodness and kindness (Romans 2:4). In fact, God’s discipline and correction is a result of his great love (Hebrews 12:6, Proverbs 3:12). The process may be painful at times, but this important work of the Spirit is dislodging those things that keep us from rightly relating to God and one another. This work allows us to know him in greater measure. It also allows us to experience, in fullness, the life of a disciple without weight or entanglement (Hebrews 12:1).

A Picture of Heaven
At some point in his reign, David decides that it is inappropriate for God to dwell in a mere tent, while he, the King of Israel, lived in an elaborate palace (2 Samuel 7). David sets his mind to making for God a more permanent and elegant home in his new capitol city, Jerusalem. David soon finds that God has a slightly different plan. The Lord allows David to design the new worship facility, but requires his son Solomon, “the man of peace,” to build it instead.
The new temple is based on the overall foot print of the Tabernacle, only larger and more elaborate. For example, in the Temple, the function of the laver is replaced by the larger “sea.” The sea was a brass basin about seven and a half feet high with a diameter of about fifteen feet. Multiple, smaller lavers were pushed around on carts to facilitate washing, but “the sea,” took on the function of the Tabernacle laver. Understanding this transition from the laver to the sea is important in spotting this element in later material.
In Revelation 4:6, John describes what he sees in heaven, “In front of the throne was a shiny sea of glass, sparkling like crystal…” When many hear about the “crystal sea,” they imagine an actual ocean of glass. It is most likely that the sea John is speaking of is a glass or crystal basin, not a body of water. This understanding helps us to better visualize Revelation 15:2 as well. “I saw before me what seemed to be a glass sea mixed with fire. And on it stood all the people who had been victorious over the beast and his statue and the number representing his name. They were all holding harps that God had given them.” While its heavenly function may not seem completely clear from these two glimpses in Revelation, it does seem that there is a basin for purification in the Heaven.
Our Response
The cleansing work of God is wondrous. One of the most important distinctions to make in this process is the difference between condemnation and conviction. Paul tells us in Romans 8:1, “So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.” Yet, many followers of Jesus spend enormous amounts of time under heavy burdens of shame and regret. Many times, the faults and imperfections in our lives seem to scream out to us in demoralizing tones that leave us ashamed and immobilized. This is not the will or voice of our Heavenly Father. Condemnation is a voice that attributes worthlessness and shame to the whole person. It focuses on attacking the individual and wholly classifying them as “less than.” Conviction, on the other hand, is the grace inspired light that shines on a particular way of thinking or acting that is contrary to God’s will and nature. In other words, condemnation attacks the person. Conviction illuminates the sin or wrong way of being. Conviction is God’s loving invitation to acknowledge the truth and turn away form that particular harmful way of being.
The work of God’s grace in our lives is not just about establishing our eternal home, but the transformation of our whole selves in this current life. Let us take a moment and ask the Holy Spirit to turn down the voices of condemnation and highlight one area of our life that needs some cleaning. Perhaps it is a habit, an attitude, an unforgiven offence, or something else. Then, simply agree with God that this particular thing is not good, true and right. You also must decide to turn away and not return to that unhealthy way of life. Sometimes these decisions need action. Perhaps you need to apologize to someone one or remove some things that led you down that path in the first place. Let he Holy Spirit guide you. The cleansing process can take time. Just as the priest washed on a continual basis, we too should be continually inviting God to cleanse, change and transform us into the sons and daughters we are called to be.

Shadows of Worship 4: The Altar

Using acacia wood, construct a square altar 7-1/2 feet wide, 7-1/2 feet long, and 4-1/2 feet high. Make horns for each of its four corners so that the horns and altar are all one piece. Overlay the altar with bronze…” -Exodus 27:1-2 (NLT)


