Preface

I have always found it easier to express myself when writing a letter. I recall how, during my teenage years, I would climb the mountain behind my family's hotel in Switzerland, presumably to study. But when I reached my favorite spot, I would more often dream and write. The only sounds to invade the awesome silence were cowbells from a nearby pasture and the occasional “shush” of a bird's wings as it flew by.

The letters I wrote from that place high above the noise of life were sometimes to a Sunday School teacher in Canada, where I had lived until I was fourteen. He had taken time to be more than just a teacher of young boys; he had been a friend. My letters to him were never mailed because I did not have his address. It was good, however, to be able to express myself in that way. Sometimes I wrote letters to the Lord. I never mailed them either. I knew, though, that He read them, as He had read the others.

I wrote about the good and the bad of life during those years. I wrote about my frustrations, the exciting experiences, the changes that were taking place in me. I even wrote about the embarrassing moments. I asked a lot of questions in those letters, and as I wrote, I seemed to get some answers. Those were very private times, and I suppose they were therapeutic. I wish I still had the letters, but unfortunately they were lost. When I came to the States to go to college in 1956, I put them in a satchel, along with the money I was carrying with me onboard ship. The satchel was stolen. It's funny; at the time I thought only of the money. Now, I wish I had the letters.

I have returned to this way of expression for this book. It is nothing new, for this form of communication was used extensively in Scripture. In fact, most of the New Testament is made up of letters. The last message the Lord gave directly to the early church was given in the form of letters dictated through the beloved apostle John.

Though I have deep convictions on the subject of worship, convictions which I believe are grounded in Scripture, I am also writing as one who seeks to know the truth. I feel as though I am just a learner. There are those who have been labeled “experts” in the field of worship, but I am not one of them. Nor do I want to be. In fact, I wonder how anyone could be an expert on something as profound as worship. To say you know everything about worship is to say you know everything about God. I don't and never will. Seeking to understand true worship has been a lifelong quest and will continue to be so, I expect, throughout eternity.

In his first letter, the apostle John expressed his deep love and concern for the “children of God” and gave warnings against those who would deceive them. He used the phrase “I write to you” repeatedly in the second chapter as he wrote to specific groups and gave his purpose for writing them.

The letters in this book, too, have grown out of a heart of love and concern for the present-day church. Some of them are written to the church as a whole, some to specific groups, and some to individuals. Questions are raised, problems are addressed, instruction is offered, and sometimes warnings are given. All the letters are written with the hope that we will come to a fuller understanding of what worship is and fulfill in a more excellent way the highest call that is placed on the believer's life: to offer Almighty God acceptable worship.

And so, I begin. “Dear Church, I write to you...”

Ron Owens

Part 1.
Letters to the Church

Letter 1.
Defining Worship Biblically

The most important and highest activity that a company of God's people could ever engage in, is to offer Almighty God acceptable worship.

—D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

Dear Church,

It seems that everyone in the church today is talking about worship. Some promote one kind and some another, usually with each side claiming his is preferable. With so much confusion and division occurring because of this issue of worship, the only safe place to go for answers is to the Bible. Contrary to what some say, Scripture does clearly define what true worship is.

Often when people think of worship, their minds immediately turn to music. They think of music styles and talk of the type of “worship” or music they “like.” To them, worship is seen only in the context of music. When I ask people about the worship in their church, they usually respond with something like “we have contemporary worship” or “our worship is traditional” or “we have blended services.” All of these responses describe the kind of music they have. This raises a foundational question we must answer if we are really serious about worshiping God acceptably: What does Scripture teach us about worship?

The first words we read in the Bible are, “In the beginning God created.” These words are echoed in the first words of John's Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word.” I don't believe we violate Scripture by also saying that “in the beginning was worship.”

We know that worship played a major role in heaven's activity in eternity past. It was during this time that the sin of pride entered into Lucifer's heart, and he became jealous of God. He wanted to be the one who received heaven's adoration. He wanted all of heaven, including God, to bow down to him. He wanted to be the one in charge, and this led to the organizing of the universe's first rebellion. There was mutiny in heaven, and it was over worship.

Lucifer and his followers were cast out of heaven, but the effort to unseat God from His throne was not over. This was never so clear as when, following His baptism by John the Baptist, our Lord was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. At the heart of this encounter with Satan was the issue of worship. “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me,” said Satan to the Son of God (Matt. 4:9).

To this day, conflict rages in the human heart over who will ultimately be worshiped. Whom will those who have been created in God's image worship? Before whom will the heavens and the earth bow? The real issue in worship is not if we will worship or how we will worship, but whom we will worship. Everyone worships someone or something, for worship is built into the very fiber of God's creation. Those who visit even the most remote, primitive tribes find people worshiping something. Missionaries have long recognized this fact. Their work involves not so much convincing the natives of the existence of God as the conversion of the people's hearts from allegiance to their gods to the worship of the One True God.

This was what the apostle Paul faced in Athens. “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD” (Acts 17:22-23). Sometimes you find a mixture of religions. It is not uncommon to find polytheism, which is the worship of more than one god. But no matter what or who it is, people worship.

