This article was written by Dr. Sam Storms. He is the Lead Pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City, OK.
[In view of the recent Strange Fire conference in California and the numerous critical comments made about so-called “charismatic worship,” I want to spend some time articulating several truths about the nature of worship in Spirit and in Truth. This, therefore, is the first of three articles on this subject.]
Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on 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 the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:21-24).
People either start or stop attending certain churches for a variety of reasons. For some, it is the preaching of the Word or the absence of it that determines their decision. For others, it is the availability of parking or the children’s ministry or friendliness of the people that governs where they ultimately land. Believe it or not, it’s the brand of coffee they serve in their Café!
But in the past 30 or so years, the one factor that has probably been the decisive factor more than any other is the style of worship that a church displays.
The sad fact is that the church in the west has been ripped apart in many instances over such debates as:
Should our worship be long or short?
Should our worship be formal or free?
Should our worship use acoustic guitars or a Baldwin piano?
Should we use hymns or contemporary songs?
Should we have praise teams or robed choirs?
Should our worship be characterized more by the fear of God or the enjoyment of God?
And the list of choices could go on seemingly without end. Often times, though, the divide is along the lines of Word and Spirit. Word-oriented churches that are often cessationist in their theology take one particular approach, while Spirit-oriented churches that practice spiritual gifts take yet another approach.
What both groups share in common is their conviction that worship must be theocentric: it is concerned with glorifying God. Where they differ is on the ways and means. Cessationists believe God is most glorified when biblical truths about him are accurately and passionately proclaimed in song, liturgy, and recitation of Scripture. The focus of worship is to understand God and to represent him faithfully in corporate declaration. Worship is thus primarily didactic and theological and their greatest fear is emotionalism.
Charismatics or Continuationists, on the other hand, believe God is most glorified not only when he is accurately portrayed in song but when he is experienced in personal encounter. Charismatic worship does not downplay understanding God but insists that he is truly honored when he is enjoyed. Worship is thus not only theological but also emotional and relational in nature and their greatest fear is intellectualism.
Admittedly this is perhaps a bit too tidy. Cessationists would no doubt agree that God is to be enjoyed, but they see this as primarily a cognitive experience. Charismatics contend for a more holistic enjoyment. God is not merely to be grasped with the mind but felt in the depths of one’s soul. The mind is expanded but the affections are also stirred (and the body may well move!).
Perhaps the best way to illustrate this difference is the way both groups think of God’s presence in times of corporate praise. Think of it this way. When you gather in corporate assembly with God’s people, whether on a Sunday morning or in a small group during the week, what are your expectations with regard to God? Do you view God’s presence as a theological doctrine to be extolled and explained or do you think of it as a tangible reality to be felt. Those hymns that are more traditional in their focus stress divine transcendence. God is “out there,” beyond us, above us, and we sing about him. The songs you hear in a more charismatic setting stress divine immanence. God is “down here,” very near us, close to us, and we sing to him.
It follows from this that cessationists tend to fear excessive familiarity with God. They’re concerned lest we get too chummy with God. Charismatics, on the other hand, tend to fear relational distance. They want nothing to do with an impersonal religion that relegates God to a remote and deistic heaven. Their longing is for the “nearness and now-ness” of God.
The spiritual atmosphere cessationists cultivate is characterized more by fear and reverence when compared to the charismatic desire for joy and love. Again, the former prizes form, the latter freedom. A cessationist service is somewhat controlled, both in terms of what is regarded as acceptable physical posture and the length of time devoted to corporate singing. Charismatic worship is emotionally free and physically expressive, with the characteristic lifting of hands and dancing.
There is a humble solemnity in most cessationist services versus the exuberant celebration among charismatics. This invariably elicits criticism from both sides. The cessationist is offended by what appears to be an overly casual, if not presumptuous, approach to God. Is not our God a consuming fire, holy and righteous? The charismatic sees in cessationist worship an excessively formal, if not lifeless, approach to God, if they dare approach him at all. And without denying that God is holy, the charismatic is emboldened by what he believes is God’s own passionate longing for relational intimacy.