Seriously Joyful :: Joyfully Serious
A friend of mine recently moved to South Florida. He began to visit the churches in his town, and at one of his visits, the pastor asked him what he was looking for in a church home. “I really just want two things,” he said. “I’d like to find a church with a serious, reverent worship and a joyful community of people who like being around one another.” According to my friend, the pastor looked a little funny, crooked his head to the side, and said, “Those two things don’t usually go together. You’ll probably have to pick one or the other.”
This reaction was telling, and I don’t think it’s limited to South Florida. I think that a great many of our churches in North America have bought into this false dichotomy. People think that adjectives like “serious” and “reverent” are simply other ways of saying “strict” and “uptight.” When they think of a warm community life, they immediately jump to images from their time in college or a fun family outing– they think of informality and levity. What’s worse, I think that both “flavors” buy into this dichotomy, with some churches preferring to be dour in the name of piety, and others choosing silliness in their pursuit of hospitality.
Why So Serious?
Now, we do need to make sure we are checking our assumptions over and against the Scriptures. When we say that we want “reverence,” we need to make sure we are not merely stating our aesthetic preference. Why do we think this about church, and what does it mean?
One of the key texts for answering this question is found in Hebrews 12. At the end of a section contrasting the New Covenant and its worship with the Old, we are told this:
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire. (Heb. 12:28-29)
It’s important to note that earlier in the same chapter, the Old Covenant was described in fearful terms. It involved a mountain burning with fire, covered in darkness, and standing amid a swirling tempest (Heb. 12:18). Surely, the New Covenant is different! And it is. But its difference is actually not in tone or atmosphere. Its difference is in the external rituals and kinds of acts which constitute New Covenant worship. We no longer come to a central mountain. We no longer focus upon a physical location at all. Our worship is heavenly (Heb. 12:22). But, for all of that, things do still maintain a sort of danger. God remains a consuming fire, and we must serve Him with reverence and fear.
The verb for “serve” in Heb. 12:28 is a form of latreuo, the technical term for “offer religious service.” It’s the type of worship that priests would give in the Old Covenant, and it is now the kind of worship that all believers give to God. This worship is then described with two words “reverence” and “godly fear.” The first word could also be translated as modesty, but in this verse it means “respectfulness.” You might also think of the word “appropriate.” But we’d still need to know what constituted an appropriate posture for worship. The second word gives us our answer, and despite many attempts to water it down, it does mean “fear.” The word used means, “awe.” It is actually used once earlier in the book of Hebrews, in chapter 5, verse 7. There Jesus is being described, and it says that He “offered up prayers and supplications, to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear…” The word can be rendered “respect,” but it’s a respect for something that is immense. You respect it for the same reason that you fear it, because it is larger than you, more powerful than you, and has the power of life and death over you.
When we enter into special worship with God, we do not need to fear that God is going to kill us or condemn us. However, the reason that we do not need to fear this is because we believe that Jesus Christ has stood in our place and taken that judgment on Himself. Thus, when we draw near to God, we can do so confidently, but also circumspectly. We know the terrain. We know the possibilities. We know what sort of God this is. He is great, mighty, awesome, and terrible. If our worship cannot be described in a similar kind of way, then it’s simply not in tune with the Bible.
A Friendly Community?
Having said all of that, are we just left with the scary stuff? What about that joy I mentioned at the top? Well, it’s there too. In fact, we see the term “joy” being used to describe the disciples and their ministry at least four times in the book of Acts, and the concept shows up again and again. The early church is portrayed for us in these terms:
So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. (Acts 2:46-47)
So we do see a true fellowship. The believers are getting together, and they are doing it frequently: eating together in one another’s homes, and doing so with “gladness.” The word used for “gladness” literally means “exultation.” It’s a very great joy, a joy because of such a great salvation. Heb. 1:19 calls this, “the anointing with the oil of rejoicing.”
