Worship 101: From Preference to Proclamation
The History of the Jews and Samaritans
Hundreds of years before Jesus was born, the nation of Israel was split in two by a civil war. Eventually, the northern kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians and many of its people were deported and scattered across the world. But they didn’t just empty the land, they brought men and women in from other, far away lands and resettled them in Israel. As the years passed, these foreigners intermarried with the native Hebrews and they eventually became a new people: the Samaritans.
As the years turned into decades and those decades turned into centuries, the differences between the Samaritans and the Jews grew. Since many of the Old Testament books that the Jews (and us, as Christians) recognize were written after this split, the Samaritans had a much smaller Bible – only Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. And since Jerusalem was in the south, in Judea among the Jews, the Samaritans didn’t worship at the temple that Solomon built. Instead, they built their own place of worship in the north, on Mount Gerizim. This was the mountain where Moses led Israel after freeing them from Egyptian slavery. And it was on Mount Gerizim that Moses read the blessings that God would give his people if they would remain faithful.
Two Ways of Worshiping
And if these differences between Samaritan and Jew weren’t bad enough… then you ought to consider the fact that when the Jews were coming back from exile in Babylon, certain Samaritans tried to keep them from rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple. And then, a few hundred years later, the Jews went up to Samaria and destroyed the temple that the Samaritans had built.
So, all of this led to a lot of animosity and hatred between the Jews and Samaritans – so much so that Jews thought Samaritans were unclean from birth and irredeemable. And likewise, Samaritans hated Jews with a burning passion. Imagine the US south during the mid-60s, segregation, name-calling, etc. This was the Israel that Jesus was born into.
Jesus and the Samaritan Woman
So, when Jesus makes his way into Samaria one day and sits down at Jacob’s well, he’s like a white man in the late 1960s walking into the African American part of town, finding a diner, and sitting down at a booth. And while he’s at Jacob’s well, he meets a Samaritan woman. Now, it would be bad enough to speak to a Samaritan man but a Samaritan woman was as low as you got in the eyes of the average Jew. So, when Jesus starts talking to her, she’s not sure what to think. But as they converse, she begins to realize that there’s more to Jesus than meets the eye. She begins to wonder if maybe, just maybe, Jesus is more than your average Jewish man…
“There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, ‘Give Me a drink.’ For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. Therefore the Samaritan woman said to Him, ‘How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?’ (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered and said to her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.’
She said to Him, ‘Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water? You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself and his sons and his cattle?’ Jesus answered and said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.’
The woman said to Him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so I will not be thirsty nor come all the way here to draw.’ He said to her, ‘Go, call your husband and come here.’ The woman answered and said, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.’
What about worship…?
The woman said to Him, ‘Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.’
Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to Him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I who speak to you am He’” (John 4:7-26 NASB).
“Where Should We Worship?”
Now, we could spend time talking about this passage in a lot of different ways. We could examine the way Jesus evangelized. We could look at what he meant when he offered her ‘living water.’ We could see how he knew her heart and laid it bare before she had barely spoken a word.
But what I’d like for us to focus on is what happens after Jesus makes her a little uncomfortable over her living situation. In order to get the topic of conversation away from her and her issues, she tests Jesus to see if he’s just another one of those Jews who worships in Jerusalem and believes that anyone who doesn’t worship like him is worse than a dog. So, she makes a statement that implies a question: “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” And she’s asking, “What do you say? Is the only proper place to worship God in Jerusalem? Is God limited to that temple? What about the Samaritan temple here, on Mount Gerizim?”
And as she makes this statement, she says something that sounds remarkably similar to things that I’ve heard over the years…
“Our fathers worshiped with these hymns, and you people say that with that contemporary music is how men ought to worship…”
“Our fathers worshiped with these pews, and you people say that with those stackable chairs is how men ought to worship…”
“Our fathers worshiped at 11AM sharp, and you people say that 10AM is the time when men ought to worship…”
“Our fathers worshiped with this choir, and you people say that with that praise team men ought to worship…”
Dividing into Camps
Christians love to make themselves into Jews and Samaritans over issues of worship. They divide into camps and call the other side names and question their spirituality. They divide the body of Christ over the very thing that should unite us: worship.
And so, arguments arise. People get angry. And churches split over the question of how we ought to worship. We mustn’t allow worship to divide us!
But, you might say, how can we get through this? It is a thorny issue, after all.
You can please some of the people all of the time. You can please all of the people some of the time. But you cannot please all of the people all of the time. And why is that? Because we’re all different. We have different opinions and different tastes and different ways of looking at things. And that’s okay – in fact, that’s wonderful and it’s part of the diversity of the body of Christ.
The problem does not lie in our differences. The problem lies in the way that we deal with those differences.
The Error of Elevating Our Preferences
Too often, we elevate our preferences to a place of spiritual authority. We assume, “If this is the way that I prefer things – and I know that I’m saved and have a relationship with God – then this must also be the way God prefers things. Since Amazing Grace is my favorite song, it must be God’s favorite song too.” And then, we start looking for scriptures to support our position. And if you look hard enough, and you’re willing to strip a verse completely out of its context, you can find one that will support your preference. And once you’ve got that verse, then you feel justified in saying, “This is the way things must be because it’s the way God wants it.” When in reality, it’s just the way you want it.