The Altar in the Wilderness
As one entered the tabernacle complex, they would pass through a colorful tapestry that functioned as a gate to the outer court. As they emerged into the rectangular courtyard, the very first thing set before them would be a large square altar. The altar is about seven and a half feet long, about seven and a half feet wide, and about four and a half feet tall. It is made of wood and covered in bronze that shine in the desert sun. Built into each of the four corners of the altar are protruding horns. The altar also includes a grate that allows the offering of the Israelites to be incinerated before the Lord. The fire on this altar burns all the time. Its heat, glow, and aroma are present in the courtyard of the Tabernacle always.
A Picture for our Worship
The Bronze Altar primarily illustrates the sacrificial death of Jesus. As Jesus approached the Jordan River, John the Baptist proclaimed, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Jesus is referred to as a sacrificial lamb by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:7 and by Peter in 1 Peter 1:19. Revelation is also full references to Jesus as the Lamb of God. Jesus was our sacrificial lamb who not only died for the forgiveness of a nation for a year, but for the entire world for all time. The first element one encounters in their faith journey is the sacrifice of the Son of God. It is by this sacrifice that those who believe gain access to God, find forgiveness, and are granted eternal life.
As followers of Jesus, we are called not only to believe in who Jesus is and what he did, but we are also called to live lives that reflect that revelation. We too are called to give our lives. Unlike Jesus, our sacrifice is normally not physical, but a continual dying to oneself (Matthew 16:24). We are called to be “living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1). As unpleasant or unpopular as it may be, death is an essential part of Christian maturity. This is not a death for death sake, but a death that leads to new life. The altar is smelly, messy, and, many times, an unpleasant place to be, but it is the essential door that must be passed through in order to experience the life of a disciple of Jesus. We must truly offer up everything to be his disciple.
I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels — a plentiful harvest of new lives. – John 12:24
A Picture of Heaven
A sacrificial altar appears a number of times in the prophetic writings of the Bible. Revelation 6:9 states, “…I saw under the altar the souls of all who had been martyred for the word of God and for being faithful in their testimony.” This altar is mentioned a number of other times in Revelation (8:3-5, 14:18, 16:7). In Isaiah’s heavenly call experience, he states that an angel took a coal from the altar and touched it to his lips (Isaiah 6:6). It is possible that this might have been the altar of incense (a part of the tabernacle we will speak about soon), but more than likely it would have been referring to a larger, sacrificial altar that produced a great deal of cinders and coal. The writer of the Book of Hebrews also mentions an altar apart from the one found in the earthy tabernacle. “We have an altar from which the priests in the Tabernacle have no right to eat” (Hebrews 13:10). There is certainly another altar beyond the one that served in the midst of Israel’s earthly worship locations.
Our Response
The sacrificial death of Jesus is central to our faith. Like many things, it can become so familiar, that we somehow lose sight of it. No matter how we have progressed in our journey with God, the revelation of the Cross of Jesus should never become too distant, too fuzzy, or too un-real. Has your vision for the cross become less than clear? I invite you to remember. Reading though John 19 and 20 might help.
Not only is it essential we keep the fire of the revelation of the cross clear in our hearts and minds, but Jesus also invites us to personally pick up our own crosses daily. What area of our lives and ministries have we kept form the altar? What areas of our life are not given over to God? Ask God to reveal to you any area of your life that you have kept form the fire of his heavenly altar. If there is something, offer it up to God.

Shadows of Worship 3: The Tabernacle in the Desert

Around the mid-point of the Exodus narrative, we find that the Hebrew people have just been delivered from years of crushing labor and slavery under the hands of the Egyptians. They have watched God miraculously deliver them through the Red Sea and provide for them in the harsh and barren landscape of the wilderness, east of Egypt. God has also called Moses, their leader, to a mountain to work out the terms of their relationship. Moses is given rules on how this newly formed nation is to relate to one another and how they are to relate to God. Part of these “terms” included detailed instructions on the fabrication of a worship complex. This complex would include a rectangular fence made of wood posts and white linen walls. Inside this fence, would be a square, bronze altar for sacrificially burning animals, and a bronze laver or pool for the washing associated with the sacrificial service. Also, inside this fenced-in courtyard is a large, rectangular structure. The structure is made of portable wall units and completely covered with various tapestries and skins. This tent-like structure is divided into two rooms. The first room takes up two thirds of this tent, and contains a lamp, a table, and a small square altar. This area, named the “Holy Place,” is restricted to certain priests. The final third of the tent contains the Ark of the Covenant, a chest that is connected with the very presence of God. This last third of the tent is called the “Most Holy Place” or “Holy of Holies” and it is off limits to everyone, with the exception of the high priest, once a year. This worship complex, referred to as “the Tabernacle,” was the center of worship for the Hebrews as they journeyed through the wilderness on their way to the new home God had promised them.
The majority of Tabernacle activity was found in the courtyard. Here, priests and Levites would be about the work of sacrificing animals. The light of the desert sun would shine upon the bronze altar and laver. The smell of smoke, blood, and burning flesh would permeate the area, and the sound of sloshing water could be heard as the priest washed themselves, their sacrifices, and their tools.

