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Deep Worship or Shallow Ritual?

Throughout the prophetic books in the Old Testament, we see a pattern in which Israel continuously disobeys the commands God has given to them, is threatened with divine judgment, then repents and cycles into the same pattern again and again. God then uses His prophets to warn His people, and makes promises of future restoration despite their obstinate ways.

One particularly dangerous pattern that Israel falls into is allowing their religious worship practices that were meant to deepen their relationship with God to become shallow routines. While sacrifices, fasting, and following the Law were all good things that contributed to their thriving in relationship with God and pleasing Him, these things also worked against them. How so? When the heart behind their actions grew cold. They were an idolatrous people yet they fasted and made sacrifices. Despite their external efforts, God saw the internal motives. In Micah 6:7-8, the prophet declared the word of the Lord for Israel to love their God, and love others. God had become unimpressed with their religious routines because He saw through to their hearts:

Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams,
In ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts,
The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?

As those now living in the Church Age, we have New Testament prescriptions for worship that can contribute to our joy in relationship with God. The overflow of our devotion to God certainly leads to at least several worship practices that can be especially helpful for our spiritual growth and vitality. That is, when our motives center around devotion to God. As J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays remind us in their book, Grasping God’s Word, “God desires relationship over ritual. Rituals have validity only in that they assist in developing the relationship.”

We are not under the Old Covenant, and I don’t believe we are the nation of Israel, but are there certain things in the New Testament church that we do as a routine or ritual to nurture our relationship with God that if not motivated by love for God can mislead us into false spirituality?

It’s early in 2019, and you’ve likely hit the ground running with resolutions for a better year! Spiritual disciplines often make everybody’s list and that’s a good thing. Still, take some time and review these six worship practices and ask yourself, Am I motivated by a deeper relationship with Christ or something else?

Church Attendance: Going to gather with other believers can be one of the best ways to grow. It’s certainly where sound doctrine is proclaimed, sheep are drawn to Christ, saints are edified, corporate worship explodes, spiritual gifts used, missional efforts funded and mobilized, and more. But church attendance, while a commendable goal, can quickly become an idol erected that symbolized our salvation. In other words, we begin to think we’re saved because we go to church. Or, that going to church in 2019 is going to make us a Christian. If church attendance is not motivated by a deep desire to grow closer to Christ and His people through worship and the word, you may be wading in a shallow pool of ritualism.

Daily Bible Reading: Reading plans and daily quiet times in the word can be a tremendous blessing to our relationship with Christ. But they can quickly become checklists that we “X” off so we can get to the real agenda like email, social media, texting, and the morning rush. Unless we check our hearts and renew our motives with new morning mercies, daily Bible reading can become a little golden calf that gives us false assurance.

Serving or Volunteerism: As backwards as it may seem, serving and volunteerism can go from being a healthy habit of Christian love, to an idolatrous act meant to fill us with religious pride. God doesn’t want our hands in service without our hearts of surrender. Many times we lose the motive of why we serve and it becomes a badge of honor we wear to show others, “Look! I am spiritual.” The problem is, God is not impressed, even if others are.

Giving: Another practice that rides on the coattails of serving is giving. This can be a wonderful way to express gratitude to God. It can also be a means by which people “tip” God to satisfy Him; assuming they’re in His good graces because they paid for it. Giving, as a habit of Christian generosity is a beautiful way to participate in Christ’s work. The Macedonian churches (like Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea) embodied the kind of eagerness to meet needs that we should all have (2 Corinthians 8:1). So when does giving go from pleasing God to problematic? When we begin to lose sight of “why” we give. We don’t give money to cross it off our checklist, get a tax write-off, or get our name on a plaque. We give out of a joyful and generous heart because we’re overflowing with love for God.

The Lord’s Table (Communion): There is a wide range of methodologies within the church when it comes to communion. I don’t necessarily agree with all of them, but others may not agree with our church’s either. One thing is certain, a flippant run through communion without genuine reflection on the blood of Christ and the sacrifice He made on our behalf is the quintessential mark of shallow ritualism at the Lord’s Table. Along with flippancy, one can engage in the deepest of liturgies and remain in a nothing but a shallow pool of ritualism. Robes can be worn, special songs sung, and the finest tableware shimmering on the altar. Without hearts burning with somber affection for the One who shed His blood on Calvary, we’re merely snacking on crackers and drinking Welch’s.

