One of the best ways to understand what is spiritually going on today in the professing Church world is to look at what is happening to Christian worship services. It is no understatement to say that modern worship services have changed dramatically. There are many services that tend to increasingly have less and less to do with the Lord and more and more to do with our culture. If you go to some of our modern, trendy worship services today you may be surprised at what is going on in there. It is not uncommon to be offered ear plugs as you enter the worship center because the music is so loud. Over the last year or so I have personally talked with several people that have had this experience. As a result, it appears that ear plug worship is slowly becoming common place in the church world and not just some fringe experience. This is leading some people to feel like they are at a rock concert being entertained, instead of being led into the presence of the Lord. Sadly, the noise in these services can be so loud that you not only need ear plugs, but you can't hear yourself sing or even think at times.
Nowhere in the Bible does loudness equate to Biblical spirituality or better worship of the Lord. As a matter of fact, an argument could be made that the Lord is better known and encountered in worship through the gentle whisper and still small voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to our hearts as was the case with Elijah in I Kings 19:12. Elijah lived in a day of apostasy when the nation of Israel had drifted away from the Lord and had been taken over by the false gods and practices of the pagans. It was during Elijah's great contest with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel that we see these issues of true and false worship coming into clear focus. Whether we see it or not, we are living in the days of Elijah.
Elijah's relationship with the Lord was based on his simple faith in the Lord and was not created by what he did in worship, but what the Lord had already done for him and his people through the mighty deliverance seen during the Exodus from Egypt. However, the prophets of Baal had created their own view of "god" that required them to perform and create worship that was based on their own actions and behavior. Elijah challenged these false prophets on Mt. Carmel by taunting them to get their "god" to act for them by resorting to all sorts of crazy worship behavior. In I Kings 18:27-29 we hear,
At noon Elijah began to taunt them. "Shout louder!" he said. "Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened." So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.
The simple and powerful message about true worship, as seen at Mt. Carmel in the days of Elijah, is that our Lord had already acted and graced His people from the beginning of their relationship. We worship the Lord for what the Lord has already done for us in the Lord Jesus Christ and the exodus from sin He has provided through the cross and His victory over the grave in His resurrection. The Lord does not respond to our efforts in worship, however dramatic and loud they may become. The idea that we can enhance or contribute to true worship with louder noises, shouting and music is not found in the Bible. Putting together a dramatic worship service with theatrics, loud bands and visual effects ends up becoming nothing more than a culturally driven attempt to create spirituality and find God through our efforts...just like the prophets of Baal.
Real worship always flows out of the Lord reaching down to us in the Lord Jesus Christ and His gift of amazing grace. True worship is empowered and created by the work of the Holy Spirit as we respond to what the Lord has already done for us in Christ alone. Bigger sound boards, huge screens, louder bands, visual projectors and even smoke/mist generating machines may create a sense of worldly awe and entertainment that is similar to what people experience in a rock concert, but it has little if anything to do with Biblical worship. And if the truth be known, it is certainly possible for such worship venues and services to get in the way of true worship by creating a counterfeit that actually takes people away from the Lord and moves them more toward our culture, not away from it. Real worship always brings people away from a focus on ourselves and our culture; it should never reinforces them.
It may surprise some people to know that worship is always an expression of knowing the Lord of the Bible personally. We must know the Lord before we can worship Him. Hence, worship services, singing and trendy music do not create a relationship with the Lord, they only reflect it at best. As a result, the increasingly common idea that ear plug worship services will make the Lord more real and meaningful to people and help create a relationship with Him must be seen for what it is, unbiblical. The goal of every church should be to first preach the Gospel and allow the Lord to draw people to Himself through the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit that brings new spiritual life and a real relationship to our Lord. Once people have found the Lord, real worship begins for the first time and can grow, with or without loud music or anything else for that matter.
All of the complex issues that surround genuine worship come into focus with the words our Lord Jesus gives us in John 4:23-26 when he shared with the Samaritan woman saying,
Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth." The woman said, "I know that Messiah" (called Christ) "is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us." Then Jesus declared, "I, the one speaking to you—I am he."
Our Lord is telling us that all real worship has to be "in the Spirit and in truth". Our Lord was telling the Samaritan woman that He was the Messiah and all worship was brought to the world through Him because He was the Lord and God of the Old Testament, the Great I AM from Exodus 3:14. In other words, true worship always focuses on the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6) and is created and sustained by the Person and work of the Holy Spirit in His people according to John 16:14-15. Any worship that is not centered in our Lord Jesus is not Biblical worship no matter what people may call it.
So, if true worship has nothing really to do with ear plug worship services why are they growing, and why do people continue to attend them? The answer is simple. Churches increasingly do ear plug worship because they are popular, successful, and seem to be culturally relevant to a world of loud music. For many Americans success has become a focus. All of us are drawn toward success on some level, even though that word is very different from a Biblical understanding of faithfulness. This search for success sometimes leads churches to put together such services because they work, they draw people, and they create a spiritual feeling and energy that relates to a new generation and audience of seekers.
Now if we step back for a moment and look at these worship trends, they seem to be moving in a prophetic direction that reflects what our Lord said would be the case before His return. The Apostle Paul spoke of this hour in II Timothy 3:5 where he spoke of the condition of visible Church in the last days as,
...having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.
A growing amount of our modern worship has drifted into a culturally driven event with little call to discipleship or commitment. People are being served as religious consumers seeking a new and improved Christianity for a new generation that now features ear plug worship services. But when the church becomes an audience, it rarely has any deep faith or power to live a new life in the Lord Jesus Christ. However, the idea being promoted today is that these new worship services are much better than the old, dusty, traditional forms of the faith that once existed. And yet, few of these churches are preaching or teaching a message that touches on the Lord's return because it is not seen as popular or very relevant to a modern world. Ours is a world that is increasingly focused on the self as a measure of spirituality. The crucified or sacrificial life of a Christian disciple doesn't sell or fit into such a culture.
All these trends in modern worship should lead every church and Christian to do some reflection and to ask a few hard questions. The great danger we all face is the tendency to worship the creation instead of the Creator. Our human proclivity is always to create the Lord in our image, not His. In an American church culture that is producing ear plug worship, it is a good time to come back to worship 101 and rediscover our risen Lord in all His glory anew. Our Lord alone is the only source of true worship, not something manufactured by our culture. May it be so for His honor and glory and the advancement of His everlasting Kingdom. Amen.