Inside the tent was a very different environment. The walls and furniture were covered with hammered gold and the visible ceiling was a colorful tapestry, embroidered with heavenly beings. The only light inside the tent came from the flickering wicks of the lampstand. Fragrant incense would also be burning in the small altar in front of the veil that separates the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. The haze of incense and the reflection of the flickering lampstand dancing off the various surfaces of gold, probably created an illusion of movement. The flickering light may have even made the cherubim on the ceiling look as if they were moving about the room. A large purple veil would have divided the tent into its two rooms. Behind the veil, in the inaccessible dark of the Holy of Holies, would have been the golden Ark of the Covenant, the very footstool of God’s Throne.
The Tabernacle in the Desert was an awe inspiring environment. The smells, sights, and sounds would have created a permanent impression on those who worked and visited this temporal picture of the dwelling place of God. How much more awe inspiring are the spiritual and heavenly realities that are reflected in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness.
In the Following posts, we will explore the various elements of the Tabernacle to learn more about how they functioned, what they might represent and what glimpses they may give us of heavenly places.

Shadows of Worship 2: An Illustration in the Desert

While there may not be explicit worship instructions in the New Testament, the Scriptures are not completely void of direction when it comes to New Covenant worship. Instead of a new set of laws to regulate worship, the Scriptures include illustrative images and shadowy pictures that speak of the New Covenant and our relational worship of God. Strangely enough, these pictures of our current worship experiences are not found in the New Testament, but reside in the official worship spaces of the First Covenant.

(Speaking of the Old Testament Priesthood) They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” – Hebrews 8:5

In constructing the first structure for the corporate worship of Yahweh, Moses lays out a crass, but faithful replica of what is in Heaven. This idea is repeated throughout the prophets, as we read about their glimpses into heavenly places and hear about elements in heaven that are reflected in the first worship system in the desert. Moses may or may not have known, but he was carrying around with him a temporal model of certain heavenly realities.

It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. – Hebrews 9:23-24

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming– not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. – Hebrews 10:1

It is clear from Paul and the writer of the book of Hebrews that the Temple/Tabernacle system of worship is no longer necessary. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, in 70 AD, further emphasized this point. We no longer need to offer animals or produce in order to cleanse ourselves from sin. Jesus has done this for us once and for all (see Hebrews 10)! If this is true, of what good are those parts of Scripture that layout the older system of sacrifice and worship? As mentioned previously, these earlier structures and systems provide pictures of heavenly realities that seem to be eternal and not bound to any particular covenant. As we look for biblical guidance on how to grow as worshiping communities, it would benefit us to explore the Tabernacle of the Old Testament, in order that we might be greater informed of what we experience, as we boldly approach the throne of grace in our New Testament, Christian worship experiences.
The Tabernacle has been explored throughout Christian history, but many Christians today have never really paid it much attention. I believe this is probably for three main reasons. One, the biblical material describing the Tabernacle is technical, unfamiliar, and, on first glimpse, pretty boring. As well, this part of the Old Testament has been historically interpreted using typology. Typology is a form of biblical interpretation that finds meaning in the Old Testament by seeing people, objects, and events as symbols or illustrations of New Testament ideas. The New Testament itself interprets the Old in this way on numerous occasions. Even so, this sort of reading of the Old Testament tends to be difficult for modern Christians who have been trained to find empirical answers in the Scriptures using observation and reason, as opposed to typology that tends to rely more on imagination and inspiration. Lastly, the tabernacle has been difficult for Christian scholars to interact with, because most of the academic conversation about this topic has been overwhelmed with discussions about historicity (did the tabernacle actually exist). These heated debates have been going on for over a hundred years now, and have drowned out almost all other discussions on the topic.
While there are a few groups in the Body of Christ that are exploring these ideas today, studies of the Tabernacle are usually seen by the larger body as esoteric, biblical curiosities, not really essential to practical faith. During this time of transition and flexibility in the worship cultures of much of the Church, it is essential to explore all that the Scriptures are sharing with us on this topic to make full, theological, biblical decisions on how to creatively and faithfully grow in our worship theology and practice. Understanding the pictures that the tabernacle provides is part of the puzzle. Its arrangement and the similar arrangement of the temple were quite familiar to all of the biblical authors, and this framework would have under-girded their conversations about worship, prayer, and a number of other important issues.
In the next few posts, we will explore the tabernacle and search together for elements that can inform our corporate experiences in worship. In addition, we will be examining our own lives. We will be inviting God to change and grow us, as we learn about these pictures and copies of heavenly realities. May the Holy Spirit, the true teacher, be at work in us as we walk through the Tabernacle in the Desert together!

