The Worship Priority
The Fourth Commandment
Chapter 20 – Guarding the Worship Service
Early in this paper I argued that worship is distinct from the rest of life. There is a tendency today to say that everything we do is an act of worship. This sounds pious and God-centered, but it is unrealistic. We cannot give God the focus and attention which He deserves in worship during every waking hour. What happens when we ignore the distinction between life and worship is inevitable: we rob God of the worship He requires.
At no point is this more easily seen than when we consider the Sabbath. God requires one day out of seven. Many opponents of the Sabbath argue that every day ought to be “holy to the Lord.” That sounds nice, but God knows it isn’t the real world. That’s why he gave us six days to do our things. If we don’t observe that distinction, we won’t have seven holy days, but seven profane days. No day will be specially set aside for God’s service, and worship will be crowded out.
On the other hand, when we observe the Sabbath, worship becomes something clearly distinct from the other activities of life. Worldly concerns are kept at bay, and the glory of God holds center stage for one day. In fact, the Sabbath distinguishes worship from life.
One of the advantages of the Sabbath is that it erects a barrier between the world and worship. I observed in my last post that worldly concerns must be excluded if God is to be worshiped rightly. The Sabbath, by separating legitimate concerns to another part of the week, establishes the necessary barrier. Perhaps one reason that so much of worship now resembles the world is that the church has failed to banish the world from the Lord’s Day.
One of the problems Nehemiah addressed was the trend to turn the Sabbath day into just another market day. (Nehemiah 13:15-22) Buying and selling had no place in the day which God had reserved for His own worship. The worship of God, as we have seen, is a solemn thing, and should not be disturbed by the noise of commerce. God’s people must make the distinction between worship and the rest of life by keeping the things of the world within the bounds of six days, so that the Sabbath might be holy.
What are we to think of the tendency of worship services to resemble the market place of the world? I recently heard a caller on a radio show tell the non-Christian host that his experiences in mega-churches felt more and more like walking into a Wal-Mart. Various Christian blogs recently posted links to a popular show which spoofed the life of the modern mega-church. When told that he could order a latte at the coffee bar before church began, the main character responded, “If I wanted church to be like that I could just wonder around the mall and think about Jesus.”
Even the world now recognizes the absurdity of church services which are indistinguishable from every-day commerce. Many churches have once again become “houses of trade.” How has this come about?
I would not pretend that the problem is entirely one of Sabbath breaking, but Evangelicalism certainly paved the way for indistinct worship by razing the barrier between Sabbath and the week. When church is just another thing we do on Sunday (or Saturday night if that is more convenient), we do not expect it to look or feel different from everything else on the schedule. Modern Christians scarcely notice when church becomes Starbucks, because so many of them were just stopping off at church on their way to Starbucks anyway!
Worship as Entertainment
Of course the American industry which thrives on weekend sales is the entertainment industry. Americans believe that they have a well earned right to two full days of leisure every Saturday and Sunday. The entire culture of entertainment and hobbies is built around this presumed schedule. Sabbatarian Christians have long recognized that this is an aspect of our culture in which we cannot fully participate. God has reserved Sunday for Himself, so it cannot be the day for football, movies, or our various hobbies.
Sabbath keepers have been a minority among evangelicals, though. What has been the trend in the Evangelical world at large?
As Christians have viewed worship as something else they do in the midst of a busy schedule, most of that busyness has been a matter of leisure and entertainment rather than work. Worship has consequently been squeezed into a smaller and smaller timeslot. Leisure is, after all, so much harder to give up than work! Churches with no Sabbath commandment have had to accommodate this trend or loose worshipers.
For years it has been common to hear pastors remark, “I’m going to finish this up early today; I know we all want to get home for the game.” It was only a small step from there for the game to be broadcast as part of the evening worship, and for every other type of entertainment to be mimicked in church. If church has become nothing more than another form of entertainment we should not be surprised. After all, churches must compete with the culture of leisure in which its members indulge.
Day of Worship
If the church is going to recover biblical worship from the clutches of the world paradigm by which it has been redefined, part of the prescription must be a rediscovery of the doctrine and practice of the Sabbath. God gave us this day because He knew that to worship Him rightly, we must be focused. If we divide the day between worship and other legitimate activities, worship will loose its focus on Him.
This is precisely what we have seen in contemporary Evangelicalism. In the absence of a distinct day of worship, church has become just another item on a long to-do list. Worship services have competed with the entertainments of the world, and all too often they have lost. As a consequence, the church has accommodated itself to the expectations of worshipers, looking more and more like the world, both in its business and its leisure.
If Christians would commit themselves to the Sabbath, determining to make the day different from the rest of the week and to exclude the world for one day, their expectations would shift. They would no longer need worship to accommodate their expectations for the weekend. Rather, they would have a whole day in which to accommodate themselves to the expectations of Scripture. Biblical reform of worship takes time. Specifically it takes one day – out of every seven.