Fasting: Quite a few options are made available to the Christian who wants to fast programmatically these days. You can do an Esther fast, a Daniel fast, a Small Group fast, a Church-wide fast, a Women’s fast and many other types. Are these wrong? Sinful? No. But doing them for the wrong reasons could be. Fasting out of peer-pressure, pride, or because you want to lose weight are all tell-tale signs that true devotion to God through fasting is being replaced by superficial idolatry. Check your motives, keep it a secret, and seek the Lord the way the Bible instructs.

So there you have it! Enjoy resolutions, build in routines, see worshipful practices as a prescribed order for your own spiritual growth. But never forget, these are not the end. They are merely means to The End – that is, Christ.

Chasing a Title or Carrying a Towel

When it comes to leadership, how do you measure greatness?

The mother of James and John thought it was having the best seats in Christ’s Kingdom (Matthew 20:20-21). There are those today who would certainly say that church size, book deals, Twitter following, and global influence are sure signs of high status.

Our salacious, ever growing appetite for affirmation leads us to view the academic letters behind a last name as the moment of “arrival.” Ambitious and youthful pastors think greatness is eventually achieved when their subjective calling to ministry finally lands them an objective goal: The #1 spot in the pulpit.

But is that what greatness is in the end? Is leadership simply climbing a ladder of power, so as to eventually be a shot-caller? When it comes to leadership, if greatness is defined by a spot on the executive board, a large following, fancy letters, and dominating a one-way conversation on a weekly basis because you hold the mic, we need an intervention.

The church does need greatness to live out its purpose in Christ, but in God’s eyes, great leaders are great servants. Just a cursory glance through the New Testament reveals that the word leader is used rarely when compared to the word servant. That’s not to say that leadership is not an important or prominent theme throughout the Bible (it is), but it is to say that leadership is not so much about carrying a fancy title as it is about carrying a servant’s towel.

No one nails having a humble servant’s heart every day, yet certain trends in our life reflect God’s grace in the midst of our own ambitious drive for significance in ministry.

If you are one of those passionate souls who believe they must do something great on this earth, here are three ways things to consider what greatness truly is:

1.) We Must Be Decreasing

Of all the people in the Bible, perhaps John the Baptist could have been the one who’d be let off the hook if he took just a little bit of the spotlight from Jesus. After all, he was the forerunner and ultimate set up man for Christ. Instead, he said he wasn’t the Christ, he wasn’t Elijah, and he wasn’t even a prophet. When pressed for the real story, all he could muster up was quite possibly the most unimpressive personal bio history has known. If John the Baptist had Facebook, the about section would read, “Just a voice. Not worthy to tie Christ’s sandals. Consistently decreasing and not worth a follow. Link to Jesus’ profile ‘here.’”

It can be a monumental challenge to stomach the obscurity that comes from consistent “decrease,” but it’s part of every pastor’s journey. There may be seasons when a gifted pastor is not in the pulpit, but desperately wants to be. There may be seasons when a pastor is called to play a supporting role in someone else’s ministry – and could do more on his own. None of this matters in the grand scheme of what God is constantly teaching His servants. If we cannot accept that His plans and timing are better than ours, that’s a sign that we are still living with an “I must increase” mentality.

Obscurity doesn’t mean obsolete. You don’t need to see your impact to have an impact. John the Baptist was locked in a prison waiting for his head to roll while Jesus – the Jesus he got to baptize – was adding disciples by the minute.

Greatness is giving up what you could do for what you must do. Everybody can be great.

2.) We Must Be Feet Washing

Yes, it’s true, regardless of how above-the-task we think we are. Imagine Jesus the Christ taking the towel and the basin as he washed the feet of Judas the Betrayer. Surely, a towel has much to do with greatness (John 3:1-17; Luke 22:24-27).

