If I were moving to a new town to establish a Christian outpost, the first thing to do would be to establish faithful Christian worship. When Abraham was promised the land of Canaan, He began building altars (Gen. 12:7-8). Faithful worship is the cornerstone of Christian civilization. Many of the early medieval cities were originally monasteries, and whatever the confusions of monasticism and asceticism (and there were many), those places of worship, over centuries became powerhouses of education and commerce, wealth and influence. It is no accident that the Protestant Reformation grew out of the classical Christian education and Biblical scholarship that flourished in those centers of worship.
One of the great immaturies of many modern Christians has been their childishness in thinking that they can take a job in some city without any knowledge or plan for a church. A Christian is someone who has surrendered everything to Christ. A Christian is someone who has taken up his cross to follow Jesus. And Jesus said that He came to establish His Church on the rock of Peter’s confession that He is the Christ, and the promise that attended the establishment of that church is that the gates of Hell would not prevail against it (Mt. 16). While Christians puzzle over what has happened to the Christian roots of the West, perhaps we should begin here where Jesus specifically told us He established the principle assault on Hell itself.
So, where did Christ establish His church? The answer is at the gates of Hell. Jesus did not say that the gates of Heaven would not be overthrown by Hell. He said the gates of Hell will not be able to stand against the assault of the church. In other words, the church is in an offensive not defensive position. And He put us at the gates of Hell so it would be hard for us to miss the target. But we have substituted many alternatives to this plan anyway. Many Christians have substituted personal evangelism, or private devotions, or good intentions, or community activism, or pro-life ministry, or political engagement for the specific thing that Jesus promised to use to push back the gates of Hell: the church.
The church is the gathered assembly of God’s people for worship, the celebration of the sacraments (Lord’s Supper and baptism), and discipleship and discipline. A hundred years ago, in 1923, Gresham Machen wrote, “a remarkable change has come about within the last seventy-five years. The change is nothing less than the substitution of paganism for Christianity as the dominant view of life. Seventy-five years ago, Western civilization, despite inconsistencies, was still predominantly Christian; today it is predominantly pagan” (Christianity and Liberalism, 65).
It is not at all accidental or irrelevant that as the Church rejected God’s plan for driving back the gates Hell, we have ended up with this predominantly pagan view of life. In particular, we have substituted a foolhardy childish worship for the glorious worship of the saints. We have substituted praise choruses and rock bands and TED talks for militant congregational hymns and psalms and the ungarbled Word spoken plainly from pulpits. One Anglican bishop once said, “Everywhere Paul went, riots broke out; everywhere I go, they serve tea.” When’s the last time a church was considered a real threat to the pagan way of life around it? When’s the last time the establishment of Christian worship was clearly seen to threaten the pagan businesses and politics, turning the whole world upside down (Acts 17:6)?
Thus Saith the Lord
At the center of what must be established in order to build and rebuild a mature Christian culture is a fierce commitment to all of Scripture for all of life, beginning with obedient Christian worship. And this means a return to doing what the Bible says. Whatever someone may say about obedience to the Bible, if the key factor in Sunday morning worship is the felt needs of the people, the emotional experience of the people, or the professional presentation of the leaders, then another god is being served.
“… Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may worship God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:18-29). This is what the New Testament says about Christian worship. While there is actually plenty to glean from the Old Testament about the nature of God and the nature of Christian worship, let’s just start here in the book of Hebrews.
Hebrews says that Christian worship is not gathered at Mt. Sinai – where the mountain could be touched and burned with fire – where Moses and the people shook with fear (Heb. 12:18-21). Instead, Christians are lifted up to Mt. Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to myriads of angels and redeemed men, to God the Judge and Jesus the Mediator of the New Covenant (Heb. 12:22-24). Christian worship takes place in the heavenly places by faith in Jesus, and through the power of His Spirit. And let us be clear that this is not something that God needs us to assist Him with, either with dim lights, strobe lights, spotlights, smoke machines, or incense, or robes. He doesn’t need us to do this with contemporary or ancient gimmicks or decorations. The central things are those things He has explicitly instructed us to do, those things which the first Christians did joyfully: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). If someone shows up for worship at your church, would they know that these are the central things?