Shadows of Worship 1: A New Testament Standard for Worship?

When it comes to worship, what is our standard? What is our guide? For all things in the Christian life, we rely on Scripture as our foundational source. This is why I find it so peculiar that there are so few corporate worship directives in the New Testament. In John 4, Jesus proclaims that true worshipers worship “in Spirit and Truth” (a subject we will spend more time on later). Paul offers some practical guidance on how to behave when gathering together, and the writer of the book of Hebrews lays out some helpful theological ideas about worship. We also see some glimpses of heavenly worship in Revelation, but the New Testament offers little in the way of prescriptive worship instructions.
This lack of corporate worship protocol in the New Testament could be due to an early church emphasis on life as worship. Paul calls the Romans to offer their bodies as “living sacrifices…this is your spiritual act of worship” (12:1). Does this mean that the first church deemphasized corporate gatherings, in favor of holy living? I don’t think so. Both the Old and New Testaments see worship as an act that extends beyond corporate gatherings, but both also seem to hold corporate gatherings in high esteem. In the New Testament, we see multiple examples of people gathering for times of prayer, study, communion, and teaching. The Church itself was birthed in the midst of a corporate prayer meeting (see Acts 2). As well, the writer of the book of Hebrews clearly admonishes, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing…” (10:25). While worship was seen as an act that went beyond the corporate gathering, corporate worship was an important part of life for those who originally followed Jesus.
If corporate worship gatherings were still practiced and valued in the New Testament, where are the guidelines for those meetings? It is my suspicion that this lack of specificity about corporate worship in the New Testament may be by design and may be reflective of the newer covenant we currently enjoy. When it comes to religious practice, many of us desire order, rules, and a certain level of sameness. While there is certainly nothing wrong with rules, order, and sameness, these elements can quickly gain a life of their own. They can become subtle distractions that steal from the elemental intangibles related to the relational worship of God. We can become satisfied with enjoying the forms of worship instead of the one we have come to worship. This human bent towards religious activity over interactive, personal worship may be why certain structures and regulations are not lifted up in the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. Every regular gathering will gain a certain liturgy and tradition over time, but these worship procedures and practices, as beneficial as they may be, are not what make up the essence of true Christian worship.
Perhaps, the omission of specific corporate worship instructions is simply because that’s not how New Testament worship works. Could it be that there is a lack of official written instructions in order to cultivate creative, varied, limitless expressions of glorifying God and edifying the Body of Christ? Our local churches should be the most creative and expressive places in our communities and should reflect the creative nature of the one who made the Universe and all that is in it. Is it possible we have been approaching worship from a place of “fear of error” instead of “grace to glorify?” Perhaps, God has given us a beautiful blank canvas, full of endless, creative possibility, and we tend to cry out for graph paper.

Our conversation will continue in the next post in this series where we take a look at a few underexplored biblical illustrations of New Testament worship.

Thoughts on Evangelism, Part 2

Thoughts on Evangelism: A Reason for the Hope that We Have

In high school, I worked in the shoe department of a local discount department store. I was trained on the cash register, on where the merchandise was located, and…that was about it. After a day or so, I was left in the department by myself, unsure and full of anxiety. What did I know about shoes??? NOTHING!!! I could ring people up and make simple transactions, but when questions came my way, I was lost. In order to compensate, I quickly came up with little pat answers that got me by when customers would ask me questions. “Will these shoes stretch?” “A little,” I would answer. (Pretty much, all shoes might stretch a little). It was a stressful, unpleasant experience and during every shift, my main goal was to simply get out of there. Was this because my giftings were not in retail? perhaps. More importantly, I really did not know what I was doing. I was just waiting for someone to ask me a question or a situation to arise that I was woefully underprepared for. This anxiety made me hate selling shoes. In fact, I returned to the store a few years ago to take a look around. I walked in and the familiar smell of leather and perfume hit me in the face. I had a visceral reaction and decided memory lane was not worth it. I turned around and never went back.

Many of us do not engage in sharing the good news because ultimately we don’t know what we are doing. We have and enjoy the product, but we don’t really understand it. I am not calling all believers to get a theology degree before sharing the Gospel, but I know we desperately need our teachers to present the elements of the faith in Jesus in graspable, digestible ways. This work is scholastic in nature, but more importantly this work should be didactic at heart. Teaching is the ability to present revelation in an accessible manner that leads not only to an increase of knowledge, but inward transformation. Jesus was able to do this through parables and other illustrations. We certainly need good scholarship, but we are especially in need of good teaching. It is my opinion that the mark of a good theologian is the ability to get to the truth. The mark of a great theologian is the ability of awakening truth inside of others. Our gospel guidelines and other teachings on sharing the good news should be authentic and simple.