Since we have all been created to worship God, it is therefore of fundamental importance to understand what He had in mind when He created us. Although we may not be polytheistic in our worship today, we certainly have numerous ideas of what worship is. I have no doubt that the enemy is using this misunderstanding to confuse God's people.

A major part of the problem we face in understanding worship is that the word worship, like many other words in our vocabulary, has lost much of its original meaning. Unlike other words in our culture that may evolve, the meaning that God attaches to a word establishes it once and for all, for God does not change. We do change, and we often redefine the things of God in order to fit them into our way of thinking at the moment. This has happened with our understanding of worship.

What we think, however, does not change what God has established. God does not adjust to us; we must adjust to Him. We must return to Him or suffer the consequences of departing. We are in need today of returning to the practice of scriptural worship. “‘Return to Me,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘and I will return to you’” (Zech. 1:3).

So what does God have to say about worship in Scripture? How does He define the word, and what does He require? When the word worship is found in Scripture, it means essentially the same thing in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, two words are predominantly used: shachah, and abad. Abad connotes the idea of work, bond-service, labor, or general service, which is a form of worship. The aspect of worship I want to focus on in these letters, however, is that described by the word, shachah, a word found often in the Old Testament and meaning to prostrate oneself, to bow down or stoop before the one you are worshiping. In the New Testament the primary word used for worship is proskuneo and means essentially the same thing: to crouch, to prostrate oneself in homage, to reverence and adore, with the added picture of “kissing the hand.” Those of us who grew up under a monarchy can perhaps relate better to the practice of bowing and doing homage than those who live in the United States. Though we (I am now an American citizen) are usually respectful to those over us, we don't call our president “Your Highness” or our judges “Your Worship.” Yet that is the exact attitude of heart found in this word worship. The accepted protocol is to bow or even kneel. Throughout the Old Testament we find people bowing in worship. Young David bowed before King Saul. In Joseph's dream, he saw his brothers' sheaves bowing down before his sheaf. There are times when the word shachah is used in conjunction with another Hebrew verb for bowing down physically, followed by the word worship. “Moses ... bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped” (Exod. 34:8). According to Scripture, then, worship must necessarily involve a bowing, specifically a bowing of the heart before our God.

As wonderful and important as music is, the truth is we don't have to have music to worship. In fact, we have no record of music during much of the private or corporate worship recorded in Scripture. Music can be and often is a part of worship, but it is not fundamentally necessary. It is my conviction that in much of the Western Church today, music has become overly important. To many, worship is music, and music is worship, and many worship music.

What, then, are the things that are fundamental to worship? What are the essentials in offering God acceptable worship? We won't find them in human reasoning, for that is nothing but man's opinion and is what has created the division over worship in the church in the first place. The only safe and sure place to turn is to the Scriptures. What does God say in His Word, by direct instruction and through examples, that will help us understand what worship really is? God established some basic principles in this regard, and only by looking at what He said to His people in the beginning, as He established them as a nation, as He laid down guidelines for their living and standards for their worship, can we understand true worship.

As I write these letters to you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, I pray that we can all come to a deeper understanding of what worship truly is from God's perspective.

Letter 2.
Our View of God

We've humanized God, deified man, and minimized sin.

—Bishop John R. Moore

Dear Church,

I wonder how often we, as Christians, stop to think about how we view our God and how our view of Him affects our ability to worship. Sometimes it seems we have completely lost sight of Who God is—His might, His majesty, His justice, His mercy, His Holiness. Instead, we seem to imagine Him as being on our level, yet nothing could be further from the truth.

I see this attitude reflected in the church today. In reality, many of the popular Christian songs being sung seriously misrepresent God. The emphasis on Christ's humanity in our song literature is far out of proportion to His deity Somehow we've managed to conceive of a god who is “one of us.” I once heard a song on Christian radio that had this recurring phrase: “He's just like me.” This kind of thinking is close to blasphemy. I thank my God that He's not like me! Although our Savior stooped to become a man, to put on flesh and live among us, He never ceased being God. He lived a sinless life and offered Himself in sacrifice “for someone just like me,” but He was never “just like me.” It's not surprising that the world should attempt to bring God down to its level. But we cannot allow the tendency to do so to go unchallenged when it occurs within the church. We, of all people, must develop and project a correct image of God, to one another as well as to the world. Fundamental to offering God acceptable worship is having a correct view of who He is. If our view of God is anything other than His Self-revelation through His Word, then the god we worship is one of our own making, one fashioned to suit what we want God to be.

A magnificent picture of the apostle Paul's view of God is found in 1 Timothy 1:17, as he brings his first letter to his son in the ministry as he brings his first letter to his son in the ministry: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” Every letter Paul wrote, every prayer he prayed, every sermon he preached was shaped by his view of God. It never wavered. The God he served was the God who had provided a lamb for Abraham on Mount Moriah. This was the God Jacob encountered in a night of wrestling; afterward he bore a limp and a new name for the rest of his life. This was the God who revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush, who delivered His people from Egyptian slavery, and who declared to them at Mount Sinai that He was the only God. They were never to bow down and worship any other.