It is this kind of worship that shakes both heaven and earth. The worship of Israel at Mt. Sinai shook the earth and terrified the people, but Christian worship is not less authoritative or potent but more since it originates from heaven itself and shakes both heaven and earth, until nothing remains that can be shaken (Heb. 12:25-27). Worship is one of the central means by which we receive this unshakeable kingdom, and therefore our worship must be reverent because God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:28-29).
If you want to see the gates of Hell fall in your city, if you want to see the idols of men totter and fall in your community, then shouldn’t you be doing those things that the Bible says do that? Don’t misunderstand: We don’t worship or go to church in a mechanistic way. Worship is not like some kind of Ouija board or voodoo doll or vending machine. While the Battle of Jericho is a glorious type of what we’re talking about, we have no command or promise from God to duplicate that same tactic at your local abortion clinic — marching around it and blowing shofars, for example (although the occasional militant psalm sing outside the death camp can certainly be a wonderful thing to do). We are certainly worshiping the same God who does those kinds of things, but worship is not directly political on the earthly plain. It is political only indirectly, since in worship we gather in Heaven to worship the King, and from Heaven, Christ rules and judges the nations. When John witnessed the worship that was taking place in Heaven (on the “Lord’s Day” Rev. 1:10), he saw judgements fall upon the earth.
But worship services that imitate night clubs, pop concerts, circus events, or LARPing Dungeons and Dragons, Hogwarts, and Lord of the Rings are all their own version of immature, foolish, and ultimately impotent. If you’re pretending to worship, if you’re playing dress up, then you already have your reward.
Hebrews says that we must worship God acceptably, with reverence and awe (Heb. 12:29). This kind of worship is orderly, dignified, formal, and full of joy. You wouldn’t stand up to give a speech for the president or congress and just wing it. When you speak before the King of the Universe, let your words be few and well-chosen. This need not be stuffy or fussy or cranky. It ought to reflect the high joy of a coronation, a wedding, a graduation. It is planned and personal, not casual, not flippant, not random. This is mature worship. This is the kind of worship that God blesses, the kind of worship that God makes fruitful and potent in marriages and families, in businesses and communities, and in nations.
Acceptable worship takes place in the presence God and under His blessing. It is not acceptable worship where people say God-words and sing God-songs or where you can draw complex typological algorithms on a white board, but where God is not actually present with power. And it is not acceptable worship to summons God, invoking His name, and then do and say things that do not please Him. Nor is it acceptable to do things that God has commanded merely as a way to buy Him off for all the ways you are disobeying Him elsewhere (Is. 1:10-15).
The only way a finite sinner approaches the holy and infinite God is by the gift of evangelical faith. For without faith no one can please God (Heb. 11:6). Evangelical means “gospel,” and what we mean is that the only way into the presence of God is by the blood and righteousness of Jesus covering all the worship and all of the worshipper. Hebrews says that the fire storm of God’s presence is far more glorious and should be more terrifying than at Mt. Sinai (Heb. 12:25). As Annie Dillard once remarked, “It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.”
The blood of Christ, the blood of the New Covenant, speaks better things than that of Abel, but we are still like Noah riding in the storm, like Israel walking through the Sea, looking for the fire to fall on the water-drenched altar of Elijah. It is joyful and solemn. And faith is what holds all of this together: faith in the person and work of Jesus. And faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. It is not resting in medieval buildings, Gandalf-costumes, or slick speakers, or multimedia presentations. It is hearing the Word and believing.
We do not need lights, smoke, or any other props. Since we are embodied creatures, simple adornment is fine, but if faith in the Word is the central thing, then we want to keep the central things central: the Word read and preached, the Word sung and prayed, simple water, simple bread and simple wine, all received with deep thanksgiving and faith. This is what shakes the world. This is the seed that grows into a tree. This is what changes everything.