At the end of the day, the greatest evangelism tool is the example of a life transformed by the love and grace of Jesus. It is not my intention to stop anyone form sharing the Good News, due to a lack of unanswered questions. I am quite ok with letting the Holy Spirit fill in the gaps. What I am interested in seeing is the ability for every believer to naturally share the life transforming story of salvation with those around them.

Thoughts on Evangelism, Part 1

Thoughts on Evangelism: Past and Present

Returning Evangelism to the People
Out of all of the Spiritual gifts, there is one that continually ends up at the bottom of my personal list of Christian aptitudes. This is evangelism. While my heart soars when I hear the testimony of a new Christian, and I love the fire and overwhelming passion of new believers, I have never been all that exceptional at traditional methods of leading people to Jesus for the first time. Yet, with the American church’s recent emphasis on evangelism in worship, I have wrested a great deal with this important Kingdom mandate. My primary exploration has focused on the role of evangelism in worship. There is a good bit to discuss here. Very quickly, I’ll state that I have seen too many life-changing moments at the end of alter calls to ever think that God does not like to seal the deal in the midst of worship. I believe he does, but I do worry when the majority of our efforts in worship are aimed at evangelism. With love-filled, righteous intentions, this practice can cause the illusive, yet critically important work of worship itself to be diminished in our church families. The main focus of worship should be worship and if we are relying on one hour a week to evangelize the world, I believe we are shorting the Great Commission on numerous levels.
So, if worship is not the prime or ideal space for our main evangelistic efforts, what is? It is my inclination that evangelism is best expressed in everyday life by everyday believers. It is easy to be in awe of skilled, fiery evangelists and poignant pastors that seem to be able to fill alters with a few well-placed words. This awe has led many in the church to express their personal evangelism by dragging their unbelieving friends to hear professional proclaimers of the Gospel. Without a doubt, God has gifted certain individuals to reach the masses, yet I believe only a small percentage of growing believers first respond to the Gospel in mass settings. It is my distinct impression that the large majority of adult converts simply had a friend who began to speak to them about Jesus. While not the only way, I believe this is the most effective, personal, and natural way of sharing the Gospel. Unfortunately, the majority of believers I know are woefully overwhelmed with brandishing classic American strategies of evangelism.
Building Upon the Past
In high school, I was introduced to what is probably the most pervasive evangelism tool in the last half century, the “Four Spiritual Laws.” I was officially trained how to use it and, on occasion, I did. In my experience, this tool could have wonderful results. It simply communicates that God has a wonderful plan, everybody sins, and this separates us from God, Jesus is the answer to this problem, and one must personally accept Jesus. For decades, theological types have questioned this tactic, claiming that it was too simplistic or too sin focused. At this point, a famous D.L. Moody quote is usually evoked, “I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.” Fair enough, but I have to be honest. This form of presenting the Gospel, and others like it, have always seemed a little forced and formal, a little impersonal, a little formulaic, and like there is something missing. There has also been something somewhat predatory and inauthentic about the way many have been trained to use this and similar tools. I still have a great deal of respect for this Bill Bright’s “Four Spiritual Laws” and the good it has done in the Kingdom, but the style of the invitation does set the tone for the rest of the party. I think it is worth re-exploring how we share the gospel.
It is amazing to me that while so much in the American church is changing, our evangelism tools and tactics don’t seem to be keeping up with a radically evolving culture. A few tools and popular sermon series, such as Bill Hybels’, “Just Walk Across the Room,” have made the rounds in the last decade or so, but American Evangelical evangelism seems to be sleeping. I think this is because we have work to do. This work does not have to do with effort or getting over the fear of having awkward conversations about Jesus with our friends. This work is primarily theological in nature. While there a myriad of reasons why Christians do not share the Gospel, I believe that a starting place for refreshing our passion for this work lies in rediscovering the depths of salvation, life in the Spirit, and the Kingdom to come. I believe that much of the awkwardness that comes from our traditional forms of evangelism is due to the fact that we really do not know what we are talking about! What is Salvation? What are we being saved from and to? What does the Bible say about Heaven and Hell? What is happening to me when I become a follower of Jesus? I believe the traditional answers to these questions have been adequate in the past, but we would benefit from newer ways of presenting and explaining the Gospel. These explanations should be rooted in the fullness of Scripture and reflect a thoughtfulness usually lacking in many of our pat explanations. In recent years, conversations about Heaven and Hell have made waves in certain circles of the American Church. Many have felt quite threatened by these conversations. While I disagree with the conclusions of a number of the main players in these controversies, I welcome these conversations. We desperately need to revamp our traditional teachings on these elemental subjects. I am not calling for us to move from orthodoxy, but to actually return to explanations more firmly rooted in the Bible and sound theology. We do not have to completely disregard the old form and models completely, but graciously and wisely analyze them and build on what our Mothers and Fathers have used in years gone by. They would want us to.
Over the last century or so, we have allowed our evangelists to form the church’s common theology surrounding salvation, heaven, hell, death, and the like. This is not the fault of the evangelist. We have simply lost the voice of the theologians and teacher in the conversations about the work of sharing the Good News. In essence, we have allowed our salesmen to write the owner’s manual. These is why our common pictures and understandings of these elemental concepts make good pitches, but sometimes fall short in other ways. We desperately need our teachers and evangelists to wrestle and pray together to find simple, yet profound ways of explaining the Good News. Help us Lord!

