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A Sacred Assembly

I hate, I despise your festivals,
      and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
      I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
      I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
      I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
      and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
— Amos 5:21–24, NRSV

Amos 5 contains a lament for the sins of Israel. God’s chosen nation had fallen far into idolatry and immorality. They held defiance in their hearts and no hint of repentance, but they continued to hold the traditional festivals and sacrifices as an attempt to appease God. God did not accept their praise or offerings because their hearts were far away from God and they viewed their worship as something it wasn’t—a “get out of jail free” card that would let them go on sinning without fear of punishment.

Sometimes when Christians talk about the Israelites and their downfalls, we seem to treat them as though they were the lost sheep who failed miserably while contemporary Christians are the ones who have figured out how to do everything right. Unfortunately, in many cases we too need to learn the same lessons the Israelites did, adjusted for our context. In this case, the lesson is that too many churchgoers view the church and corporate worship as something it is not.

For example, here are a few quotes heard by me or a colleague from real church members:

“If you disagree, then maybe it’s time for you to move on from this church.”
“You put too much Scripture in the worship service.”
“If something distracts me, like a grammatical error in the slides, I lose my focus and I can’t worship.”
“We should sing more old [or new, fast, slow, etc.] songs.”

These statements reveal a troubling, self-centered, and incorrect perspective of the church and its purpose. A church is not a club in which only certain people—the “right” people—are welcome. Nor is it a place we go to have our every preference catered to, or to be fed without offering anything in return, or to get our spiritual fix to keep us going the rest of the week. A church consists of a group of believers who have committed to meeting together to worship God, to pray, and to uplift, encourage, and share fellowship with each other.

Worship leaders are not above this problem. Those who plan and lead worship are just as susceptible to temptation as the people they serve. As musicians, we may easily begin to focus too much on getting the band to sound “perfect” and forget other concerns. Musicians often have strong musical preferences, and we like to hold on to our preferences just as strongly as anyone. Our task must be to push aside these opinions in order to serve the entire congregation and not just the people whose musical tastes align with ours. Only then can we begin to ask the congregation to put aside their preferences to worship as one unified body.

The same concept applies to any other aspect of being a church. Just as Jesus became a servant to his followers, leaders must become servants to the congregation. This will sometimes require us to interact closely with someone who is very different from us, or who has very different opinions. As servants, we are not only called but commanded to heap love and a sense of belonging on everyone we come in contact with, regardless of any variable or category each person may fall into. Paul speaks to this truth when he explains in his first letter to the Corinthians how a church should operate:

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many (1 Corinthians 12:12–14).

Again, all leaders must intentionally practice this in their own lives before they can begin to expect others to follow suit. This task is always easier said than done, of course, because the world we live in contains forces attempting to stop this progress.

Every day, hundreds or even thousands of voices war for our attention, our money, our time, and, yes, even our worship. These voices command us to think and act selfishly and to go after what we want as well as telling us what we should want. We cannot help but worship something; this urge was built into our very being. The only question that remains for us to decide is whom or what we will worship. Each of us is all too familiar with the temptation to let our minds wander, even in the middle of a song, to other things, from concern over a fight with a friend to casually wondering what will be served for lunch that day. This deviation can occur effortlessly, but its implications are dire, because it means that for the moment our priorities lie in things besides God. The Israelites of Isaiah’s day seem to have fallen into the same trap, for God warned them:

“These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught” (Isaiah 29:13).

Remember, “[our] enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). He hurls distractions at the people of God any chance he gets because he hates the times our focus is fixed on God—especially when we engage with God in worship. When we enter into private or corporate worship, we are either at our strongest or our most vulnerable. If we entertain fears, complaints, or other preoccupations immediately before worship, we risk leaving an opening into our innermost thoughts that the devil will find and exploit in order to pull us away from God. Yet God in mercy always provides a way out of temptation and constantly draws us back toward God. In worship God provides not only strengthened faith, but true joy, because in worshiping God we fulfill the real purpose for which God created us. To prevent distraction from this purpose, we need to spend time preparing our hearts through prayer and stillness on Sunday morning, seeking God right from the start of the day and asking God to clear our heads and sharpen our focus.

We call a time of corporate worship a service, not a concert—and for good reason. The musicians are not performers who get to play whatever they want, and they are not required to play perfectly. The people in the pews are not spectators who come to passively enjoy a show perfectly catered to their tastes. We all gather in one place to serve first our God and secondly each other. In this way, a corporate worship service completely contradicts every value of our consumerist world. The world tells us that every action and investment must bring us some sort of return, that our days should be spent reaching for happiness or recognition for ourselves and holding it tightly against anyone who may try to take it from us. God calls us to lay down all our fears, worries, wants, and needs, asking us to humbly serve one another rather than striving to get ahead. God beckons us to gather before the throne because God loves us and wishes to have fellowship with us. He doesn’t need our worship, but God inherently deserves it. We should not come to worship for our own gain, because we don’t deserve anything from God. Yet when we humbly bow down, the Lord delights in blessing us.

The world promises fulfillment in return for our worship, but in the end it leaves us drained, empty, and hopeless. When we worship God not for our own enjoyment or gain, but simply because God is worthy of it, we enter empty but come away filled.