Conclusion: Covenant Renewal & Sacrificial Worship
When Israel met with God at Mt. Sinai, they did so in order to renew the covenant that God had made and renewed with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Ex. 2:23-24, 3:16, 6:3-8, 24:6-8, 15-18). That covenant with Abraham was a renewal of the covenant that God had made with Noah (Gen. 9:1-17), which in turn was a renewal of the covenant that God made with Adam and Eve after the Fall (Gen. 3:15-24). The covenant needed renewing not because it expired, but Paul says to think of the Old Testament as the time when Israel was in school under tutors (Gal. 4:1-4).
So think of the covenant renewals of the Old Covenant like convocations at the beginning of a new school year after summer vacation. God was teaching, training, and graduating His people in the school of preparation for Christ. The sacrificial system was a “memorial” system meant to constantly remind Israel that they were God’s people, and at the same time it was a standing reminder to God to remember His promises to His people, to save them from their sins and to send the final sacrifice and Messiah. Every sacrifice was a mini-covenant renewal (cf. Ps. 50:5). Just as couples go on dates and continuously pursue one another romantically, renewing the marriage covenant as they do, so too God has always been pleased when His people gather together to renew covenant with, in the simplicity of Word and Sacrament.
Mature Christian worship shakes everything that can be shaken (Heb. 12:26-27). Mature worship differs from immature worship like a little boy differs from a man in throwing a punch, building a deck, or getting married. At best, immature worship may be cute or sentimental, but it has little spiritual or cultural weight. Why do we have so many millions of professing Christians going to church most Sundays in this land, with such impotent results? Because so much of what passes for Christian worship is impotent, effeminate, childish, and play-acting.
What Jesus established in the Church was to be the worship of Heaven, and this kind of potent, mature worship shakes heaven and earth, and this isn’t talking about “falling out” in the Spirit. This isn’t talking about some sweet bass drop or emotional high or theatrical pose. This is talking about the sword of God’s word being taught from Genesis to Revelation, every book, every chapter, every verse, applied to every area of life. This shaking means the real change of men and women, with impact on their businesses, families, marriages, schools all the way up to the United Nations, the Supreme Court, the Oval Office, Wall Street, and everything in between.
The Church is the light of the world, the salt of the earth, and as the Church goes, so goes the world. Another way of getting at this same principle is that you become what you worship (Ps. 115:8). Part of the theological lesson of all the blind, deaf, mute, and crippled people in Israel when Jesus came in the gospels is that Israel had been worshiping idols (and there were demons in many of the synagogues, Mk. 1:39). However, when the whole Christ is preached, we all with open face behold the glory of the Lord and are changed into the same image – whole humans, from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:18). This is the maturity we aim for.
The New Testament speaks of this transformational communion with God sacrificially: “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable [worship]. And be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind…” (Rom. 12:1-2). The cross was the final and complete bloody sacrifice, but the New Testament teaches that Christian worship is still sacrificial (Heb. 13:5, 16, 1 Pet. 2:5). The main Old Testament sacrifices were the sin offering, ascension offering, and peace offering, and when they were offered together, they were offered in that order (Lev. 9, cf. Num. 6, Ez. 45:17, 2 Chron. 29). So in our traditional Biblical worship services, we are called to worship in the name of the Triune God, we Confess our sins like the ancient sin offering, we are Consecrated by the sword of the Spirit in the reading and preaching of the Word like the ascension offering (or whole burnt offering), we Commune with God and one another as the Israelites did in the peace offering, and finally, we are Commissioned, sent out with the blessing of God on our heads. And we trust that the fire of God’s presence will fall and burn everything new.
It’s particularly import not to say that we did worship correctly, or we did the liturgy, therefore we have God’s blessing. There is a way of being grown up that is actually very childish, a way of being grown up that is just set in the old ways, thoughtlessly, and presumptuously. What we want to see and enjoy is real fruit. We want to offer Biblically mature worship with a childlike faith in Christ, hungry for the fruit of the Spirit, watching for heaven and earth to shake, “proving what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2).