The Attractional Nature of Worship Part III

The Attractional Movement: Next Steps

Worship Growth
It is important to stress the fact that most Christians want to worship well. There are sanctuaries, school auditoriums, warehouses, living rooms, open fields, and a myriad of other venues where Christians are faithfully coming together, week after week, to offer God something of themselves. I believe God greatly approves of this. The heart of the Father is blessed by the faithfulness of his children to come together to be with Him, but the heart of the Father is also continually wooing us to greater, more mature places in our understandings and practices of worship.
Much of the pain that was experienced during the conflicts over worship styles in recent decades has dealt primarily with one generation perceiving the message, “you’re doing it wrong” from another. If a group of believers are faithfully and honestly coming before God with halfway decent intentions, I don’t think they can get worship “wrong.” Yet, no matter our worship style, theological approach, or longevity of tradition, we can always grow in our approaches to worship. This doesn’t mean that we are always throwing away the old for the new, but there should be consistently something new, challenging, and stretching amidst our current worship approaches. With this in mind, we should be able to recognize that our current efforts in worship are most likely good and pleasing to God, but instead of being satisfied with stable sufficiency, we must recognize we have the honor and opportunity to ask, “What’s next?”

The Attractiveness of Worship
Should worship be attractive to those outside our congregations? I believe, to a large degree, it should be. The words of Jesus in John 12:32 cause me to wonder about this. “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” I know Jesus is referring to his death here (see the next verse), but I wonder if there more to this statement. Will the Holy Spirit draw unbelievers to the Lord as we lift him up? In worship, our goal should never be to impress people, but in generous hospitality, we should welcome newcomers into the weekly gathering of our incredible God and his awestruck people. The shift here for many of us is not so much in practice, but intention. Instead of a primary attentiveness to outsiders or new participants, we are primarily focused on interacting, abiding, and being with God. Our aims at hospitality are quite important, but they are secondary. This follows the basic pattern of the first and second greatest commandments (Matthew 22:38-39). When God is the primary goal and aim of worship, our relationship with God and outsiders should bear greater and greater fruit.
What many of us have found over the last few years is that the truly attractional aspect of worship is God himself. He is the one wooing, attracting, healing, speaking, helping, and doing a myriad of other things that will always outshine our ability to impress. If Jesus is uniquely present in our gatherings and He is truly the most attractive part of our worship, perhaps we should be spending more time focusing on Him and giving him space to be displayed. I believe God has been pleased with our heart for the lost and our desire to see people come to know Jesus, but some of our attention simply needs to be refined a bit. Part of this refining is experimenting with practices that cause us to be first God-focused and then people-focused. Refining our approaches to worship in this way, while not throwing away our concern for the outsider, will allow us to grow into this wonderful new season of spiritual maturation and relationship with Him.

Stepping Out
How do we get there? How do we begin to refine our current worship cultures? If I was to tell you I had six simple steps to increase your worship potency, I would be lying. Instead, I have a few hunches as to how to take those first initial steps down the path of Spirit-led transformation. First is prayer. If we are longing for something more substantial in our times of worship, we should ask. Second, intentional discipleship must play a key role. We need to learn, experience, and grow in our understanding of God, the Bible, and worship itself. We also need to make room. We have to be willing to give up some of our past worship habits in order to mature and grow. As well, we need to involve others. Engaging in holy conversation with those inside and outside our congregations is healthy. Corporate change seldom happens without some level of corporate discernment. Lastly, we have to be willing to fail. Excellence is a word used quite a bit when designing worship services. This is appropriate, but we have to be willing to take risks, and learn from those things that did not go well. It is possible to fail excellently as long as we grow and change from our experiences.

