Written by Dan Casey
We are currently living in a cultural climate that exacerbates the constant recognition of self. Based on sales of self-help books, apps, and Google searches, we are living in a world where most people are looking for meaning, purpose, and happiness. Unfortunately, this can encourage an attitude of focusing entirely on the inward self. Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t always a negative. It is important to look after yourself and do your best to live a healthy life; however, if this search ends up constantly focused only on your inward journey and self-discovery, you will never be fulfilled. A sole inward focus is like a seed that is planted but never watered. In questioning how we will change in worship, the first thing we need to discover and unpack is exactly where our focus is directed. Is it on Jesus? Or have we thrown a Jesus disguise on the real areas of our attention, wrapped it up, and called it a day?
I love the heritage of The Salvation Army: a church that was grown out of a desire to see souls won for Jesus! What could be better? “A rebellious pure heart.” That’s what comes to mind every time I think of The Salvation Army’s origins. Thinking around this revolutionary beginning, I always come back to the difference between acting with The Spirit and acting in your spirit. Acting with The Spirit is a partnership, acting in your spirit is a solo act.
This seems fairly self-explanatory, but it is important to realize how easy it can be to act in your own spirit. This isn’t always an intentional thing. Even in a well-established relationship with Jesus, we still often default to acting on our own without noticing. This emphasizes how we need to actively ask the Holy Spirit to fill us and guide us every day.
William and Catherine Booth were wise enough to offer themselves as a sacrifice to God. They didn’t act in their own spirit; instead they consistently partnered with the Holy Spirit and God used them to impact their world. He inspired them to adopt worship practices that looked vastly different from other churches and gatherings. William Booth took secular songs and changed the words so that the atmosphere was inviting and familiar yet radically different. This is an idea that helped the Booths evangelize effectively within their world, however was not of the world. This is an important distinction. Sometimes I believe we concentrate so much on not being like the culture of our world that we end up less able to live, relate to, and provide care in it. We have been called to be in the world, not of it. How can we impact our world by insulating ourselves from it?
We have been called to be in the world, not of it. How can we impact our world by insulating ourselves from it?
Let me be clear. I see the original concept of The Salvation Army and the methods originally used as an example of right focus. Our congregational worship was a vehicle to appeal to those who needed Jesus but was also a powerful statement reclaiming ‘secular’ music in the name of Jesus, redirecting it as a means of glorifying Him! This cannot happen by the will of man. This can only happen through the Holy Spirit’s power transforming our view from an insular self-directed focus, wholly toward Jesus. Maybe, just maybe, the way forward is total dependence on the Holy Spirit to lead us to what He knows will deliver God’s Kingdom on earth? I think sometimes we get so fixated on how we believe things should look, and what we believe we should be doing, that we forget the simple mission of Jesus is to save the world.
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:1-2
These verses provide us with much information. Paul is speaking to both a Jewish and Gentile congregation, who have certainly had their differences of beliefs and traditions. This is a back to basics from Paul: stop focusing on the outward matters - food, sacrifices, and all kinds of conventions, but solely focus on God and everything else falls into line. I think we sometimes read this scripture and immediately think that not conforming to the world means that we need to be different in every single way. Not being worldly certainly requires us to be different, but we fall into the trap of focusing only on the practical, external, and visible. Don’t listen to the same things, don’t dress the same, don’t speak the same, etc. Of course, these can be some obvious indicators of a changed life, but as stated before, we live in a self-obsessed world. I think Paul is referring to our heart’s direction in this verse.
The most effective way to not conform to the ideals and opinions of the world is to have a heart that is focused on Jesus, not ourselves. Changing outward behaviours and appearances has limited usefulness if our hearts are just as self-centered as any “worldly” person. The interesting thing here is that the heart renewal is linked with a mind able to know and do God’s will. A heart focused on Jesus is therefore a heart focused on the purposes of His Kingdom, which is the salvation and reconciliation of humanity to God. So, if we are looking for a better way forward with our worship practices, maybe that way, as we focus on Jesus, is to prioritize the lost?
I have been involved in a whole heap of different worship moments, groups, events, and expressions, and the question of what is next, how will we change, what is new, always seems to come up. However, what I do not hear as often is questioning what we are currently doing and evaluating its impact. Is our worship impacting the lives of our community? Are we seeing the Kingdom of Jesus expand with eternal and temporal decisions? These are all questions I do not have the power to answer for your context – they are challenging enough in my own sphere of influence. But these are questions that I think we as worshippers need to be asking ourselves every day. If we are not seeing the Kingdom grown, is there a point to what we are doing?
This question lands my proverbial plane at an evangelical position in worship. In evaluating our worship practices, gatherings, creative and musical vehicles, perhaps we should look back at the strategies of our Founders. Maybe we should be looking at what the world is doing, meet them where they are at, and show them how vastly different their pursuits can be when they are directed by a focus and love of Jesus instead of a focus of self.
So how will we change? Honestly, I don’t know. But isn’t that the point? It’s not up to any human to provide a simple explanation of what is next and off we go. Worship is an expression of our hearts in response to what Christ has done. If our hearts are focused on ourselves, then we will not see the Kingdom grow through our worship practices. But if our hearts are focused on Jesus, we continuously ask the Holy Spirit to transform our minds to the mind of Christ, and the will of God, which is good, acceptable, and perfect, will transform our world.