The North American Ministerial Council was held in Covington, Kentucky, recently. During that time, the community surrounding the council was hosting an event called Blink. Each night prominent buildings were lit with laser light shows, and just outside the meeting area a large drone swarm created a three-dimensional display that morphed from one image to the next, delighting onlookers.
One nearby building, lit with lasers, featured impressive architecture, including tall spires. One nice evening my wife and I decided to see this particular display for ourselves. After taking in the light show, set to music, we were told that the building was open to tour, so we went inside.
The exterior display of sound and light was quickly overshadowed by the ornate decoration of the high ceiling. It was supported by massive columns, surrounded by stained glass windows. At one end was an amazing pipe organ, and at the other end an elaborate altar featuring statues of Jesus, the apostles, and Mary. We found ourselves in a large Catholic church. We were filled with mixed emotions of awe and discomfort.
Jesus was on prominent display in the building, but He was just one part — and a relatively small part — of an elaborate display meant to create a sense of wonder. The awe, however, seemed directed more toward the institution of the church than toward the Son on the cross.
It made me think about my church and our worship service. Who is at the center? Where is our attention directed? Is there any sense of awe and wonder?
Wonder in worship
The prophet Ezekiel knew something about the proper focus of our worship. His vision of God’s throne is bewildering, for sure, but one response comes through loud and clear. Standing in the presence of God filled him with not just awe and wonder but with reverence and fear. Observe Ezekiel trying to describe what he saw:
Now above the expanse that was over their heads there was something resembling a throne, like lapis lazuli in appearance; and on that which resembled a throne, high up, was a figure with the appearance of a man. Then I noticed from the appearance of His loins and upward something like glowing metal that looked like fire all around within it, and from the appearance of His loins and downward I saw something like fire; and there was a radiance around Him. As the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the surrounding radiance. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face and heard a voice speaking (1:26-28).
God’s purpose in sending His Son to die was not simply to forgive our sins but to remove the barrier that had separated the Creator from His creation. Jesus tore the veil so that we could enter into the presence of the Holy without being destroyed.
The question that struck me as I stood gawking at the architecture and decoration of the Catholic church was whether there is left in us any awe and wonder at the amazing privilege we enjoy in Jesus. I wondered whether our worship service directs our hearts toward reverencing God or reverencing something less.
Most of our churches do not boast gold-gilded columns, ornate stained glass windows, or giant pipe organs. But maybe we do feel pressure to produce an inspiring worship service, with a full band of skilled musicians playing the most popular songs or to livestream a service with good lighting and production values. There is a danger that our efforts may aim to impress visitors with our church rather than with our Savior.
Let’s consider Jesus’ promise: “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:32). Jesus was speaking of the cross, of course. But I think the parallel to the priorities of our local church is valid. If our heart’s focus is on increasing the honor and reverence of Jesus’ name, He will be present, working to draw Spirit-convicted hearts to their Savior.
The Reformers attempted to redress the Catholic Church’s self-exaltation by restoring the preaching of God’s Word to the center of the church service. Statues were removed and sometimes all decoration and musical instruments as well, for safe measure. The clear proclamation of Jesus’ life and teaching was to receive the main focus of attention, and the individual’s response in song and prayer was to be the ornamentation of the sanctuary.
In our local church, we are looking at refreshing the look of the sanctuary, updating the A/V equipment, and including more instruments in the song service. In each one of these efforts, our best motive is to express reverence for our Savior, to better communicate the gospel, and to increase participation in worship.
Our challenge, however, is to not be enamored with a sound and light show, or to be proud of our facility. If done well, all these fade into the background, removing potential distractions so that the gospel can be more clearly heard, Jesus more fully known, and our Savior more sincerely worshipped.
My prayer for the local church where I serve is that we would long to enter the presence of God each week, to be in awe of the One we are meeting with, to be overwhelmed by the price of the privilege. My encouragement to the worship team each week is to not seek to impress anyone with their skill. Rather, they should invite each person in attendance to express love, gratitude, and reverence to the Creator, who gave His Son to reconcile us to Himself, and lead by example.
My prayer is that anyone who attends any of our services will leave saying, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place” and wish they could have stayed a little longer in His presence, impatient to wait another week to do it again.
When someone leaves any CoG7 church, may they be thinking something greater than “That sure is a nice facility” or “I enjoyed the songs we sang.” May their hearts still be singing of God’s majesty and mystery, His awesomeness and holiness.