The Attractional Nature of Worship Part II

The Attractional Movement: The Questionable and the Evolving

The Questionable:

What is Worship?
It is clear that Jesus called his disciples to make disciples. Evangelism is a key part of this process and a central function in the mission of the Church. Much of the American Church was formed in the fires of great awakenings and revivals. We have seen God work mightily at many altars, changing lives and bringing the lost to salvation, but is this the primary function of worship? As wonderful as the invitation portion of any service is, the primary function of worship is for the cooperate body of believers to commune with God. Our moments of approaching the throne of God, as a cooperate body, should primarily be about interacting with him. As ethereal as this task may seem, it is immensely important. This is not to say that calls to salvation in our service are a bad thing, but I don’t believe that evangelism should overshadow the prime reason for our gathering. Many believers only experience this type of holy interaction and communion in deeply meaningful ways in retreat settings. This “retreat” type of worship, and more, should be our Sunday norm.

What is Evangelism?
Our evangelistic-focused services can also lead us to believe that the ideal or primary form of evangelism is offering someone an invitation to hear a “professional” Christian proclaim Christ. While this is certainly not a bad practice, it is not the ideal form of sharing the Gospel. A more ideal evangelism is every believer being equipped with an answer for the hope that they have. This looks like all Christians sharing the Good News and their personal encounters with the living God in their everyday environments. The norm should be an equipped church, saturated in God-centered worship, being lights in the world, and sharing the Gospel where they are.

What is a Disciple?
In high school, I was trained in a mid-twentieth century, evangelical method of sharing the Gospel. It was good, and people came to know Jesus because of it. The go-to scripture for encouraging us to evangelize our friends and neighbors was naturally the Great Commission. So, in my head, I always equated the Great Commission solely with our call to evangelize. This is not the totality of Jesus’ call. He tells his disciples to “make disciples.” There is more to this call than simply walking people through the front door of life with Jesus. We are called to walk with them much further.
In many churches working within an attractional model, more attention is given to attracting and assimilating outsiders into the culture of the Church, than doing the work of disciple making. An idea that was quite common in much of the Attractional Church was that once people find their place in a community, they will naturally grow. While some individuals can grow and thrive by simply being introduced to a church family, experience tells us most will not. (See Move by Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson). Some churches do have classes that, in a few weeks, introduce newcomers to faith basics and opportunities of service, but there is usually little beyond this. Unintentionally, cultural standards are created for discipleship that are very low.
In the life of any believer, the No. 1 catalyst for growth as a follower of Jesus is death. Paul’s call in Romans 12 to “offer ourselves as living sacrifices” and Jesus’ multiple calls for us to “pick up crosses and follow me” can sometimes seem incongruent with the highly performance-based, customer service-centered atmospheres created by some attractional churches. A clear invitation to come and die can be rather jarring to those we have worked so hard to make so comfortable. I am not saying we should make church intentionally uncomfortable for our guests and new Christians, but something we have been doing has been keeping many of our attenders in a perpetual state of spiritual adolescence.
The Evolving:

Some would look back at the Attractional Movement and call the whole thing a mistake. I disagree. I believe that it was an imperfect, yet important step in the maturation of our American worship culture. So do we now need to pull the choir robes out of storage and take down the projectors and lights? I really don’t think the tweaks and adjustments that need to be made in most attractional churches have to do with stuff or style. I think our re-examination of the attractional model should cause us to re-examine not only what we are doing, but more importantly the reasoning behind why we use certain approaches. The changes that may need to take place have more to do with approach, theology and rationale. As our mindsets about worship evolve, so will our practices.
I recently served on the pastoral staff of a wonderful church that had seen a lot of great fruit when it made the jump to an attractional style of ministry in the late ’90s. By the time I came on staff, we were basking in the afterglow of this movement’s excitement and energy. Shortly after this time, certain gimmicks became less effective and other parts of our worship approach seemed a bit uncomfortable. One summer, in order to combat our inevitable summer attendance slump, we decided to preach on John 21 and have a beach-themed series. We all dressed in Hawaiian shirts, and decided to decorate our main contemporary worship space like a giant beach. Our efforts were spectacular and we even made the cover of the religion section of the local newspaper. Yet, as one of my fellow pastors and I were shoveling several cubic yards of sand through the stage door, we looked at each other and almost asked at the same time, “Is this really what Jesus had in mind?” The scenery, shirts and theme were certainly not offensive to God, but we all came to a realization that perhaps something had gotten out of whack. At that moment, we could have flushed our whole way of doing church and tried to start over again. I think cooler heads prevailed and we decided to do two things instead. First, we would continue to worship and minster in excellence with the models and methods we currently had. Second, we would begin to intentionally seek God for what He was calling our congregation to look like in the next step of our maturation. As we learned and as he provided, we would make the necessary changes to our worship services, ministry approach and our overall church culture.
I do not believe most churches operating within an attractional model need to do a complete overhaul of their worship services, but there does need to be an openness to grow and evolve when it comes to our approaches to worship. Some of us have found incredible numerical success in this way of doing church, and to do something outside of this model is hard to fathom. God is calling us higher. In our methods of worship, evangelism and discipleship God is inviting us to places of greater depth and effectiveness. More importantly, He is calling us to a closer place with Him.