Greatness isn’t doing ministry from an ivory tower. Greatness isn’t well-manicured finger nails that click a wireless mouse through hours of Logos. Greatness isn’t preaching all the biggest conferences.

Greatness is bowing low to wash feet.

Ministry is messy and Jesus knew we would all long for clear calendars, simple churches, and well-behaved congregations that don’t interrupt our day in the study, so He showed us a better way. Dirty, smelly, crooked, cracked feet are the key.

Even for those who make our lives difficult. When no one is watching. And when no one washes ours. Greatness is grabbing a towel.

3.) We Must Be Stewarding

Paul set the standard for the greatness of a church leader by modeling the greatness of a servant. He considered himself a slave of Christ (Philippians 1:1), and a steward of the mysteries of God (1 Corinthians 4:1). The criteria for a steward in his mind was faithfulness (4:2). As we consider how we will leave a mark on this earth in ministry, it is imperative that we consider what it means to be a steward of all God has given us.

We will be called to give an account for how we managed for the Master. A leadership title is a responsibility that involves accountability (1 Corinthians 3:13; 2 Corinthians 5:10). Stewardship is weighty in light of the implications.

On the minister as a steward Charles Spurgeon wrote,

…a steward is a servant, and no more. Perhaps he does not always remember this; and it is a very pitiful business when the servant begins to think that he is “my lord.” It is a pity that servants, when honoured by their master, should be so apt to give themselves airs. How ridiculous Jack-in-office makes himself! I do not refer now to butlers and footmen, but to ourselves. If we magnify ourselves, we shall become contemptible; and we shall neither magnify our office nor our Lord. We are the servants of Christ, and not lords over His heritage. Ministers are for churches, and not churches for ministers. In our work among the churches, we must not dare to view them as estates to be farmed for our own profit, or gardens to be trimmed to our own taste. Some men talk of a liberal polity in their church. Let them be liberal with what is their own; but for a steward of Christ to boast of being liberal with his Master’s goods, is quite another matter.

Greatness isn’t in the title you’re called, it’s in the towel you carry.

Five Things Only the Local Church Can Do

There is nothing on earth like the local Christian church. Hundreds of conferences offer life-changing experiences for several days but can’t come close to the life-long impact of a local church. Evangelistic crusades may draw tens of thousands to hear the gospel, but the crusade team can’t possibly facilitate the spiritual growth of those converts the way the local church can. When it comes down to it, Christ loves His bride, and there is no substitute that can satisfy the needs of His growing body like the local church. If you’re trying to build a local church community, take a look at church management software Instructions Here, to see how it could help.

Providing that a group of believers gather under biblically qualified leadership, with a focus on biblical teaching, prayer, worship, evangelism and edifying fellowship, the church will live up to its potential in the way that God intends. Of course, in a fallen world there will be turbulent times along the way, but together, Christians who hold in high regard the Body of Christ as He builds it will experience a level of joy that is only found within the local church.

In this article, I will consider five unique blessings that only the local church gets to experience. Each of these makes the local church unlike any other institution on earth.

1) The Manifold Wisdom of God

Nothing glorifies God like the local church! His wisdom is shown through Christ’s unfathomable riches, and the world looks on as His light outshines darkness. Preaching showcases the manifold wisdom of God. The divine revelation now revealed through the gospel showcases the manifold wisdom of God (Ephesians 3:8-10). Heaven looks on, and all of hell trembles as Christ is declared the wisdom of God personified (1 Corinthians 1:24).

People will turn to many sources for wisdom, but nothing will bring the lasting peace that the wisdom of God will bring.

God chose the church to showcase His wisdom. What greater privilege can there be for a Christian to take part in?

2) The Methods of Evangelism

Is there a greater blessing than to see the lost sheep called home to the Great Shepherd? The local church is right at the center of this process! As Jesus gathers His flock from every tongue, tribe, and nation, He uses the preaching of good news to accomplish the work. As Paul declared the divine process that brings about salvation to the hearer he wrote:

For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!” (Romans 10:11-15).

Gospel power goes out from the local church in more ways than we may realize. From a congregation that lives their faith while the world looks on, to a child who grows up to become a missionary or worldwide evangelist. They are all trained up, sent out, and supported by the local church.