The word “joy” appears 22 times in Paul’s writings, and we see “glad” being used in a positive sense at least 10 times. If we understand our salvation, the benefits we receive, then we must be joyful, and this means we must be happy. We should have an atmosphere of beatitude, and this needs to permeate our community.
So How Do We Do Both?
So far we’ve noted both “poles.” The church needs to be sober-minded when it considers God and how it relates to Him. It should be especially so when it draws near to God in special worship. And the church should also be characterized by great joy, thanksgiving, and gladness. It should be a friendly place where people enjoy the fellowship of other believers. How can we do both things and do them well?
We should admit that there is no singular blueprint in the Bible for how to do these things. There is no New Testament Leviticus, and there is also no New Testament Deuteronomy. We are lead by the Spirit, and the Spirit grants us great freedom. This does not mean there is pure subjectivity, however. That would be chaos. What it means is that we are free to apply the principles and basic truths in different ways, but in ways that are appropriate.
So let’s consider just a few points to this effect.
1. Know the Occasion
We should design the various activities of the church according to their goals and occasions. The main worship service is not the same thing as the potluck meal, and neither are the same as the nursery. The main worship needs to be an activity that takes into account the fact that all ages and all subcultures are included, and it needs to take into account that it is the primary activity wherein these members draw near to the holy and awesome God. It ought to reflect that reality.
This does not simply mean “traditional” worship. It does not even mean “high art,” and it should not mean “complicated.” Our worship should be accessible and intelligible. But however it is done, it should fit the occasion, which is to say, it ought to send a message of reverence, respect, and piety. It should befit the God we are worshiping.
Most of all, the participants should take their worship seriously. It ought not be something that they hire out to the professionals, nor should it be something that requires little of them. They should pay attention to, participate in, and meditate upon the worship they offer to God.
2. Don’t Overdo it
This is a trap that a lot of churches interested in liturgy fall into. They think they need “all of the liturgy.” They grab a Book of Common Prayer or Revised Common Lectionary and dive right in. This is fine and good if your people understand those elements and do them well. But it would be far better to do less better than more worse.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that God is impressed by your liturgy. What He cares about is true devotion from the heart. So whatever you are doing, you must make sure that it is actually facilitating worship and not substituting for worship. Learn the main elements, do them well, and take them to heart.
Also, don’t make it too weird. Any amount of liturgy is probably already weird, so keep that in mind. It’s not bad to stretch your people, but you don’t want to break them. Make sure you have plenty of familiar points of contact. People are always encouraged when they are able to do things well. So if parts of your worship aren’t going so well, it’s always better to lower the intensity rather than to just trudge onward.
3. Use a Lot of Bible
The best rule of all is to let the Bible set the standard. I don’t mean that it tells you every step to take. It doesn’t. But it does tell you the basic activities– teaching, singing, praying, and communing (to include fellowship, offerings, and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper). You shouldn’t add things to this list. If they are not a form of one of these elements, then they are not appropriate for the main worship service.
The Bible should also provide the words for worship. This means that you should read a lot of Bible in your service. Your prayers should follow the Biblical pattern, and you can even pray parts of the Biblical text. Your songs should be Biblical as well. Singing the psalms is a great practice here. Hymns should use biblical terms, invoke biblical themes, and seek to achieve the same sort of “balance” of ideas as what is found in the Bible. If you do this, then most of the details will work themselves out.
4. Do it in Faith
Finally, just walk by faith. If you believe what you say you do, that Jesus is Lord and that He has saved us, then our response should be an out-flowing of gratitude. We don’t need to treat church like a normal human activity. It’s not a club.
And while we take it seriously, we don’t have to stress about it. Leave it to God to “make it work.” We do our part because we believe.
I hope that we can have our cake and eat it too when it comes to church. We ought to strive to have a reverential sort of worship, the kind of service that accurately forms our imaginations in light of who God is. And we ought to also be able to get together with our fellow believers in love, enjoying our company, and helping to build bonds of friendship. Church should be a refreshing place where we want to be.
Let’s be seriously joyful and joyfully serious.