(Today I begin a multi-part series of posts on corporate worship: what it is and why it's important)
At sixteen I dropped out of high school. And because my lifestyle had become so disruptive to the rest of the household (I'm the middle of seven children), my grieving parents had no choice but to kick me out of the house.
Having successfully freed myself from the constraints of teachers and parents, I could now live every young guy's dream. No one to look over my shoulder, no one to breathe down my neck, no one to tell me what I could and couldn't do. I was finally free—or so I thought.
My newfound freedom had me chasing the things of this world harder than most others my age. I sought acceptance, affection, meaning, and respect behind every worldly tree and under every worldly rock. The siren song of our culture promised me that by pursuing the right people, places, and things, I'd find the satisfaction, security and significance I craved. If I could look, act, and talk a certain way, my deep itch to matter would finally get scratched.
But it didn't work out that way. The more I pursued those things, the more lost I felt. The more I drank from the well of worldly acceptance, the thirstier I became. The faster I ran toward godless pleasure, the further I felt from true fulfillment. The more I pursued freedom, the more enslaved I became. At twenty-one I found myself painfully realizing that the world hadn't satisfied me the way it promised, the way I'd anticipated. The world's message and methods had, in fact, hung me out to dry.
I felt betrayed. Lied to. I desperately longed for something—Someone—out of this world.
One morning I woke up with an aching head and a sudden, stark awareness of my empty heart. Having returned to my apartment after another night of hard partying on Miami's South Beach, I'd passed out with all my clothes on. Hours later, as I stirred to a vacant, painful alertness, I realized it was Sunday morning. I was so broken and longing for something transcendent, for something higher than anything this world has to offer, that I decided to go to church. I didn't even change my clothes. I jumped up and stumbled out the door.
I arrived late and found my way to the only seats still available, in the balcony. It wasn't long before I realized how different everything was in this place. I immediately sensed the distinctiveness of God. Through both the music and the message, it was clear that God, not I, was the guest of honor there. Having suffered the bankruptcy of our society's emphasis on "self-salvation", it was remarkably refreshing to discover a place that joyfully celebrated our inability to save ourselves.
I didn't understand everything the preacher said that morning, and I didn't like all the songs that were sung. But the style of the service became a non-issue as I encountered something I couldn't escape, something more joltingly powerful than anything I'd ever experienced, something that went above and beyond typical externals. Through song, sermon, and sacrament, the transcendent presence of God punctured the roof, leaving me—like Isaiah when he entered the temple—awestruck and undone.
I was on the receiving end of something infinitely larger than grand impressions of human talent. God and his glorious gospel were on full display. It was God, not the preacher or the musicians, who was being lifted up for all to see. It wasn't some carefully orchestrated performance (which, believe me, I would have seen right through). Rather, I was observing the people of God being wrecked afresh by God's good news announcement that in the person of Jesus, he had done for them what they could never do for themselves. In and through the praising, praying, and preaching, the mighty acts of God in bringing salvation to our broken world were recited and rehearsed.
I was a "seeker" being reached, not by a man-centered, works-filled, trendy show, but by a God-centered, gospel-fueled, transcendent atmosphere. I was experiencing what Dr. Ed Clowney, the late president of Westminster Theological Seminary, used to call "doxological evangelism." It was, quite literally, out of this world.
I tell you this personal story as a way to illustrate just how important a church's corporate worship is—God used a worship service to save my life.
I view my story as proof that the way a church worships is a big deal. Paul made it clear to the Corinthian church that worship is not to be taken lightly—that when Christian's are gathered by God to worship, they should worship in such a way that non-Christian's in their midst leave saying, "God is really among you."
A church's worship, in other words, ought to be God-centered and gospel-fueled.
(To be continued…)