The Attractional Nature of Worship Part I

The Attractional Movement: Hold on to the Good

In the mid-1990s, a number of innovative churches changed the way many American Christians experienced weekly worship. Churches such as Willow Creek Church in Barrington, Illinois, and Saddleback Church in Southern California, began to design worship services especially targeted at non-churchgoing individuals and families. Through high production values, contemporary music, creative dramas, poignant media presentation, targeted preaching, thorough “assimilation” strategies, and a non-intimidating environment for visitors, these churches saw great swells of participation. Visitors flocked to be a part of a worship experience that was a radical departure from the highly religious and culturally inaccessible faith institutions of their youth.
For some time now, the newness of this type of service has waned and many are evaluating the pros and cons of this particular leap in our American worship culture. I believe it is imperative for us to resist the temptation to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. In the spirit of being on the cutting edge, or simply because of a contrarian nature, many in the Church have the tendency to be wholly against the thing that was once popular, in favor of what is around the corner. If we fail to intentionally discern what is fruitful, not fruitful, and what is simply immature in any season, our human idealism can rob us of unseen wisdom, grace and understanding.
It is also important to acknowledge that many of the less-than-perfect aspects of this movement did not originate with the pioneers of this approach to worship, but with those who tried their best to emulate the innovators. Many pastors and leaders were so hungry for revitalization in their congregations that they tried to recreate exactly what they saw in these early adopting fellowships. I have even heard stories of conference goers taking measuring tapes to Willow Creek to measure the stage in order to make an exact replica at their home churches. This type of cultural mimeographing doesn’t normally work. In the words of a leader of a similar movement, “Be yourselves! If you try to copy exactly what we are doing, you will do the things we do well, half as well, and the things we do bad, twice as bad.” Most of the pioneers in this movement have been faithful to grow and progress as they evaluate the fruit of their congregations. Many of the excesses of this movement are not coming from congregations with an evolving dynamic approach to worship and ministry, but those who are working from an unevolved, static model.

The Good
There are a number of wonderful things that came from this movement that were both fruitful and desperately needed in much of the American Church.

Evangelism: The primary motivation for making worship “attractional” was evangelistic in nature. The idea being, that the enjoyable environment created by an attractive worship experience would be the bait that positioned non-churchgoing people to hear the life-giving message of salvation through Jesus. Christ. Many people heard the message of the Gospel at these churches and embraced Jesus. Undoubtedly, this is a good thing!

Music: This move also encouraged many traditional churches to explore and experiment with songs and instrumentations that were radically different from their norm. As in generations past, the Church began to sing in the musical vernacular of the people. This movement gave many churches permission to expand their musical culture beyond the boundaries of what was once considered appropriate and find new ways to glorify God through musical expression. While some may question the theological content and style of contemporary worship music, a broader musical pallet to worship a creative God is a fitting and good thing. This freedom to expand our worship pallets relates not only to music, but to all sorts of art forms that are now finding a more established place in our cooperate times of worship.

Hospitality: Almost any group of people bound by a common identity have the potential to become insular. The Attractional Worship Movement caused many of us to think beyond ourselves. It called us to put ourselves in the place of strangers who were entering our doors and communities for the first time. I believe many churches are now more aware of their use of insider language and other elements of their culture that are unnecessarily foreign to the outside world. Many communities are simply more sensitive to outsiders (churched and unchurched) and are doing things that make connecting with their congregation easier.

These are just a few of the fruitful aspects of the Attractional Worship Movement. We will examine some of the questionable elements of this approach to worship in the next part of this series.