This was the God Saul of Tarsus met on his way to Damascus, an encounter that would instantaneously change the church's most ardent persecutor into the New Testament's greatest missionary. The apostle Paul's uncompromising dedication to the One “who alone is wise” was shaped by his view of God. This view was that the immortal, invisible God had come to earth; He had disclosed who He was in the form of man; and this disclosure was made in His only Son, Jesus Christ. For the rest of Paul's life, he lived in absolute awe that in Christ God had revealed the perfect picture of who He was. Somehow we seem to have lost sight of this, and its loss has deeply affected our ability to worship.

The worship of the New Testament believers was always through Christ, in Christ, and for Christ. The same must be true for us today. The work of the Holy Spirit is to keep our eyes on the Lord because our very living, and therefore our worship, is to be “of Him and through Him and to Him” (Rom. 11:36). As long as we keep that focus, we will stay on track. The moment we step beyond the boundaries of God's Word, however, we are in danger of forming opinions about God that fit our own personal experiences or lifestyle.

There is so much emphasis today in the evangelical church on experiences. If an experience a person has had is perceived as having done him some good, then the experience is acceptable, even though it may contradict Scripture's view of God's character. Some time ago, a minister acquaintance endorsed a certain movement because during a visit to the location where this movement began his cholesterol had dropped significantly. In the endorsement, however, he had to overlook some questionable things that were taking place, things that were contrary to the Bible's description of our awesome, majestic God.

We live in a day when this seeking after experiences is as much a part of the life of the evangelical as the New Ager. We too are often guilty of trying to adapt God to our ways rather than our adapting to His. Our concept of God is sure to be faulty when He is conceived out of our emotions, preconceived notions, or what makes us feel good, rather than out of His Word. This probably happens more in the area of music than any other because of its powerful influence on our emotions. This is very dangerous, for just because something makes us feel good does not necessarily make it right. Our highest thoughts, arrived at apart from the truth of God's Word, can mount no higher than our emotions or natural mind can reach. When this happens, we don't really see God, for our thoughts are not His thoughts nor our ways His ways. Instead, we see something created by our imagination or experiences.

In a secular world that is constantly vying for our thought life, in a Christian world that often interprets who God is by experiences and thinks it needs to bring God down closer to man's level in order to make Him more accessible, it is vital that we continuously think of, and on, the excellency and majesty of God. When we do, we will be driven to the depth of worship that Job, Isaiah, and Habakkuk reached. Then we, too, will bow in dust and ashes before the awesome, holy God of glory.

The psalmist said in Psalm 104, “O Lord my God, You are very great: You are clothed with honor and majesty” (v. 1). The apostle Paul instructed the believers to think on whatever was noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8, paraphrased). The Puritans used to say, “Think greatly of the greatness of God.” I think this is one of the roots of the problem we are facing in our worship. We don't know our God. The measure in which we know God is the measure in which we will be able to worship Him. And the means by which we get to know God is through His Word. In Scripture we have the revelation of God's nature—His acts and His ways.

Donald W. McCullough once wrote an article that appeared in Intercessors for America Newsletter (June 1996). In it he depicted the vital connection between our view of God and our ability to offer true worship: “The New Testament warns us, ‘Offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire’. (Heb. 12:28-29). But reverence and awe have often been replaced by a yawn of familiarity. The consuming fire has been domesticated into a candle flame, adding a bit of religious atmosphere, perhaps, but no heat, no blinding light, no power for purification. When the true story gets told, whether in the partial light of historical perspective or in the perfect light of eternity, it may well be revealed that the worst sin of the Church at the end of the twentieth century has been the trivialization of God.” It may not be an exaggeration to say that most people know God today for what He does for them rather than for who He is. That was the basic difference between Israel's knowledge of God and Moses' knowledge of Him. Israel knew God's acts, but Moses knew His ways. If we are going to be worshipers who delight the heart of God, we must become so by understanding His ways and by loving Him for who He is, not just for what He does for us.

The Franciscan monk Brother Lawrence was one who had an intense love for God. He deeply desired to serve God without any reward for himself. One day he expressed the wish that he could do just one thing for God in such a way that God would not know he had done it. So deep was his love that he wanted to do something for God for which he would not be rewarded or blessed in return.

What a contrast this attitude is to the prevailing attitude of today. How many would be in church if they were not offered all the free benefits that come with membership? What if getting to know God was all the benefit there was to belonging to a church? Would that be enough for us?

On his deathbed, Brother Lawrence woke from a coma and startled those who were attending him by saying, “I am not dying!” His friends and fellow monks asked him, “Then what are you doing, Brother Lawrence?” He replied, “I am doing what I have been doing all my life. I am worshiping the God I love.” Our capacity to understand God may be limited, because now we can only see through a glass darkly. Nevertheless, we can see. Through God's Self-revelation in His Word and the Holy Spirit, our Teacher, we can grow in the knowledge of God. We must grow. We must know who God is if we are going to worship Him as He desires.