Preaching is one of the primary methods through which the local church can spread the gospel it is not the only method.

Relational evangelism can spark gospel conversations that never even involve a pulpit but lead people to repentance. I’ll never forget how the Lord used a personal friendship sparked in the gym one day, to lead to an open door for evangelism. Now over ten years later, my friend has married a fellow believer and is the proud father of three children. What happened? A relationship provided the context for the gospel to be shared. The result was a regenerate life changed by the power of the gospel! It doesn’t always happen that way, but relationships are one of the most powerful ways that evangelism is accomplished.

Whether in the gym, at the park, on the court, in the store, or on the mission field, the life-saving power of the gospel is entrusted to the local church. What else on earth can make that claim?

3) The Making of Disciples

When an unregenerate heart turns to Christ, He entrusts the church with a most sacred task – to make them a disciple (Matthew 28:16-20).

In the local church, converts aren’t left to fend for themselves, leaders are trained so more converts can be discipled, marriages are mentored through the ups and downs of life, and sanctification is in overdrive as the church worships with undying affection for Christ!

The privilege (and mandate) of making disciples is something often overlooked because it takes work. Laziness is no excuse for being unwilling to enter the grueling task of disciple-making. Life is messy, and ministry is too. If we aren’t willing to roll up our sleeves, put our work boots on, and dig into discipleship, we have to ask ourselves if we have lost sight of what our true purpose is.

In his book Discipling, Mark Dever writes,

The local church – this, Father-designed, Jesus-authorized, and Spirit-gifted body – is far better equipped to undertake the work of discipling believers than simply you and your one friend. Jesus does not promise that you and your one friend will defeat the gates of hell. He promised that the church will do this.

We must maintain a culture of disciple-making because if we don’t, no one else will. Only the church is given this unique task.

4) The Ministry of Saints

Talents abound in the world today, but spiritual gifts are a whole different matter. Parents pay thousands of dollars to have their son or daughter receive specialized training to become an elite performer, but no amount of money or training regimen can land you a spiritual gift.

The Holy Spirit distributes spiritual gifts, and the church and believers are the benefactors. What grace that He would pour out such gifts for the body to be built up in Christ. In our serving and our speaking, we are strengthening one another and glorifying our Creator (1 Peter 4:7-11). How can we not take full advantage of this great blessing?

In addition to the privilege of using our spiritual gifts, we are also given a clear structure for how to operate with our gifts. The “common good” that the gifts achieve (1 Corinthians 12:7) provide us with spiritual protection, teaching, equipping, and meet physical needs.

Ministries explode within the local church because saints put their gifts to work. Qualified elders are appointed (1 Timothy 3:1-7), older women teach the younger (Titus 2:3-5), widows and orphans are cared for (James 1:27), mercy is shown, sinners are exhorted, and so much more. Much is achieved for the edification of saints because obedient believers employ their gifts for ministry.

When onlookers see the Body of Christ functioning in unity, God is glorified.

5) The Memories Shared

In the Old Testament, God told Joshua and the people of Israel to create “Memorial Stones” to showcase all His wondrous works (Joshua 4:1-7). In 2017, our memorial stones may take on the form of Facebook albums, Instagram galleries, or a church highlight a video but the principle remains the same. Our stories of God’s goodness, faithfulness, and mighty works are shared through and with the church.

There is no denying that the relationships we form in serving Christ are some of the most powerful bonds that can be formed in this life. The love that Paul shared with the churches he started was rooted in his devotion to Christ. A church that serves, sings, and even suffers together will more often than not, grow old together, or plant more churches together!

Generations of Christians will spend eternity worshipping Christ in celebration of all that He did in them and through them.

Over the course of a lifetime, Christians will experience a plethora of emotions within the life of the church. There may be joy, pain, loss, and hurt. All in all, it takes commitment to Christ to remain devoted to His bride through it all.

If Christians will continually turn back to the Scriptures and renew their love for the church, they will enjoy the blessings and privileges that it alone can provide.


Originally posted on www.servantsofgrace.org on February 21, 2017.