“We Only Sing New Songs…”
And I see it happen on both sides of the worship divide. For example, I was talking to a pastor on Facebook a few months ago and he told me, “We don’t worship with songs that are older than 2-5 years old because the Bible says to ‘sing a new song.’” Now, it’s fine if you want to only sing songs that have been written in the past 2-5 years – I think it’s a bad idea but I don’t think it’s necessarily displeasing to God. But don’t act like you have some sort of biblical mandate to only sing those songs. You’re elevating your preference to the level of something spiritual. And it’s not. It’s just your preference – so call it that.
“We Only Sing Old Songs…”
On the other hand, I have talked to people who will say, “The Spirit isn’t in these new songs like it is in the old hymns.” And to that, I want to ask, “Where does scripture say that the Holy Spirit hides himself in particular songs?” Answer: It doesn’t. The Spirit indwells people and so, I can worship God with any song that proclaims his praises – regardless of when it was written. But, if this person just told the truth: I don’t like new songs, I like the old songs. Then it doesn’t sound as spiritual.
You see, most of the things that we argue about when it comes to corporate worship – whether which songs to sing or what kind of seats to have in a sanctuary or what name we’re going to call the congregation or any number of other things – these things are largely preference issues. And it’s fine to have preferences, we all have them. But we shouldn’t hide them in spiritual wrapping paper and claim that they aren’t just our preferences, they’re God’s preferences too. Because they aren’t.
Is Their a Standard?
Now, does this mean that anything goes? That we can start playing Highway to Hell as our new worship anthem? No. It doesn’t mean that at all. Recognizing our preferences doesn’t do away with that which is true.
Notice what Jesus tells the woman, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” In effect, he’s saying, “God is bringing salvation through a particular people and a particular place – namely, the Jews.” So, there is still a truth that exists. There is still a standard. God is an absolute God who holds absolute truth in his hands. And we’re not in the wild west where anything goes and nothing really matters.
The question we’re faced with is this: If most of the things that we want in worship are preferences, then where do we draw the line? How do we determine whether our worship is pleasing to God?
Jesus Give Us the Answer
Fortunately, Jesus give us the answer:
“Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father… But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Jesus acknowledges that there is a standard. But it’s more fundamental and deeper than where she’s looking. She’s focused on the externals – the location of worship. And Jesus says, “There’s coming a time when you won’t worship God here or there.” In other words, “These externals are going to become irrelevant. All of the things that you’ve made worship about – all of the arguments that you’ve had and the fights you’ve gotten into – all of the division that have existed – all of the idols that you’ve erected – they’re all going to be leveled into the dust.”
There’s something deeper and more important about worship than your preference for contemporary music or my preference for traditional music. And what is it? What determines worship that is acceptable to God?
Jesus says, “The Father is seeking people who will worship him in spirit and in truth.”
Rather than being focused on all of our preferences, Jesus says, “There are two things that ultimately matter: One, are you worshiping in the Spirit? And two, is your worship true?”
Worshiping in Spirit
What does it mean for worship to be in the Spirit? Jesus promised his disciples that he would send his Holy Spirit to come and dwell with them forever. The Spirit would be a constant presence with God’s people. And he wouldn’t only be found in the temple at Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim – or in a church building. The Spirit of God would dwell within his people and so, wherever we go, he goes.
When we worship in the Spirit, we do so with an acknowledgement that he is here. We recognize his presence. We expect for him to move and speak and show us things. When we sing, we sing to him. When we pray, we pray to him. And as we hear the Scriptures being read and the sermon, we listen for his voice hidden in the words. When we worship in the Spirit, we realize that worship is not about us, our worthiness, or our preferences. It’s about proclaiming his praises to him and one another as he stands in our presence.
Worshiping in Truth
But Jesus also calls us to worship “in truth.” In other words, our worship should be based on what is true. And so, we ought to sing songs that proclaim the truth about God, his praises, who he is, and what he’s done. The standard is not what tickles your or my ears. The standard is, “What proclaims his praises truthfully?”
And if our corporate worship proclaims his praises truthfully – and if it acknowledges his presence – then it is acceptable worship to God whether it’s what you or I like or not.
For too long, we’ve acted as though we can’t worship unless we’re singing our favorite songs. But the reality is, our worship is not dependent on whether or not we’re singing our favorite songs. It’s dependent on whether we can sing these songs in the Spirit and in truth.
And I say all of this as someone who has favorite songs. I have preferences too. And sometimes, I’ve had to worship with songs that I don’t particularly like. When that happens, I have two options: I can furrow my brow, cross my arms, and complain about this ‘bad’ song. Or, I can worship God through whatever is true in the song, despite the fact that I’m not a fan of this or that lyric or of the melody.
A Call to Genuine Worship
If I choose to withhold my worship because I don’t like a song that the congregation is singing, who am I hurting? Only myself.
Now, with all of that said, I’ll make one further practical comment. Since we have a diversity of people with a diversity of preferences, we ought to acknowledge those preferences and make use of their richness. We ought to sing the best old songs and the best new songs, we ought to have moments of spontaneous worship mixed with prayerfully planned liturgies, we ought to celebrate and worship and praise with the full heritage that we’ve received from the past while never overlooking what God is still doing in our present.
In other words, we ought to quit worrying so much about which mountain we’re worshiping on and spend more time getting into the Spirit and proclaiming the truth of his praises.